20th February 2017
–By Keith Nieland-
Charisma and Corbyn
Charisma! I love the word – it sounds a bit like Christmas and all those warm connotations of mulled wine, mince pies and open fires. My ever trusty Penguin English Dictionary defines the word as –
1. the special magnetic appeal, charm or power of an individual e.g. a political leader, that inspires popular loyalty and enthusiasm
2. an extraordinary power divinely given to a Christian.”
So the question of the day is does Jeremy Corbyn have charisma and does it matter?
The Populist Right
Those of us who like to describe ourselves as progressives despise the populist right. We reject their playbook of divide and rule. They promote the politics of hate and victimhood: it’s immigrants who take our jobs, suppress wages, jump the queue for housing and healthcare and live a life loafing on benefits (despite taking all our jobs at the same time!) They long for a never-never land like the 1950s when, apparently, all faces were white and Christian, we hung criminals, measured in feet and inches, weighed in ounces and pounds and bought things with shillings and pence. A Wagon Wheel was a foot wide, a Penguin bar weighed a pound and passports had a blue cover. Most importantly all foreigners began at Calais.
We reject all this partly because it is not evidence-based but more importantly it runs counter to the progressive dream of an inclusive, tolerant and sharing society where people are given opportunity and not judged by their skin colour or religion. Every year speeches at the Oscars and BAFTAs reinforce the progressive brand. This year’s Oscars should be good for a bit of Trump bashing.
So why is the populist right apparently in the ascendancy?
Trump, Le Pen, Farage et al
The answer to that question is complicated and will no doubt fill column inches and books for years to come. I would suggest, however, that one of the reasons is that the populist right is good at finding charismatic leaders who talk eloquently in a style that appeals to their audience.
They do indeed inspire loyalty and enthusiasm amongst their followers as they preach a sermon of blame and division. Many of us scoffed at Trump’s election campaign. His ignorance and limited vocabulary shone through as did his evidence-free policy platform. None of this mattered as he filled venues in a way Hilary Clinton could only dream of. He told his audience what they wanted to hear in a way they understood. None of their problems were of their own making and blame should be allocated to Mexicans, Muslims, the Washington elite (who for some reason live in a swamp) and the trade cheats China and Germany.
Whether we like it or not, folks like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage etc can captivate an audience and inspire unyielding loyalty. Evidence that charisma is an important quality in the world of politics.
It begs the question where are the progressive charismatic leaders on the centre left? Macron in France perhaps, but who else? In the UK it begs an urgent question: does Jeremy Corbyn have the necessary charismatic qualities?
So does Jeremy have that special magnetic appeal, charm and power as an individual to inspire popular loyalty and enthusiasm? That question alone will inspire guffaws of laughter in some quarters for clearly he does not – just look at the opinion polls.
Despite the wishes of his band of merry followers not all the polls can be fake news as he lags behind the Tories by whatever means you choose to cut the electorate – by age, class or political loyalty. Not even Labour voters want him. The Tories hang around 40% in the polls while Labour slumps ever downwards towards 20% and perilously close to UKIP’s vote share. Amongst working class people they already prefer UKIP to Corbyn’s Labour.
His best opportunity to establish his charismatic qualities comes once a week at Prime Minister’s Questions. He can ask what he likes, he has the right to have six goes and May has no prior notice of his intentions. The press and TV await. The opportunity is laid before Corbyn for some charismatic sound bites to get the attention of evening and night time news watchers and listeners.
Open Goal to Bullet in the Foot
Jeremy Corbyn has plenty of material to chose from to establish his charismatic credentials. May’s disastrous management of the NHS and social care; her cavalier approach to the Brexit negotiations; the plight of the wider public sector and problems of the prison service. They lie before Corbyn like sweets in a sweetie jar but he is unable to register a hit partly because he lacks the personal charismatic qualities (he was just born without them) but partly because of a wall of his creation.
If Corbyn tries to pin May down on the NHS, her response is that Labour had 13 years to fix the NHS, and it did not but the Tories now are. He cannot counter this nonsense because admitting Blair and Brown actually did fix the NHS and all but eliminated waiting lists and times would be to surrender the Corbyn play book of hating all things Blairite.
One of the few things that glues his band of supporters together is the hatred of everything they consider Blairite.
If Corbyn tries to do likewise on social care back will come the same answer from May. He cannot claim Labour tried to get in place a new cross-party settlement on social care but the Tories rejected it because that would again require acknowledgement of those who names dare not be mentioned.
Defence is a no-go Corbyn area. Remember submarines going to sea without missiles or NATO being redundant or the “tragedy” of Bin Laden’s death? If you do not, May will be all too pleased to remind you.
The economy is just as bad as Corbyn has no coherent economic policy beyond a number of unfunded spending commitments (remember he got elected on a promise of abolishing tuition fees), vague calls for nationalisation and hints at tax rises. His contradictory desire for a closed shop economy with open borders is a hard sell at the best of times. I suspect that deep down he would like to return to the 1960s and call for nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and sweeping powers for the trades unions. Now that would get him onto the BBC 9 O’clock News but for all the wrong reasons.
What about Brexit? Sadly Corbyn and May are singing off the same song sheet now and that particular fox bolted last week when Corbyn tried to straddle the Leave/Remainer divide and fell down the gap in the middle.
For Jeremy PMQs is an open goal but sadly the ball is chained to his ankle.
Why Does Jeremy Hang On?
Given that most of his Parliamentary colleagues think he is useless, the electorate certainly does and he is lampooned in the media most days, why does he not just bow out gracefully and go back to his allotment? He would have plenty of time to return to what he does best, which is lurk on the backbenches with his few House of Commons pals whining about the next episode of socialist betrayal by the Party’s frontbench.
Cynics might suggest that Corbyn does not care tuppence about his unpopularity and total inability to create a narrative voters will listen to. There is an old management training saying about “only getting one opportunity to make a first impression”. Corbyn blew his as he was unprepared for those first testing radio and television interviews when he became leader. Everything he said and did from then on just serves as conformation bias. He is beyond recovery.
While the hard left is pretty hopeless at public politics it is pretty good at plotting and planning its way to success when it comes to party meetings and conferences. Perhaps all Corbyn really wants is to ensure the dreaded Blairites are banished to the margins of the party for good and preferably out of it. He could be just hanging on for a party conference rule change that will make it easier for a hard left MP to get on the leadership slate, who would then be swept into office by the only group in the country that has any faith in Corbyn – his loyal band of followers in the Labour party membership. It might make Labour unelectable for a generation but that is not the point.
Where Are the Charismatic Hiding?
If Jeremy Corbyn has all the charisma of a hearth brush, where are the potential charismatic leaders on Labour’s benches? Where are those who can hold an audience in the palm of their hand? Can preach a progressive message that resonates with people? Who are policy-sound, evidence-based but with magnetic personalities? Who are clear, articulate and can give a good sound bite off-the-cuff to a reporter in the street and not run away? Who can command the House of Commons and ask a short, succinct question without having to read it?
Will our charismatic potential leaders please step forward – your country needs you, Europe needs you and the world needs you to stand up to Trump and Putin. Most importantly I need you!