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Jeremy Corbyn is precisely the kind of politician that people say they want to see in Westminster. He is loyal to his beliefs, stubborn in his principles, and unstinting in his pursuit of those policies that he believes will make the country a better place to live for all its people. He is not, apparently, “in it for the money” and doesn’t see it as the path to a directorship for some multinational tobacco and landmine manufacturer. He is also comfortable with who he is and refuses to change to conform to the role assigned to him. He is not going to morph into another anodyne clothes-rack politician taught to point with a thumb tacked to a crooked finger. He wears bad clothes quite well, and good clothes he makes look shabby. He also refuses to trade insults with his opponents and, instead of snappy one liners, he offers long sometimes boring statements about policy. He is what the public might call a “proper” politician.
All of which explains why the Labour Party this morning wakes up to yet another drubbing by the electorate.
“But we listened to what you want!” the current manifestation of Old Labour might justifiably cry. And therein lies the problem. What the British public say they want is often very different to what they vote for come election day. It’s the Eurovision Song Contest model of politics in which talk of originality, artistic vision, and talent are trumped by the least offensive song in the field. Of course, you and I might enjoy that catchy little Ukrainian folk ditty with dancing hobgoblins playing the tuba but not everybody is either you or, indeed, I. Some bland Irish power ballad sung by Jedward O’Westlife usually wins and we’ll scorn it all the way to number 48 in the charts and a lasting musical career.
Theresa May is, in many respects, that bland power ballad. For all her hesitation and missteps, Theresa May is a manifestation of a stock Conservative character come election day: a winning leader. “Strong and stable” might be a catchphrase that is easy to scorn but you can bet it has polled well in test groups. Holding the office of Prime Minister helps her too, of course, because the incumbent by definition is Prime Ministerial whereas any challenger looks vastly underqualified for the role.
Irrespective of whether you read this assessment from the right, left, or centre ground of politics, it is, I know, dispiriting to think that politics comes down to these rather coarse judgements. We like to think that politics turns on those clever policy speeches and well-aimed campaign promises. Anybody who admires a stubborn loyalty to individuality should admire Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to change. Yet whilst he is no doubt assured of the vote of many scruffy-but-principled history teachers, the average voter will always choose the path of least resistance. It’s a truth about human nature that the Tories understand only too well and Labour have abandoned since Blair. Politics comes down to human psychology, as we saw with the victory of Trump in America. His critics talk about right-wing populism but there was always something greater going in with Trump (and it wasn’t Russia). Trump’s victory was as much a victory of personality as it was about politics and it’s a kind of personality-led politics that the Democrats foolishly ignored and still fail to address if they think that Elizabeth Warren is the answer.
It’s not exactly heavy duty political science to point out that people tend to vote for the more “attractive” candidate. Indeed, it’s the very basis of elections which are no more than popularity contests by another name. Yet it’s remarkable that Labour have ignored this simple fact for so long. Here in the UK, since the television era began, the better looking candidate has always won the general election, with Wilson / Heath something of a dead heat. That’s not to say this is about visual appearance alone. Thatcher beat Callaghan (old), Foot (scruffy), and Kinnock (bald). Major beat Kinnock (bald) but was beaten in turn by Blair (not dull). Blair then beat Hague (bald, Yorkshire twang) and Howard (slightly sinister). Cameron beat Brown (doddering) and Milliband (wide-eyed and naive). With each victory, it’s easy to point to the flaws in the defeated candidate and relative merits of the victor: Thatcher (strong), Major (dull but, compared with Thatcher, dullness was, for a time, a virtue), Blair (vigorous) and Cameron (smooth). May might not look quite as “strong and stable” as she professes but look at Corbyn who is what… Barely visible? Confused? Stubbornly individualistic to the point that he’s unpredictable?
You might disagree and it’s understandable if you do. Who wants to admit that politics is so crude and succumbs to such shallow prejudices? Whenever a political party turns to audience research, we rightly feel that the democratic system is somehow being compromised by the deep mining of human psychology. (Indeed, over in the US, the Trump campaign’s use of “big data” was raising concerns long before there were rumours of links to Russia.)
“People don’t trust men with beards,” the researchers might say and we bridle at the suggestion and laugh as indeed we did laugh that time Blair let it be known that beards were banished from cabinet. Yet there was always an element of pragmatism about Blair, as there usually is about Tory election campaigns. They know that when it comes to election day, it’s these doubts, apprehensions, prejudices, and gut instincts all turn the direction of our pens. Just remember how Cameron was failing until Lynton Crosby found that “magic bullet” in the form of Scottish nationalists supposedly controlling a Labour coalition government.
This morning, some will still cheer for Corbyn who, they might rightly claim, represents a different and more honest way of conducting politics. He’s a real person, with real concerns and a real passion for what he does. Look, they seem to say, he’s so honest he has a real beard. He might well be all those things but he can also be all those things and eminently unelectable.
David Waywell is a writer and cartoonist whose new book, The Secret Life of Monks, is now available.