Jeremy Corbyn and personality politics

James Weinberg

James is a Research Associate and doctoral research student at the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield

Talking to BBC Radio 4 at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool (27/09/16), Joe Twyman of YouGov told listeners that evaluations of Jeremy Corbyn were ‘all about personality…it’s not about the specific policies’. The instinctive response of the mainstream media (MSM) to the announcement of Corbyn’s landslide re-election was to slam the Party leader with barely-concealed contempt and conclude that Labour were further away from government than ever before. Yet the media discourse is not one necessarily built on traditional ideological arguments and policy critiques but rather an exacting deconstruction of his personality, summed up in the Independent only yesterday as ‘inviolable to his supporters, inadequate to his critics’. There is a certain irony implicit when the press personally assault a politician, twice given a democratic mandate, for actually bucking the vacuous trends of personality politics so often cited as the basis for public distrust of politicians. Goethe wrote that ‘personality is everything in art and poetry’; it seems that personality is now all in politics too.

Personalisation has anchored itself in contemporary politics and its appeal to media logic means that electoral campaigning and political communication is now structured around telegenic leaders with cultivated public personalities and media images that are designed to convince voters in the mould of consumer branding. The predominance of personality politics received its greatest mandate in Britain with the introduction of television debates in 2010. Such debates have been a permanent hallmark of US presidential elections since the 1960s, and whilst it is widely recognised that style takes priority over substance, these occasions still attract enormous viewing figures. Davis, Bowers & Memon have shown that televised debates can actually trigger ‘substantial shifts in voting intentions, and “winning” a debate has a significant positive impact on electoral support for the candidate’s party’. Yet the televised debate is a symbol of a wider ‘packaging’ process occurring in democratic political systems.

Time-poor citizens are operating in an information- and opinion-rich environment that can supplement preferences and judgements about political elites using a surface-level façade of prejudices, castigations and hyperbolic intrigue. Some have argued that this level of citizen engagement, based on the most salient or available information, is sufficient to support a ‘thin’ version of democracy, but such a view functions on the outcomes of intuitive fast thinking and is highly contested by deliberative theorists. In line with Weberian political philosophy, personalisation propagates a preoccupation with individuals over systems, charismatic leaders over the policy proposals and ideals of the party seeking public office.

At the same time there is an ever-growing appetite for grassroots politics in the Western world, the call of a beating drum to shift power from a self-serving elite and return it to ‘the people’. Yet research shows that the public are equally disdainful of their fellow citizens. In their series of studies into American representation, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found a common consensus that ‘[ordinary] people aren’t very bright, they don’t care, they are lazy, they are selfish, they want to be left alone, and they don’t want to be informed’. Such is this sentiment that politicians may carry a heavy burden of public ire and ritual humiliation on satirical television shows, but few of the general public would readily favour selection by lot for public office. It may be that Corbyn has struck that middle ground where the missing millions (it must be remembered that 15 million people didn’t take up their right to vote in the last election) accept that he is sufficiently experienced to be competent and sufficiently distant from the so-called ‘political class’ to retain his fidelity to popular interests. Corbyn himself planted this flag prior to the first leadership contest when he declared: ‘We are not doing celebrity, personality or abusive politics’. Whether the MSM will ever change their disparaging tune to give this narrative a chance is doubtful.

Either way Corbyn’s story has been eloquent of wider trends in the governor-governed relationship of the UK. Studies of MPs have started to reveal a growing cynicism towards politics based upon frustration at the game-like bravado necessary and a sense of inertia induced by a series of paradoxes. Academics such as Stephen Medvic have started to describe these paradoxes in terms of a ‘trap’ account of politics, where the public consistently expects politicians to be both leaders and followers, principled and pragmatic, ordinary and exceptional. For example principle and pragmatism do not necessarily contradict one another, but in the realm of democratic party politics one will commonly negate the other. Acting on deeply held principles is noble, sustaining those values in politics is even more admirable, but when politicians remain dogmatic in their adherence to a set of principles they are decried as harbingers of stalemate and political stagnation. However should politicians divert from principle too easily to reach a compromise, they are cast as unreliable and opportunistic. Thus the trap is laid.

What we have now is a self-perpetuating state of play reinforced by the media and party elites, who in an era of mass communication still believe that they can circumvent this trap by charming the average voter with overinflated promises. Yet the focus on process rather than policy is misguided and simply entrenches the paradox; in the last few decades government performance has increased on average in nearly all indicators (civil rights, educational provision, levels of social security etc.) but trust in politicians has continued to plummet. Whether the personalisation and mediatisation of politics is a symptom or a cause is open to interpretation, but the trap account of politics goes back, at a base level, to a gap between politicians’ personality as perception and personality as functioning. The former is the external face of personality and has been the centre-piece of political packaging by the media and political parties. Looking at the underlying personality of 48 MPs, a recent study found that politicians actually outperformed the general public for personal values such as honesty, loyalty, social justice and creativity. If this trend is borne out in wider samples, then there is an expectation that MPs are operating with ever greater cognitive dissonance in their political roles. Such a conclusion comes with a democratic health warning: so long as the personality gap grows and breeds cynicism among MPs, the more likely they will be to cast off the demands of stoicism required for the slow boring of hard boards, as Weber put it, and subvert the formal processes necessary for democratic legitimacy.

It seems that, at a personal political level, Corbyn has got it all right at the wrong time in our democratic history.

This article first appeared on Crick Centre Blog, and can be found here:

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