The debates surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s first hundred days have been predictable, unending, repetitive, and unhelpful: no experience of leadership or governance, too leftwing, unrealistic (but right about Iraq and Northern Ireland, his defenders say), old-fashioned (while revolutionising social media, his defenders say; his detractors, that his election has unleashed a very unsocial media); the mainstream media has been often outrageously biased. True. Many Labour MPs have tried to undermine his authority. True. He has an overwhelming legitimacy as leader. True. And the Labour Party is in one hell of a mess. True. It is the general view that there are three potential scenarios (all awful): ongoing and escalating internal party strife; a leadership challenge of some kind; or a break-away by sufficient numbers of the members, councillors, MPs and so on, to set up an alternative movement. The sad context of all three of these is public indifference. If the party and its leadership could ‘imagine’ itself as a performed narrative whose symbolic and rhetorical aspects have consequential effects, there may – just – be a fourth possible scenario.
Deselecting recalcitrant MPs may have a justification in logic. Talking about it now is rhetorically catastrophic. Responding to the “grassroots” may be laudable. Using it as a threat rather than a need is equally so. Corbyn’s democratic legitimacy is unquestionable. Rousseau’s ‘General Will’, however, confers legitimacy but not authority. Only a leadership and party narrative do that. Listening to “the membership” is right but is largely an illusion. Mass politics is never really mass politics; what is is the notion and performance of such politics at the leadership level (e.g. Corbyn and PMQs). But there is really no such thing as direct democracy, even in the Agora. What there is is rhetoric and performance. This is in fact how Corbyn won in the first place; sincere, modest, thoughtful, quietly eloquent, and actually saying something as opposed to the narrative desert of his opponents. It all started going downhill on election day when he went and sang the Red Flag with Billy Bragg; and the problem now is that his main and now very vocal supporters (during the leadership campaign his was often a lone voice) all sound – and make him sound – as if he is going to bring back the GLC at best, transform the party into the SWP at worst. This is not his intention – nor indeed the intention of the vast majority of those who voted for him, but that – exacerbated by his public loyalty to old allegiances – is what it sounds like.
The exemplary demonstration that this is all about rhetoric, performance, and leadership image was Jeremy Corbyn’s being upstaged not by David Cameron but by Hilary Benn. Not only, moreover, was Benn’s “We must now confront this evil” speech (as well as the demonstrable irony of his resemblance to Corbyn’s hero, Hilary’s father) of 3 December passionate (as Corbyn had been during the leadership campaign), it blended a range of narratives in the left’s rhetoric. Benn’s speech was structured and argued in such a way as to make it impossible to depict him as a Tory stooge. Corbyn, against intervention in Syria, could have done the same, but simply sounded like the spokesperson for the Stop the War Campaign. Visually too Benn’s speech was a car crash for Corbyn who several times peered around from behind Benn, clearly not listening to the speech, as if trying to identify someone on the benches opposite. A Rowan Atkinson sketch, comically and symbolically rounded off by not having made sure that Benn had somewhere to sit back down so that Benn nearly sat on Corbyn who hurriedly had to budge up. And by the time Benn had sat down he looked like not just the leader of the Labour Party but like a future Prime Minister.
Today’s narrative dearth started long before today, and in fact is one of the reasons for Corbyn’s thumping victory in September. It was clear that by 2015 the Blairite narrative was gone. Before that, Ed Miliband began a blending of a range of narrative sources: G.D.H. Cole, Attlee, One Nation, and some German SPD approaches, and so on, but ended up with just the ‘retail offer’. Rhetoric, like nature, abhors a vacuum; Corbynism filled it. But, as we saw with Hilary Benn, Labour rhetoric must blend its narrative or ideational strains to be successful. All the heroes of the democratic left have done this: Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, Harold Wilson, Willy Brandt, François Mitterrand, early Tony Blair – and each in highly eloquent and personalised performances – the “it isn’t about personality but about policy” line is a rhetorical device, as its author, Tony Benn, knew all too well. And as regards blending narratives, the ones who do not (e.g. Gaitskell – apart from his two major speeches where he did) drive the party into uproar and disarray.
Leadership politics is not a power struggle but an art. And it involves artifice. As regards the UK Labour Party, as we all know, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there; but there is arguably a fourth scenario beyond the received three mentioned above, and one that involves choreography, that is to say a choreography of ideas, rhetoric, and leadership comportment that might enable the Labour Party to “dance” its way away from the edge of the cliff to the broad sunny uplands of success. So, a few ideas for Jeremy Corbyn:
What in the GLC was good? Link it up with what the successful councils of today are doing – Newham, Hackney, for example, and make it into a “story”; give discursive space to ‘The Grassroots’ but give ownership of it to someone who is not a close supporter – a grassroots advocate (Stella Creasy?) – and ask them to be its champion, so no one can use it as rhetorical device against you; get all rhetorically/morally difficult issues off the agenda, for example, let the SNP do all the heavy lifting on Trident and, as with everything, wait until rhetorical advantage emerges on any contentious issue. The party has no true influence unless it is in power – idem Syria. The Conservatives will set rhetorical traps endlessly. There is no need to fall into every one of them. Develop this blended, personally performed rhetoric now and stick to it until 2020.
Appear to be both the Corbyn who was elected, but also a new person – the Prince Hal myth of the demands of kingship is a very profound one, and will allow a leader to create a new reconciled narrative, a new persona, and leadership as a transcendence, so that the inevitable cries of “betrayal” can’t hit their mark.
Enfold the dilemma that the MPs are trying to resolve, even though some of them are abusing it to undermine your leadership. MPs represent their constituents as well as their parties. This tension has been here since forever, particularly in left parties. Address it instead of allowing it to be used as a form of intimidation, so that your MPs are seduced by your magnanimity.
And smile – like you used to in the leadership campaign. Otherwise, it’s curtains.
John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University and Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His new book, Leadership and the Labour Party: Narrative and Performance (London: Palgrave) is in press.