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17 August 2016

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s disdain for pop culture is so disrespectful

It's OK not to know about celebrities. But they do matter. 

By Julia Rampen

If Jeremy Corbyn has a nightmare, it probably looks a bit like Victoria Derbyshire. The BBC TV presenter hosted a Labour leadership hustings on Wednesday morning. With two hours to rake over Labour’s woes, there was time for short montages revisiting the worst moments of the last year, divisive policies like Trident and issues such as anti-Semitism. 

But Derbyshire also wanted to talk about something less standard: personalities. She asked the two candidates to introduce themselves at the start of the debate. Smith trotted out his spiel about his hobbies, but Corbyn squirmed. “This is the non-political slot, is it?” he asked dryly. 

Showing up politicians as the geeks they are is a favourite media sport. Who can forget when Gordon Brown was forced to talk about his passion for the Artic Monkeys? Or David Cameron’s confusion over whether he supported West Ham United or Aston Villa? Derbyshire had her fun by asking Corbyn to identify Ant and Dec (he couldn’t name them). Smith, on the other hand, correctly named Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.

And then there was the awkward exchange where Derbyshire asked Corbyn how many gold medals Bradley Wiggins had won. When Corbyn got the answer wrong, she reminded him his campaign had apparently tweeted about it on Friday. Corbyn responded by suggesting his account had been hacked. 

To many Corbyn supporters, this will seem like the ultimate confirmation of vacuous TV culture. One watcher tweeted: “I admire anyone who doesn’t know Ant and Dec.” 

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On its own, Corbyn’s ignorance of celebrities is nothing to be ashamed of. Most people understand that. They may enjoy speculating about Kim Kardashian’s rivalry with Blac Chyna with their best friend from school, but they understand that the whole conversation is slightly bonkers. They don’t expect their GP to be up to date on Kylie Jenner’s Instagram. They may have a giggle at an MPs ignorances, but they understand deep down that most politicians work long hours and don’t get much time on the toilet with a copy of OK! That is why politicians pretending to be up on celebs rings so false. It’s better to be ignorant, and honest about it. (This still doesn’t explain Wigginsgate, since Corbyn has previously capitalised on meeting him). 

What does matter, though, is Corbyn’s disdain for interest in the “non-political” – ie. personalities and pop culture. No doubt his disdain is shared by his campaign team, who live and breathe politics, and those who are engaged enough to turn up to his rallies. But most of Britain is not there. They spend their weekends and evenings at home, with their families. They watch soaps and debate what will happen in the next episode. They collect coupons, and work out at the gym, and go on dates. They play football after work. They care about people, because in this time of a strained safety net, it is people who you turn to first when things go wrong. To many, this is more important than politics. To dismiss their views is disrespectful at worst, and patronising at best. 

To someone who spends their evenings thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, this may seem frivolous. But, as any anthropologist can tell you, these things are more than just hobbies. Sharing an interest in pop culture helps you bond with neighbours, start a conversation at work, or just escape a difficult situation. Celebrities can be a source of inspiration – think Wiggins’ irreverence, but also Emma Watson’s feminism or Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work.

And, like it or not, when celebrities talk, the public listens. Ant and Dec are charity patrons and also sometime supporters of the Labour party. Their Saturday Night Takeaway show was watched by a tenth of the population. 

You do not have to be obsessed with celebrities. You can spend your nights wrapped up in bed with Tony Benn’s diaries, and what he said about Denis Healey in 1983. But don’t kid yourself that this is more important, or somehow on a different platform. You’re both wonderfully weird.