At Gordon Brown’s recent book launch at Glasgow University, he gave a bullish defence of his period in office, but when asked “What is your biggest regret”, spoke at length about his failure to communicate his message as Prime Minister. Sitting in the audience, I could feel the angst radiating off him. He seemed preoccupied by the idea his “inability to emote” had left his political style unsuitable by 2010, and therefore could easily be portrayed as insincere. As evidence, he cited the story about his bad handwriting in a letter to the mother of a fallen soldier.
In an age of unprecedented disinformation, it is unsurprising that the public want politicians to be genuine. Of course, the scathing cry of the Question Time audience down the ages is “they’re all the same, they’re all in it for themselves!” Yet not since fascism prowled Europe in the 1930s have we seen greater levels of seething distrust in the custodians of the day.
Tony Blair, Brown’s great rival, has also intervened in public debate recently, to protest the suggestion he is a “centrist dad” (of course this is quite right, he is not “a” centrist dad – he is The Centrist Daddy. And not just in policy terms – centrism has come to embody a style as much as any idea. A pendulum swung away from the grandiose socialist rhetoric and colourful orations of parliamentarians pre-1990s. The poetic speeches of Michael Foot who drew Jeremy Corbyn-sized crowds and the avuncular passion of Neil Kinnock had all become associated with well-meaning chaos.
New Labour brought message, discipline and tight scripts. It embodied a regimented and ruthlessly efficient professionalism that didn’t just control policy but also how politicians spoke. A professionalised style was not so much ordered, as simply imbibed by a generation of young politicos awe-inspired by Blair and Brown’s seemingly unassailable command of political messaging. And yet the there was a problem. Most politicians aren’t as good at it as Tony or Gordon.
In Aaron Sorkin’s political-fantasy series The West Wing, the technocratic yet engaging President Bartlet remarks mid-Presidential debate that “Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword.” New Labour era-politicians took this soundbite prescription to heart, based on a somewhat cynical view of the average voter’s attention span, but probably accurate view of the average journalist’s view of the average voter’s attention span.
“Education, Education, Education” , “I’m a pretty straight sort of guy” and, dare I mention, “For the Many, Not the Few” rattled into our consciousness with a pained sincerity. But the subsequent two decades of mechanical Blair wannnabes reading out their lines has left us aware of the frequent distortions.
Against the advent of 24-hour news and social media, perhaps any politician’s image which doesn’t rely on some underlying iron consistency, is doomed. We have become so resistant to obviously focus-grouped phrases that relatability itself is often suspect. The pendulum is swinging back.
But Brown is wrong to think emoting is the key to this. What is authentic is not some unchanging formula to capture emotion. It is what voters sense is real.
Watching Corbyn, you can see his genuine discomfort whenever a crowd blasts out: “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.” I think he is aware of the irony that an almost cultish fervour has developed around his persona, for Corbyn professes his mentor Tony Benn’s dogma that politics is about the issues and not about personalities.
It’s not as if Corbyn hasn’t had to dissemble or evade questions, but his “authenticity” comes from something more tangible. His supporters will say that it is consistency.
Yet the success of other populist figures like Donald Trump can hardly be ascribed to consistency. The man’s political positions have the permanency of a sand walls in an Atlantic hurricane. Its been shrewdly observed that the media took Trump literally not seriously, but his voters took him seriously not literally.
Trump’s success in a perverse way, like Corbyn’s, is to sit outside and damn the establishment by saying things they don’t say, in a way they don’t say it. Trump polled as the far more authentic candidate, despite telling vast lies, because his lies sent signals not about what he’s for, but who he’s for. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that he won’t build a blasted wall.
Though often vastly different in temperament, policy and decency, these outsiders’ message is not “I have the right policy prescription for your ills”, it is: “I’ve got your back.” For people who felt abandoned by the reign of the “centrists”, this is powerful stuff.
In a sharp column, Janan Ganesh railed against authenticity as “political snake oil”, but he depicts the young, who have less time for illiberal beliefs, as the great white hope of centrists. Yet this is a generation which consumes its news through Facebook and Twitter, platforms sustaining an even more unrelenting barrage of weaponised information than 24 hour news. For this generation, hard wired to distrust clickbait, authenticity will become ever more attractive.
A perfect encapsulation played out in Brown’s homeland as the Scottish Labour leadership contest came to a close, where the left-wing candidate Richard Leonard defeated his moderate challenger by 56.7 per cent of the vote to 43.2 per cent. Sarwar embodied slick, message controlled robo-politics not just in substance but in style. Sensing the movement of the winds he declared himself the “anti-establishment candidate”, despite signing a letter but a few months ago calling on Corbyn to stand down. This is in contrast to Leonard who despite every rightful claim to be the “Corbyn candidate”, told Julia Rampen in the New Statesman that he was “too long in the tooth to be a Corbynista”.
One response seems targeted to capitalise on a political zeitgeist, the other relaxed and eschewing the obvious advantage. The latter approach won.
The lesson of the centre’s authenticity problem is not posing as the outsider in a desperate hope some of that radical stardust will rub off. It is just to discover who you are for and let them know it.