Richard Heller: The case for Jeremy Corbyn and political authenticity

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JEREMY Corbyn’s opponents in the Labour party must feel like the heroes of the great comedy The Producers, who stage a musical comedy, Springtime For Hitler, certain that it will be a flop. At the interval they are mortified to discover that it is a raging success.

Mr Corbyn was put into the leadership contest with the same expectation. He would trail all the other candidates by a distance and thus demonstrate how far the Labour party had travelled from its terrible left-wing past in the Eighties. Instead, the latest poll suggests that he will win comfortably on the first ballot.

He has profited from filling a huge gap in the political market. Amazingly enough, many Labour supporters want their party to express outright rejection of austerity and spending cuts and to offer clear alternatives. His three rivals do neither. If they were to lead the Labour opposition in Hell, they would promise to turn down the thermostat when conditions allow.

But much more important, he is the beneficiary of a new mood among voters generally. Tired of safe, trite, manicured politicians, they are rewarding those who are colourful and spontaneous and seem to mean what they say. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage both exploited this mood, but after Corbyn these former favourites look like entertainers whose variety turn has lasted too long.

Jeremy Corbyn’s secret weapon is authenticity. There is nothing invented about him at all. He not only speaks what he believes (and has believed for at least 30 years) but lives and acts and even dresses as he believes. No actor could ever play him in the coming biopic of his life, not even Daniel Day-Lewis, famous for his his total immersion in his roles.

If he does win the leadership, it may start a terrifying trend. Our politicians will compete to seem more authentic than each other.

This will be a much deeper process than Ed Miliband’s hamfisted efforts with a bacon sandwich (Jeremy Corbyn will not repeat this error since he is a vegetarian). It will entail a complete reversal of all the arts and crafts of modern politics, creating a new profession of authenticizer.

They will seek to convince voters that their client politicians are genuine because no one would look like them, act like them, speak like them, in the hope of being popular.

Hitherto, political image consultants have tried to smarten up their customers. Authenticizers will try to dress them down. All the designer clothing in a politician’s wardrobe will be taken to charity shops and exchanged for an unmatching miscellany in distressed fabrics.

Instead of concealing unflattering bumps, bulges and blotches, politicians’ clothing and accessories will be designed to highlight them or even to suggest them when they are not there, to demonstrate quite literally that their owners are “comfortable in their own skin.”

Clothes will be carefully spattered with a selection of stains. Some politicians will ask for curry, or fish and chips, or even bacon fat, to suggest their appetite for dishes favoured by key voter demographics. But the best authenticizers will choose an idiosyncratic stain, such as vegan catfood or home-made mulberry cordial, to create more “back story” for their client.

For the same reason, they will make their clients take their holidays shivering in a rightly abandoned yurt on some faraway desolate plain, or saving some scaly or spiny species of creature with few other friends.

In place of platitudes, authenticizers will prepare for their politicians a list of “gaffes” to inject into their campaigns, to wake up bored voters. In the ensuing “row”, or better still, “fury”, their clients will reinforce their reputation for candour and daring.

Twenty years ago, Tony Blair turned the Labour Party into the standard white loaf of British politics. Any awkward grains of policy were carefully removed and all the remainder were crushed and milled and bleached into a soft homogenous lump.

David Cameron attempted the same feat for his party. Corbyn is systematically trying to add back everything in the old Labour loaf that stuck in voters’ teeth and thrown in some extra grains of his own (accommodation with extremists).

Perhaps Corbyn is right. Consumers are spending more and more money on authentic bread – authentically sour-tasting, authentically impossible to slice or toast, authentically unchewable, authentically loaded with grains which take up squatters’ rights in the mouth. Perhaps they will make the same choice in politics?

If he is right, authenticizers will be quick to learn from him. Instead of urging their clients to “triangulate” (position themselves equidistantly from any major group of voters) they will provide them with a set of “unthinkable” policies which could have emerged only from a “conviction” politician.

It would be fascinating to see how David Cameron responds. He might revert to his sensitive, caring, husky-driving, hoodie-hugging persona. But this was never convincing, and his authenticizers will urge him rightly to unleash his secret identity as Alan B’Stard.

Richard Heller is a former adviser to Denis Healey.