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Preying on the disillusioned: Jeremy Corbyn at a leadership campaign event in August (© Yui Mok/ PA Wire/Press Association Images)



It was in the television age that youth and good looks became an asset in politics. Leaders were required to be fresh-faced and camera-ready as they morphed into the polished everyman to be beamed into people’s living rooms. Ted Heath underwent a makeover when he became Conservative leader, as did Margaret Thatcher. Tony Blair’s smart youthful appearance was one of his USPs, the personification of his vision of Britain as a “young country”. Likewise, David Cameron with his baby-faced cheeks and his slightly edgy tattooed wife trumped the pale, stale and male brigade that typified 1990s Conservatism. Politicians have long believed that in order to be popular you have to be relatable, with some going to embarrassing lengths to prove their populist credentials — their love of beer, football or pop music — of which the British public have always been suspicious but now refuse to buy.

In the internet age it is impossible for politics to be so tightly scripted or stage-managed; every slip-up is caught on camera and every hypocritical position is easily sourced and revealed. The current disillusionment with mainstream politics is not due to rising hypocrisy or wrongdoing but rather the ease and speed at which we are now able to uncover it. But this is not the only consequence. Those politicians who are able to generate popularity, legitimacy and allegiance today are not those who adhere to the old rules, but those who are seen not to bother. It is the Trumps, Farages, Corbyns and Sanders of this world who have the PPE-polished political class on the run.

The power of this new breed lies not in their anti-establishment credentials (which are questionable) but rather their anti-establishment methods and targets. There is not a great orator among them, but their use of language is key. Populist politicians on both Right and Left prefer a staccato pattern of speech, project “simple truths” over complex solutions, and seem to speak impromptu and from the gut (even though what they say is mostly scripted). In short, it is their manner and methods rather than their specific message that generate authenticity, an authenticity which does not necessarily inspire trust but, crucially, arouses an emotional response. 

These four populists — Sanders, Corbyn, Trump, Farage — may have left an indelible mark on Anglo-American politics over the last 12 months but it is highly probable that only one — Jeremy Corbyn — will hold any position of power in a year’s time. The centre-Left have failed, much like the Republican Party failed, to halt the march of their populist candidate and will in all likelihood have to wait it out until a general election to regain control of their party. Owen Smith’s pre-emptive strike feels a bit like fiddling with the deckchairs while the party sinks, but his leadership challenge, and all the arguments over entryism and radical infiltration it has exposed, has no doubt served its purpose in galvanising the centre-Left over its ownership of the Labour brand. But that is not to deny the overwhelming challenge that is before them. The centre-Left has been steadily squeezed from all sides since the 2008 crash by the Tories, UKIP and the hard Left. As Corbyn heads for a successful defence of his leadership and another likely thumping majority in the members’ ballot, the centre-Left must seek to understand the appeal of this Pied Piper of Islington rather than bury their heads in shame or denial.

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