The Pied Piper of Islington

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.

Corbyn may not have had an original thought since 1985 but that does not appear to matter: his old ideas, his back story and amateurism are part of his appeal. In the view of his supporters, his incompetence only makes him more “real” while his challengers only make him seem more principled. Cameron may have barked at him in the Commons to smarten up his appearance but Corbyn is a leader for the #nofilter age whose dishevelled geography-teacher-chic is central to his “authenticity”. To his supporters, he is the ultimate retro politician — he has all the appeal of a record player in an iPod age. 

In this sense, Corbyn has very modern attributes not just in his mode but also his support base. Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour party in the summer of 2015 was not a peasants’ revolt but rather a pensioners’ revolt, overseen by a crew of backbench has-beens. But it has undoubtedly has its greatest appeal among the young, on whom the Labour leadership increasingly relies to do much of its work on the ground. Corbyn (67) and John McDonnell (64) are now the political equivalent of over-the-hill rock stars headlining the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, feeding off the energy of the youthful crowds as they trudge through their set of self-indulgent prog-rock anthems.

Politics always gives rise to strange alliances but this intergenerational love-match between ageing baby-boom radicals and frustrated millennials is a genuinely new phenomenon. It was not a feature of previous surges in radical youth politics during the Sixties or early Eighties — unless you count Chairman Mao’s Red Guards or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Nor can we put this down to Corbyn’s unique qualities. His American doppelgänger, Bernie Sanders, inspired a similar surge among college voters despite the Democrat party machine actively working against him. Dismissive of Hillary Clinton’s progressive credentials and out-of-date feminism, it was Sanders, a 74-year-old self-proclaimed socialist, whom America’s young saw as the great hope for the future. Such devotion did he generate that Clinton is already finding it tough to win these supposedly Democratic voters over to her campaign. If the global youth are becoming radicalised, they are turning to really old radicals to lead them.

It is a strange fact that in Britain the voice of our disaffected youth is a pensioner from Shropshire with a fisherman’s cap and a free bus pass. Poor Ed Miliband never stood a chance. He was like the newly-qualified teacher who tries to be your friend but could not control the class, whereas Corbyn is the eccentric and shambolic schoolmaster who turns up late, never marks your homework, refuses to follow the syllabus and inexplicably inspires adoration from his pupils.

Corbyn has become the leader that Russell Brand always aspired to be (with Brand apparently admitting defeat by bowing out of politics). But we should not be shocked by Corbyn’s appeal nor the resurgence of progressive radicalism among Britain’s youth. They are the most economically disenfranchised generation since the 1930s, whose resentment has only sharpened since the EU referendum. They are asset-poor and heavily in debt; their wages have stalled while rents have spiralled. A quarter of graduates are still on around £20,000 a year a decade after leaving university. They are rightly frustrated at governments which have lumbered them with a crippling amount of debt for a degree that does not guarantee them a decent job. And yet, like all radicals before them (and those supporting Sanders across the pond), they are mostly middle-class and white, turning against a system that largely works in their favour and seeking solace in a leader with a similar background.

They are a generation that prizes instant gratification, and Corbyn provides them with just that. He is no George Galloway in terms of oratory but he talks the right language — values not policies, moral indignation rather than solutions. But it should not be a surprise that the generation that grew up on a political diet of Tony Blair soundbites and celebrities clicking their fingers to Make Poverty History is drawn to a leader who excels in virtue-signalling and vague pledges against injustice. True Corbynistas care little for detailed policies, which they suspect will probably never work or be abandoned in office. Nor do they value political competence or even electability. What is so great about effective leadership or even power if it comes at the cost of your principles? Or so goes the thinking. Still, Corbyn himself might like to reflect on whether a generation that shows more loyalty to their phone tariff than a political party may be the best group on which to bet your political future.

Of course, not all young people support Corbyn nor are all Corbynistas young; there are also a number of baby-boomers who are having a second wind of “demo politics” that they first experienced in their youth. It is also important to be specific when we talk of “youth”. Those following the Pied Piper of Islington are not Thatcher’s Children but Major’s Minors, i.e. under-25s. Crucially, those born in the 1990s have only known bust rather than boom, campaign for safe spaces rather than closed shops, consider drink and drugs a waste of money, regard Doc Martens as the fashionable must-have, and get their news from anywhere but the Murdoch empire. Given that Major’s Minors have been at the sharp end of the financial crash, it is hardly surprising that they have embraced political radicalism more keenly than Thatcher’s Children, who had their feet firmly under the table by the time the banks began to tumble. It was Major’s Minors who were rioting on the streets in 2011, while it was Thatcher’s Children, armed with their brooms and Marigolds, that cleaned up the mess.

Corbyn’s greatest strength has been his ability to tap into the psyche of the young — more specifically to connect 20th-century left-wing progressivism with 21st-century populism (something the political class still stuck in the paternalist age ignore at their peril). Corbyn’s motto “powered by people” is the perfect tag for the Facebook generation, who have an inherent distrust of faceless bureaucracy, believe in e-citizenship activism and do more volunteering in their local community than any other demographic group. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Corbynism is unleashing a new post-Thatcherite solidarity. The opposite is true. It is precisely his kind of hopeless and hapless socialism — all Snapchat politics and hashtag posturing — that appeals to neo-liberal-conditioned individuals who think their opinion matters but their vote does not count.

Corbyn and his political has-beens are guilty of grooming the disinherited and disenchanted young with false hopes that ignore the real issues they face. What the current Labour leadership should be doing is inspiring them with a detailed vision for the future of Britain (and perhaps post-Brexit Britain) that is rooted in the world they live in. Any attempt to do so has fallen flat: McDonnell’s “socialism with an iPad” speech makes Ed Miliband’s analysis of predatory capitalism appear a linguistic and analytical masterpiece.

Ultimately, there is something counter-productive in Corbyn’s assumption of the young’s support. It is said that one way of staying young is to surround yourself with youth. But Corbyn is feeding off them and ultimately sapping their energy and enthusiasm for a programme of change that he is incapable of delivering. Meanwhile the centre-Left have no choice but to wait and watch this drama play out until the Corbynista train crashes into the buffers.

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