Labour’s top strategists plan to begin 2017 by rebranding Jeremy Corbyn as a “populist”. The last year delivered a series of major defeats to the liberal mainstream and Corbyn’s team now aims to capitalise on this rising tide of anti-establishment politics. But what might this shift in strategy actually involve? And how might a populist turn boost the electoral chances of Corbyn and the Labour Party?
Populism has been used as a term to describe and explain movements as divergent as Donald Trump's victory in the US and the rise of the left-wing Podemos in Spain. In its loosest sense, “populism” could include any mobilisation of popular grievances against the status quo.
Populist leaders present themselves as distinct from a political and corporate establishment, claiming to represent “the people” more directly than those currently holding and executing power. Populist movements differ only by who is included within the category of “the people”, and who – or what – is defined as its enemy.
By adopting the rhetoric of populism, Corbyn’s team are thus signalling a new political strategy: to define him against the political establishment through ramping up his outsider status. Like Trump, Corbyn can quite genuinely present himself as removed from the establishment and uniquely capable of reforming a corrupt political system. Unlike Trump, however, his populism will depend not on the "othering" of foreigners but on highlighting how a Westminster dominated by business and political elites has systematically worked against the interests of ordinary people.
A populist turn like this represents a paradigm shift for Labour in two ways. Firstly, it breaks the New Labour habit of trying to outdo the Conservatives purely on the concept of economic competence. Instead of a contest over technocratic ability with regards economic management and public service provision, a populist approach would frame the next election through a rejection of the vested interests which currently shape policy formation.
Second, the populist approach brings to an end the attempt to make Corbyn look and sound like a conventional politician. From the national anthem controversy to questions around his dress sense, the issue of Corbyn’s non-traditional style have dogged the first year of his leadership. A populist strategy turns this perceived weakness into a strength by making him the face of anti-establishment demands.
This week we saw the first application of a populist media strategy by Corbyn and his team. In response to a side-swipe from Obama, Corbyn posted three tweets rallying against the establishment, advising that both Labour and the Democrats must “challenge power” in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
Along with the message, the medium in which it was delivered speaks volumes about Corbyn’s new approach to political communication. At root, populism is about speaking directly to the population, bypassing the traditional political infrastructure of Parliament and abandoning the reliance on the dedicated “spokesperson”. Consequently, populist politicians tend to exploit unmediated media channels. For Silvio Berlusconi or Pablo Iglesias, this meant chat shows appearances. For Trump and now Corbyn, Twitter provides an even easier route to intervene in the news cycle. The effectiveness of such an approach was confirmed when headlines reported Corbyn had “hit back” against the President’s affront. Such coverage is gold dust for a politician consistently portrayed as too weak to lead a party or nation.
The most ridiculous claims made about Jeremy Corbyn
The most ridiculous claims made about Jeremy Corbyn
1/11 He called Hezbollah and Hamas ‘friends’
True. In a speech made to the Stop the War Coalition in 2009, Mr Corbyn called representatives from both groups “friends” after inviting them to Parliament. He later told Channel 4 he wanted both groups, who have factions designated as international terror organisations, to be “part of the debate” for the Middle East peace process. “I use (the word ‘friends’) in a collective way, saying our friends are prepared to talk,” he added. “Does it mean I agree with Hamas and what it does? No. Does it mean I agree with Hezbollah and what they do? No.”
2/11 ‘Jeremy Corbyn thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a tragedy’
Partly false. David Cameron used this as a line of attack at the Conservative Party conference but appears to have left out all context from Mr Corbyn’s original remarks. In an 2011 interview on Iranian television, the then-backbencher said the fact the al-Qaeda leader was not put on trial was the tragedy, continuing: “The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy.”
3/11 He is ‘haunted’ by the legacy of his ‘evil’ great-great-grandfather
False. A Daily Express exposé revealed that the Labour leader’s ancestor, James Sargent, was the “despotic” master of a Victorian workhouse. Addressing the report at the Labour conference, Mr Corbyn said he had never heard of him before, adding: “I want to take this opportunity to apologise for not doing the decent thing and going back in time and having a chat with him about his appalling behaviour.”
4/11 Jeremy Corbyn raised a motion about ‘pigeon bombs’ in Parliament
This one is true. On 21 May 2004, Mr Corbyn raised an early day motion entitled “pigeon bombs”, proposing that the House register being “appalled but barely surprised” that MI5 reportedly proposed to load pigeons with explosives as a weapon. The motion continued: “The House… believes that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again.” It was not carried.
5/11 He rides a Communist bicycle
False. A report in The Times referred to Mr Corbyn, known for his cycling, riding a “Chairman Mao-style bicycle” earlier this year. “Less thorough journalists might have referred to it as just a bicycle, but no, so we have to conclude that whenever we see somebody on a bicycle from now on, there goes another supporter of Chairman Mao,” he later joked.
6/11 'Jeremy Corbyn will appoint a special minister for Jews'
False so far. The Sun report in December was allegedly based on a “rumour” passed to the paper by a Daily Express columnist who has written pieces critical of the Labour leader in the past. The minister did not materialise in his shadow cabinet.
7/11 ‘Jeremy Corbyn wishes Britain would abolish its Army’
False. Another gem from The Sun took comments made at a Hiroshima remembrance parade in August 2012 where Mr Corbyn supported Costa Rica’s move to abolish it armed forces. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every politician around the world…abolished the army and took pride in the fact that they don’t have an army,” he added. The caveat that “every politician” must take the step suggests Mr Corbyn does not support UK disarmament just yet.
8/11 Jeremy Corbyn stole sandwiches meant for veterans
False. The Guido Fawkes blog claimed that the Labour leader took sandwiches meant for veterans at at Battle of Britain memorial service in September but a photo later emerged showing him being handed one by Costa volunteers, who later confirmed they were given to all guests.
9/11 He missed the induction into the Queen’s privy council
True. After much speculation about Mr Corbyn’s republican views and willingness to bow to the monarch, his office confirmed that he did not attend the official induction to the privy council because of a prior engagement, but did not rule out joining the body.
10/11 Jeremy Corbyn refuses to sing the national anthem.
Partly true. The Labour leader was filmed standing in silence as God Save the Queen was sung at a Battle of Britain remembrance service but will reportedly sing it in future. Mr Corbyn was elusive on the issue in an interview, saying he would show memorials “respect in the proper way”, but sources said he would sing the anthem at future occasions.
11/11 He is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Cheese
True. The group lists its purpose as the following: “To increase awareness of issues surrounding the dairy industry and focus on economic issues affecting the dairy industry and producers.”
Despite these positive signs, two barriers may prevent him from achieving populist success. The first is the UK’s parliamentary system. In the US, where Trump and Bernie Sanders both ran successful populist campaigns, presidential candidates enjoy greater autonomy from their parties than their UK equivalents. Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Podemos’s Pablo Iglesias both built new parties in their own image. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, will find it difficult to balance a rejection from Westminster politics as usual with leading and managing Labour’s 231 MPs.
The second and arguably greater obstacle could be complacency. Team Corbyn has not succeeded in defining a simple political message or an electoral strategy thus far. Corbyn’s Labour has shied away from a full attack on Westminster “elites”. Ed Miliband faced a similar dilemma before the 2015 general election, unsure whether or not to embrace a more aggressive rhetoric of “the people” versus “the establishment”.
Ahead in the polls, Miliband played it safe and chose the discourse of the centre. This route is closed to Corbyn. Labour’s woeful poll ratings will both encourage and necessitate a more radical approach.Reuse content