Were you carried away by Hilary Benn's 'electrifying' speech? This is political theatre, not democracy

Is this really the sort of leader we want? Wasn’t the unexpected popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and his landslide leadership victory precisely about bringing substance back into politics?

Rachel Shabi
Thursday 03 December 2015 15:23
Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Ben MP
Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Ben MP

So now we know what kind of leader it is we want – or at least the kind we ought to want. That’s judging by all the media fawning and gushing over Shadow Foreign secretary Hilary Benn’s apparently “outstanding” speech at parliament’s Syria airstrikes debate yesterday. For commentators were falling over themselves in the rush to describe the speech, in support of airstrikes against Islamic State, as historic, brilliant, electrifying and spellbinding oratory.

Well yes, it’s true that Benn excelled at stating the obvious (“Fascism is bad!”) in broad, impassioned brush strokes. But what is it about this sort of speech that pundits love so much? What is it that makes, for instance, the Daily Telegraph gush in a headline that Benn “didn't just look like the leader of the opposition. He looked like the prime minister”?

Mostly, it’s the projection of class-confidence. In his fifteen minutes of fame, Benn spoke like the sort of person who believes in his own right to rule – and that’s hugely appealing to a political and media elite that is cut from the same cloth, and that, moreover, has cast Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as some sort of upstart interloper. This is bascially how Westminster image-management works: the people who deem themselves entitled to define “leadership” pass this codified information onto the rest of us in an assured way, so that we end up seeking out and approving the same characteristics.

But is that really the sort of political leader we want – someone who we’ve been told is fitting of leadership? After all, wasn’t the unexpected popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and his landslide leadership victory, precisely about bringing substance back into politics? Time and again, what came through from his supporters was the engagement with ideas over performance, context over style.

It was a resounding vote in favour of complex political discussions that don’t present well in a slick TEDx-style political speech, but which are necessary if we’re going to participate in a democracy, rather than just clap at political theatre, from the sidelines.

Now that he is leader of the opposition, Corbyn obviously needs to find a way to bridge the two: the substance of his grassroots appeal needs the resonance of authority – not an elite-approved definition of authority, but perhaps one harnessed from his decades of credible political engagement.

That will only get us so far, though. If we really do want more substance-driven politics, we’re going to have to develop the ears to hear it – and not let sparkling, but ultimately empty oratory drown it all out.

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