There’s a rather obvious problem with Jeremy Corbyn’s New Year strategy of trying to copy Donald Trump’s populism, which is that he’s not remotely like the billionaire property magnate. Of course, the Labour leader doesn’t say he is trying to copy Trump, but he and his advisers do think that the successes of “populism” in the American election and in the EU referendum hold important lessons for them.
“The Leave and Trump campaigns succeeded,” Corbyn told the Fabian Society annual meeting this morning, “because they both recognised the system was broken and the people weren’t being listened to.”
Which was why, quite by chance and not because he was copying Trump at all, he said: “The people who run Britain have been taking our country for a ride … They’ve rigged the economy and business rules to line the pockets of their friends … Labour under my leadership stands for a complete break with this rigged system.”
It doesn’t have the same sentence structure as Trump: “You know, the system, folks, is rigged. It’s a rigged system.” But the idea is the same.
And Corbyn sees the Brexit campaign as part of the same lesson. “Is it really a surprise,” he asked the Fabians, “that when people were offered the chance to ‘make their country great again’ or to ‘take back control’ that many voted for it? For some, it was their first chance to exercise a bit of real power and say what they thought about a system stacked against them.”
He tried to copy some of Vote Leave’s rhetoric, too, although this was a bit feeble: “We will hand back wealth and control to people and communities.” And he gave up before trying to offer a Labour version of “Make Britain great again”.
The other big lesson of Trump’s victory for Corbyn, although he cannot talk about it for obvious reasons, is that with Trump what you see is what you get. The President-elect is two things: he is not a professional politician, and he is authentic.
Corbyn, who has been an MP for 34 years, can hardly pretend not to be a politician, but he has been a nonconformist all that time. He has always opposed the government, even when it was a government of his own party. Hence the part of his speech today that infuriated so many of his opponents (“otherwise referred to as ‘Labour MPs’ and ‘voters’”, as former MP Tom Harris put it). Those people who “took our country for a ride”, according to Corbyn, included those who “put the country at risk by taking us into disastrous foreign wars”, an obvious reference to He Who Shall Not Be Named. Even the muggles in his audience could decode that one.
Corbyn’s hostility to everything that the Labour Party previously stood for is also the guarantee of his authenticity. His reputation is built on saying what he has always said, which is what he thinks, rather than some pasteurised sound bites taken from focus-group transcripts.
It’s a bit overdone, naturally, because Corbyn is actually quite careful about what he says, which is not something that anyone could say about Trump. At his news conference on Wednesday, the way he talks, without notes, in streams of consciousness and saying unexpected things, was as unrestrained and Trumpian as ever. Corbyn simply doesn’t have the confidence to talk like that.
Nor is Corbyn as straightforward as his supporters claim. He has, most notably, been disingenuous about his real views on Brexit. But then Trump used to be a Democrat. Authenticity is not the same as policy consistency.
The problem for Corbyn in trying to be a populist is that he simply isn’t equipped to do it effectively. Partly, this is because he is not a “character”, well known to the public, in the way that Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are. He is not a natural communicator. Some of his advisers try to make a virtue of this, presenting him as a self-effacing chairman of the team in the Attlee mould, but it hasn’t yet elicited the respect that Attlee commanded from the wider electorate.
There are some elements of long-standing Labour values that lend themselves to populism. Tony Blair was for the many not the few. Even Ed Miliband tried to present himself as the avenging fury of the oppressed against the predatory capitalists. So when Corbyn promises to “break the grip of vested interests” he’s saying what Labour leaders have always said. The trouble is that it’s not very different from what Theresa May is saying, and she says it a bit better than he does.
The big reason that Corbyn cannot copy Trump, however, is that he hasn’t learned the lesson of how Trump won. It wasn’t simply by railing against the “rigged system”. Trump won by taking a coalition of the Republican base – minus the elite parts of it such as the Bush family – and bolting on to it two constituencies that Mitt Romney had failed to mobilise four years before. Trump won over enough working-class Democrats and non-voters to get him over the line in the Rust Belt swing states that mattered.
Corbyn isn’t even holding on to Labour’s core vote, let alone winning over parts of the electorate that the party failed to win in 2015. He must be the most unpopular populist in modern British politics.
Thanks to Elephant for the photomontage
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