Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal is more to do with language than ideology
By Chris Jackson
We've heard a lot recently about ‘lurches’ to the left or right, and about 'cleaving to the centre ground' – or 'common ground' as David Cameron now insists.
But to place too much emphasis on policy might be to overlook another factor which will decide the outcome: language. As much as Jeremy Corbyn certainly stands for radical shifts in policy his 'kinder politics' also appears to represent an attempt to alter the very nature of our political discourse. In this he is arguably more revolutionary than in his views on Trident or railway nationalisation.
Take his appearance on The Andrew Marr Show in July. At the time Corbyn was beginning to move ahead in the Labour leadership contest, and Marr asked him, with the air of a leopard pouncing on its prey, if he was a Marxist.
Corbyn’s reply is worth quoting in full: "That is a very interesting question actually. I haven't thought about that for a long time. I haven't really read as much of Marx as I should have done. I have read quite a bit but not that much. I think Marx's transition of history and the analysis of how you go from feudalism to capitalism and move on to a different stage is fascinating."
First a point of comparison: it is impossible to imagine any New Labour era politician, with the possible exception of Alan Johnson, answering the question with the same degree of thought. It isn’t hard to imagine Blair’s swift dismissal or Brown, perhaps, getting into a funk. Corbyn was relaxed – his way of deflecting the typical media 'Gotcha' question, is to seek out nuance. The second point is that, in seeking out nuance, Corbyn is free to do a number of things that most politicians aren’t: in this instance, admit gaps in his own knowledge. We never heard Blair or any of his lieutenants say, "I don’t know".
Of course there is a sense in which the last phrase is an obfuscation in itself – what is this 'different stage' he refers to? Does he welcome this post-capitalism, whatever it is? But with Corbyn there is always a sense of a mind groping with the real meaning of a question, and working towards truth. It is this confidence with words which accounts for much of his appeal.
There is, surely, a lesson for politicians here – particularly if we draw a comparison with the only other figure in British politics with comparable personal appeal at the moment: Boris Johnson.
The two are very different of course – both ideologically, and in their use of language. But like Corbyn, Johnson is able to address a wide coalition without resorting to soundbites. Take his recent, and much praised, conference speech. The section most quoted in the media read:
"…it is the rugby scrum that provides a metaphor for my political beliefs, because our lives are really a gigantic collective effort in which one person’s bulk makes up for another person’s slightness of stature and where everyone is so tightly bound together that one person’s forward progress drives another person’s forward progress."
In a different way to Corbyn (who Johnson refers to as 'dear Jezza', try to imagine IDS pulling that one off) there is linguistic colour here, a desire to address the electorate as adults, not as obedient children who can expect to be duped by bland slogans. The speech deserves to be read in full, regardless of one’s political persuasion, for its easy inclusion of humour in the context of a political argument. The notorious Ed stone is referred to as 'the heaviest suicide note in history'. Vividly, if unfairly, he refers to the Labour party as having been 'piratically captured'.
Increasingly it seems that electorates around the world are demanding interesting utterance. I suspect that the cry for Joe Biden to enter the 2016 Presidential race in the US was partly a craving for the kind of quirk I am talking about.
But we’ve been here before. One of Obama’s strengths in 2008 and 2012 was an ability to communicate. The slogan 'Yes, we can' is still well known, but really it was the president’s daring decision to address the allegations surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright in a complex 45 minute speech which set him on the road to the Presidency.
There are, of course, anomalies. David Cameron, who frequently polls as more popular than his party, can hardly be said to be a complex or interesting speaker. 'Let the sun shine in'; 'we’re all in this together'; 'aspiration nation'; 'Big Society'. There has never been a prime minister who quite so plainly deserves an honorary marketing degree.
Cameron's conference speech was peppered with cliché and euphemism: his popularity plainly resides elsewhere than in language. As Johnson said in his own conference speech: "above all we won because of the persistence and the calm and the patience of David Cameron, and his extraordinary prime ministerial qualities that contrasted so starkly with his Labour opponent."
No one would number poetry as among these qualities. But increasingly Cameron may be the exception and not the rule.
Why does this matter? Because language matters. The quality of our political discourse speaks volumes about our health as a nation. But politicians should remind themselves that political immortality can sometimes depend more on what is said than on what is done.
Churchill will always be remembered for his speeches; Gallipoli and the Gold standard aren’t so well known. Lincoln is known for his magnificent inaugurals and his letters; the tortuous route by which he arrived at the emancipation position is, again, now a matter for the Lincoln specialist.
Much more importantly, language can facilitate political discussion, and accelerate political understanding. When a politician finds the ability to address their party in an interesting or complex way, their audience widens beyond their usual constituency. This in turn makes voters more knowledgeable, and with this knowledge, politicians become more accountable.
Perhaps we are moving towards a time when Corbyn and Johnson will face each other across the despatch-box. I, for one, would welcome this. Philosopher v. jester is a lot more interesting than marketing man v. marketing man.
Chris Jackson is a journalist and author and regularly contributes to the The Hill.
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