What would a populist Corbyn look like?

Eight things the UK's Labour leader should do if he wishes to catch the populist wind.

Aaron Bastani
22 December 2016

Jeremy Corbyn takes part in a class showing how to make cheap healthy food. PA Images.

Last week Labour party strategists spoke of relaunching Jeremy Corbyn as a more populist figure in the New Year. The big idea? To exploit an increasingly widespread anti-establishment mood.

First up, what is a populist? Well, this definition on Wikipedia (don’t worry its actually from Princeton University) is as a good place as any to start: “"Populism is a political outlook or disposition that appeals to the interests and conceptions (such as hopes and fears) of the general population, especially when contrasting any new collective consciousness push against the prevailing status quo.” Inherently, then, it integrates elements of what we’d usually think particular to political parties and social movements

Then there is this translation of a piece by Jacques Ranciere over at Verso Books. Ranciere is arguably the outstanding thinker on the topic, specifically in how populist rhetoric expresses and appeals to a deeper yearning for radical democracy. This excerpt, in particular, clarifies the meaning of the term in its contemporary application for Ranciere:

“Not a day goes by without the risks of populism being denounced on all sides. But it is not so easy to grasp what the word denotes. What is a populist? Despite various fluctuations of meaning, the dominant discourse seems to characterise it in terms of three essential features: a style of speech addressed directly to the people, bypassing representatives and dignitaries; the assertion that governments and ruling elites are more concerned with feathering their own nest than with the public interest; a rhetoric of identity that expresses fear and rejection of foreigners.”

The style of speech, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump and Pablo Iglesias, is easy enough to comprehend. As is the assertion that elites are essentially kleptocratic: that they are tending to their own interests rather than serving a greater, common good (the conservative defence of elite-dominated politics from Plato to Peter Oborne). Finally there is the third point, a “rhetoric of identity that expresses fear and rejection of foreigners”. Clearly no leftist worth their salt, or liberal for that matter, would tolerate such a thing.

But, for me, race and immigration is not a necessary component of populism. It is true that the genre is powered by a sense of grievance, justified or not, and that perceived injustice seeks to establish a decisive cleavage between an under-represented majority and an overly powerful minority. That holds in a range of settings: working families and taxpayers versus the work-shy, unemployed and feckless (productive versus unproductive); ‘native born’ citizens, with all the legal and economic rights that entails, versus immigrants, refugees and even ‘native born’ people of colour (white nativism); ‘normal’ people with a ‘normal ‘ sense of humour and morality (which, okay might offend some people and actively discriminate) versus the ‘PC brigade’ who, somehow, dominate cultural institutions through a long strategy of cultural marxism (this now common myth used to critique multiculturalism originates among white nationalists and neo-nazis in the United States.)

The success of right-wing populism is that it internalises, to differing extents and depending where you sit within the ideological family, all three of these cleavages: the ethic of work, the identity of whiteness and an abiding sense of moral degeneracy actively cultivated by latent, often-times revolutionary forces.

Yet it is also possible to mobilise cleavages which have nothing to do with race, place of birth or present work status. That, after all, was what lay behind the historic refrain of Karl Marx when he wrote ‘workers of the world unite’. While the greatest weakness of Marx’s work, more than predicting a terminal crisis of capitalism, was how he underestimated the abiding pull of race and nation, the shared economic status of most people under capitalism – having to work in order to live – clearly offers those like Corbyn the possibility of a populist terrain. What is more, advancing a shared economic identity fits far more neatly with Ranciere’s second point – of framing elites as selfish to the point of moral bankruptcy – than blaming immigrants.

For me, the primary point of populism is this: it understands government, at its best, as an instrument for the popular will rather than a vehicle for consent. While that may sound somewhat vague, what is actively willed and what is consented to are very different things: the former is propositional, based on constructing social majorities through exploiting cleavages; the latter is a politics of aggregation, inherently less able to appeal to the passions and incapable, for better or worse, of utopianism. A politics rhetorically driven by the people – by ‘you’ as Barack Obama said so many times in 2008 (and Trump eight years thereafter) – is, as the Princeton quote at the top of this piece makes clear, necessary for any project aiming at social and economic transformation.

So how could JC do it? How does he exploit a changed zeitgeist where elites don’t just look lost, but actually lose. Below are seven areas that Team Corbyn should pursue in cultivating a more populist persona, in so doing adhering to the new rules of politics.

1) Completely Re-think Social Media

Twitter doesn’t win elections. It never will. For all we know it might not even exist by 2020. Facebook, on the other hand is a different story. More Americans used the social media platform than voted on November 8th, with the average session being fifty minutes.

Nevertheless Twitter is still incredibly useful, for no other reason than journalists spend an inordinate amount of time on it. The master of the medium as a political tool is, undoubtedly, Donald Trump. Just as Roosevelt was a pioneer with the national radio address, his ‘Fireside chats’ a means by which to communicate directly with the nation, Trump is the premier exponent of the 2am tweetstorm. Both, in different ways, exert an influence upon the mainstream media that was previously impossible.

In terms of how Trump uses Twitter, it’s easy to observe him create or amplify ‘news’: re-channelling and re-framing particular narratives and turning marginal stories, often intersecting with celebrity, rumour or conspiracy, into mainstream converation. Often this feeds straight into online news and broadcast, in the process completely bypassing print media and ‘patient journalism’ like journals and magazines.

Emblematic of this approach was when Trump tweeted how Nigel Farage should be made Britain’s ambassador to the United States in late November:

Screen Shot 2016-12-22 at 14.40.23.png

This became a major story in the UK within a matter of minutes.

How did Farage respond? He went straight to the media and wrote a response, of course. Only it wasn’t the Times, the Telegraph or the Mail, rather it was Breitbart. What mattered wasn’t who read the original piece but how it would be reported elsewhere, the intention being the re-broadcast of Farage’s key points in online headlines and broadcast news. There can be no doubt that Trump’s tweet and Farage’s response was choreographed: Steve Bannon, who would either have proposed the tweet or even composed it himself, is the former executive chair of Breitbart LLC. He, more than Trump himself, is close to Farage (the editor-in-chief of Breitbart News London is Raheem Kassam, ex-chief advisor to the former UKIP leader) and the two men have known one another for several years. Between them, in both the US and the UK, they shaped the news output for the day, more than the Tories or Labour ever could with a month of press releases. With Trump what appear to be the unmanaged ramblings of a megalomaniac are, more often than not, precise interventions which aim to generate and steer the broader debate.

The same happened with Trump’s thanksgiving speech on Facebook, which despite being 1:44 and saying nothing of particular interest, again informed the news agenda for the day.

In each case the historic print media was entirely bypassed in order to give Farage and the President-elect maximum exposure, exerting extraordinary influence in the process. Both instances compound what Andrew Chadwick has written about extensively: we are not in an age of digital media, but hybrid media, an era where old and new genres inflect and adapt to one another rather than the old world simply replacing the new. In his own way Trump, Farage too, understands this new relationship between social media, particularly Twitter, and broadcast. Indeed it is at the very core of both men’s media strategies and their very modern genres of populism.

For Corbyn to do something similar would require a huge change in approach. While this might seem puerile to some, the overhead of imitating such strategies would be negligible, and, whatever your thoughts on new media, the benefits potentially significant. So gone would be the diary tweets and in would come more colour, personality and provocation, inserting the leadership’s voice within unfolding stories in real time as much as generating them, giving the movement behind Corbyn a sense of momentum, mission and energy.

A perfect example of this would be the recent story regarding Peter Capaldi and his advice to Theresa May while on the Marr Show. When told that the prime minister makes Dr Who a regular feature of her Christmas Day, Capaldi replied, “I hope she takes this message of kindness and tolerance and compassion to heart”. This is absolute gold. Here, as with the Theresa May leather trousers story, or the Nicky Morgan response, one saw an opportunity for Corbyn to amplify a story and re-direct it. Alas, there was nothing.

It’s the same with Facebook and video. There are now many videos of Corbyn, McDonnell and other members of the shadow cabinet, but there is clearly no broader strategy. Few risks are taken and little time or resources are allocated to the task. This is not to blame the politicians, or their respective staffs, rather it means asking significant questions of Labour’s central media operation. An organisation with an income last year of over £50 million and a media team of six seemingly can’t make regular in-house video – or make the right changes to do so. To build a bespoke TV studio, and kit it out, would cost potentially less than £20,000 and with unions like the CWU (Communication Workers Union) having the ability to make their own video content it seems outright bizarre that Labour doesn’t. Until that changes, and major reforms are enacted at the party’s headquarters, the leadership need to get a grip on video. Again, that isn’t because huge numbers engage with it on social media, although that can certainly happen, but because it intersects with broadcast and online news very well. More importantly, the point with video isn’t just to do it – talk to this or that person or relay a certain message – but to be compelling. I follow Trump on Twitter and Facebook, not because I agree with him, but because I know he will make the next day’s news. Trump confirms something fundamental about the modern era: we don’t live in an information age, despite an immensity of facts available to us at virtually zero cost, but an entertainment one. You might groan, and really I have groaned, but that’s the reality, that’s the terrain for changing the world and building a society for the many, not the few.

2) Go on a permanent campaign between now and the next general election

It's beyond doubt that during the last eighteen months Corbyn was at his best over the two leadership campaigns. Towards the end of this summer it became increasingly clear that he was improving all the time, becoming ever-more confident in unpredictable situations, more comfortable with the media and a more established speaker (his conference speech in September was inarguably his best so far). Whatever the media, and sadly some of his colleagues say, those intense periods of campaigning have rendered Corbyn a much more effective politician than Theresa May. That’s for all to see on a weekly basis at Prime Ministers Questions, with the Labour leader now widely viewed as getting the better of the PM week in, week out. Come a General Election, with its whirlwind campaigning and TV debates, that will really count.

Which is why Corbyn, if he is going to be a real populist, needs to start that campaign now. He, and as much of the shadow cabinet as possible, should be on the road running a permanent campaign to get more voter contacts, more members and direct the debate around living standards and post-Brexit Britain. Events in Cornwall, Dorset, Scotland or Norfolk shouldn’t just mean people turn up, they should – like Bernie Sanders ‘Barn Storms’ earlier this year – create a lasting contact base for activism as well as assets like phone banks which local Labour parties could rapidly deploy in a general election. If Labour are going to get a million members, with local parties being led by an organised and competent left, this is how you would do it.

Furthermore, offline events intersect perfectly with new media, so as well as inspiring and expanding the movement behind him, and augmenting its organisational resources, these rallies would provide copy and video for online and broadcast media as well as headlines. Again, we saw this perfectly during the Trump campaign over the Summer, although it was there to see with Corbyn before in 2015. Indicative of just how important rallies are to Trump in cementing his base and exerting media influence, both online and in broadcast, he continued to do them even after winning. Something Corbyn should have done after his two respective leadership wins.

3) Move out of Westminster

Democracy, at least if you are a populist, can be summed up in one line: government of the people, by the people, for the people. To be ruled is only legitimate, not when you consent to it, or your interests are aggregated along with others, but when you are also endowed with the possibility of governing, and the art of government itself aims at the common good.

Such a spirit of radical democracy is at odds with Corbyn running his leadership from the isolated system of Westminster. On one level it doesn’t sit with how he seeks to articulate his leadership, on another he and his team are literally surrounded by people desperate to see them politically destroyed. Whining rebel MPs can moan all they like about a few Tweets, but that’s an unacceptable situation: it’s not good for one’s mental health and it certainly doesn’t enable outstanding work. And anyway, Westminster doesn’t offer a modern working environment, the place drips with stultifying inertia and the air of our backwards political culture at every turn. Real Labour needs to escape its deadening gravity.

So Corbyn and McDonnell need to get out of Westminster ASAP. My proposal is they relocate to a bespoke office space (I’d love to say a shop front but for security concerns that probably wouldn’t be possible). Short of that, and this would integrate with longer term changes that need to happen at party HQ, they should move in to Labour headquarters at Southside – or its possible replacement.

A move out of Westminster would be a major political statement, a better fit with the values of the project and would provide Corbyn and his team the opportunity to work in a pleasant and productive working environment. The lace curtain intrigues of Portcullis House are beneath them.

4) Hang Out With cleb’s

While some around Corbyn might find this distasteful, that is a test regarding the extent to which both he and they really want to see him succeed as leader. As I recently wrote over at Novara Media:

“With the increased mediatisation of politics in the digital environment I think it’s highly likely that celebrities will feature ever more prominently, not only as advocates and ‘influencers’ – leveraging their massive networks of followers on social media – but also as participants. While celebrities getting involved in politics isn’t new – after all Ronald Reagan became president having been a Hollywood leading man, while the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura were state governors after being on the big screen – what Trump betokens is a shift from celebrities dabbling in politics to being at the very heart of public life.

In part that is a result of the distinction between celebrity culture and politics becoming increasingly permeable (just look at recent headline stories surrounding Gary Lineker and Lily Allen) but it is also a result of immediate name recognition colliding with the end of the mainstream media as we know it. Without social media these individuals, despite always being widely known, had no means of conveying their political views to a wide audience. That has now changed, with their accumulated social capital easily transferable to communicative power and political capital. As Paul Mason has noted, ‘networked individualism’ is what powered many of the movements of 2011, so it should come as no surprise that the networked individuals par excellence aren’t activists or citizen-journalists, but people with large amounts of social and media capital: celebrities.”

In any politics driven primarily by crowds rather than organisations, the cache of celebrity is a big deal. Corbyn’s team should be offering to meet as many as they can – from Rio Ferdinand to Peter Capaldi and JK Rowling – about establishing a relationship and what they can do for them, rather than the other way round. While some will have political disagreements with Corbyn, it’s important to establish that a bigger dynamic is now at work, especially after Brexit. If they disagree with falling living standards, rampant poverty and a long depression following Britain’s exit from the EU, they should welcome a more sustainable, strategic relationship with the Labour party – whoever is at the top. As with much of the central party operation, the fundraising team are more interested in whining than taking the kinds of opportunity which meant the party raised over £1 million from registered supporters during the last leadership race (while disgusting, this illustrated the wide scale of passion and interest for a different kind of Labour party). That extends to established names in entertainment and sport.

Furthermore, a number of prominent left wing celebrities – as well as being cause advocates for the party – should also be encouraged to run for party selection in their local areas, or where they grew up, ahead of the next election. Along with local activists they will be part of a great mix of left wing MPs entering parliament whenever that time comes.

5) Do More Non-Political Broadcast Media

Let’s be honest. Nobody cares what John McDonnell writes for the New Statesman or Jeremy Corbyn writes for the Times (unless it intervenes in an extant conversation). A miniscule portion of the public reads this stuff. That’s not to denigrate those guys, after all I helped start Novara Media, but it accepts that ‘political’ media isn’t consumed in the same way that entertainment or documentaries are. To be honest, most written content by top politicians is a waste of time, unless it’s something to influence broadcast (like Farage did in regard to the Trump ‘ambassador’ tweet for Breitbart). Instead, the Labour leadership should be looking to leverage a genuine interest in the new(ish) guy at the top. That is real and to some extent reflected in social media: Corbyn’s personal Facebook page has more likes than Labour while JC4PM, an unofficial page that supports him, has more than the Liberal Democrats. While the opportunity hasn’t been taken as quickly as it should have been, the Labour leader should be doing Gardeners World, Match of the Day Two, Gardeners Question Time and local radio.

If you want to see what a populist looks like in this respect, check out Barack Obama on Monday Night Football in 2006. Fun, engaging and on level with ordinary people, this is the gold standard. The important thing to remember is that, compared to Aston Villa supporting David Cameron (or is it West Ham?) he is a relatively ‘ordinary’ (that is to say, not a descendent of William IV) person.

6) Do Cool Stuff

Just like with broadcast, social media and moving out of Westminster, it’s obvious that a populist Corbyn would have to think outside the box. If he won’t be covered by the news, which is another weapon in the arsenal, then he’ll just have to make it. This is a great opportunity to get some strong social media stuff out there. I’ve got a few funny, hare-brained ideas, some my own, others which people have shared with me. One is John McDonnell taking a Tesla Model S for a spin with the Stig while talking about renewables and a new economy, another is Corbyn trying out a range of bikes to commute with, from a Brompton to a Raleigh, and rating them. This kind of approach doesn’t need to be limited to the front two, and should be part of offering the shadow cabinet an opportunity to show another side of themselves. These videos would be short, fun and, in an unconventional way, very political. They would be produced by an in-house video team at Labour HQ as part of sweeping changes there.

7) Be bold and provocative in content and form

It’s easy to understand why Corbyn, and those surrounding him are risk averse. That, combined with the stultifying routine of working in a building designed to eliminate a single useful thought from one’s head, means big changes are needed if people are serious about walking down the populist path. It’s often the case in politics that a public ‘re-brand’ signifies inertia, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case here. Rather it’s clear that in light of Brexit and Trump we are now, undeniably, in new times. Clearly that should be reflected in the leadership’s policies and rhetoric.

At the same time, however, announcing this kind of thing is easier than actually doing it. And let’s be honest, Corbyn’s leadership – beyond campaigning over two summers – has been painting by numbers. Initially his approach was to build bridges in the parliamentary Labour party with those intent on destroying him. That was a shame because, while those MPs didn’t have the ideas, grit or candidate to beat Corbyn, it meant the Shadow Cabinet was dysfunctional for nearly a year. As I’ve said before, Corbyn’s original sin as leader wasn’t incompetence but kindness and good will.

A populist strategy needs to be bold in both form and content. It will necessitate changing certain things quite dramatically, discarding previously held views about how things are done and what is useful. My sense is that both Corbyn and McDonnell are quite resistant to experimentation, certainly on the scale that is required. I’d love to be wrong of course.

8) A New ‘Master Frame’: Luxury Socialism

I’m a fully paid up luxury communist. What does that mean? It means that imminent within our technologically advanced society, which permits a world of both synthetic biology and millions lacking access to basic medicine, is the possibility of a different kind of civilisation, one beyond both scarcity and work: fully automated luxury communism. Fully automated, because we identify a trajectory within two centuries of capitalism and subordinate it to people and leisure rather than profit and competition; luxury, because in overcoming scarcity we will lead lives of immense material and spiritual richness; communism, because all of this is understood within a heterodox reading of Marx, specifically the Grundrisse; its state is one where wage-labour, production for exchange and the commodity have all been superceded. For a more simple precis of what that means watch this brief clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

While some of those ideas are complex, there is no reason why they can’t be presented clearly and in a way readily understood to anybody, anywhere. Most people get that automation is changing things, and fast.

Now I know that Corbyn will avoid the ‘C’ word like the plague, and ‘fully automated’ won’t make much sense to the electorate or the likes of Peston and Marr, but there is no reason why such a zeitgeist can’t inform a new left populism that challenges the society of work and aspires to superior higher living standards for all. After all, it actually engages with the key questions posed by automation and globalisation. Unlike the likes of Trump and Farage, it also offers potential solutions.

Indeed, we’ve already seen a glimpse of it when John McDonnell spoke of ‘socialism with an iPad’ in 2015. The real point, though, is that kind of consumer technology is utter junk compared to some of the potential applications offered by the likes of synthetic biology, additive manufacturing (particularly in construction) and AI over the coming years. Luxury socialism – yes I’m willing for these guys to water it down a little – should inform the master frame for Labour under populist Corbyn. The answer to stagnating pay, falling wages and inferior public services isn’t a slight policy shift, or a bit less austerity – it’s a totally different kind of economy. Next year I’ll be releasing a book about what the concrete policies, from social care to immigration and health, would look like.

The thing is that austerity doesn’t really capture much, nor does it mean anything specific to the electorate. The real enemy is neoliberalism, that is to say the variant of capitalism which hasn’t brought improved living standards (relatively lower wage growth historically speaking) and is based on growing inequality, weak unions, profits over wages and the fanatical dogma of the free market. What is more the Tories, albeit six years too late, have now put growth ahead of deficit elimination and, as the economic picture worsens over 2017, expect them to talk more about stimulus and industrial policy than the national debt. To persist with austerity now, guarantees another recession.

While the task is to defeat, we must also explain that there is no going back to the golden age of capitalism.

Here is a post by satirical page ‘fully automated luxury liberalism’ on Facebook. It’s a joke, but there is more than a kernel of truth to it for any luxury communist aiming at populism, especially within electoral contexts:

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What would that mean in a real context? Well, when Donald Trump spoke of bringing back American jobs, Hillary Clinton should have replied with the truth saying ‘we are, it’s called re-shoring and they are robots’. Trump’s rhetoric of a return to an industrial America of full, well-paid employment is impossible, primarily because of automation and innovations in real time communication and global transport. Fatally for centrist politics after the crisis, they have to accept the same rules of political economy as the right, simply by virtue of being committed to free market economics and a failing variant of globalisation. In a world of increased automation and human labour rendered ever-more superfluous, that can end in only one thing: defeat.

If you are going to break with neoliberalism, and accept that a return to the social democratic settlement of the post-war period is impossible, then luxury socialism is the only practical utopia on offer: subordinating a tendency (or better a common resource) everyone understands, automation, to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Less work, more pay, better services and infrastructure.


What will do for Corbyn isn’t the parliamentary Labour party or the Tories – both in their different ways are useless – but a more dangerous mixture of the media, complacency among his movement and boredom. If you aren’t on the front foot in the new politics you are nowhere. Too often, even since his second leadership win in September, Corbyn hasn’t been on the front foot. Without that Labour will lose the next general election, though I find predictions by what margin as irritating as they are useless. The reality is the Tories could easily lose their majority simply by virtue of a Liberal Democrat resurgence and Labour standing still. Meanwhile, despite the media bullshit, UKIP came second in more Tory seats than Labour ones last May. The Tories are more likely to lose South Thanet than Labour are Hartlepool.

All of that, however, is meaningless if the leadership continue to play by the rules. Ed Miliband lost because of an aversion to risk and ultimately not having enough confidence in his politics or ability to shape the agenda. It would be a tragedy for Corbyn to go the same way. A shift to populism is to be welcomed and, as Conor Pope writes, it really is now or never for the politics of the radical left to succeed. But that will take something we’ve not really seen from Corbyn outside of his leadership campaigns: an insurgent strategy, a sense of fun, a propositional political agenda and a willingness to dispense with protocol.

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