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When Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents describe the audiences for his unexpectedly large public meetings as mad, dangerous or deluded they are part of a long tradition. Plato founded an entire political philosophy on hostility to noisy democratic audiences ‘shouting or hammering their disapproval and approval – grossly exaggerated, in either case – of the things that are said and done’. There has always been conflict between those who think politics is a public, collective, even celebratory activity and those who think it a matter for experts who need to be kept safe from noisy and stupid crowds (philosophers by an olive grove, economists in offices at the Bundesbank, consultants on the sofa of 10 Downing Street).
That Corbyn's primary medium is the simple speech might confirm the view that he is a relic of a dead and mostly mythologized labour movement. Yet there are good reasons for thinking quite the opposite. Old fashioned public rhetoric has been given a new lease of life by the internet. It is estimated that Mhairi Black’s maiden speech to the Commons has been viewed by millions; millions more have watched Emma Watson speak to the UN about feminism, Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney and Steve Jobs’ Commencement address. TeD talks are one of the most successful of online video brands. Digital culture is also an oral culture.
Yet the videos with which young and seemingly skilled politicians announced their candidacy for Labour leader were wildly inept. The poor sound recording of Chuka Umunna’s declaration from a Swindon High Street was the most interesting thing about a short film so soporific even its star rapidly lost interest in his own career. Andy Burnham appeared to record his announcement while locked overnight in the basement of a reference library. Its leaden editing, over-rehearsed diction and emphatic gestures were more Partridge-esque than Prime Ministerial. Nothing suggested familiarity with the kind of casual, rapid and intimate style that has made celebrities of ‘You Tubers’ with millions of subscribers.
Burnham has since made a more professional but no less ill-conceived film. A bland biopic, the most revealing thing about it is that it so heavily plagiarizes Tony Blair's 1997 Party Election Broadcast made by documentary film maker Molly Dineen. Like its predecessor, Burnham’s film is not about policy but about the candidate at home, at work, with the kids, drinking tea, the man behind the media scrum with ‘footie’ skills to show off. Where the original aimed for a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ feel, Burnham’s resembles the introduction of a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent: the family are so proud, they can’t believe how far he’s come and they really, really, hope you will vote for him.
Liz Kendall, in her video epistle, went in the opposite direction, eschewing all hints of any sort of personal life. In a gripping short, set in a bare office lacking evidence of human habitation, she hand writes a letter; then she types it onto her Mac; she rewrites it in hand. Liz stands up – pensive. Liz stares out the window – thoughtful. There is a moment of tension until – phew - she remembers the NHS and Sure Start. It’s reminiscent of the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movie "You’ve Got Mail" which came out when the internet, email and Labour were still officially ‘New’. Like much of recent Labour media strategy it seems to have been devised by people who have not used media since 1998 when they first got a job as a SPAD.
Online culture cultivates a feeling of immediacy and intimacy. Like blooper reels and directors’ commentaries on a DVD it takes us 'backstage' where the slips, trips and reshoots are evidence of both humanity and hard-working professionalism. On Twitter you might communicate directly with a celebrity, a politician or customer service. The changing economy of music and publishing has put bands and authors on the road and on tour. We might stream the album for free but we'll pay quite a bit to see it performed live and for the feeling of shared, collective experience that the on-demand world has otherwise destroyed.
And this is what people get from Corbyn's rallies. The queues, the spontaneous speeches to the crowds who could not get in, the selfies all give the feeling of an event – of something happening, right now and right here. Technocrats will scoff but this a very contemporary experience of empowerment - of taking part in what is happening rather than watching it passively, having it explained to us while we are told to live with ‘change’ rather than be part of it. It’s a feeling, a desire, absolutely consonant with the devolved, independent and digital ‘big society’ politicians pretend to want.
And Corbyn’s rhetorical style fits with it remarkably well. He is self-deprecating. He doesn’t play the rock star but performs the humble amateur outsider. He doesn’t spell out all the answers. He doesn’t say that the government knows best. He is certainly not a great orator but his stumbles and plain style lend credence to his almost exclusively moral arguments. The likelihood that he can adapt this style to something other voters will respond to is, it seems to me, small. But though out of step with Westminster he is certainly in tune with the national political culture which elevates those who break away from the arcane verbal codes of Westminster – Farage, Sturgeon, Johnson.
In contrast Burnham, Cooper and Kendall seem like people who have never had to do politics before. They played a simulation at university and then got their positions by fitting into a bureaucracy and doing what was asked. They got safe seats and rode into Parliament on the back of a situation not of their making. They had ready-made local parties and media advisors who taught them not to say things and how to avoid answers that might later be held against them. They can't speak extemporaneously and have limited experience of addressing a large audience of people who aren't hand picked or there to agree with them, let alone of hostile or unpredictable audiences. It’s telling that Burnham includes in his biopic the first time it happened to him. These are people who know politics as deals and arrangements and lobbying much more than they know it as identifying social groups, interests and identities to which one might give a combined and collective expression. They and their supporters seem to attribute Blair’s victory to his individual style and opposition to socialism. Which is to say, they don’t really understand why New Labour came to power, let alone how it lost it. In a sense they know less about recent British politics than every single other person in Britain.
The tragedy of Coriolanus is precipitated in the first instance by Martius’ refusal to perform the role demanded of him by popular political tradition. He wants to be spared from donning the ceremonial ‘gown of humility’ and delivering a ritual speech before the plebs. Sicinius, a tribune, insists: ‘Sir, the people/Must have their voices; neither will they bate/One jot of ceremony’ but Coriolanus calls it ‘a part/That I shall blush in acting’. He complains ‘…I cannot bring/My tongue to such a pace’. When forced to perform he cannot refrain from dropping character and insulting his audience. Corbyn's rivals might be well advised to go online and find out what happens next.