It’s authenticity, not left or right wing, that’s scoring with oppositions

Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn although poles apart, have nevertheless more in common than Corbyn would like to admit (Trump wouldn’t take Corbyn under his notice). Not as political ideologues but as icons of “authenticity,” that holy grail of reality politics which itself is ironically becoming a marketing category. Authenticity works for Labour’s Alan Johnson because with equal irony, he has resisted attempts to recruit him for the Labour leadership. The message is clear. Authenticity is a quality that thrives best in opposition. Government in the post- ideological age is too darn complicated to allow for its simple appeal.

In the US and the UK the main opposition parties to government are taking radical turns. After years of austerity from all government parties and with little belief in an end in sight, left or right hardly seems to matter. The obvious truism of the need to govern from the centre has eliminated much creative differentiation from the character of politics. See Ed Lucas in he FT (£) on Trump, with those doubtful billions, that doubtful hair and that epic vulgarity.  For Trump authenticity is audible dog whistling, further out than the Tea Party.

At first they said Donald Trump would peak in a few days. That was a month ago. Then they said the property tycoon had hit a low double-digit ceiling with a hard core of Republican “crazies”. He is now polling at 24 per cent, which is about the same as the next two (Jeb Bush and Scott Walker) combined.

Attempts to shame Mr Trump could as easily stoke the popular resentment that sustains him.

Nor is it possible to steal Mr Trump’s policy clothes. There is no logic to his platform. Mr Trump’s success is based on the spirit of anti-politics — the dislike of poll-tested campaigns, scripted candidates and the political classes in general. Consistency is a vice. Coherence spells dishonesty.

The latest poll shows that only 8 per cent of Republican graduates support Mr Trump against 32 per cent of those without a degree.

These are the angry swaths of America that feel left behind, belittled and insulted. They want to take their country back but cannot put their finger on what exactly they mean. For them it is evening in America. Nobody argues their case.

Then along comes Mr Trump. Foreigners may be tempted to see him as uniquely American. But he has his equivalents everywhere. Think of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or even the UK’s Nigel Farage.

Lucy Ward in the Independent on Corbyn.

Before Corbyn entered the race, there was hardly anything to distinguish the three other candidates from each other. Now that he is in the race, demonstrably the only interesting politician among them, it seems that those same candidates are running scared..

Even support of the benefit cap is argued in terms of perceived fairness; that no one should be seen to receive more on benefits than some working families, without any discussion of the economic and social credibility of a policy that will drive yet more families into poverty. The fact that Corbyn was the only leader candidate who stood against Osborne’s Welfare Bill should speak for itself.

It’s so beguiling  not to bite the bullet on £30 billion of tax credits and never say no  to public spending on  kids and the working poor; and always to talk about talks with terrorists  and never confront them.

In Scotland the SNP are in government and opposition at the same time. There the hunger for authenticity broke through in a surge of leftish policies wrapped in the essence of right wingery, nationalism, scorned by Tony Blair. Will the SNP get rumbled before they make the break for another referendum?

Who are the Irish equivalents north and south? (Guess who?). “ Things fall apart the centre cannot hold? “ Probably not. Look more closely. It is mainstream opposition, not mainstream government, that is on the defensive.


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  • Granni Trixie

    I think that voters do tend to go for people they perceive as “authentic” or committed as opposed to those perceived as self serving ……
    but depending on the party with which they are associated. Yes,one rule for one party and another rule for another.

    It is easily observed in cases where the public gets a whiff of corruption rumours they continue to vote in certain parties yet would punish candidates of other parties for same thing.
    I suppose my assertion is leading to another form of identity politics.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Good piece, Brian. I’ve long thought society’s growing craving for “authenticity” a bit problematic. I think in politics having authenticity is really a hunger for three more specific underlying things:
    (1) government for the mass of the people, not elites: having people from ordinary backgrounds in politics, so our leaders feel like they have emerged from the people they govern, understand us and therefore govern in our interests;
    (2) core values – having a clear set of motivating principles that are about something bigger than day-to-day management – that capture what government, or even life, is really about. These principles should soak through your every policy and even every personality within a party’s leadership cadre;
    (3) consistency – politicians following through on their values in a clear way, with a narrative that explains what they are doing in terms of those values.
    I think Trump’s all over the shop on all of these – the best you could say is that he may score highly on (1) for being against a certain kind of Washington political class. But he has not other aspects of authenticity about him.
    Corbyn is actually weaker on (1) than he is on (2) and (3). Although of the left, he is a career politician, someone who through his right-on political activism for decades is actually quite divorced from the mainstream of society – he seems to disdain the task of converting soft Tory voters, because he just doesn’t get them. He’s lived too long in his cozy hard left corner. He’s all core values and he’s all consistency, so he’s coming across as “authentic”. But not in any sense that middle England wants, he isn’t.

    Authenticity is not enough on its own – to be PM material, you also need to be realistic, pragmatic, intellectually strong and, let’s not forget, to some extent effective. The job is to devise a programme and implement it, all the while reacting in the right way to events and holding a team together and keeping the public onside. You also need a certain charisma, though by that I don’t mean glamour, I mean just having the quality of someone others are happy to defer to – trust, if you like. Cameron, for all his Eton toff-ness, has this latter quality in spades – people think he’s safe and won’t do anything silly. Ed Miliband not so much, unfortunately (as I think if he’d got in, could have been a rather good and rather nation-improving PM). Needless to say, Corbyn is nowhere on realism, pragmatism, cleverness, effectiveness or trust. Yvette Cooper for me is a clear winner of the four candidates on all of those.

    People are craving – and therefore overvaluing – authenticity, because it has been so lacking in politics for such a long time. It is a necessary quality but not a sufficient one. It IS necessary though, something Blair missed with his comments yesterday. Labour supporters in particular, but actually the wider electorate too, ARE pretty sick of the leadership feeling distant and value-light.

    Cooper will seem less “authentic” than Corbyn, because she’s been part of that distant leadership cadre, so may be rated poorly on the 1st element of authenticity. However, she can score well on the 2nd and 3rd elements of authenticity. In my view, she is doing that excellently – grounding what she says in core Labour values and using good judgment to commit herself to positions she knows she can hold to.

    It’s that first kind of authentic that is her only real weakness. She just needs to convince people she can be their champion and build on Ed M’s work re-establishing Labour as the party that governs for the mass of the people, standing up to vested interests on our behalf when needed. The narrative is there; Cooper if elected will develop it further and articulate it better than Ed M did. It is a potentially winning narrative, it just needs to be made consistently, coherently and from someone who sounds normal – more normal than the bunch of freaks governing us at the moment. Being a woman and not having a weird half-posh London accent will also help immeasurably.

  • Theelk11

    Thanks MU you have articulated my position with a clarity I have struggled to achieve.
    My problem is that Mr Corbyn shames the labour elite, the guardian newspaper is full of handwringing articles.
    He takes labour into dangerous waters as shown by tony blairs heart transplant comment. Politics is not about clarity but seeing your friends in the mist. Much as I loved politicians like him when I was 18 he is peddling simplicity.

  • For authenticity, look at the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who says outright that he is right down the middle of what ordinary Americans think and want, rather than what the rich backers of other candidates want. Or look at the Parliamentary careers of Caroline Lucas.