‘Prime ministerialism’: What does it take?

There’s an interesting interview from VICE of two unassuming Labour backbenchers from April (x) where they say something pretty telling when asked about rating Ed Miliband:

“let’s be clear, we don’t believe in leaders.”

They spoke about a movement that was much bigger than the PLP, that would and should determine an anti-austerity message.

These two unassuming backbenchers, as it turned out, would go on to lead the Labour Party 6 months later. John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, or more-so the latter, were actually seemingly warm toward Ed. I recall a Newstatesman interview with the former about Ed keeping his door open to the Left. But this stance on leadership wasn’t about that. Corbyn and his ally simply scorn the very concept of a leader. They were reluctantly absorbed, then sidelined, into a New Labour machine that fell in love with marketing.

Presidentialism in British politics undoubtedly predates New Labour and Blair, but New Labour was its first true product. Mandelson was the first of his kind, the Dark Lord behind the throne. Mandelsonian PR and spin was genius apparatus that transformed Tony Blair into a 90’s demigod, and transformed now New Labour into a market brand. The architects of this, the trio of Mandelson, Blair and Brown constructed a top-down approach to Labour -sofa politics- that today is derided as control freakery. In fact, it’s still highly effective; the SNP use it! The SNP has a gagging rule on MSPs and MPs, and all delegates and staffers, and yet still created a ‘movement’ in Scotland that wiped out their rivals, just as Labour turned the map red in 1997. Sturgeon became the saleswoman, rather than Blair. Marketing is all it is, and it works.

Contrast this with Ed Miliband, who tried to ignore the demands of image-based politics and then failed at the hands of the Crosby machine. Was it because we will never be able to get past image-based politics, or was it because Ed couldn’t build an inspired movement to counter it?

Can we rediscover a post-Mandelsonian politics that isn’t top-down? That doesn’t evangelise its leader? That is powered into office by a movement instead?

It’s strange that the man that derided leadership in the VICE interview was a self-made icon -almost immune to criticism- in the Labour leadership election, but its hard to doubt Jeremy’s sincerity in wanting to not be the centre of attention now. From his re-styling of a People’s Question Time to briskly walking past cameras, he is genuinely trying to make a membership-based movement. The question is whether that mass membership movement most comfortable in rallies can become a party of government.

So far, not so good. A recent ORB poll finds that 3/4s of voters do not see Jeremy as ‘Prime ministerial’. As noted, this tag or brand, is the product of a politics Jeremy derides. And it is by default biased in favour of image-based politics. ‘Prime ministerial’ simply means, now, a middle aged man with a nice accent and good suit. We see that these things have been exploited to discredit Corbyn. Despite all the meaty stories from his past CCHQ and the press could use, it’s telling that his suit, style, and not singing the national anthem is what has defined Corbyn’s first week.

And this just underlines a paradox in national psyche: we hate identikit politicians but won’t vote for anything else.

Could this ever actually change? It relies, imo, on five things:

Firstly, swallowing pride and wearing a bloody suit. Even Tsipras didn’t wear beige, man. Just do it. This isn’t selling out to Mandelsonian politics, it’s just looking swaggy as it were.

Second, Corbyn has to be a ‘people’s man’, like, yeah, Nigel Farage. But instead of the pub, he has to be on the street, greeting people, without black cars and bodyguards, being mobbed like Sturgeon was. And god knows that’s within his power, if the leadership contest is anything to go by. He doesn’t have to be a traditional leader, but rather an icon of a movement, someone that attracts a movement around him. Oh, and selfies.

Another thing that isn’t selling out to Mandelsonian politics is messaging. You don’t need to put spin onto a straightforward slogan. On the contrary, straight-talking and conviction is a strength. I argue here that ‘Labour coming home’ or something to that effect would be eye-catching and legitimately ingenuous.
It would also be apt to refer to Labour as a movement, instead of a party. Like I’ll say in numero cinco, it builds a sense of momentum. Like the party is bursting at the seams.

Fouth, a united team effort from the frontbench and PLP to purport this message, and a strong team. Blair didn’t win 1997 alone, his team did. Brown did. From what I’ve seen of McDonnell, he has a strong media presence. Put him on TV as much as possible. Literature should portray Corbyn as part of a team, or a duo.

Lastly, a million-strong mass membership. You want to be a mass party rather than an elite one, a million is the threshold. That’s people to doorknock, fill out rallies, to make a presence known. In Scotland, 1 in 50 people are members of the SNP. They can fill George Square, quite annoyingly often. There is a sense of momentum there. In the run up to the election, SNP signs were everywhere. Even if it’s slightly false momentum, Labour has to do the same.

Will any of this change the fact our leader appears to be, in these early stages, a liability? I’m not sure, but it’s necessary to try. We need to fight on our terms, on the terms of the ‘New Politics’ that dismisses the ‘prime ministerialism’ and presidentialisation of British politics. Because we won’t win if we fight on those grounds.


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