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OPINION: Corbyn and the building of a personal brand

by Paul MacKenzie-Cummins

In any workplace and at business event or dinner party, mention the name Jeremy Corbyn and debate invariably ensues. He is a man who everyone seemingly has an opinion of but irrespective of whether one falls into the pro- or anti- Corbyn camp, the unmistakable fact is that he is a truly remarkable figure – from a PR perspective.

His landslide victory to secure the Labour leadership vote two years ago stunned even the most optimistic of political observers. He is, after all, one of the most left-wing, anti-establishment leaders the Labour Party has had, and don’t the Party know it.

Immediately after pipping Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall to the post there followed a wave of resignations among many Labour stalwarts who refused to work under a Party led by Mr Corbyn. For a time it seemed that Labour itself was on the fast-track to political oblivion. Yet, somehow, Mr Corbyn has managed to pull off perhaps the greatest rebound in political history.

So how the hell did this former backbench MP and anti-war campaigner do it?

At their annual conference last week, Corbyn positioned Labour as a “government in waiting.” He said that “Labour is ready . . . ”, the shadow cabinet was “literally standing ready to take over”.

Two years ago such euphoric rhetoric would have been laughed at but today there is a consensus that this might not be that far from the truth. Stranger things have happened – May’s narrow victory at this year’s General Election is the most recent example of how one party can go from being expected to win by a landslide to limping over the line – supported by the DUP – in a matter of weeks.

Re-branding politics

Images of Mr Corbyn donning Lenin-esque headwear and voter-frightening Labour extremism did little to get the Blairites and traditional Labour supporters on board. A different tact was needed. Never one to back down or compromise his own beliefs and principles,

Mr Corbyn’s core messages may remain the same but they have been repositioned to become less threatening and more appealing to a wider audience.

Indeed, addressing the home crowd in Brighton last week he repeatedly talked of a “new common sense”. He argued that the “centre ground” was “not fixed or immovable — nor is it where the establishment pundits like to think it is”. He was, in effect, rebranding the left as the new centre.

Reaching out to younger voters

I personally detest the term ‘reaching out’ but in this context, it is the most apt description. Mrs Thatcher failed to engage younger voters, Messrs Major and Cameron were pitiful at best while Mrs May appears to have ignored this generation altogether.

Tony Blair certainly made significant strides in this area during the Cool Britannia heyday of the late 1990s heyday but even then Labour struggled to engage and appeal to this demographic to the extent that Jeremy Corbyn has done. Yet Corbyn can hardly be described as ‘cool’, so it must be something else.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writing in The Guardian seems to have the answer:

“He may be a white-haired jam-maker, but they [young voters] saw something in him that was lacking in other candidates…the appeal of a politician likely to keep their promises.”

There was also Brexit. The Tories call for the Referendum and the newly appointed Prime Minister utterly failed to grasp how angry younger voters were and the length of time it would be before such frustrations would wane. This is a generation that will represent 50% of the workforce in less than a decade yet many young voters accuse Mrs May of following her own personal agenda and failing to listen to their concerns.

They also think that Mrs May went back on her word, which in fact she did. We were told in no uncertain terms that there would be no election and when the snap election was announced in May, distrust between younger voters and the government waned further.

Corby Glastonbury

 

Mr Corbyn, however, has not only galvanised the Labour Party following a succession of leadership challenges, his “build bridges not walls” address at this year’s Glastonbury festival was one of the most anticipated and well-received ‘acts’ on the bill. The festival’s organiser, Michael Eavis hailed him as the “hero of the hour” amid chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.” What politicians around the world would give for endorsements like those.

Softened use of language

Until more recently, Mr Corbyn’s speeches were rather clumsy and probably wouldn’t look out of place at one of the many political marches that characterised 1970s Britain à la Citizen Smith. However, he has realised that voters are not motivated by angry remonstrations and rallying cries of ‘down with the government’. Rather, his mantra, for “the many not the few”, can only garner the support it needs by a softening of the tone being used to communicate it.

He appears more relaxed and less agitated and even in good humour in what the Financial Times brilliantly described last week as a “mock-pompous injunction to “bring the conference to order” effectively and modestly deflating the ovation that delayed his opening remarks.” He has, in effect, become someone everyone can warm to.

"Now is the time..." - is it for Corbyn and Labour, too?
“Now is the time…” – is it for Corbyn and Labour, too?

Modesty and honesty are the best policies

When asked by The Guardian what he makes of the support he has garnered over the last 12 months, Mr Corbyn replied “strange, very strange”. He said: “I’m not promoting it. I do what I believe in, I try to promote what I believe in and change things in politics, and I’m happy to be a part of that change.” Of course, one significant aspect of his leadership style is his honesty.

Politicians are famed for their inability to provide a straight answer to a seemingly straightforward question. Mr Corbyn is a little different.

For instance, the Tories accuse the Labour leader of having a “magic money tree” and the Party itself being a “coalition of chaos”. Rather than retaliate in the tit-for-tat battle of wits, Mr Corbyn says he wants to be “frank.” He stands defiant in his pledge that big businesses will pay more tax so the government can increase investment. He also wants a reform of the financial services sector which he sees as being “strikingly similar” to the pre-crash one – something that many voters will no doubt agree with.

Mr Corbyn’s assertion that the Tories are “stuck in a political and economic time warp” resonates with many voters – both young and old, so too does his refreshingly straight-talking and often blunt use of language. While the verbs attributed to the current state of the Tories trickle off tongue with ease – self-interested, divided, rudderless and self-contradictory – the same cannot be said of the Labour Party as it is now.

 

Mr Corbyn has pulled off a remarkable turnaround over the last two years. His personal brand has been ridiculed and battered while his political views divided a Party that looked to be on the brink of implosion and inevitable obscurity.

He has been astute to recognise that a change of tact was not only necessary but essential if he was to stand any chance of surviving as Labour leader let alone bring the Party back from the brink to one that is poised to assume power. This is precisely what he has done.

He has appealed to those who have become disenfranchised with politics and employed a change of style and tone that remains on message but without the edginess that characterised his early communications. He has in fact rebranded the politics of the left and repurposed it in a way that has wider appeal without compromising its ideals. As Martin Luther King said, “Now is the time…” – perhaps for Mr Corbyn et al, it is.