"What do we want?" "A politician with integrity!" "When do we want it?" "Never!" This should be the battle-cry of a confused and conflicted public if the latest opinion polls on Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron's leadership credentials are anything to go by. More than half of those polled by IpsosMORI think that Corbyn is "more honest than most politicians" and three in five believe he is concerned about the interests of the public. On the flipside, double the number of people think that Cameron is a good leader compared to Corbyn and far more think the Tories are fit to govern compared to Labour, even though they acknowledge that they are "out of touch" with public concerns. When it comes to sentiments about what we want from politicians, we are as confused as David Cameron at a council budget meeting.
What do we know? For one, public trust in politicians is at rock bottom. We believe our political leaders less than we do estate agents, the media, or bankers (there is an interesting correlation here between the extent to which our economy relies on a particular profession, our faith in that profession, and the continued dominance of our economic model - though perhaps that's for another discussion). When it comes to thinking theoretically about what we want from politicians, we also seem pretty certain. We want to be able to trust them. We want them to tell the truth. In short, we want them to think and act like like us - or at least how we like to think that we act.
Yet, because of the dominance of the "politicians can't be trusted" narrative we perversely seem to put more faith in a politician that appears untrustworthy. In a way, this makes sense. It means they fit our model for what a politician should look like. There's no room for cognitive dissonance. Such politicians sit within the other frames which we have constructed about political figures: they're good orators (note the knee-jerk calls for Hilary Benn to be made Labour leader all because he made a subjectively good speech in parliament), smooth talking, and well-dressed (apparently grey shell suits and sandals and socks just don't say "international statesman").
When along comes a politician who breaks that mould we still can't conceive of them as being a decent political leader or prime minister. When offered the proverbial cake and given the chance to eat it, we turn our noses up. Of course, part of the reason for this is because the response of those closest to Corbyn, the parliamentary Labour Party, has also been one of confusion and agitation. They too are perplexed by their new leader, struggle to understand his popularity amongst Labour members outside Westminster, and fear that a politician who, shock horror, acts according to his principles, simply cannot rough it out in the lion's den of politics. As a result their actions since his elevation to the party leadership have contributed to a weakening of his power and authority: briefing against him, rowing so loudly at meetings that their arguments have echoed through every corridor of power, and speaking out in public and in parliament against his decisions. Offered the chance to get behind a leader who could resonate with what the public apparently want from their politicians many members of the PLP have instead chosen to undermine him and make him appear weak - hoping that this will ultimately justify regicide and his replacement with someone who can follow the genetic political line that was started by Blair and furthered by Cameron.
Consequently both inside and outside parliament, the idea that we could have a political leader that is both principled and effective comes across as unworkable and impractical.
This mindset doesn't just influence the public's political opinions. It also guides the decision-making processes in parliament. On Wednesday 2nd December a succession of politicians stood up in Westminster to declare that, though of course we would all like to avoid bombing a civilian population to smithereens, we simply don't live in a world where a non-military solution to the Syrian crisis and the heinous actions perpetrated by ISIS exists. Most politicians would sooner believe in Father Christmas. Of course, simply believing this is the case makes it so - it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. By believing in an alternative approach, Corbyn operates in a different world to the political one he inhabits. As such, it seems perfectly plausible for a Prime Minister to label anyone who is against military action in Syria a "terrorist" and, although criticised for doing so, has not been compelled to apologise for such an unprincipled slur.
So, what is Corbyn to do? Lie, cheat, and slander until he looks more like an authentic politician? Clearly not. What has to happen is for the political scene around him to change. He needs to appear at home in his political surroundings, as the trend-setter not the outsider. And to his credit, this is something he is trying to do. His goal is to change politics and the way politics is done. He recognises that the Westminster bubble is a turn-off to most people and that the public are usually voting for the devil they know at each election rather than doing so with a sense of genuine hope and optimism. We know politics and political culture can change. The election of a black President in America could not have been conceivable twenty or thirty years ago. Before that, the idea of giving women the vote was seen as laughable. Change can happen. Just because he wears a shell suit and doesn't believe possessing nuclear weapons is a recipe for world peace, it's not inconceivable that the public could still warm to Corbyn but for that to happen the political backdrop will have to change as well.Suggest a correction