Populist or just popular: The rise of the Corbyn phenomenon
Pop and politics don’t always go hand in hand. As the Labour leader is enjoying his ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ moment Alice Broster investigates whether it is accurate to call him a populist or whether this is a dangerous tactic used to discredit him.
Simon Yosef, 20 is spending his Friday night like many that have gone before, sorting through campaign leaflets and organising events at his students union. Unlike his peers who are knocking back a few pints at the pub he is at his local labour campaigning office with friends Marcus, 23 and Harriet, 24. Banners and placards stand against the walls with Jeremy Corbyns campaign defining slogan scrawled across them-‘for the many, not the few’. “All of his (Corbyns) offices are like this, a pile of placards and coffee cups,” said Simon.
A passionate labour supporter, Simon admits that he wasn’t completely sold on Corbyns leadership straight away but identifies with his policies.“We are a country divided, ideologically and economically. It is clear to me that the conservative government uses their power in office to line their friend’s pockets as well as their own,” said Simon.
Corbyn mobilised the 18-24 vote in unprecedented numbers, as well as uniting voters across the Brexit spectrum for the first time in a year, in Junes General Election. Whilst labour experienced a narrow defeat, the party by no means took it as a loss.
Yet how did the Westminster outsider capture the nation’s eye and what will this mean for the unstable future of British politics? Questions like this are so crucial as the answers may highlight the role that Corbyn and the young people of Britain will play in British politics for years to come.
Harriet and Marcus first became involved with the labour party after the Brexit vote in June 2016 despite previously both voting for the Liberal Democrats.
“Corbyn is a politician who keeps his word, that’s really rare these days. You only have to look at his voting record to see that he is consistent. His priorities and policies reflect that electing him will benefit the many not the few,” said Harriet.
Education, health care and Brexit are all policy areas which they feel they have been let down by the Conservative government. “Labour and Jeremy Corbyn are the only realistic chance this country has for change. He actually fought an election campaign and has policies that appeal to the masses. Why would we want a robot like Mrs May leading the country?” said Marcus.
Age was one of the most significant factors in the general election. Young voters came out overwhelmingly in favour of Corbyn with 60% of those aged 18-24 voting for Labour. The generational divide was stark as 61% of over-64s voted Conservative. According to analysis by Ispos MORI, young people turned out to vote in the General Election in greater numbers than at any other point in the last 25 years (64%). So what was it about this year’s election that engaged the youth vote and what is this left wing populism that commentators claim Corbyn is now at the front of?
Populist or just popular?
It is this belief that Jeremy Corbyn will represent ‘the many, not the few’ which has earned him the label of a populist from both the left and right wing media. However, by definition being a populist is not synonymous with being popular.
Professor Nick Turnbull, is a leading researcher in Politics and Communication at the University of Manchester. “Populism is not a concrete term. No one agrees with what it actually means,” said Professor Nick, “to some it is an anti-elite discourse, to others its rhetoric that generates a strong emotional reaction.”
It is arguable that Corbyn demonstrates both of these traits, however many politicians could be identified in such a way making it an empty term. Professor Nick said “People call many politicians populist because they don’t like them. It is a pejorative term. Corbyn is popular because he represents an opposition to the current conservative government but also the previous labour status quo.”
Corbyn spoke of the Westminster, economic and corporate elites throughout his campaign, using class based language to whip up support from those who felt they had been forgotten- namely those who voted leave in the Brexit vote last year. However, Professor Nick said: “Corbyns election strategy was crafty. He was intentionally ambiguous surrounding Brexit and hammered home non-contentious issues such as abolishing student debt and supporting neglected areas which gained him both the working class and liberal middle class vote.”
It is also questionable as to what extent Jeremy Corbyns popularity is a product of the current political climate. “Brexit is a shambles and Corbyn is benefiting from it. He is essentially free from all of the fall out of Brexit because he is seen as outside of the Westminster elite,” said Professor Nick, “Corbyn comes into his own when he is campaigning. If Corbyn can stick this out until the next election it will be a disaster for the conservatives.”
Is Corbyns Popularity sustainable?
Rather than dismissing younger voters as too lazy to go out to the polling stations, Corbyn embraced both the youth vote and youth culture which may have previously felt disregarded by the Conservatives. Maya Goodfellow, a journalist for the Guardian and academic at SOAS, University of London, covered Jeremy Corbyns general election campaign and policies propositions since. “I am really wary in saying it was all young people because you then raise this argument that they were bought off with the abolition of student debt and I don’t think that was what happened. I think for young people who did come out to campaign and vote for labour, it was because they have no opportunities; you can’t get on the housing ladder, you can’t get a decent job, you’re stuck with huge amounts of debt after university and if you don’t go to university there are few decent opportunties,” said Maya.
By championing policies which supported and appealed to the 18-24 vote Corbyn inspired movements such as grime4Corbyn. This gained him the endorsement of British rapper, Stomzy and he connected with a group of voters previously disenfranchised by traditional politics. This popularity succeeded the general election and earned Corbyn a spot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury.
Maya said, “I think conversations are being started now and there will be space to push domestic policies but in order to do that I do think they would have to be rooted in communities, which I think is beginning to happen. There needs to be more community engagement in places where people are being let down like food banks, libraries, spaces where the government are still failing people.”
So, from grime to Glastonbury Corbyn has demonstrated a clear affinity with younger voters which has propelled his political status into mainstream pop culture. Whilst it is inaccurate to call him a populist, by definition, there is no doubt he is popular. As Simon said, “I can relate to him as a politician and person. I know he’s not perfect but I trust him more than I have trusted any leader before.”