Personality Politics: The Radical Rise of an Icon

Part 2. Ben Ffrench continues his look at Personality Politics.

2016 has seen the rise of radical political leaders, but Britain was one of the first countries to experience it. Following Miliband’s resignation in May, the hunt for a new personality to lead the embattled Labour party was on. And in the end, there was one favourite: Chuka Umunna.

The bright, young talent had risen to prominence as Labour’s shadow business secretary. He was the future, and was being touted as Labour’s hope.

But it was not to be: not yet, anyway.

The level of personal scrutiny was too much for Chuka

The level of personal scrutiny was too much for Chuka: it was all too intensely personal. A picture showing him leaving a an exclusive London members club early in the morning led to attacks on his personal credibility: how could he, a member of the Metropolitan elite, lead a working class movement like Labour?

The harassment of his then girlfriend, the scrutiny on his family and audacious nature of the press soon led to his exit from the race. Chuka just wasn’t ready for this yet. And a political process based on surface appearance required an incredible amount of personal strength.

What followed is bound to go down in history. A new personality was needed. It seemed like Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, had this in the bag. An unlikely figure was going to spectacularly enter the picture: a little known backbench rebel from Islington, named Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn was a reluctant hero. He was never even planning to enter of his own accord: he eventually did after a minority group of socialist allies, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott among them, needed a candidate to raise awareness for their cause, and broaden the debate. Corbyn, despite reservations, stepped forward.

What follows next is legendary: scraping onto the ballot paper with just 36 generous nominations, Corbyn tore it up. His brave vote against welfare cuts, in the face of pathetic abstention from interim leader Harriet Harman won him support, and his anti-austerity policies captured the hearts of members. On 12 September 2015, Corbyn was elected leader, and the legend of Jeremy Corbyn was born.

Jeremy Corbyn is at the forefront of a radical generation of new political personalities, dedicated to upsetting the political applecart. Many associate him with the ‘cult of the personality’. A radical following of so called ‘Corbynistas’ supports him wherever he goes. And Corbyn’s own group, momentum, are often equated to a fanatical group of extremists, who are dedicated to their messiah. They have even been labelled as a group of thugs, throwing bricks through windows at any Labour MP futile enough to oppose the leader.

The reality is very different: the group consists of intelligent individuals, from all walks of life, dedicated to the policies and ideas of Corbyn, and his movement, rather than the man himself. But the ‘cult of the personality’ remains strong, and other radical leaders, with more malign intentions, will seek to use this to their advantage.

The election of Donald Trump showed a man cleverly using the cult of the personality to his advantage.  Trump is an experienced businessman, and knows how to sell his personal brand to America. A ‘working class man made good’ is an image Trump worked to perfection, even if the reality couldn’t be further removed. He portrayed himself as ‘the Donald’ a superman, who could save America from its current state of disarray, in a pattern commonly replicated by leaders such as Vladimir Putin and even Hitler. He viciously attacked Hillary Clinton, using her marriage to Bill Clinton and his allegations of sexual impropriety to do damage- ‘crooked Hillary’ was the nickname he gave to his opponent. It worked.

UKIP: a one man party? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
UKIP: a one man party? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The cult of the personality is a feature often associated with many other radical movements. UKIP is a prime example. Since first becoming UKIP leader in 2006, Nigel Farage has become an almost messianic figure for his party. His overtly public image has carried the party to numerous electoral successes – two by election wins, following a 2015 victory for MP Douglas Carswell in his Clacton constituency.

But this was all underpinned by one man- Nigel Farage, and this was further underlined by the EU referendum. They say: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ This was made clear when, following a Brexit victory in the referendum, quit as UKIP leader, for a peaceful retirement.

The result: chaos. Diane James was elected leader before quickly stepping down as leader. And a bust up between MEPs  Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem led to the former being placed in hospital. Farage was back as interim leader, until another was elected: Paul Nuttall.

The cult of the personality is a significant problem

The case of Nigel Farage, a man who carries his party, alongside other supermen like Donald Trump, is common. The radical movements demand radical personalities- who supporters will fervently follow. But the cult of the personality is a significant problem, and voters must be careful to vote for policies, not characters who they hero worship – that road is much travelled, and leads nowhere good.