Doomsayers should get over it - Corbyn is a great leader

Written by Simon Lancaster on 21 September 2015 in Opinion
The public has always loved an outsider, don’t write off Labour's new boss just yet

Ever since Corbyn’s thumping victory, malcontents in the commentariat have been droning on about how he just doesn’t look like a leader.

‘He’s too scruffy’. ‘He’s too quiet.’ The Economist even went so far as to condemn him for being ‘too boring’ (although quite how hanging out with terrorists and going biking with Diane Abbott in East Germany makes you boring, I don’t know).

The Westminster bubble seems obsessed with the idea that winning leaders must fit some pre-ordained mould. 1994 Blair set that mould – young, male, highly intelligent, fast-talking and athletic. That’s the formula and we mess with it at our peril.

But this is nonsense. If there is a single unifying feature which binds together all great leaders from history it is that there is no single unifying feature which binds together all great leaders from history. Every great leader stands tall and proud, markedly different from all who went before. Which is exactly as it should be. It stands to reason. Unless there is distance between the leader and everyone else, they’re not leading, they’re copying. 

Great leaders have always emerged from the outside. You can track this right back to Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, three fairly successful leaders. Their life stories were all built around their time as outsiders: their long periods spent in the wilderness, times when they were ignored, alienated, pilloried.

It’s an appealing narrative: perfect for mass consumption. It’s the same archetypal narrative which lay behind the appeal of Sojourner Truth, Emmeline Pankhurst and Nelson Mandela. Gandhi summed it up: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’

That is the real narrative of great leadership, it’s the Corbyn narrative and it’s markedly different to the: ‘First they send you to Oxbridge, then they give you a plum Special Adviser job, then they parachute you into parliament, then you become leader’ narrative which would be thrust upon us by Oxbridge educated Special Advisers.

It was the outsider narrative which propelled Churchill, Thatcher and Blair to power.  Churchill spent the 30s languishing on the backbenches. Thatcher was completely at odds with the stuffy vaguely aristocratic Tory Party of the 50s and 60s.  And you certainly didn’t see too many posh public school lawyers like Blair showing up Labour Party branch meetings in the 80s.

It’s our love of outsiders which explains how Obama shot ahead of Hillary in 2008 and which explains why Donald is now coming up trumps. Our attraction to outsiders as leaders is not rational but instinctive and primeval. We are drawn to the ones on the outside because they are the ones who provide most obvious proof of their strength. It’s the silverback gorilla sitting slightly distant from the rest...

That’s why the ‘odd one out’ always wins most applause in political debate. I remember once watching my old boss, Alan Johnson, on Question Time alongside John Lydon. Lydon won three times as much applause as Johnson, never mind the bollocks he was actually speaking.

It was the outsider card that Nick Clegg played so memorably in the 2010 leadership debates. Cameron tried the same technique in 2015 but was trumped by the new outsiders: Farage and the ladies in red. We just love the outsiders.

But it is extraordinary that all of the commentators who failed to predict Corbyn’s rise in the first place are now saying with absolute certainty that he is bound to prove a failure in 2020. Their predictions are nothing more than tribal prejudice masquerading as analysis. The truth is that Corbyn has already proved he has what it takes to be a real leader. Get over it. Because the irony is that the more you smear, alienate and pillorise him, the more of a great leader he seems.  


Simon Lancaster is the author of Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership  

Tags: Jeremy Corbyn, The Labour Party

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