Last night I watched a debate via live streaming. This is a good way to get a feel of how it’s going; and before I watched I decided to make a special effort to be fair. I wouldn’t watch just in order to hear my own views confirmed: I would try to listen and see whether I heard anything to make me change my mind. Because in the end I really want to be sure I’m not living in a Corbynite bubble where people bolster each other’s opinions either in real life or on social media. I tried to watch with as open a mind as possible. And this is what came across:
Smith is perhaps well-meaning (although that is somewhat undercut by the fact of his challenging Corbyn at this time). He seems to espouse very similar policies to his opponent, although some people think he’s just adopted them in order to be more popular. If so, isn’t there a problem there? I thought Corbyn was unelectable? But from what I heard you couldn’t get a fag-paper between their policies; the only thing they really seemed to differ on was Trident, the rest being a question of extent and emphasis. Smith’s pitch seems to be that he’s a ‘reasonable man of the Left.’ I looked at his voting record and it does in fact seem reasonable. I have heard reports that he has at one time or another spoken in favour of some privatisation of the NHS: if so that doesn’t show up in his voting record. So he may be more ‘socialist’ than we’ve been led to believe. And yet – and here’s the rub – he doesn’t feel genuine. His gestures seem studied; his manner practised. He makes the ‘thumb-in-fist’ gesture a lot to get a point across and you can’t help wondering where he learnt to do that. It doesn’t seem natural. His speeches seem rehearsed.
Well, what’s wrong with that? I practise my poems every day: most performers practise over and over so that they get it right. Maybe Jeremy practises too?
Maybe. But it doesn’t seem like it. It seems as if in response to a question he just opens his mouth and says what he thinks. And here’s the point: he doesn’t need to practise his arguments because he knows them. Basically, he’s been practising for the last forty years, saying the same things over and over, in small meetings, in the Commons, in debates – everywhere. And he doesn’t need to think about what football team he supports because he’s not afraid to say if it’s Millwall or Chelsea or if he doesn’t like football at all because – well, who gives a sh*t? It’s austerity he cares about: it’s the people affected by government policies that truly concern him. He doesn’t stop and think ‘What’s going to play well here?’ He just says what he thinks – and that, more than anything, is why people trust him.
OK. But the reason Owen Smith is standing – or so he says – is that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’. He accepts that JC means what he says; he accepts that he’s popular with a section of the electorate; he just thinks that won’t translate into a wider appeal.
Is he right? Let’s leave aside here any arguments about bias in the media, which are too obvious and have been aired too often already. My view is this:
People up and down the country are sick of austerity, sure. And they will vote in droves for someone who promises to end it. But people are also sick of insincerity. They yearn for a leader who is authentic; not one who merely seems so. They know the tricks politicians employ to make themselves look sincere because, even if they haven’t read the same Guardian articles I have, there’s something in the brain or the heart or the gut that tells you. On some level you know when. It doesn’t matter how often they look straight into the camera or what gestures they make or what tone of voice they use, there’s something about true sincerity that cannot be faked. When you see it, you know it. Because you feel it. And that, ironically, is what makes Corbyn electable. Because he has it, and Owen Smith doesn’t.