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Against Charisma

I’ve writtenabout the popularity of Labour’s manifesto, which should more accurately be described as expanding the state rather than ending austerity. But I thought that Labour would do badly in GE2017 despite this, because Jeremy Corbyn was so unpopular as a potential Prime Minister before the campaign.

I still remember reading many, many years ago about Weber’s three formsof authority (as we macroeconomists do), and feeling a visceral distaste for authority due to charisma. Although Weber intended it as an alternative to authority based on law, I read it as an electorate choosing their leaders according to their charisma or personality within a democratic system (the extreme form of which is populism). It offended my rationalist outlook, and my view about what politics was about. As Tony Benn used to sayand I believed, politics should be about issues not personalities.

And in my youth it was possible to believe that authority through charisma was something advanced democracies had indeed grown out of. After all, Edward Heath became Prime Minister, Alec Douglas Home almostbeat Wilson and Richard Nixon almostbeat Kennedy. Perhaps at the time I should have noted that in each case the leader who did well even though they appeared to lack charisma happened to be from the right.

My view that advanced democracies had grown out of the need for their leaders to have charisma fell apart in the age of first Thatcher and Reagan, and then Blair and Bill Clinton. I also began to see how the right wing media ruthlessly exploited perceived character flaws. I think Ed Miliband would have made a fine Prime Minister, and Hillary Clinton a fine President (both far better than those who beat them). However their lack of the exceptional charisma of a Blair, Bill Clinton or Obama allowed their opponents to make mountains over perceived deficiencies in their character.

Before the 2017 UK General Election (GE2017) campaign, things seemed to be going the same way. Labour was unpopular, mainly because Jeremy Corbyn was extremely unpopular. He had real charisma, but only it seemed among his loyal supporters. This unpopularity was translated into votes in the local elections just a month before GE2017. It was for this reason that the Conservatives decided to run a presidential type of campaign. So what changed in a few weeks?

Part of the answer was Labour’s manifesto, which because of the leak (?) a week before, and because of general election rules for broadcasters, got extended coverage. It was popular because it was clever: money was spent on items that would have immediate appeal to the voters who were likely to respond and vote (rather than what might have been - in some eyes at least - worthier causes). The decision to borrow only to invest blunted the normal attack lines, and I suspect many voters no longer cared too much if ‘the sums didn’t add up’ because austerity had past its sell by date or they were happy to pay something towards these items of spending anyway. (Of course this didn’t stop me getting rather crosswith those who seemed to make a fetish out of the need to balance the budget.)

Although all this came as a surprise to some commentators, it did not to me: one of the things I got rightwas that austerity’s appeal was time limited. Just a year ago it looked like internal divisions would drown out the message. This didn’t happen because of an impressive, and to me unexpected, display of unity after Corbyn’s second election. But I was still concerned that his perceived lack of charisma would trump issues, and the polls and May local elections did nothing to admonish that fear. It seemed that although Labour’s policies were popular, their leadership mattered more. As Stephen Cushion notes, this idea that personality trumped issues was often reinforced by broadcasters using Vox Pops.

So what changed? Does charisma really not matter any more? Unfortunately I suspect not. Instead what happened was that voters, particularlyyounger voters, discovered another side to Theresa May. May looks good in controlled situations: soundbites and speeches to the faithful. When she lost control after the launch of the Conservative manifesto, she looked evasive and robotic. The independent media, who tend to pounce on weaknesses, focused on this rather than the ‘old news’ about Corbyn’s past. [1] What is more, the qualities that May seemed to lack were exactly those that a much more confident Corbyn displayed: genuine passion rather than robotic spin. It was May’s inadequacies that allowed many voters to see Corbyn in a different light.

If this story is right, it suggests charisma and personality are still important in elections. Just look at how well Ruth Davidson did in Scotland. I continue to think this is unfortunate, because people greatly overestimate how much they can accurately judge people from limited contact with them, whether it is in an interview for a job, for a placeat university or being a prime minister. Cameron exuded confidence and competence as only the product of a top public school and Oxbridge can, but his faith in his own abilities did the country great harm in allowing Brexit to happen. People had decided based on limited and filtered information that Corbyn was hopeless, and now (particularly following the Grenfell fire) they can see his qualities, but I'm not sure they are much nearer knowing whether he will be a good or bad prime minister. 

Weber seemsto have had a soft spot for charisma, but he died before Mussolini and Hitler came to power. I have no doubt that the personality and abilities of a leader matters. But quite how a politician’s personality interacts with events to determine whether they make good for bad decisions is something that is only really possible after the event (for a brilliant example, see Steve Richards). I can only think of only one occasion where I correctly guessed that a politician’s personality made him totally unsuited to high office, and the fact that millions of people came to the opposite conclusion about Donald Trump I think makes my case against charisma.

[1] I think this is important. The idea that the Labour manifesto and its presentation were foolproof is incorrect: journalists could have easily run with confusion over restoring benefit cuts, or over optimistic tax receipts. But on the whole independent journalists, quite rightly, chose bigger fish to fry.



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