The Left’s charisma deficit



Like him or loathe him, Tony Blair was the last Labour leader with sufficient charm to appeal to ordinary members of the public. Yes, his lines were often rehearsed, and there was a terrific glint-eyed cynicism to it all, but he had an easy manner which impressed many.

Since Blair resigned, Labour has been unable to find a leader which a broad coalition of normal voters could feel enthusiastic about. From Gordon “bigoted woman” Brown, to Ed “bacon sandwich” Miliband, to Jeremy “can I finish?” Corbyn, all subsequent Labour leaders had image problems from the very start, lacking the ability to come across as natural.

The Liberal Democrats have a similar problem. Nick Clegg enjoyed a brief “Cleggmania” phase, but that momentum vanished once he entered the Coalition. Tim Farron was a pleasant individual but not memorable. The more the public saw of Jo Swinson, the more they disliked her. Newly anointed Sir Ed Davey has been interim leader since 13th December; not many people are even aware of this – which perfectly sums up his presence. 

Charisma is more important than people realise. There’s a reason why a figure like Nigel Farage, despite repeatedly failing to win a parliamentary seat, is more well known and influential than some MPs who have sat in the Commons for decades.

In the last general election, Boris Johnson’s natural charm and charisma allowed him to reach people who didn’t normally support the Conservatives. Boris is one of the very few politicians whose persona can disarm the public, decoupling them from their usual distrust of the political class. His sense of humour in particular is a personality trait his opponents should not underestimate. 

To Boris’s great advantage, he was facing a clapped-out elderly Labour leader in 2019, a 70s-style Trot who couldn’t even sell socialism to lifelong socialists. Many of Boris’s fiercest opponents tend to dismiss him as a “bumbling clown”, unable to understand how admired the Prime Minister is in many traditional Labour strongholds. 

A leader who is able to connect with a broad coalition of voters isn’t common in British politics, but it’s noticeably even rarer on the political left. Undeniably, Sir Keir Starmer, simply by not being Jeremy Corbyn, is an improvement but not as much as the London-centric commentariat suggests. For Sir Keir to make any significant progress electorally, he’ll need to show voters who abandoned Labour that he isn’t just a textbook lawyer with one default emotion. It’s vital for them that Labour has a leader who can offer an upbeat message and appears comfortable amongst working class voters who backed Brexit. 

For now, I remain sceptical that Starmer is the magic bullet Labour requires. His speeches are rather dull and forgettable; so far he has failed to energise his base and most importantly, his persona doesn’t make up for the shortfall in Labour’s popularity with the public. 

The persona of a leader in today’s PR oriented media holds more weight than it used to. The Conservatives without Boris would not have won 80 seats. It appears that the political left are yet to rediscover the true value of charisma. 

Chris Rose is an architect and Conservative influencer. Follow him on twitter: @ArchRose90