Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the general election was not just a triumph for all those who believe in a fairer society, it was, above all, a triumph for authenticty. At least this is what commentators obsessed with the “cult of authencity” would have you believe. Certainly it was borne out by pollsters who judged Corbyn to have beaten the Prime Minister in the authencity stakes by a country mile. That’s not to say that all authenticity is good. Or even authentic. In public Tony Blair could be charming, funny, driven and persuasive enough to have won three elections (outright). He was exactly the same in private. Neither seemed real. But as Groucho Marx (or was it George Burns?) once said of sincerity “If you can fake it you’ve got it made!” And then there is Teresa May. A woman who looks like she breakfasts on live mice and can’t even fake enjoying being Prime Minister.
Another Tory I’ve previously had very little time for is Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative party’s very own Elsie Tanner. Warsi, a former Tory party chair, was in conversation with the brilliant Matt Forde last week and had much to say about May. None of it good. But all of it honestly expressed. Of course it’s easier to be honest in front of a theatre audience than the electorate but that shouldn’t detract from Warsi’s assessment that “May is as suited to being PM as (Warsi), a Halal Muslim, is to working in a pig abbatoir.” Naturally Warsi has a memoir to flog. I’ve not actually read it, but weighing in at more than 400 pages it clearly covers more than her career highlights. In it she talks of the suspicions shared by her coalition cabinet colleagues that she was some sort of Muslim sleeper cell. In conversation last week, Warsi recalled once finding herself in a room with Queen Elizabeth, Barack Obama and David Cameron. “And I didn’t go off!” This must make me the “worst terrorist in history” she concluded dolefully.
After pulling, and winning, three Christmas crackers Warsi joked. “I’m a Muslim. We’re good with things that explode”, displaying a humour never in evidence during her time as an unelected minister. That’s a great pity. I would have liked her more had she displayed even a hint of her real self. But does authenticity in politics really matter? Politics is, after all, a long game requiring strategy, cunning, a plan. There is little space in mainstream politics for wit, spontanaeity, veracity. If you want that head for the fringe, the tearooms and the bars of Westminster instead.
There are exceptions on both sides. But for every Jess Phillips or Anna Soubry there are a dozen pointy-headed male Golems whose prospects of advancement are in direct correlation to just how little they actually say. When it comes to getting ahead in politics the best idea is often to come up with no ideas at all, and in not doing so, hide the one thing that might make you interesting, or even believable. The very fact that women in politics often display a more biting humour than their male counterparts is in itself indicative of the fact that their chances of obtaining high office are seen as less than if they were male in the first pace. If you doubt this is true try and remember the last time Amber Rudd, Teresa May or even the estimable Harriet Harman (another very funny woman in private) left you clutching your sides with mirth.
When you’re a politician, even the seemingly innocuous business of choosing a Christmas card is subject to committee. Teresa May chose cards drawn by schoolchildren from her constituency, none of which featured the word “strong” alongside a picture of a stable – a missed opportunity surely – while Jezza opted to poke fun at May’s disatrous conference speech. Of course he did. That’s his job.
I’d urge every politician in the land to consider “authenticity” as their new year’s resolution for 2018 and make a promise to tell the truth at least once a day. If they don’t know the answer to a difficult question they should simply answer, “I don’t know”, or even, “I do know but I’m buggered if I’m going to tell you.” Then we can decide how much we appreciate their honesty come the next election. In a world of identikit grey turkeys we, the electorate, often know so little about the people we elect there is a serious democratic deficit; a civic incompetence that we can neither be blamed for, nor hope to overcome without a little more authenticity, and a load more honesty from our representatives.