Authenticity will be an essential ingredient for the political battles that lie ahead
In a political age where we are going through a number of big crises, the ability to stick to your guns, be consistent and not flip flop has never been more important for our politicians.
Authenticity has become a key battleground in contemporary politics. Although it may not seem like it over the last five years or so, but politicians acting genuinely and saying what they really think is an incredibly important issue for the electorate.
Authenticity matters for elections, and in modern times the characteristics of a leader can matter more than a party’s policies, in what political scientists call the “personalisation of politics”. But, if this so-called authenticity of politicians is so important for winning elections, why is it that some of the most authentic politicians often fail, and that their authenticity is often their downfall too? That’s because authenticity is actually a double-edge sword.
A politician who perfectly embodies this is Jeremy Corbyn. The former Labour leader is a politician that my colleagues, Prof Andrea Whittle, Newcastle University Business School and Prof Chris Carter, Edinburgh University Business School, and I have researched extensively over a number of years. During his Labour party leadership race in 2015, authenticity was a key aspect of how he defied the 100/1 odds and became Labour leader.
Being authentic can make a politician popular, but can also be a politician’s ruin
Corbyn stood out in contrast to “machine-like” politician, and was consistently described in the media as atypical to other politicians; sticking to his professed beliefs, not using spin tactics, as well as dressing and speaking like a “normal person”. Yet, after a number of years as Labour leader, and a general election which pushed him into the spotlight further, the aspects that were often his selling points to voters quickly became his downfall.
Critics within the party and beyond the party claimed he was stubborn and unwilling to comprise, instead of admiring him for sticking to his beliefs. Some complained he lacked the art of communication and was unable to convey his messages, as opposed to being seen as genuine or relatable. To others, he did not come across as professional or serious, instead of admiring him for interacting as a “normal person”. This case clearly showcases that being authentic can make a politician popular, but can also be a politician’s ruin.
And Corbyn isn’t the only politician who’s seen their fate go the same way. Being authentic, of course, means being true to yourself but it also can mean being an “ordinary” person that the electorate can relate to.
Some politicians seem to be able to pull this off, but others don’t. The former includes Theresa May eating a bag of chips unnaturally and the press mocking Ed Miliband for apparently struggling to eat a bacon sandwich. But Nigel Farage seems to pull off his “everyday bloke” image, ensuring he is pictured with a pint of bitter in his hand.
So, if the public want to have a political leader who is true to themselves and relatable to their supporters, and yet when politicians do act in an authentic way they can sometimes get mocked and lose voters – does this means that politicians should pretend to be something they are not, in order to come across as genuine? Of course not. This is a weird paradox, and likely one that will not trick the electorate.
Take some of the more successful politicians of recent years; Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage for instance, who have all had success – even if short-lived – in their campaigning. They are all unapologetically themselves, and cannot be easily accused of inconsistency – the death knell for an authentic politician.
They also possess the skills of political artistry, to gloss over any potential inconsistencies if they do arise. Nobody thought that Boris Johnson was really a passionate football fan when he was pictured with an England shirt over his suit during the EURO 2021 championship. We all knew it was just one of his photo stunts organised by his PR team, so we still viewed him as authentic even when he was pretending to connect with the “ordinary folk”. We were less forgiving when David Cameron famously “forgot” the name of the football team he claimed to support, knowing that we could “smell a rat”.
Therefore, not only is authenticity important, but in a political age where we are going through a number of crises - whether it be a political crisis (Brexit), a health crisis (Covid-19), a developing environmental crisis (climate change), or a constitutional crisis (Scottish nationalism and the Northern Irish border) - the ability to stick to your guns, be consistent and not flip flop has never been more important for our politicians.
In the coming years, authenticity will be an essential ingredient for the political battles that lie ahead.
Prof. Frank Mueller is a Professor in Accountability, Organisations & Strategy at Durham University Business School.
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