Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 8 July 2017

Against Charisma

I’ve written about 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 forms of 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 say and 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 almost beat Wilson and Richard Nixon almost beat 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 cross with 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 right was 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, particularly younger 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 place at 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 seems to 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.


  1. Sorry, I can’t let this one pass. This is a really confused post. You are “against” charisma, but at the same time you are invoking Weber, and not doing a very good job of doing so.

    First, Weber’s “charisma” is an analytic construct, an ideal type. He saw this as one form of authority out there in the real world, like it or not. Further, charisma is important in Weber’s schema because it explains something the other two forms do not—moments of fundamental change. Traditional and rational-legal authority are inherently conservative (even if their leaders can produce reforms). Charismatic authority, however, is dynamic, because (in this ideal type) those who use it come from outside political institutions, and so use charisma to mobilize people against the political system.

    Granted, the historical reality is messier, but then again, Weber would agree—these were ideal types. Hitler used charismatic authority to gain control of the state (rational-legal), but then the Nazi Party continued to use his charismatic authority to create this state-leader dichotomy (so the leader would always be right in the case of mistakes).

    Second, Weber did not have a “soft spot” for charisma. If anything, he preferred order. I would have to look up the cite, but towards the end of this life, when he was in German post-war politics, he complained that citizens should vote for their leaders, and then obey. So much for having a “soft spot” for charisma. (And the link you cite provides no evidence for your claim.) Just because Weber recognized

    So, sorry, Simon old pal, this is one of your weaker posts—you commit the sin of superficial reading of Weber (common for economists), and you commit the sin of confusing the analytic and the normative (i.e. whether you like charisma is meaningless relative to its importance in political history). You also confuse “personality” with “charisma”—the two are not the same.

    But this also speaks volumes of your own biases. You give all this privilege to the “rational”—why? So much of human politics and practice is ultimately non-rational (which does not mean irrational), but the failure of economists to take this seriously has made your discipline a joke outside its own borders. Further, it was rational people working away in the German bureaucracy that contributed to the Holocaust. Perhaps you should re-read your David Hume along with your Weber.

  2. Charisma can never be a disadvantage for a politician because it speaks of the ability to reach out and persuade, arguably a fundamental requirement of being a successful politician.

    As far as Trump is concerned I agree that he is quite unsuitable for the office but his ability to persuade is clearly manifest; he was elected even without the support of his own (ostensibly) party.

    Of course it may come in many forms, some of which may not be at all benign; after all Hitler had charisma is spades and there is an implicit characteristic of charisma which is that it is messianic to some degree and that is a quality which is somewhat ambiguous.

    However, whilst charisma may be important I do think that competence is rather more so. I had a view of May that she did have competence to some degree but the changes of mind, particularly relating to the dementia tax, completely changed my views of her ability and when her stock falls then Corbyn's rises.

  3. It was the third week in April 2017 that approval in Corbyn and the intention to vote Labour bottomed out.

    And then came a quicker reversal against the Tories than anyone could have been imagined.

    Those like May and the Daily Mail wanting a return to the 1950s forgot that the original Age of Austerity was all about improving living standards as rationing fell away and economic growth was shared widely in wage growth.

    'Senior Labour figures clash over concerns of working-class voters' by Rajeev Syal in the Guardian Tuesday 4 July 2017 has it that

    'The report from Policy Network, whose president is Lord Mandelson, found that 48% of voters in the C2 income group voted Conservative last month, compared with 33% for Labour. Almost half of the group (47%) believe that Labour has moved further away from its “traditional working-class supporters”, with only 22% believing that Labour has moved closer to them.'

    It may be that the bad economic data coming from Brexit moves this group back towards Labour without the party needing to change its approach from GE2017, making 'In a regional breakdown of the swing to Labour, he found that the party’s vote went down in north-east England and was lower than the national average in the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside and the West Midlands' a blip rather than a trend.

  4. My preferred theory about the manifesto 'leak' is that there were two (or more) leakers, one within the leadership and one working to undermine it. It's hard to see what the latter would have hoped to achieve, admittedly.

    Corbyn's charisma is a curious thing; he can turn a good phrase, given a bit of a run-up, but a lot of his appeal is down to his sheer ordinariness and lack of polish: he offers nothing but certain ideas and aspirations, backed by a few decades of commitment and activism. (This is why, as his critics are wont to complain, Corbyn 'gets a free pass' on Brexit, and why their efforts to paint him as a secret Lexiter are so irrelevant; Corbyn supporters know what he stands for and what he stands against, and "British membership of the EU" isn't on either of those lists.)

    There's an extraordinary video clip of a 2 a.m. crowd at Glastonbury, dancing to electronic dance music with Corbyn's speech earlier that day mixed into it. It works surprisingly well - lines like "we're here, we're real and we're going to make a difference" work in both contexts - but it's still remarkable that somebody thought to do this, and that the crowd went for it. It really does seem to be a case of 'cometh the hour'.

  5. A more optimistic (as far as the UK is concerned) take on this argument has just appeared in the New Statesman:

  6. Corbyn's charisma was entirely exogenous - delineated by the enthusiasm of members rather than coming from the man himself. Does "technocratic competence" make up part of charisma? For some of the electorate, yes. For Labour, that section of the electorate that perceives technocratic competence as a key leadership qualities, is the difference between success and failure.

  7. "People had decided based on limited and filtered information that Corbyn was hopeless" Yes, and this applied to many commentators who relentlessly echoed this false deprecating image and who with more thought should have known better that he rules of a GE would mean voters seeing through the previous MSM editing to feel the appeal JC's rally audiences have felt. Jeremy is a passionate supporter of policies for the many not the few, that's not just a sound-bite, it's also a succinct way of saying that there is more to being a healthy thriving economy than private sector profit alone, that message can win an election

  8. «suggests charisma and personality are still important in elections. Just look at how well Ruth Davidson did in Scotland»

    Did she? By herself? Regardless of the policies and context? That is as ridiculous a contention as those that T Blair "won" three elections, or that J Corbyn "won" a huge turnaround in 2017.

    As I have mentioned (with citations) before, leaders and "charisma" matter not much in elections (think Attlee or Wilson), like the press, usually in the 0-3% range (while the BBC matters more).

    What happened in Scotland has little to do with R Davidson, and much to do with marginal constituencies and realignments between the national/unionist and remain/leave opinions. Labour did better too, thanks to that, despite K Dugdale and the deleterious work of J Murphy before her.

    The only significant case in recent history where a leader significantly affected a party's vote was was T Blair, whose unelectability lost several million votes and dozens of seats to New Labour over time, despite a booming economy based on easy debt, and zooming house prices, but then his negative charisma was exceptionally strong.

    A second example of leader making a small but bigger than usual difference was J Major, who got a landslide in 1992, with the highest number of votes won in over 50 years. But while likeable, J Major can hardly be accused of having charisma, so I suspect it was more of a "not Thatcher" relief effect.


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