Smile for the camera

A night in the uncanny valley

Harley Filben finds the first Labour leadership debate disturbing and encouraging in equal measure

Sigmund Freud’s classic essay on the uncanny hinges on a peculiarity of the German language - the word heimlich, in different contexts, translates both as ‘familiar’ (literally ‘homely’) and the opposite: ‘unhomely’, unfamiliar, weird. The deployment of the uncanny effect is a key technique in fantasy and other speculative fiction, particularly those parts of the genre that merge into horror (the New England towns of HP Lovecraft, for example). Everything is in its place, and yet somehow a little peculiar, a little bit wrong.

Freud’s striking analysis was the first thing to spring to mind as I watched last week’s Newsnight special, which broadcast a debate between the four Labour leadership candidates from a church hall in Nuneaton. Though on the face of it a fairly routine bit of ‘serious programming’, this was a very weird bit of television, with almost all participants behaving in a distinctly uncanny way.

There is no other way to describe Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, the establishment Labour leadership contenders; just plain odd, close enough to human to emphasise the gap in the most unflattering way. A special mention here has to go to Burnham. Freud’s essay is in part a literary analysis of ETA Hoffman’s classic tale Der Sandmann, whose protagonist develops a psychotic obsession with a creepily lifelike doll. Burnham looks every bit like a doll; his pinched smile has that industrially moulded plastic look to it, a condition rendered even more unnerving by his unfortunate resemblance to a young Cliff Richard.

In the case of all three, however, it was what emerged from their mouths, rather than the look of them, that truly terrified. All had very obviously been coached, but in each case it sort of felt like they had been coached by somebody who had once had a conversation with someone else who had skim-read a self-help book about the qualities of strong leaders. The verbiage flowed forth; substance came there none.

Liz Kendall spent at least half of her 45-second opening remarks with a potted autobiography and family history. When asked, in easily the weirdest question of the programme, what qualities she shared with the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon, she said: “I’m a woman.” She apparently could think of no other commonalities, for we were then treated to another torrent of waffle about how brilliant Liz Kendall is at being Liz Kendall, almost as if she was trying to convince herself. The original questioner followed up by saying that the candidates should treat the debate more like a job interview, and use words like “fearless”, etc. Frankly, if any of these three had treated it more like a job interview, any employer in the country would send them packing just to be rid of the whiff of desperation.

Our thoughts turn, once again, to Burnham, who tried his hardest to play up his ordinariness, and repeatedly disassociated himself from the “Westminster bubble”. We cackled every time, dear reader! If the Westminster bubble could incarnate itself in flesh and blood, like the avatar of a Hindu god, it would be Burnham: it would have his plasticky, discomfited smile, his hamming-up of a regional accent; like him, it would slip between canned ‘plain-spoken’ guff and bland corporate jargon (we heard “going forward” at least three times).

The uncanny character of proceedings rather spread to the nature of the programme itself, which was so brazen an illustration of vacuous media spin as to be almost Brechtian. It was moderated in ham-fisted, vexatious fashion by Laura Kuenssberg, who suffers from a syndrome peculiar to TV political journalists: an obvious desperation to live up to the example of Jeremy Paxman. Alas, even Paxo had descended into self-parody by the end of his BBC tenure; what we have in the person of Kuenssberg is another visitor from the uncanny valley, a parody of a self-parody.

She knows all the moves: interrupt repeatedly, return again and again to one particular loaded question (“Did you threaten to overrule him?”), but frequently overreached or embarrassed herself. Having asked Burnham on behalf of an audience member whether achieving a budget surplus was the number-one priority for a future Labour government, she repeated the question aggressively a moment later - despite the fact that he had begun his answer with a clear and unambiguous “no”. On another occasion, she spent at least a minute or two cynically attempting to start an apolitical cat-fight between Kendall and Cooper (both were professional enough to demur).

The questions, as is routinely the case with these exercises, were plainly preselected - partly to give candidates an opportunity to rehearse their answers - a condition surely demanded by ‘their people’ as firmly as a pop star’s tour rider specifications - but partly to present a skewed image of the issues at stake. Thus we had the aforementioned budget surplus question, which served the purpose of presenting Labour’s weakness as essentially about economic ‘competence’, as well as ‘tough’ questions on immigration and the supposed plague of benefit scroungers.

Yet this did not seem to reflect the concerns of the audience as a whole at all. This paper is not one to pretend that the country is full of leftwingers, but the clear winner on the night was Jeremy Corbyn. Every time he opened his mouth, he got applause. Apart from the opening statements, nothing any of the other three said got the same treatment for the first half hour. Yvette Cooper got a polite clap for wanting to be the first female Labour prime minister; and towards the end, all three got some reward for tacking to the left, speaking more about public services and the like. Despite the best efforts of Kuenssberg to regurgitate Times editorials, Corbyn’s sentimental leftism hijacked the agenda; and by the end even Kendall had to nudge towards it.

Unscripted interventions from the floor tended to confirm this. Having sat through Kendall’s advocacy of a strict points system for non-EU migrants - “like they have in Australia”, she said bluffly, as if Australia’s morally reprehensible immigration policy was something to aspire to - a young woman pointed out that this was, er, Ukip’s immigration policy (Keunssberg disgracefully failed to put this to Kendall).

It was on this subject that Corbyn skirted closest to coming unstuck: in response to an anti-immigration point from the floor, he was able only to repeat the sort of thing we would get from Nick Clegg - immigrants are a net boost to the economy, there are a lot of immigrants working for the NHS and so on. Nobody turned on him, but it is not exactly the killer blow we need.

Indeed, for all that Corbyn’s presence on the ballot is a positive thing, we should stress that he is nobody’s idea of a world-historic figure. He is a stubborn and persistent presence on the Labour left, but not one of its great leaders. He cannot speak like Nye Bevan. He does not have the humour and warmth of a Tony Benn, nor is he any kind of intellectual heavyweight.

This worked to his credit on the night, however. Whenever questioning focused on the gag-inducing matter of ‘leadership qualities’, he batted the inquiry away: this is not about personalities, he said, but movement-building. Between a genuine humility and plain political passion, he alone appeared truly human on a panel full of soundbite-spewing test-tube babies.

The next day, the Daily Mirror ran an online poll, asking its readers to pick a winner. Corbyn satisfied 80-plus percent of those who voted. We do not pretend that this poll is accurate in any meaningful sense - multiple votes are merely a matter of turning off web browser cookies, after all. Still: nobody much was motivated to vote for any of the others.

This could be a problem for them. If nobody can be geed up to click on a button on the Mirror’s homepage in support of Liz Kendall, who on earth is going to pay £3 to become a registered supporter to vote for her for real? Though concessions to US-style leadership primaries like this new category tend to reinforce the bourgeois media’s grip over political discourse in the long run - and indeed the whole package of internal reforms, of which it was a part, were a concession to the rightwing press - the immediate effect on this contest looks like being the opposite.

We shall see if the Murdochs of this world can get control back by September; for now, certainly on the evidence of the Newsnight broadcast, we expect the main beneficiary to be Corbyn. This is going to be very interesting.