Following Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric (although, in another sense, very slow) rise to become leader of the Labour party, there has been much debate over his ‘authenticity’.
It’s unsurprising that Corbyn has been praised for being a more authentic politician. Corbyn appears to be an ‘ordinary outsider’, as whilst he has been an MP for more than 30 years he has never previously held a cabinet or shadow cabinet position and has been the most rebellious Labour MP. His political persona is a stark contrast to that of slick old Etonian David Cameron. While van Zoonen argues that each type of political performance (she proposes a typology with four categories) has its flaws, she also suggests that the success of these performances depends on the political context, with people preferring political personalities that contrast with their opponents and predecessors. Corbyn also does well on another suggested measure of authenticity: consistency. He stood to be Labour leader on a platform based on values and policies he has campaigned for for decades.
But authenticity is a battleground: whilst those who support Corbyn praise his consistency and contrasting style to Cameron, his opponents have sought to find inconsistencies not only within Corbyn’s long public political history, but also perceived inconsistencies between Corbyn’s persona and what a political leader ‘should’ be like. In the process, they betray their perceptions of what sort of person is qualified for the top job.
We’ve already seen several of Corbyn’s political opinions used to deem him ‘unsuitable’ for the role of prime minister or even leader of the opposition, such as his opposition to trident and his belief that the UK should be a republic. But personal traits have (unsurprisingly) also been used to imply that Corbyn is not leadership material, such as his age, his ‘scruffy’ appearance, and the fact that he rarely drinks alcohol and doesn’t eat meat.
A Huffington Post blog joked that to endear himself to the right wing press Corbyn should, amongst other behavioural changes, eat some meat. The right wing press have certainly noticed Corbyn’s eating habits; his vegetarianism has been mentioned frequently in negative pieces about the new Labour leader’s personality, history, and beliefs. Fox News delighted in calling Corbyn a ‘bearded vegetarian socialist’, but references to his vegetarianism are usually more subtly inserted into long lists of personal traits that mark Corbyn as too weird to be prime minister.
But why is being a vegetarian used, alongside other traits and opinions, to portray Corbyn as ‘other’? Why is vegetarianism perceived as incompatible with leadership?
To me, this is indicative of old-fashioned ideas that still pervade the ideal of what a leader ‘should’ be like. His vegetarianism is deemed relevant because it adds to the image of Corbyn as someone who challenges the status quo and therefore, to his opponents, someone who is dangerous. It is often mentioned alongside Corbyn’s pacifism, his long-standing opposition to nuclear weapons, and his supposed sympathy for terrorist organisations. Vegetarians, clearly, cannot be trusted.
Vegetarianism is also considered by some to be ‘unbritish’. It doesn’t help that while our national identity is vague, our ‘national dishes’ are meaty. How can you be British if you don’t eat roast dinners, fish and chips, or chicken tikka masala? A Telegraph writer living in Henley-on-Thames suggested that Russell Brand, also vegetarian, would struggle to move there because unlike (multicultural) Hackney, in (pale and stale) Henley ‘it is nigh-on a crime not to serve meat and two veg for dinner’.
I also think, bear with me, that to imply that vegetarianism is incompatible with leadership is to betray a sexist perception of what the ideal leader is like. The idea that leaders should be masculine includes, as media repeatedly noting Corbyn’s deviation demonstrates, that they should eat meat. British leaders ‘should’ eat meat to demonstrate that they are both masculine enough and British enough. When was the last time you ate a Cornish pasty? Can you eat a bacon sandwich properly? How are your barbeque management skills?
Ed Miliband was ridiculed for not being able to eat a bacon sandwich ‘properly’, as if he’d failed a manliness test (what’s more interesting than him declaring ‘hell yes I’m tough enough’ during the campaign is the fact that Paxman asked him whether he was in the first place). Corbyn’s vegetarianism is used as yet another way to paint him as ‘other’, not an authentic potential Prime Minister when the role of Prime Minister is still perceived as something for overtly patriotic, stereotypically masculine men.
Of course, this ridiculing of Corbyn’s vegetarianism, as well as other personal traits, may also stem from fear; fear that Corbyn wants to enact policies that threaten the lifestyles of the privileged. In this case, were Corbyn to actually become Prime Minister he could well be the first to acknowledge that we can’t solve the climate crisis unless we eat less meat.
It will be interesting to see whether the Conservative-supporting press continue to imply that Corbyn, who became a vegetarian aged 20 after seeing cruelty on a pig farm, has a strange relationship with animals, considering the rumours about what David Cameron did at a similar age.
 van Zoonen, L., 2004. Entertaining the Citizen.
 See Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012). AuthenticTM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. And Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2011). To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter. Convergence 17 (2).