Did Jeremy Corbyn do enough on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show to woo sceptical voters and see off internal opposition – in the short term at least?
Against all odds and across most of the UK, he probably did. Last week comedian Lucy Porter, reflecting on the success of Pope Francis on Radio 4, suggested the pontiff was “like Jeremy Corbyn in a frock”. The new Labour leader’s modest, unruffled manner has already become that recognisable – and that popular.
Yesterday, Corbyn did it again. Despite a solid fortnight of scare stories and resurrected comments from a long, colourful and outspoken past, he stole the show with a warmth, directness and lightness of touch acquired during decades on the periphery of party politics, persuading rather than asserting power over doubters.
Presenter Andrew Marr challenged the new Labour leader about his invitation to IRA members in the 80s saying: “You spoke to people at a time when the violence was at its worst.”
Corbyn replied calmly: “Isn’t that the time to speak to people?”
Asked who would prevail if MPs and party members clashed over Trident, Corbyn responded; “That’s the most fundamental philosophical question in politics after who guards the guards? We’ll have to discuss it.”
On the revelation shadow chancellor John McDonnell advocated violence in the streets to combat the last government, he said: “John has a colourful use of words – he’ll explain himself.”
On taxation policy: “Do we have hard work ahead chasing down tax havens – yes we do. And we will.”
On mandatory reselection (bizarrely described as “punishment beatings” by a member of his own shadow cabinet) Corbyn remarked that policy-making has become too centralised and the power of the leader and shadow cabinet disproportionate. “I fought the leadership campaign on a platform of bottom up democracy. I’m not sure the political class fully appreciates the public’s disillusionment with traditional politics and their desire to be heard.”
On constitutional change he explained his shadow minister for the constitutional convention, Jon Trickett, will hold an open forum around the country hearing views on the House of Lords, devolution, voting systems, voting age and the powers of local government.
Questioned on the timing of the Trident debate he suggested TV cameras should move to the conference arrangements committee because the process was up to them not him. It was highly watchable stuff and at no point did Corbyn appear ill at ease.
His most used word was discussion and over 20 minutes it became clear Corbyn is not just advancing a new collegiate concept of leadership, he’s living it. The veteran left-winger is savvy enough to know that in a divided party, the leader may hold the trump card without being able to play it. As one commentator observed, if Corbyn is defeated on Trident he will probably shrug and say; “the party has spoken”.
None of this guarantees Corbyn will ultimately win over voters, newspapers or members of his own shadow cabinet. But on the basis of yesterday’s performance, he should certainly ditch his distaste for TV.
Except that is, for one predictable area of howling errors and weary cliché – Scotland.
Directly after backing a United Ireland, Corbyn took a very different tack on constitutional change for Scotland. He attacked the SNP for wearing an anti-austerity badge but privatising Cal Mac ferries and ScotRail and cutting funds to colleges and local councils. He said the case for further fiscal devolution had been worsened by the plummeting price of oil, and capped that with another oft-rehearsed argument: “If you are poor in Glasgow or Birmingham you are still poor – flags don’t build houses.”
In contrast to the rest of Corbyn’s speech this was a lazy and ill-informed diatribe.
Tendering for rail services was introduced by the Tories in 1993, Labour didn’t overturn the system and the Scottish Parliament is powerless to change it now. EU rules demand competition in public services – that’s why the Cal Mac ferry contract is out to tender.
The SNP maintain they have overfunded councils to compensate for freezing council tax and SNP candidate and FE lecturer Gillian Martin argues cuts in Further Education have basically cut evening classes offered elsewhere to focus resource on full-time vocational courses.
Doubtless these claims could be debated. But the statistics don’t help Corbyn’s final assertion. As SNP MSP Kevin Stewart tweeted; “Flags don’t build houses & neither does Labour, who only built six council houses in their last four years of government in Scotland.”
More than these basic errors though, Corbyn showed no evidence of innovation, recent thinking or even some enthusiasm for resolving the “Scottish question”. There was no mention of federalism as a solution to Britain’s creaking and over-centralised society, despite Trickett’s recent claim that the new Labour leadership favours it, or Kezia Dugdale’s avowed intention to create a “properly autonomous” Scottish Labour Party within a new federal UK Labour party.
How can grassroots politics, self-determination and federalism be right for policy formation, the future of Ireland and the Labour Party itself – but not for Scotland?
Equally, how can Corbyn hope to question the SNP’s anti-austerity credentials when his own chancellor plans to back George Osborne’s budget?
This old tack is quite out of kilter with the mood of ex-Labour voters in Scotland today.
A new Panelbase poll for the SNP shows 64 per cent of Labour voters in 2011 now support devolving all taxation to the Scottish Parliament, 65 per cent want to devolve control over the minimum wage and 70 per cent think Scotland should control the entire social security system.
Meanwhile Scottish Labour looks set to suspend constitutional hostilities and side with the SNP in rejecting the Scotland Bill after deputy leader Alex Rowley said it doesn’t deliver even the limited powers of the Smith Commission.
Jeremy Corbyn appears flexible, consensual and progressive on almost every issue – except more powers for Scotland. Is this an overhang of old thinking or the present outlook of Kezia Dugdale?
One thing’s for sure. JC needs to freshen up his act before visiting Scotland on Thursday.