Jeremy Corbyn’s weekend appearance on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show got a bit of a kicking in some quarters.
Four months into the job, is the Labour leader always treated unfairly by the news media? Yes, of course – it goes with the territory. But he is also handled quite gently sometimes, though that may surprise you.
Take Saturday’s speech to the Fabian Society conference, in which Corbyn floated the idea that a Labour government led by him would prevent large companies from distributing dividends to shareholders unless they paid their staff the living wage. Growing inequality between the world’s richest and poorest is a salient issue of our times, though we have to be careful not to misuse disputed data.
The BBC trailed Corbyn’s idea quite high up its bulletins. The Guardian’s Rowena Mason reported the proposal quite mildly, noting in passing EU efforts to cap bankers’ bonuses – part of the growing inequality story that Corbyn stressed on the Marr show. Mason listed other items on the Labour leader’s shopping list, including a publicly owned railway, “democratic control of energy” (plus more local generation), lifelong learning and large-scale housebuilding.
It’s a decent speech. You can read it on Labour’s website, where you can also find his subsequent speech to the Unite Scotland policy conference, in which he pledged to overturn the government’s current trade union bill. It’s a point on which an old fuddy-duddy like me agrees, as I do on other constitutional points Corbyn has been making on the stump. I can hardly complain, since I attacked the Tory package in ferocious terms only last week.
But the Guardian’s Larry Elliott used his economics column on Sunday not to examine the seaworthiness of Corbyn’s plan to try to curb dividends on what are often international companies, but to fret about the bigger picture – the very real possibility that the global economy is about to plunge again. Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s crafty attack dog, thinks so too.
Since the economy has barely recovered from 2008, a crash would be more serious this time. Governments and central banks would be left with fewer options, especially in China, whose annual growth report is not encouraging. Nor is the way Beijing is handling the stock market plunge.
All this piles more pressure on Corbyn. He may see a second collapse in a decade as a major opportunity – and so it should be for anyone who can ride the coming storm, if that is what it proves to be. But the macroeconomic remedies dreamed of by old Trots and nostalgic Labour leftwingers are even more whiskery than when they were first imbibed in the heady 60s and 70s. The world has moved on.
In print and on TV, Corbyn too often sounds like the day before yesterday’s man. As I wrote when contemplating his bid for the Labour leadership back in July, he’s a very nice man and comes across as such. However, I did worry then about his footwear – a concern subsequently vindicated by his shorts, socks and trainers ensemble the day before he won.
What footwear was he wearing on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show? It looked somewhat casual. Is this trivial? Yes, but also no. It won’t matter to those already well disposed towards Labour’s leader, but it may to many of those whom he has to persuade to vote for his party.
I once turned up for a TV appearance in shorts, on the grounds that they would be hidden under the desk. I’d forgotten the long shot, but I’m not hoping to be prime minister. Appropriate dress matters and Corbyn has smartened up a lot since September, with his cream shirts, brown jackets, red tie and long trousers. Next job: the footwear.
On Monday morning, assorted newspapers had a go at Corbyn over kites he had floated over the weekend. The Guardian led its report on his idea that Britain could build those new Trident submarines but without nuclear warheads. This went down badly, as Roy Greenslade noted. The Sun’s front page was a throwback to its Kinnock- and Foot-baiting days. The Independent likened the idea to “a chocolate-free Mars bar”. Even the loyal Daily Mirror was unhappy.
Rewatching the Marr interview, I was struck again and again how binary Corbyn’s world view is. Nasty Jeremy can sound tough on the wicked Tories, but Nice Jeremy is prepared to give most people the benefit of the doubt: what is needed in Syria, as the recent nuclear deal with Iran (“fantastic”) showed, is a political solution.
He even envisaged taking Donald Trump for a walk around his local north London mosques. There’s nothing that good will and proper dialogue can’t fix, even with Trump, is there? It’s very attractive: Corbyn can be quick thinking, he’s accumulated a magpie collection of facts and interests over the years, and he’s often inclined to chuckle. He’s hard to dislike, although many will be alarmed by his views on trade union rights, the Falkland Islands and much else, and they need reassuring.
Unfortunately, decency is not enough. Corbyn may believe that good will and conciliation may see us through: “Give peace a chance,” as John Lennon put it. But some of those close to Corbyn know better. As Lennon learned to his cost, it’s a tougher world than that.
Romantics of both left and right think voters want to be involved in policymaking, even the market variety. They’re wrong. Most voters want to get on with their lives and pass judgment on what the political class comes up with. The harsher the economic conditions become, the more people will look to leadership that offers a convincing vision of security in dangerous times. Today’s job losses in the steel industry are a further reminder of insecurity, more real even than stock market turbulence.
This insecurity ought to be an opening (yet again) for the left. That’s the challenge. But if the centre-left and centre-right fail, that will give an opportunity to the ugly right. Being nice won’t be enough.
This article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th January 2016 14.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010