In “The Battle for Number 10,” the Labour leader outlined the kind of country he wants to build; one where people at the top pay a little more to ensure a better future for young peopleby Ellie Mae O'Hagan / May 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: May and Corbyn treated voters like children last night
Is it any surprise that Jeremy Corbyn performed better than expected in last night’s televised leader interviews? Or that Theresa May failed to impress? It shouldn’t be.
For Corbyn to have confirmed the hyperbole written about him in the press, he’d have needed to arrive wearing a pro Hamas t-shirt, and given a speech about how he was running for office in order to bring the country down from the inside. Similarly, May would have had to turn up with a twenty-point plan about how she was going to use Brexit to build every British citizen their own mansion decked out in union jack soft furnishings.
As it was, the reality of both leaders shone through: May, the bland, metallic technocrat; Corbyn, the congenial leader who is driven by social justice. This isn’t to say the night was a disaster for May—her performance was so dull I barely registered what she was saying. This probably counts as a success.
Corbyn’s stand out moment was when an audience member complained about Labour’s plans to increase corporation tax and charge VAT on private school fees. Instead of backing down, Corbyn outlined the kind of country he wants to build; one where people at the top pay a little more to ensure a better future for today’s young people. He looked principled without seeming bullish; the man in the audience seemed rather petty.
The third protagonist of the evening was of course Jeremy Paxman, who grilled both leaders after the audience Q&A. I like Paxman, I’ve been a guest on Newsnight when he was hosting and thought he was friendly and a consummate professional. But I must admit I found his interview style somewhat grating. He was so combative and infused with outrage that it meant the metric of success for both leaders was them managing not to explode or burst into tears. Given that, I suppose both of them did well. Some of his lines of questioning were rather odd: he asked Corbyn why Labour’s manifesto wasn’t a direct reflection of the leader’s beliefs (has any manifesto ever been?) and May why she had got behind Brexit after initially supporting the Remain campaign. Both leaders’ answers—which essentially came down to respecting democratic processes—were pretty reasonable.
Despite Paxman’s aggressive style, he missed an open goal with May. She said she had called the snap election because other parties were attempting to frustrate the Brexit process. This is simply false. Labour MPs were under a three-line whip to back the Brexit bill unamended (to the dismay of many in the PLP) and no one could seriously consider the Lib Dems and their nine MPs a threat. This means the very premise for the snap election is misleading and I was exasperated that May was let off here.
Overall it was undoubtedly a better night for Corbyn than for May. His media performances have drastically improved since he was first elected Labour leader. He was convincing and there were no real moments of controversy. Surveying the morning papers, it looks like the press has returned to its tedious Corbyn-bashing routine, so the question is: does his performance matter? I’d say yes, the evening was still a net positive. Anecdotally I’ve seen a lot of Corbyn-sceptics soften after watching the debate. My experience of speaking to Labour voters during this election is that they’re a lot more intellectually flexible and complicated than media commentary would have us believe, and I can imagine many being won round by what they saw last night.
Even the most passionate Corbyn supporters have had frustrations with the leadership since he was first elected. But last night demonstrated that Labour finally stands for something; after years of appearing like a party of middle managers, it finally has a reason to exist. Perhaps this wouldn’t have happened without Corbyn winning the leadership, but in any case it’s a massive achievement, bigger than the man himself, and it is something the party must hold onto, whatever the result on 8th June.