The five things you need to know on Wednesday September 16, 2015...
There’s a real danger for Jeremy Corbyn that today’s PMQs turns into Jeremy Corbyn Question time. His supporters hope he will shake it up with his crowd-sourced questions, acting as a genuine tribune of the people to put everyday real-life queries to the Prime Minister. The 33,000 suggestions sent in have to be whittled down to just six (assuming he doesn’t hand any of his six to colleagues - or maybe they’ll share the crowdsourced suggestions?).
Corbyn told me this weekend: “I want Prime Minister’s Question Time to be less theatre, more fact, less theatrical, more understandable. I think it’s very exciting for political obsessives, it’s utterly boring for most of the population, who think it’s an utter irrelevance.”
Corbyn wants to turn the whole event into an issues-led debate rather than the usual personality contest, and he has backing from many of his benches for that. Yet given his own policy positions on a range of topics, we are bound to see David Cameron highlighting the gap between the leader and his own MPs and wider voters. The PM wants to turn the screw, but tone will be crucial: he wants to be seen as on the side of mainstream Britain, rather than just represent Tory voters. Some in No.10 know that ridicule can be the most powerful weapon at PMQs, but don’t want their man to come off as flip or snarky.
While he wants to be seen as a breath of fresh air, as unspun and genuine, some of Corbyn’s friends are urging that a degree of professionalism is actually not a bad thing. They point out there’s a big difference between speaking off the cuff to rallies and making setpiece speeches to conferences.
The Indy today splashes (and the Guardian does an analysis) on his need for an effective comms team. Drip feeding the Shadow Cabinet was a mistake, as was the failure to set out clear lines for the TUC ahead of time. Most of his campaign press team have left, while Labour HQ too has seen an exodus of talent. Yesterday’s TUC speech was a good example, sounding unrehearsed and unfocused in parts. So too was the McDonnell announcement on a £10 living wage (a new policy buried in a press release). A wise comms chief could even have advised Corbyn to hand over his extra £50k pay rise to a worthy cause.
Few people actually watch PMQs itself but they do watch the clips on the TV news. Whether Corbyn can change the rules of the game remains to be seen.
Check out our guide to how previous new party leaders' PMQs debuts have gone.
2) ANTHEM FOR DOOMED COUTH
The real Corbyn conundrum is that while he wants to act as a tribune of the people (taking himself out of the equation as at PMQs), on things like defence and the Monarchy it’s his personal views that are out of step with large numbers of his party, Labour voters and the wider public.
As Steve Richards pointed out in his column yesterday, Neil Kinnock put his finger on the problem when he was once asked his personal view on unilateral nuclear disarmament. “As leader of the Labour party, I am not allowed personal views. Personal views and being leader of the Labour party are almost a contradiction in terms”.
The row over Corbyn not singing the national anthem is a perfect, and early, test case. On the one hand, it’s a perfectly honourable position to say that you don’t believe in the Monarchy. But as Labour leader and official leader of the Opposition, he’s representing his party and the country. And given that many in his party and the country feel that it is a simple courtesy to sing the anthem, it’s a real problem. If he really doesn’t want to sing the anthem, Corbyn needs to be explicit about it, because this is going to come up a lot.
Kate Green, the new shadow equalities minister, told Today that “It will have offended and hurt people...for many people the Monarchy, singing the national anthem, is a way of showing that respect...I think it would have been appropriate and right and respectful of people's feelings,"
Shadow Work and Pensions Secreatry Owen Smith told Newsnight :”"I would have advised him to sing it, yes. I would absolutely, irrespective of his views".
Tom Watson tried on Marr on Sunday to sound a note of patriotism shared by many working class voters, paying tribute to the armed forces. The Tories know defence has always been a Labour weakness since the 1980s, and despite their attack ad being pulled due to a copyright issue, you can bet some Tories will raise Russia’s support for Corbyn. Watch today for just how the whips’ questions work: kick Corbyn too much and they could lose the man they see as their biggest vote winner.
But attacking a politician’s patriotism is a tricky game, as the Ed/Ralph Miliband episode showed. Over in the US, Bernie Sanders has turned to his advantage a dirty tricks campaign by the Hillary Clinton camp to compare his views to those of Corbyn.
3) WELL FAIR WELFARE
And on a range of policies as well as basic values, Corbyn is at odds with his MPs and the country. We’ve seen that in spades on the EU (McDonnell contradicting Falconer). Last night, Owen Smith - lots in his party say he’s one to watch - also made plain that he disagreed with Corbyn’s ‘personal’ view at the TUC (unscripted, without consultation?) on ending the benefit cap altogether.
Smith pointed out that ‘We don’t have a vote on that right now’. And on Today, Kate Green also said that the amendments from Labour did not amount to an end to the whole benefit cap. She pointed out that when Corbyn invited her to joint the Shadow Cabinet, she told him there would be difficult decisions to make on welfare. ‘We accept the principle of that cap” she said, adding that it had been ‘successful’ in parts in getting some into work. “It’s not the current policy of the Labour party’ to axe it entirely, she said.
Green rammed home the wider point that ‘the party has a proactive process for making policy’ and that it was not upto the leader’s diktat to decide. And as John Healey pointed out this week, that’s exactly why so many MPs have joined the new Shadow Cabinet: because they like the fact that the party will decide, not the leader. But many also like the fact that the process acts as a lock on any of the wilder ideas of the leadership.
It’s just a strange old world where the party leader’s views just aren’t policy. No wonder so many Tories laughed at Barbara Keeley’s 'year zero' approach, pointing out it wasn’t ‘helpful’ to keep referring to Corbyn’s previously expressed views. Labour’s problem is that they are long-held views, and unlikely to be changed. Being leader of a party involves compromise. But the compromise for many on the Left means 'betrayal'. Can Jezza change even that convention?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Check out this photo of John McDonnell, performing as Dick Whittington’s cat in a panto back in the GLC days. Unlike, George Galloway, he didn’t lick anyone’s hand.
4) JUST HIS LIMITS
The FT has splashed on the European Court of Justice ruling that the UK is unable to limit the length of time EU migrant jobseekers can stay in Britain. Expect UKIP to pounce on the idea that EU migrants’ legal rights mean they can’t be kicked out.
It’s a blow to the PM, but IDS is seeing the glass as half full not empty, as the ECJ also allowed the restriction of certain benefits. “This is an excellent ruling which shows we are right to restrict benefits going to EU nationals who haven’t paid into the system in this country,” he said.
The bigger problem is those who come to work, not to claim benefit. And as we all know,
net migration reached 330,000 in the year to March, the highest level on record.
5) GENERAL GRIEVE, US
Dominic Grieve has been elected (yes elected, not appointed by the PM) as chairman by his fellow members of the Intelligence and Security Committee. What was notable was the instant welcome he received from many last night. The independent terror watchdog David Anderson, plenty of lawyers, and many MPs took to Twitter to praise Grieve’s calm good sense.
He may need as much calm and good sense as he can get in coming weeks. Last week, Mr Grieve described as ‘draconian’ the drone attack in Syria that left two British jihadists dead. He did point out that there was legal cover for the strikes. With a review of the policy likely to be conducted by the ISC now, several across the political divides believe he may be the right man to oversee constructive criticism.
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