Andrew Marr & Jeremy Corbyn

January 19, 2016

I voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, I support him, and I watch his interviews with interest. Normally within minutes of him opening his mouth, social media descends into chaos, and that’s fun. This Sunday on Andrew Marr, what is now becoming the norm happened once more: Corbyn says thing, people outraged at thing that would be accepted as normal if said by anybody else, core message lost in arguing over whether that was what he actually said.

It’s like watching a parent try and have a sensible conversation with their toddler who just wants to pick their nose and scream “Bogies!” all the while.

All quite depressing.

On this occasion, as normal to my ears, he did well, but the critical response from the haters (who gonna hate, amiright?) was adamant: this was yet another gaff-fest.

I’m not so sure.

The reasons the actual interview and media response were so out of synch, is perhaps because enemies can pick and choose their soundbites, and JC’s media training is still lacking.

The transcript is worth a read. Sections of it might surprise you if you only read the reports of it and didn’t hear the interview itself.

As I went through the social media chatter, the discussion threads on Reddit and looked through newspaper editorials following this interview, it seemed obvious to me that if JC had simply said things differently, they could never have extrapolated what they did and used it the way they did.

The message became garbled, and we have come out of this as a party defending perfectly normal rational positions against people pointing at their heads and screaming “Cuckoo!” at us.

I thought I’d go through the speech and show what I mean.

To be clear, I am not qualified to give the Official Leader of the Opposition advice on how to handle the media. I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell him what to have for breakfast.

I have done a little speech writing before, but not at a level where national press might scrutinise it, and my main exposure to understanding how political media management works is limited to reading Alastair Campbell’s diaries (which Private Eye have shown have undergone heavy “revision”), and watching copious amounts of behind-the-scenes political dramas and comedies such as West Wing, Yes [Prime] Minister and The Thick Of It.

In short: I accept I know nothing about this.

All the more embarrassing then I think I could have done a better job of staying on message, to be frank. But with that caveat, let’s take some excerpts:

AM: [You have proposed that] companies which didn’t pay the living wage shouldn’t be able to pay dividends. Now I simply don’t understand this policy because I thought you, as a party leadership, were committed to bringing in the living wage at £10 an hour. That’s what John McDonnell told the Labour Party Conference.
JC: Yes, we are committed to bring that in. The living wage that George Osborne is proposing is less than the living wage. The living wage now would be over £8.60 an hour in the UK, higher in London.
AM: So you’ll bring in a proper living wage?
JC: We’ll bring in a proper living wage. But in the interim -
AM: So this will start hitting companies –
JC: in the interim we’re saying to companies that if you’re able to pay out dividends – these are listed companies – then you should first of all check your wage bill. You should check how many people you’re employing either directly or through contractual arrangements who are being paid less than the Living Wage. Because the Wages Inspectorate shows that yes we have laws on wages but there’s an awful lot of evasion going on and I think we need to crack down on that evasion.
AM: But you can’t ban companies from paying dividends until you’re in power and once you’re in power you’ll be introducing a living wage which will be a legal obligation so I just don’t see the point of this policy, if I may say so.
JC: Well it might take some time to bring that in but we’ll do it as quickly as we can.
AM: So it’s a short term interim policy?
JC: Of course, of course.

This still doesn’t make sense, and he’s missing a wider context. If a Labour government would bring in a higher living wage which would take time to introduce, what would be the point or introducing additional legislation to make sure companies do it that would take about as long? Legislation is legislation, why an additional layer?

I think it is going to take some time to figure out, but the catch is probably in the phrase “people you’re employing either directly or through contractual arrangements”, specifically the contract workers.

This wording implies there is room for policy around dealing with companies who have zero-hour contract workers and other groups which have total earnings below a living minimum, but current legislation does not help.

And in fact, you can imagine by extension he was just on the cusp of talking about the entire supply chain, maybe, perhaps, including to overseas workers. Maybe.

There is no evidence this was in his mind, but something rather bold could emerge: profitable companies could be forced to pay overseas workers a better wage before profits are distributed as dividends. That better wage would have to be somewhat lower than the UK living wage in order to not destroy our import supply chain in one swoop, but anything over £0.50/hour would be better than the status quo.

Alas, that bold a policy might be too much for where he is right now given the hatred with each word he utters is met, but it’s worth watching, there is a sliver of a trial balloon in there.

He went further when it comes to reducing inequality within the UK workforce:

AM: Let’s move onto another thing you were talking about in the same speech. The differentials between people at the top of companies and people at the bottom of companies, and you said that they should be brought down so, proposals have been around for a long time, what are they about now in Britain and how far down do you think the ratio should be?
JC: Well the average pay of a chief executive of a FTSE company is looking at sort of four to five million pounds a year. The average pay of the workers in all those companies is far less. The High Pay Centre, that studies these things, indicates just how much executive pay has gone up and how much relatively the pay of the rest of the people in all those corporations has gone down as proportion. We have the greatest level, except the USA, of income inequality in Britain. Is that something to be proud of? No.
AM: So the ratio I think is about 87 to 1 at the moment.
JC: It’s a bit more than that actually.
AM; The question is where do you think it should be, that kind of ratio?
JC: Well, I don’t have a absolute figure in mind. […]

This was a mistake. If in an answer you don’t mention a number, especially when asked for a number, people who don’t like you will invent a number that horrifies them to fill that gap in.

Middle-England middle-managers and senior executives of small firms will for example start to sweat as they imagine a 3 to 1 ratio, or a 5 to 1 ratio. Suddenly somebody on £45k/year is worrying that their boss is going to be dropping to £50k/year and pushing their salary down in turn. It’s silly, unintentional and avoidable.

In 1998, the actual ratio was 47 to 1. It had risen from 44 to 1 in 1980. There would be no harm in picking a number in that range, because that is a number that can be defended by pointing to historic economic performance and showing it did no harm and we were all happy with it. What’s more, many companies are actually already close to that number.

By picking a ratio of say, 45 to 1, JC could have made the further point that if a company wishes to pay its top member of staff £1m a year they are free to do so, providing that the lowest paid member of staff is paid £22,200. This is not a big ask for most companies able to pay a CEO £1m a year.

A policy like this explained in these terms communicates well because people on less than £22,200 a year working for a board who are earning on average £3m/year can relate to it immediately.

JC continued:

JC: […] I think it should be a lot less than [87 to 1]. I think we should study this thing. I think we should take more evidence on it and I think we should consult on it. The whole process of the policy making that I’m encouraging the Labour Party to undertake is obviously participation of party members and affiliates and supporters, but also the wider public. A lot of people have got a lot of ideas about things, let’s bring those in. And so we promote the debate about the kind of society we want to live in. I mean go outside here, the levels of inequality in Britain are so obvious. People sleeping on the streets while people are driving past in very expensive cars. It’s not right.

Making the party more democratic is an area that JC can do well in, but he needs to take more visible action on it, and quickly.

He should be finding a way of expressing his ideas that makes it clear it doesn’t matter what he personally thinks if the membership disagrees with him, the party wins the debate, he loses, we’re done, let’s get on with it. It might actually encourage more members to engage in that debate if they disagree with him.

Marr then moved onto industrial action, an area that probably only came up due to junior doctor strike action being discussed in the news a great deal recently.

AM: [quoting John McDonnell] ‘The view now is straight forward and I tell you this. If there is industrial action taking place then we should automatically now – automatically - come alongside our brothers and sisters in the trade unions and support them.’
JC: Well it’s John saying his instinctive position which is instinctively like a lot of people that…
AM: Is that your’s too…

This is a trap. When an interviewer jumps halfway through the sentence like that, step back, the answer is probably to reframe the question and gather one’s thoughts. Carefully. If you don’t do that, you’re likely to say something stumbling and ambiguous and easily forgotten. Such as:

JC: …we should be supporting those people that are trying to defend their position or in some cases improve their position. But that’s why we’re supporting the junior doctors in their wholly reasonable campaign at the present time. It’s why we’re supporting the nurses in trying to protect their bursaries, so we all get a better health service in the future. The two things go together.

Oh dear.

JC forgot to add something to the effect of “I am not sure automatic support of every strike without knowing the details is sensible, but the ones we are seeing right now seem like they are actions being taken in desperation as a response to a Government who is indifferent to their views that this policy is going to be harmful to the patients”.

This is in essence what he actually thinks, but doesn’t say, but this wording diffuses the “automatic” time bomb in McDonnell’s words (there might be a strike Labour doesn’t like one day, especially if in Government, and this quote will haunt that front bench for weeks), and also gives the Government another kick whilst they are floundering over junior doctor contracts.

And they are floundering on this issue, and JC is failing to capitalise it to its full extent. But all the floundering in the World won’t make up for mistakes like:

AM: The question is all strikes. Has there ever been a strike you didn’t support?
JC: I’m sure there has been.
AM: But you can’t remember now. […]

This is awful. This was the point where I thought he’d written the next day’s front page. He actually escaped lightly in some respects on this.

A better answer could have been “All employees should have a right to withdraw their labour at their choosing, because otherwise their employment would be better characterised as being called slavery. I look at all strikes on merit, and where I see an injustice that those seeking industrial action are trying to redress, and strike action is proportionate to the injustice, I can’t see why anybody would oppose that strike. You have to wonder what employers are doing that is causing their employees to feel they have no other choice”.

Many working class Tories would agree with that. Honestly, they would.

The key is to take the question away from Marr - name a strike you didn’t support (which either you can’t or don’t want to do) - and choose to answer a question you did want to answer which is to challenge why strikes are even considered a necessary thing in 2016 anyway.

Here is another car crash from later on in the same interview:

AM: [I want to ask you about] sympathy action and whether you would remove that legislation.
JC: Sympathy action is legal in most other countries and I think it should also be legal here. But remember this –
AM: (Over) So you would repeal those Tory laws?
JC: - nobody willingly – yes of course – nobody willingly goes on strike, they go on strike as an ultimate weapon. The number of strikes is actually very small. It’s an ultimate weapon that is used. Anyone who goes on strike is making an enormous sacrifice. They don’t get paid, they suffer a great deal as a result of it. So let’s look at the causes of people being upset rather than the symptoms.
AM: So you’d allow sympathy action.

You can see where he is going with this, he’s trying to make it clear that no General Strike is on the cards, but he didn’t make it explicit.

He wants to point out that strikes are insane and should not be necessary in any sane economy, but because the messaging is back to front, he is being dragged into discussing repealing legislation on industrial action.

One of the reasons strikes are so rare and trade union membership numbers are on the decline is because employment law is now so good, that most people don’t feel or see the need to engage with trade unionism.

He should celebrate that, and then push for us to go further: push the point that we shouldn’t need to find more ways to strike, but make employment law even stronger so that no employee ever felt the need to consider it.

The way his answer is phrased means that the only thing people can take away is the notion of unchecked sympathy action being rife under a Corbyn Premiership. This scares people. I get what he meant, but I can’t fathom what he actually said as making sense to many in the electorate. Most of them aren’t picking over his words like I am. And how you are, now I’m making you. Fun isn’t it? Let’s continue…

AM: What about things like flying pickets?

Oh god.

JC: Well, flying pickets are a term that was first used in 1972, I think, or thereabouts, […]

Nobody cares when it was used. Knowing the year does not dampen the suspicion held by many that JC is a 1970s Trade Union geek yearning for the long lost days of comradeship whilst being beaten up by a police officer.

That might be who JC was. It can’t be who he is or will be if he is going to become Prime Minister.

JC: […] and it was merely people moving around and showing support during a very difficult industrial dispute. I think we have to look at the question not of what trade unions are forced to do ultimately but the causes of the problems in the first place.

This last sentence should have been at the front, not at the end of all his answers.

He could also strengthen his intention. One possible rewrite would be “Flying pickets are from a bygone era, and I believe Trade Unions are more interested in solving the causes of the problems they are dealing with in the first place, rather than resurrecting something from the 1970s. I know we in Government certainly would be more interested in addressing those problems than changing every single law relating to outdated trade union practice that nobody has an appetite for any more.”

It’s the same point. But phrased the way JC said it sounds like he is ambivalent to flying pickets, but this phrasing kills off in people’s heads the idea that the 1970s are here again and underlines the point working conditions should be protected and improved where they are found lacking.

Next we get to the nuclear part of the debate.

AM: And you’ve said that some of the money that’s going into the trident programme now you would want to divert into new green technologies and so forth to soak up the employment –
JC: (cough) We’re consulting on Trident at the moment. Emily Thornberry has drawn up a very interesting document to consider this and that is out for consultation as of Friday. We’re discussing that. But the point I’ve made, always made, is that I recognise that if there’s to be a change in the Trident programme – and I personally would want there to be a change in it – then the first priority has to be to protect those jobs, redirect investment into those yards and factories and companies that would be making material and systems to go with Trident so that their jobs are protected and there’s further investment in them. That’s the first priority.

This is great. He should have just repeated this over, and over and over again. He didn’t though, he got dragged into murkier waters.

AM: You gave an interview to the Independent on Sunday today in which you said a very interesting thing, you said that actually Trident or not Trident wasn’t necessarily a binary decision, an either/or decision. What did you mean by that?
JC: Well, we don’t know what proposal the government is going to make when the issue comes up to parliament, whenever it comes up. That’s not in my hands. There may well be a discussion on considering it further, because the government is in arguments about the cost of the whole programme. Many in the military are very worried about the focus of so much expenditure on nuclear weapons when they actually are looking at more conventional issues and a more conventional role for the armed forces. And of course issues of insecurity around the world.

This is also good. In fact, he could have gone further: he could have switched it around, quoted military officials who were on public record, and asked the question “Is the Conservative party actually pro-Trident? I think if you asked their members you might find they are just as interested in discussing the pros and cons as we are, and they aren’t even having the discussion. They aren’t considering other options, and I suspect when it comes to a vote, they might have a more awkward debate within the party than our sensible one within Labour is right now”.

He could have said that, and it might be true, and even if it wasn’t it would cause awkward questions for the PM who knows some of his back-benchers are questioning Trident. But more importantly, it pushes back on something he instinctively believes: that many in the country don’t think Trident is a natural given, that there may be other options, and they should be discussed before we spend the money without debate.

Then, he got dragged further:

AM: But if we have these four huge submarines packed with nuclear weapons circling the globe and a prime minister who has said, ‘I will never, ever use them,’ then it’s not really a deterrent anyway, it’s a nonsense.
JC: They don’t actually have nuclear warheads on them.
AM: Sure. So we can have Trident submarines without nuclear warheads, could we?
JC: If we use a nuclear weapon, anybody uses a nuclear weapon, it is catastrophic for the whole globe. Everybody knows it’s catastrophic. I don’t believe David Cameron would use it either.

Is it that crazy to suggest subs without warheads going around unable to fire straight away? No, not really.

In 2000, it became public domain knowledge that in order to reduce running costs and make the submarines more suitable for a role the Royal Navy actually needed, the time to fire had been extended to three days.

JC missed the chance to push this idea a little, pointing out this is kind of what the Navy want to do already. This might be perhaps because he was trial ballooning and preferring to wait for the report on Friday. I suspect though it was just a mistake.

The point stands though: if we already don’t have an instant-strike deterrent, and the Royal Navy are already trying to lower Trident running costs in order to better allocate budget to the resources they do need, why do we need a new Trident?

Instead we ended up in this trap of not quite making the position clear, and his view being described as one he might not hold, but will now stick.

Then the conversation moved to the Falklands. If you’ve read the papers or online debates about this section of the interview, you might be surprised by what JC actually said, and how it differs from what you’ve been told he said:

AM: Another political solution being discussed at the moment, we’ve got a new President of Argentina who has said he wants to have negotiations about sovereignty and so forth over the Falklands or Malvinas and so forth. Now, you have said in the past that you think such negotiations should take place and there should be a role for the islanders. My question is should the islanders have a veto over any talks?
JC: I think there has to be a discussion about how you can bring about some reasonable accommodation with Argentina. It seems to me ridiculous that in the 21st century we’d be getting into some enormous conflict with Argentina about the islands just off it. Yes, of course the islanders have an enormous say in this, let’s bring about some sensible dialogue. It happened before, I’m sure it can happen again.
AM: An enormous say but not a veto perhaps?
JC: Veto? They’ve got the right to stay where they are, they’ve got a right to decide on their own future, and that will be part of it. Let’s have that discussion and let’s not set agendas in advance.
AM: What did you think about the original war? You weren’t, I think, in parliament at the time when the task force was sent.
JC: I thought that the original war was a problem for both countries, in the sense that Galtieri was a deeply unpopular dictator in Argentina. I thought that President Terry of Peru was trying to make enormous progress by bringing about a UN resolution to it. And then we had the disaster of the sinking of the Belgrano and the whole situation got worse as a result of that. Surely in the 21st century we can do better than go to war on these things.
AM: Two bald men fighting over a comb, I think they said at the time.
JC: Well, I wouldn’t dream of talking about bald men. It would be impolite.
AM: Certainly in front of me. For now, thank you very much indeed.

He never questioned sovereignty. He didn’t say the islands should be Argentinian, that residents should leave, that the war was “wrong”.

All he said was that we can do better than war and military posturing when it comes to dealing with threats from Argentina.

And who could possibly argue with that? Most complaints seem to stem from the fact he didn’t use the key phrase in this: “self-determination”. It’s the code word to all involved that he supports the status quo, and it’s all people are listening for. They are not interested in nuance or fact, just hyperbole and buzzwords.

If I were JC - and most days these days I’m glad I’m not - I might have phrased this a little stronger: “We will support the Islanders’ rights to self-determination, but at the same time I am hoping that Argentina is going to be able to talk to us and the International community about this in a different way. We should be looking to help the Falklands and Argentina develop economic bonds and perhaps over time, friendship.”

It’s not aggressive, it fits his narrative, it’s fair, it’s an open hand, all without ignoring the war, it’s losses or it’s outcome.

In other parts of the interview relating to Syria I think he was stronger. He was ridiculed once for suggesting that back channels to the IRA should be government policy. Turns out, such back channels existed and were used. So now, when he suggests that ISIS need to be talked to as well as fought, it’s not quite so incredible. He needs to tread carefully though, they’re just waiting for one misspoken phrase in that context.

I am hopeful for where Labour is right now, despite the awful polling. I have resorted to picking over phrases in interviews rather than discussing policy because I don’t have much to say to the policy: it’s mostly fine right now. Where we’re struggling is getting that policy across into people’s minds over the chasm of a hostile press.

He might not be able to make friends in the press, but he can certainly make their job harder by not lobbing them soft hits, and by strengthening his language, he might even get points across in a way that people hear.

Andrew Marr & Jeremy Corbyn - January 19, 2016 - Paul Robinson