What is Jeremy Corbyn? Is he, as the Tories at first suggested, a “threat” to national security? Or is he a comic figure, with his black socks ‘n shorts outfit, as seen on the weekend’s front pages, the embodiment of the geography teacher through the ages?
Today he chose beige for his first Prime Minister’s Question Time. Obama is not his style icon, plainly, but he’d made a bit of an effort. Corbin seemed the least excited person in the Palace of Westminster today; everywhere else the place was packed with buzzing MPs and hyperventilating journalists, all eager to get prime positions to rubberneck at the anticipated slo-mo car crash.
When Corbyn rose to question the Prime Minister he was greeted by the usual wall of sound that distinguishes our Honourable Members from those in other parliaments around the world. We like to model our political debate on that of the football terrace. But JC was having none of it.
Let’s be honest, Corbyn isn’t a natural public speaker. He’s barely a performer. If you were auditioning for the role of a political leader, you’d show him the exit the moment he walked onto the stage. Whereas Cameron was born to it, at home under the arc lights, basking in the attention. Surely Labour MPs were destined to be left holding their hands over their eyes within seconds of the first question?
But Jezza was armed with a very useful weapon – he’s an unknown quantity. His approach to PMQs was so different from the usual model that Cameron, never a great improviser, more of a ham, just didn’t know how to deal with him.
The stroke of genius was to use those crowd-sourced questions. It’s one thing using all that Bullingdon swagger against nerdy Miliband, but against members of the public like Marie, Stephen, and Clare? And as the Twitterstorm began, at least we knew that these were real people, not inventions of the DWP. Cameron had no option but to play along with JC’s game.
Some commentators said that the format played into Cameron’s hands, as he used his answers, on housing, mental health, and tax credits, to re-state variants of the Tory narrative, effectively unchallenged by the new Opposition leader. And that is true.
But the half hour ritual of PMQs is less important than the clips on news bulletins. In truth, Corbyn was insufficiently concise, and Cameron a bit predictable, but the impression was left of a man – Corbyn – who wants to do politics differently. That is not an unpopular attitude.
Corbin can’t use the crowd-sourced questions approach every week, as Cameron will learn how to game it pretty quickly. But it made for a good start, and may well be useful as a reserve technique for occasional use.
So what’s the verdict? Is Corbyn off to a good Commons start in his new role?
The simple answer is probably ‘no’. His parliamentary party is not behind him. He has few cheerleaders in the press. Robert Peston was the conduit for rumours that some Labour MPs were considering crossing the floor and joining the Conservative Party. Changing the whole nature of politics requires a cultural shift that won’t come fast, and in the interval, it’s business as usual with spin, triangulation, poll numbers, SPADS, and all the other stuff that is anathema to JC. The very best to be hoped for is that the party will retain enough loyalty to the cause to make it all work as best they can.
And yet Corbyn’s elevation may be successful in others ways, pushing politics on past the toxic legacy of Blairism, and re-energising political debate, waking people up to the possibility of doing things differently.
One of the most interesting things I saw on Sunday was a news interview with an economics professor from Leeds, Richard Wilkinson, and a boy think-tanker from the Adam Smith Institute. Wilkinson was making an effective case for the reasonableness of Corbyn’s economic thinking, but it was the Adam Smith guy who caught my attention. Probably born when John Major was PM, the golden child was positively fizzing with excitement. Plainly very bright, as someone who’d had the economics education that’s been orthodoxy for the last 30 years, you could see he was thrilled to be given the green light to take other approaches seriously at last. I watched him as I have sometimes watched a student grasping a difficult concept for the first time, knowing that something had clicked. The terms of engagement were changing.
Added to that, Corbyn’s new front bench, free to say what they think, or to admit when they don’t know what party policy is, sound like humans on TV, not speak-your-weight machines. It’s a refreshing change. It’s also causing problems for journalists whose entire interview technique is to make the politician say the thing they most don’t want to say.
Perhaps I’m seeing signs of change which aren’t really there, or which won’t endure? My pessimism tells me that the Tories and their mates will stomp all over the New Model Labour Party. My realism tells me that they’d have done it to any Labour leader. And my optimism tells me that a period of chaos might just be necessary to propel our politics out of the late 20th Century in which it seems stuck.