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How Jeremy Corbyn failed the M&M test – and why it matters

Like a single brown M&M in the bowl, a questions about numbers is a tripwire – trivial by itself, but it could sound the alarm over bigger problems.

Yesterday, the Labour leader endured a bloody difficult Woman’s Hour.

Jeremy Corbyn went on the BBC Radio 4 show to promote Labour’s plan for government-funded childcare. Compared to an interview about terrorism, it must have seemed like a pleasant enough prospect, since everyone agrees that childcare is a good thing. After all, wasn’t it Aneurin Bevan who said that children are the future, teach them well and so on?

Things started off OK, even if Jeremy did sound in need of a Red Bull. But then the BBC’s interviewer, Emma Barnett, threw a move that no politician, except all of them, could possibly have foreseen: she asked the Labour leader how much his policy would cost. And Jeremy didn’t know. “A lot,” he mumbled wearily.

The next couple of minutes make for gruesome listening. Barnett repeats her question while ruthlessly exposing Corbyn’s frantic attempts to find out what it is he has just proposed. Corbyn pleads (“Can we come back to this in a moment?”). He blusters, weakly. He even asks Barnett to help him out: “What is your estimate of it?” Throughout, he sounds as if he is trying, vocally, to disappear, to fade out of range altogether.

As news of this unfortunate accident spread, there was much pointing and laughing. Corbyn’s acolytes on Twitter leapt to his defence, in the form of attack. Predictably and repellently, they laid into the interviewer for having the temerity to hold their favourite politician to account. Led by Paul Mason – these days no longer just a clown but a bully, too – they rained down abuse on Barnett, much of it soaked in anti-Semitism.

We needn’t waste time digging through this garbage in search of sense. To his credit, Corbyn himself unequivocally and passionately condemned it later in the day. But there is a more respectable objection to the interview and the fuss made over it, one made by reasonable people, and worth considering.

The objection is this: why does it matter if a politician can recall a particular number or not? Politics isn’t maths, and political interviews should not be memory tests. What matters is the substance of the policy.

This seems like a sensible and high-minded position to take. But actually I think it is wrong. These mistakes do matter. To explain why, I will draw on rock music lore.

One of rock’s enduring legends is of the 1970s group who whenever they played a gig, insisted on having M&Ms provided for them backstage with all the brown ones taken out. Unlike many rock legends, this one is true. In his autobiography, Van Halen’s frontman, David Lee Roth, revealed that his band did indeed insert a “no brown M&Ms” clause into the contract it sent promoters. But it wasn’t because they were pampered, power-drunk brats. It was because they were professionals who wanted to ensure a well-run show.

Van Halen was the first band to turn rock concerts into the mega-productions we are familiar with today. Their shows were enormously complex to stage, and involved many truckloads of gear that had to be constructed on-site by an army of local workers, to precise specifications. With so many moving parts, there was a lot that could go wrong. The band needed to trust that whoever was managing the venue was not the sort of person who overlooked any detail. In the words of Mr Lee Roth himself:

“So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

The M&M clause functioned like a tripwire. In itself it was trivial, but it could sound the alarm over bigger problems. This is how to think about a spending figure that a politician cannot bring to mind when asked to do so in an interview.

Yes, of course, the ability to rote learn figures is not high on the list of qualities voters look for in a prime minister. But if Corbyn had really thought through his policy to anything like the level required to implement it successfully, he would automatically know much it costs. Hours of internal discussion and debate over costs, benefits and fiscal priorities would have burned it indelibly into his cerebral cortex.

Voters understand this instinctively. When they hear a politician floundering in response to a straightforward question about a policy, they sense that he or she has not done the hard work of preparation – and not just for the interview. The wonder: if Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t know how much his policy costs, what else doesn’t he know about it?

The question is an especially urgent one for a Labour leader, for two reasons. First, although it might be fair to complain that Theresa May gets an easier ride on policy detail than Corbyn does, the brute fact is that voters trust Labour less, especially on spending. Emma Barnett was right to connect Corbyn’s inability to answer her question to Labour’s credibility.

Second, if a Labour leader ever becomes prime minister – bear with me here – he or she will have to implement a policy agenda which, if it is any good, will meet powerful institutional resistance. To change anything in government, a leader needs to master policy. You can’t get by on aspiration and slogans, and you can’t delegate all detail to advisers, as Donald Trump and Theresa May are, in their different ways, currently finding out. A leader needs to know where the M&Ms are buried.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia