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Jeremy Corbyn on Woman's Hour: should the Labour leader have to remember how much his policies cost?

As ever, the problem isn't the standards the left has to meet - it's how low the bar is for the right. 

Jeremy Corbyn has had a tricky encounter with Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour, in which the Labour leader was unable to remember the cost of his flagship childcare policy – for 30 hours of childcare to be made available for free regardless of parental income, benefiting 1.3 million families.

The interview is great radio – you can read the transcript here but it’s better heard than read – but is it a good way to cover politics? My colleague Helen doesn’t think so, and nor does Matt Zarb-Cousin, formerly of the leader’s office, now turned pro-Corbyn commentator. They think that by asking these questions, broadcasters are turning elections into a test of memory, not an arena where the strength of the parties’ programmes are judged. Are they right?

Well, sort of. As Zarb-Cousin points out, we already know that every spending commitment in Labour’s manifesto has been costed, so the question of how much each commitment costs in of itself doesn’t tell us anything. A more revealing policy question is whether or not the £2.7bn would be better spent on children aged two to four in a different way.

(The answer there is: Sort of yes, sort of no. The really transformative stuff around early years education in Britain is happening in schools providing teacher-led care from two to 11, but that would cost a lot more than the £2.7bn childcare commitment would. It’s a bit like saying “Wouldn’t a new space station be better for interstellar research than a new university building?” – the answer is yes, but it’s beside the point.)

And Helen is right to say that ultimately, the ability to remember a figure is not a particularly relevant one as far as judging the next Prime Minister is concerned.

There’s the added problem of course that this style of questioning benefits the right, as any gaffe made by a leftwing politician is amplified and more widely-shared by Britain’s large right-wing press, which in turn shapes broadcast coverage. The leftwing press is far smaller, so gaffes by right-wing politicians often reach a smaller audience. A good example in this election is in the fate of the two parties’ home affairs leads: Amber Rudd’s call for experts versed in the “necessary hashtags” to stop offensive messages being posted on social media has had a far more limited afterlife than Diane Abbott forgetting how much Labour would have to spend to reverse the government’s cuts to policing. Abbott got her sums wrong, Rudd appeared not to have got her arms around a central issue relating to her department, and yet Abbott’s gaffe has become a dominant part of the election campaign.

There are two “buts”, however. The first, is that while the question might not be revealing about policy, these “gotcha” questions do stress-test the competence of the team behind the leader. Given that Jeremy Corbyn was on Woman’s Hour to talk about the party’s childcare policy, he should have been armed with a small piece of paper and to have rehearsed the cost of the policy, how it would be paid for, and so forth, as it was all-but-inevitable he would be asked. (Particularly as Labour are rightly making a big play of the fact that the figures in the Conservative manifesto can be boiled down to “Trust me, okay?”)

This isn’t the first time that Labour’s difficulty giving its frontline politicians the information they need has been a problem this campaign. As I explained at the time, John McDonnell’s fiscal rule set out clearly why they didn’t need to provide additional costing for their planned programme of re-nationalisations. But that so many shadow ministers, including loyal Corbynites, were unable to explain that in interviews revealed a worrying failure on the part of the leadership.

And while policies should be a big part of elections, they shouldn’t be the only part: the characters of the leaders should too. Take the Brexit talks. Both Labour and the Conservatives have effectively the same policy on paper: to retain the benefits of European Union membership as far as possible while no longer being subject to the free movement of people. But of course, their ability to get the best possible deal – and their willingness to harm the economy to get control over immigration – ultimately rests on a question of what we reckon as to their characters and disposition.

Or last night’s not-quite-debates. Does it matter that Jeremy Corbyn worked on his tendency to be overcome by a red mist in heated interviews and was a model of calm, while Theresa May’s habit of shooting murderous stares at anyone remained unchecked? Well, as far as the telly goes, that Corbyn didn’t produce pictures of him gritting his teeth while May stared angrily at cameras obviously contributed to the Labour leader’s win last night. But they also speak to what you hear from staff in the leader’s office and civil servants on Whitehall. Corbyn’s aides will talk about how they feel able to speak truth to power without being shouted down – they don’t necessarily get their way but they don’t fear the consequences of dissent. Government officials however, do fear that they will be given a barracking if they go against May. That speaks to far bigger concerns than who looked better on telly – not least the question of who can negotiate Brexit or who should be in the room at moments of crisis. Equally, how prepared a politician is for a gotcha question does speak to how well-run their office is and is a commentary on how well-run their government would be.

There’s a second but. As my colleague Anoosh notes, the big problem isn’t that the media gives Jeremy Corbyn a tough ride – it’s that the media it gives the right an incredibly easy one. It’s not unreasonable that for Labour to win it needs not only to cost its policy but to brief its candidates well enough that they can explain that policy to voters and its leader in particular.

It is unreasonable and worrying that if the polls are right, Britain is about to re-elect a government planning a migration target that would blow a hole in the public finances with a Home Secretary who thinks that social media companies are capable of “breaking into” an encrypted message. And no-one has really asked them about it. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear