In politics, as in any walk of life, the right to be heard is hard earned. A consequence of earning this right is that as an individual, you are the medium for your own message. In short the popularity of the ideas any politician tries to communicate depends significantly upon how they are communicated.
Jeremy Corbyn’s limited ability to communicate, and that of those around him, is causing serious, traumatic damage to the Labour Party. Not only is it leading to the party being framed in the most abject way, but is giving rise to events which the leadership team then in turn struggles to respond to.
As with my resignation from the Labour frontbench, these observations are not personal, simply rational. I don’t know Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve never met him; my letters are not replied to. This is a marked change from his predecessors and whatever the consequence, it is his prerogative.
At meetings of the PLP I have attended where Jeremy has been present, he has consistently refused to answer questions put to him by colleagues. Again, his prerogative. Again, it’s rational to point out – particularly in this age of micro-mass communication – that refusing to engage with or answer difficult questions sends out its own message and it defines the medium through which that message is given.
Since becoming leader of the Labour Party, there are literally scores of examples of where and how Jeremy should have communicated more effectively (national anthem, response to the Paris atrocities, women in the shadow cabinet, “no place to hide” for Labour MPs) and where his failure – some claim refusal – to do so has damaged the party severely.
But the rumoured removal of Hilary Benn from the position of shadow foreign secretary would be a calamitous error for Jeremy to make, perhaps marking the most severe damage inflicted by Jeremy upon the party to date. In the process, as the medium for his own message, Jeremy would cause untold damage to himself.
At the first meeting of the PLP attended by Jeremy Corbyn as leader, he was asked repeatedly by colleagues from across the Labour broad church what the party’s response to Syria would be. The question was repeatedly dodged before a muddled commitment to a debate was promised.
Over the intervening period between becoming leader of the Labour Party and the government vote to expand our existing operations against Daesh in Iraq over the border into Syria, Labour MPs continued to ask questions of the leadership about our approach towards Syria. Over the same period, Hillary Benn consistently made himself available to answer questions about the situation, as did the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office. Jeremy Corbyn never did.
The one and only time that the Labour leader arranged for a briefing on Syria for Labour MPs was on the day of the Syria vote in the House of Commons. This followed weeks of incoherent media briefing with regard to an on-again-off-again free vote on the issue.
What happened next needs no explanation. Benn gave one of the best speeches Parliament has seen for a long time which gave rise to applause and cheering from both sides of the House – but mostly from and initiated by, the Labour benches.
Hillary Benn voted with his conscience, the logic of his argument, Labour’s best traditions and voted to continue our operations against Daesh into Syria. Let’s be clear. To Jeremy’s camp and the central trolling committee he became at best a rebel, at worst a traitor. On a publicly declared free vote, there can be no such thing as a “rebellion”; treachery is impossibility. The confected charge is a lie.
Inexplicably, but entirely consistent with the performance to date, the key message from the Labour leadership over the Christmas period became the desire of the Labour leader to remove Hilary Benn from the post of shadow foreign secretary. This followed an extraordinary interview with the Labour Leader in which he condemned the “jingoistic applause” that greeted Benn’s speech and which was absent from his. The clear message given by arranging these deliberate media briefings in this way is that any wish to remove Hillary Benn from his post is driven by personal spite, jealousy and bitterness. Again, the medium becomes the message.
To understand this extraordinary episode is to understand many of the new dynamics of Labour politics. The applause from Labour MPs – many who then voted against extending our operations – was not for the searing moral argument in favour of fighting the fascism of Dhaesh in Syria. The applause had nothing to do with the poorly judged and self-righteous charge of jingoism. The applause was not from a redundant new Labour cabal determined to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn.
The applause was for a man who had been clear in his arguments. The applause was for a man who had never hidden from his colleagues in the PLP in the run up to the vote. The applause was for a man being true to Labour’s social democratic and internationalist traditions. The applause was for a man who demonstrated, not just during his speech but over the weeks that preceded it, what leadership should look like. For many, the applause was a response to an old feeling: that of being led. Hilary Benn made the Labour benches – for the most part – feel proud. As an accountable, honest, transparent medium, Hillary Benn amplified the power of his message.
The rational response should be to celebrate these strengths and build upon them. What happens next will colour every message communicated through the medium of Jeremy Corbyn for the duration of his leadership.