A new kind of politics. It seems like a faraway slogan now, echoing in the more innocent days of 2015. The days when an incompetently eaten bacon sandwich was a historical turning-point, and the harshest political terrain was but a functional kitchenette. A happier time.
Distant though it seems, it was the promise of a new kind of politics that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the top of the Labour party in September 2015. Less spin, more authenticity. Less compromise, more principles. It was an attractive proposition, certainly following the concessions of the Lib Dems in coalition, and the slick, soundbite-led messaging of David Cameron’s Tories and New Labour.
But, as Corbyn has found, it’s a pretty impossible way of conducting yourself when you make it to an influential position in politics. You have to be pragmatic and respond to events. You have to adapt your tone as times change.
This is all that the Labour leader was doing when he shifted his message on the idea of a second Scottish independence referendum this week.
Here’s what he told the Press Association on Saturday:
— Press Association (@PA) March 13, 2017
— Stephen Jones (@SteveJonesPA) March 13, 2017
Here’s his comment on Monday, following Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she will be pursuing a second referendum:
“The 2014 Scottish Independence referendum was billed as a once in a generation event. The result was decisive and there is no appetite for another referendum. Labour believes it would be wrong to hold another so soon and Scottish Labour will oppose it in the Scottish parliament. If, however, the Scottish parliament votes for one, Labour will not block that democratic decision at Westminster. If there is another referendum, Labour will oppose independence because it is not in the interests of any part of the country to break up the UK.”
So he’s changed his mind slightly – he thinks it’s wrong to hold one now, whereas before he was rather relaxed about the idea. This has led to a messy spat, in which he accused his earlier comments on “mischievous reporting” – attracting the ire of PA’s editor-in-chief, who said the “only mischievous thing” was Corbyn’s accusation – and now claims he wasn’t actually talking about the Press Association’s report.
Corbyn hasn’t done anything wrong in changing his views. Did you ever see Boris Johnson caring all that much that his support for Brexit completely contradicted his prior pro-EU views? He never really tried to defend changing his stance. Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan changed her mind on gay marriage when she was given the equalities brief upon entering government. Sadiq Khan opposes a third Heathrow runway, something he had supported prior to the London mayoral election.
Every effective politician must master the art of the flip-flop – and those who have know that there is no use denying their former views. The problem for Corbyn is that, above all else, he would rather not be seen as acting like a classic politician. This means he has ended up causing a far bigger row than simply changing his mind would have provoked.
The same thing happened during Traingate, when all he had to do was admit that he was doing something expected of a politician – a mildly choreographed publicity stunt to raise awareness of one of his party’s causes. Instead, a protracted wrangle involving CCTV footage and hassled-looking witnesses ensued.
What Corbyn and those supporters who cannot envisage him as a normal, all-spinning, all-u-turning politician should remember today is that he is allowed to shift his stance on the prospect of a Scottish referendum – just as the press is allowed to report on him doing so.