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31 May 2017

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.

By Ian Leslie

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.

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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.

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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.