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  1. Politics
2 June 2017

Corbyn’s bung to the middle class, the true causes of terror, and a musical’s off-key message

Plus Labour's Brexit negotiating team and the morals of leaking about the Manchester attack.

By Peter Wilby

What explains Labour’s surge in the polls? I suspect, unlikely as it may seem, that the middle classes are rallying to Jeremy Corbyn. By far the most expensive proposal in the Labour manifesto, costing £11.2bn or nearly a quarter of its entire additional spending commitment, is to abolish university tuition fees and reintroduce student maintenance grants. Since a child from a middle-class home is significantly more likely to go to university than one from a working-class home, that money will go disproportionately to well-off families. So will the much smaller cost of free school dinners for all primary school pupils since children from poor homes already get free meals.

By contrast, Labour will spend only £4bn on reversing the Tories’ social security cuts, leaving two-thirds of them in place. Its manifesto contains no commitments to stop the benefits freeze (though Corbyn mysteriously told Channel 4’s Jeremy Paxman they would be “uprated”) or to reverse cuts to child tax credits.

Corbyn, perhaps, is not as left-wing as everybody thinks he is

Team players

One charge that should not be levelled against Labour is that it couldn’t get a good Brexit deal. On the contrary, it has a better negotiating team. Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, is a barrister and former director of public prosecutions; the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, who looks and sounds like a traditional Tory, is also a barrister; and Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, won a postgraduate scholarship to Harvard and worked in shipping insurance.

Consider their opposite numbers. David Davis made an eccentric resignation from parliament and the shadow cabinet in 2008 to fight a pointless by-election on civil liberties. Boris Johnson was sacked from the Tory front bench in 2004 for lying about an extramarital love affair to Michael Howard, then his party leader. Liam Fox had to resign as defence secretary in 2011 because he allowed a lobbyist to accompany him on overseas trips. That trio look about as strong and stable as dandelions in a hurricane.

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Poll position

So do I think Corbyn can emulate Donald Trump and pull off victory in defiance of expectations? Alas, no. Though voters, now they have seen Corbyn dealing with questions from TV audiences, like him more than they expected (and Theresa May less), the idea of him in No 10 is still too implausible for most. Some polls overestimate the likelihood of young voters, who overwhelmingly support Corbyn, getting to the polling stations.

But May called the election with the stated intention of crushing the opposition. Voters dislike being used in that fashion and they warm to Corbyn as the underdog. I’d be surprised if the Tory majority was more than 60 and unsurprised if it were quite a bit lower. I’d be surprised, too, if Corbyn failed to increase Labour’s share of the vote from Ed Miliband’s 30.4 per cent. He could even come close to Tony Blair’s 35.2 per cent in 2005. I hope so. We may then hear less from Blair, Mandelson and their ilk about how Labour can’t win on a left-wing manifesto.

Right to know now

I do not criticise newspapers for publishing leaked diplomatic cables. In such cases, they expose material of public interest that would otherwise remain secret indefinitely. Pictures and information relating to the Manchester bombing, published by the New York Times less than 48 hours later, are a different matter. The UK police would probably have released most of this material within days, even hours. They thought premature disclosure would alert the bombers’ associates. New York Times readers derived no benefit, except the early gratification of voyeuristic curiosity. The public has a right to know, but not a right to know on Wednesday afternoon rather than the following Friday morning.

Newspapers and broadcasters devote enormous resources to revealing information slightly ahead of its official release. The aim is not to inform the public – because premature leaks are often partial, they tend to misinform – but to beat their rivals. Journalists should spend more time digging out material that the authorities want to keep secret for as long as possible.

The road to 9/11

Responding to Corbyn’s claim that Western foreign policy incubated terrorism, his critics argue that 9/11 happened before any interventions overseas. That is nonsense. First, the US funded the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s to oppose a Soviet-supported Marxist regime. The mujahedin eventually morphed into al-Qaeda. Second, the West intervened in the early 1990s to throw Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. When the US stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, some Saudis saw it as “desecrating holy places”. The Independent’s Robert Fisk and other Middle East specialists warned of consequences. They were mocked. And, by 2001, their warnings were forgotten.

Bootstraps and stardust

As my wife and I left London’s Theatre Royal, where the musical 42nd Street is running, I heard an American voice stating: “What that means is that, when you don’t succeed, just try again.” That is indeed the show’s message. Originally a film written at the height of the 1930s Depression, when US unemployment was nearly 25 per cent, it features a struggling producer who gambles on a lavish new musical and a girl from small-town Pennsylvania who can’t get an audition for the chorus but later becomes star of the show. It has catchy songs, carrying you along with its feel-good message. But homilies such as “just try again” didn’t rescue America from the slump. It owed its recovery to the then novel social democratic policies of Franklin Roosevelt which put social security for the poor and unemployed at the top of the agenda. 

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This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning