Jeremy Corbyn has given a big speech on the future of the media that is chock-full of policy proposals. As you’d expect from any big speech, there are some ideas that are good (a subsidy for local journalism, which provides a vital role in holding government to account but faces increasing financial pressures), and a few that are interesting and worth further study (how do you tackle the fact that the commanding heights of the economy are now the world’s great digital companies?).
But the one taking up most of the coverage is a good idea that happens already – that the BBC should publish the educational background of its staff. (Corbyn wants the corporation to provide slightly more information; but we aren’t talking about a major step-change in what the Beeb asks of its staff here.) Predictably, people are asking when the Labour party will do the same, with a great deal of fun being had at the expense of Corbyn (privately-educated), and his most influential adviser Seumas Milne (privately educated).
Team Corbyn has a glass jaw on the issue because in addition to Milne, James Schneider, the Labour leader’s highest-profile adviser, is privately-educated, as was Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary and the leader’s office chosen candidate for the role. But Labour has a good story to tell here, policy-wise: getting public organisations to publicly reveal their state-private mix is a good way to get them to diversify.
But it is as predictable as the rising of the sun that, as long as the opposition doesn’t publish its own figures, any conversation about class will be derailed by conversations about the gilded backgrounds of a few high profile party staffers.
It’s difficult to see what Labour would lose by publishing a breakdown of where its staffers were educated: anyone who wants to tell a story about a Labour Party dominated by poshos will be able to do that as long as even one high-profile Labour power player is privately educated, but publishing its own figures would mean that whenever the Labour Party returned to its theme – which it does semi-regularly – it would have already got its own house in order. (It would also give it a handy stick with which to beat the other political parties, as they would either be only the second political party to reveal their figures, or they would have not done so at all.)
It speaks to a wider strategic failing on the part of Team Corbyn. One of the things that Corbyn has done with his transformed position since the 2017 election is to reform the structures of the Labour Party. But what he hasn’t done is use those reforms to tell any type of story about what he wants and who he is. As the only thing that he has ever run is the Labour party, he’s missing a trick by not weaving his handling of the party into a wider story about who he is and what his plans for Britain are.