In 1982, the rock band Van Halen embarked on a world tour, dragging truckloads of electrical equipment around venues they had probably never visited before and might never visit again. Their rider – the list of demands they imposed on each arena – ran to 53 pages, and included their backstage requirement for 48 large towels, a tube of K-Y Jelly, and “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).”
For a while, this demand for colour-segregated candy was presented as symbolic of megastar diva-dom, up there with J Lo wanting her coffee stirred anti-clockwise and Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx asking for “an AK-47 and a boa constrictor” (he now says he was embarrassed at how tame his rider had become once he quit drinking).
Then, another story emerged: in 2012, Van Halen’s lead singer David Lee Roth explained that the band’s show pushed the technical limits of the venues available at that time, using huge lighting and electrical rigs. The M&Ms clause was there to check that the team at each new venue had read the band’s instructions in full. “If I came backstage, having been one of the architects of this lighting and staging design, and I saw brown M&Ms on the catering table,” said Roth, “then I guarantee the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we would have to do a serious line check” of the stage.
What does this have to do with Jeremy Corbyn? When he lined up with other politicians on Remembrance Sunday, Corbyn was wearing a plasticky anorak with a hood, rather than a wool overcoat like everyone else (and as he did at the event in 2017). I groaned, foreseeing the inevitable criticism that he looked scruffy (accompanied by references to Michael Foot’s “donkey jacket”) and the inevitable counter-criticism that there are more important things in life than jackets. Typical of the biased mainstream media to focus on clothes, not policies.
Both sides of this debate have merit. In the early days of his leadership, Corbyn faced some criticism of his attitude to remembrance which was based on facts (he did not sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service in September 2015, due to his republicanism), but also plenty that was absurdly overhyped (he “did not bow low enough” at the Cenotaph two months later). He has every right to complain that the press nitpicks over this stuff, trying to find evidence for a lack of patriotism in the most minute details.
Equally, though, tabloid newspapers face an election every weekday, rather than every five years. If they weren’t in tune with their readers, they would go out of business. Thousands of people will have looked at Corbyn in his hooded anorak and said: “God, you’d think he could put a proper coat on, wouldn’t you?” You can’t insist that the media simply don’t mention something that many of their readers will have noticed.
And this is why Corbyn’s Armistice Day anorak is the political equivalent of those brown M&M’s. It’s a tiny, unimportant detail, but it’s also a warning sign that something bigger could be wrong. Either his team did not feel confident enough to mention the coat, or they did – and he ignored them.
The same applies to Corbyn’s reply to the Budget on 29 October. He shouted throughout, in a barking monotone that was pitched to overcome the din in the House. But it made the clips of his pre-potted lines unwatchable on Facebook, where his team has previously had great success.
In recent months, Corbyn’s presentation skills have gone backwards. During the last election, Stephen Bush praised Corbyn and his team for overcoming his tendency to snap at interviewers. Unlike Theresa May, he wrote, Corbyn had been given tough but necessary feedback and acted on it. His team felt confident enough to tell him the truth, and he respected them enough to hear it. A good sign. Similarly, after the national anthem uproar, Corbyn started to sing it (or at least mumble it, which is all most of us do anyway). To kill off stories about his scruffiness, he adopted the Westminster male uniform of navy suit, shirt and tie, with a tan suit if he was feeling particularly daring. After his early PMQs performances elicited nothing useful from the government, he changed tack and began to ask questions that were perfectly crafted to go viral online. He can do all this stuff. So why isn’t he?
Perhaps it’s a side-effect of Labour’s unexpected success in 2017, which suggested that conventional wisdom about how a political leader had to behave could be wrong. Since then, Corbyn has been largely invisible on television and at Westminster, outside the unavoidable set-pieces (PMQs and the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show). He spends Thursdays on the road, giving his stump speech – the media is against us, it’s time to end austerity, every child should have a musical instrument – and motivating community organisers in marginal seats. He spends Fridays in his constituency. Unlike his shadow chancellor John McDonnell, he rarely disturbs his mornings or weekends with a “broadcast round” of interviews. Articles or comment pieces by him are seldom if ever offered to editors by his inner team.
Does Corbyn care that his leadership ratings have fallen back, and Labour are stuck in the polls? It’s tempting to portray his inaction as a tactical masterstroke (never interrupt your enemy when he or she is making a mistake), or as a response to the disconnect between Corbyn’s natural Euroscepticism and the Remainia of Labour supporters (he says the party cannot stop Brexit, while its Brexit spokesman says the opposite). With hegemony over the party, Corbyn could force any line on Europe he wanted. But he has no appetite for a fight, and so prefers to stay silent.
That might be clever, it might be tactical, but it isn’t leadership. And meanwhile, the brown M&Ms keep piling up backstage.
This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history