Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.
But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.
And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.
The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.
In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.
Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.
It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.
But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)
Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.
But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.
Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it’s a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.
Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory) Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife.