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Corbyn at Glastonbury, more Brexit variations, and why it's too late for goodbyes

What the Labour leader has at present, the party should bottle – a sense of hope.

Is there another contemporary British political leader who could have enchanted a crowd as Jeremy Corbyn did the hipsters and hippies at Glastonbury last weekend? Perhaps only Tony Blair in his “a new dawn has broken” pomp? The adulation did not last long for Blair. Less than a year after he became prime minister and with the cult of Cool Britannia already tarnished, the NME, then still an influential magazine respected for the quality of its writing and its political seriousness, turned on the Labour prime minister in an issue of March 1998, the cover line of which was: “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Blair, like Corbyn, had courted the youth vote. He spoke at the Brit Awards and, like Corbyn during the election campaign, chose to be interviewed in the NME. But the music paper was unhappy about the advent of tuition fees (introduced at £1,000 per year), the absence of drug reform and the introduction of welfare-to-work, which would have forced unemployed musicians to take any job after six months. So it took its revenge on Blair, prefiguring how, in time, he would be perceived more generally by those who were alienated by the Iraq War and the excesses of the later New Labour years. The seeds of Corbynism were planted a long time ago, it seems. Et ego in Arcadia vixi.

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Corbyn’s Glastonbury speech was cheery enough but essentially banal, as if scripted by a latter-day Chauncey Gardiner. He mocked Donald Trump (always a good idea), praised his host (Michael Eavis, the farmer on whose land the cash-generating festival takes place), spoke of the need for togetherness and for bridges to be built instead of walls, and recited a few lines from “The Masque of Anarchy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the left’s favourite public-school Romantic-radicals.

All of this led to his being received with a kind of rapture. (Imagine Theresa May, Philip Hammond or David Davis in the same setting.) What struck me above all else was how happy and chipper Corbyn seemed, in his open-necked, untucked blue shirt and white chinos. He loves posing for selfies and he genuinely likes meeting people, especially those who share his convictions. This seems to be in striking contrast to the Prime Minister who, as the novelist Robert Harris tweeted at the height of the Grenfell crisis, seems comfortable only with fellow card-carrying Conservatives or people in uniform.

At present, Corbyn radiates a saintly aura: he has suffered, his detractors inside and outside the PLP have been humiliated, and he has endured. The students love him. He has inspired many to believe that the future can be socialist, if only in one non-EU country.

The substance of what he says, as in the Glastonbury address, may not stand up to much scrutiny but he says it with conviction and dogged persistence. And he is gloriously unafraid. What Corbyn has at present Labour should bottle – because he conveys a sense of hope when many are feeling hopeless. Young people in particular believe him and in him, or at least they seem to want to. The harder tests lie ahead, of course – such as settling on a coherent Brexit strategy for Labour, when Corbyn is a Brexiteer who leads a party of Remainers. But, hey, that can wait – for at least six months, because by then, as Corbyn is reported to have told Eavis, the Labour leader will be prime minister. For now, as Chic’s Nile Rodgers also put it while performing at Glastonbury, let’s enjoy the good times.

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More Brexit variations. One I neglected to mention last week was of course our glorious leader’s appeal for a “red, white and blue Brexit”. Thank you to Helen Lewis for reminding me of that one: how could I have forgotten? As for Mrs May, today it is unfortunately, for her, a case of “never glad confident morning again” – especially so when you compare her former authority, when she had the wind at her back and the Mail was in full flow denouncing “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”, with her present diminished status as she scrambles to hold on to power in alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Elsewhere, the Spectator’s James Forsyth has tweeted about what he bafflingly called a “full fat Brexit”, while a group of Labour MPs led by Chuka Umunna has warned against the pursuit of a “hard-right Brexit”. I’m grateful to our alert correspondent Nigel Lack (see Correspondence, page 11) who, during last week’s BBC Question Time (no longer essential viewing for me) heard reference to a “legal Brexit”, an “illegal Brexit”, a “collective Brexit” and a “tolerable Brexit”. Keep them coming, please.

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Last week I mentioned the John Lennon song “Nobody Told Me”, which I said was popularised by his son Julian. It seems I got this wrong. Rob Burley, the editor of The Andrew Marr Show and the man who belatedly nudged me into joining Twitter seven years after most of my colleagues, has been in touch to say that Julian never recorded it. (Rob is a renowned Beatleist and was a quiz machine maestro back in his student days.) Rather it was recorded but left incomplete before Lennon was murdered in 1980.

The song was completed in 1983 by Yoko Ono and released in 1984, the same year Julian Lennon released his debut single, “Too Late for Goodbyes”, which reached number six in the UK singles chart. I remember well both “Nobody Told Me” and “Too Late” and somehow contrived to believe they were ­recorded by the same person, which is most peculiar, mamma. Perhaps “Too Late for Goodbyes” would also work just as well as “Nobody Told Me” as part of the soundtrack to the Brexit debacle? As I said before, these are strange days indeed. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.