Labour’s problem isn’t the meejah
You’d think that by now, especially following Diane Abbott’s car-crash interview on police numbers, someone in the Labour team would have learned to print out facts and figures ahead of big interviews. Especially if there’s going to be a policy announcement.
But it seems not. Yesterday, in an interview with Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, party leader Jeremy Corbyn failed to provide figures for the cost of Labour’s pledge on extending free childcare. Barnett gently chastised him: ‘You’re holding your manifesto, you’re ﬂicking through it, you’ve got an iPad there, you’ve had a phone call while you’re in here, and yet you don’t know how much it’s going to cost…’ Corbyn scrabbled around, muttered, and then Barnett read out the party’s figures to him, live on air.
Corbyn’s performance was pretty cringe-inducing. And, not surprisingly, his supporters were unhappy with Barnett’s successful attempt to skewer their leader. After the interview, she received a torrent of abusive tweets, calling her a ‘Zionist shill’, mocking her appearance, and personally insulting her family members — some outrageous stuff.
Barnett also received (less abusive) criticism from mainstream Labour-supporting commentators. Guardian columnist Paul Mason retweeted a comment branding Barnett ‘rabid nasty &, in terms of BBC impartiality, an embarrassment!’. Mason-wannabe Aaron Bastani, of online publication Novara Media, branded Barnett’s interviewing style ‘totally unacceptable’. He said the abuse levelled at her was a ‘reflex response for clear editorialising’. Even Owen Jones, whose political love affair with Corbyn has had more u-turns than the Tories’ election campaign, tweeted that the press was ‘effectively rewarding the Tories’ by obsessing over Labour’s costing amnesia rather than on the lack of figures in the Tory manifesto.
Corbyn condemned the abuse of Barnett. It is ‘totally, absolutely and completely unacceptable for anyone to throw abuse at anyone else’, he said: ‘Under no circumstances should anyone [get] abuse because of the job they’re doing… I will not tolerate it.’ He also rightly said that ‘if you put yourself up for elected office… you are subject to permanent scrutiny’. ‘There is no such thing as being unfair to politicians’, he told an audience of supporters.
Corbyn’s defence of a scrutinising press is a welcome change from his usual meejah-bashing. But one wonders how long it will last. Corbyn and even more notably his supporters have long blasted the unfairness of what they see as the ‘right-wing media’. Corbyn got it right in relation to the abuse of Barnett for doing her job, but he has previously smirked along as his supporters booed the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, and when they hissed at ITV’s Libby Wiener during a speech he gave this month. Corbyn supporters in Momentum even protested outside the offices of the New Statesman in April, over its apparent bias against Jezza.
It all adds up to media-blaming. If Corbyn or Momentum do badly, their supporters instantly assume that the media is doing them over. It’s a patronising argument, assuming people who read and watch media outlets buy into every criticism they see and hear, and it’s a truth-avoiding one, too. For Labour’s true problem is not that some media people have a go at it, but that it has lost its ability to connect with its old working-class support base. The media-bashing makes Labourites sound like a bunch of clucking hens, irrationally scared of being asked mildly difficult questions.
Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked. Follow her on Twitter: @Ella_M_Whelan