After a remarkably successful summer of campaigning, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who for thirty years existed only as an obscure stalwart of the backbenches, claimed the Labour leadership in an overwhelmingly decisive victory. Though the veteran’s appeal to the progressive electorate is a topic which deserves far more attention than a passing mention in an opening paragraph, the most salient point can be summarised in one of the favourite rallying cries amongst his supporters: “I voted for a new kind of politics”.
Was this slogan merely an attempt to convince the undecided that this movement, unlike those which preceded it, offered a genuine possibility to rid the country of the indifferent malice of neoliberalism? The only hope we have of finding an answer is to sit back and observe the extent to which Corbyn stays true to his promise, and whether his time at the helm will indeed herald a new chapter in British political history.
The new leader’s debut on Prime Minister’s Questions was always going to be a prime opportunity for him to prove himself. After years of watching the famously gladiatorial exchanges unfold from the sidelines, Corbyn’s aim was to bring the debates back down to earth. To do so, he planned to act as a mouthpiece for his supporters, by delivering a series of their questions in his characteristically thoughtful and reserved style.
It is safe to say that this mission was accomplished, and the tactic appears to have worked in Labour’s favour. At best, David Cameron’s responses came across as pre- packaged and formulaic; at worst, they were openly evasive, as demonstrated in his answer to a question about the housing crisis, when he launched into a rundown of everything the previous government had done to combat our country’s “chronic lack of affordable housing”, but neglected to mention what his current government planned to do in future. Overall, the surprise of Corbyn’s calm, collected demeanour, coupled with Cameron’s failure to match his adversary’s refreshingly understated tone gave Corbyn the edge.
It would be easy for Cameron’s detractors to view Corbyn’s performance as having shown the Prime Minister as an over-polished, empathy-deficient politician. However, there are number of factors to bear in mind. Leaving aside what people may think about Cameron’s empathy (or lack thereof), the fact remains that he is a highly competent politician; he is thus very adept at taking the sting of questions like Corbyn’s, and presenting his responses in a clear and level-headed way.
Consequently, it would not be difficult for the Conservatives to adapt to Corbyn’s new, gentler style, changing the dynamic of the event, only in their favour; PMQs could cease to be an opportunity for the opposition to confront the incumbent, and become nothing more than a chance for Cameron to flex his political and rhetorical muscles. Meanwhile, Corbyn would be seated across the chamber, persisting with his subtle and deliberate line of questioning, but rarely challenging dubious statements and drawing attention to any ducking and diving the Prime Minister might employ.
Corbyn himself believes that the reason many people show such distaste for PMQs is that, rather than being a grounded discussion of pertinent issues, it has a tendency to devolve into a shouting match, with the leader of the opposition taking any opportunity to contradict their opposite number. This is apparently the point at which many people switch off; for this reason, Corbyn stayed away from direct rebukes in his first outing. While this may resonate with some, I can’t help but think that Corbyn is somewhat missing the point. It isn’t the back-and-forth nature of the traditional format that the public dislikes, but the manner in which it is conducted. They see braying crowds of politicians who seem to care more about political point-scoring than discussing the problems they were elected to tackle; the whole event appears futile and irrelevant. This would not be the case if the person doing the questioning could maintain Corbyn-esque levels of calm and respectability when the time came to take the Prime Minister to task.
The previously disillusioned voters who gave Corbyn his mandate voted because they saw an alternative: to the Conservatives’ social policy, to austerity, and to Britain’s political culture in general. Jeremy Corbyn leads the opposition. He needs to oppose, not just the government, but all of the objectionable facets of our current system: those who would claim it to be disrespectful rather than hypocritical for a republican to sing the national anthem, or those who think a party leader is obligated to comment on the youthful shenanigans of the Prime Minister. After Corbyn’s victory, “Jez we did” became the chorus of the faithful, but this is premature; until these forces have been driven back successfully, for me it will have to remain, “Jez we can”.