GE2019: Corbyn vs Johnson lacked the crunch argument

A score draw is most people’s verdict says Don Flynn, while Labour needs to up its game in the final weeks of the campaign

The most interesting thing to come out of the Johnson vs Corbyn head-to-head on Tuesday night was the verdict of YouGov polling which sampled views immediately at the end of the debate. It seems that 67% of people thought Corbyn had done well, compared to 59% for Johnson. But the same people felt that Johnson had just edged the Labour leader as the ultimate winner, with the Conservative scoring 51% of their votes.

Detailed analysis of the overall shape of the confrontation can be found on other left sites, with LabourList being as good as any. The gist of them all is that Corbyn stood tall and presented as an accomplished politician fighting an orthodox general election campaign. The problem here is that, for a party espousing a radical cause, that translates into winning all the battles but still losing the war. That was the view of the folks polled by YouGov – high marks for the performance but still not enough to derail the Johnson bandwagon.

The shortcomings of the Labour leader’s approach might be that he regards his best hits as coming from lines associated with ending austerity and safeguarding the future of the NHS. Great stuff, but this left Johnson with the riposte that the decade-long belt-tightening on public services had had to be endured because Labour had ‘spent all the money’ at the end of its last period in office. Even the waving of the ‘secret US trade talks’ document, which indicates the willingness of the Conservatives to bend the knee to US pharmaceutical corporates, was dulled in its impact by Johnson’s stubborn assertion that the NHS is ‘not for sale’. Nice jab to the ribs maybe, but still not the killer blow.

Not so complicated

Other aspects of the confrontation frankly showed the connivance of the television news media with the Tory cause in generating pressure on Labour for supposedly not being clear when perfectly clear answers were being offered. “No Scottish referendum within the early years of a Labour government” can only mean what is says on the tin. The implication should be obvious: there will be no phone calls with the SNP to stitch up an agreement to enable Corbyn to enter No. 10 in the event of a hung Parliament and it is hard to see why there would need to be. The Scottish nationalist leader is grown-up enough to work out how the best interests of her country would be served if it came down to a choice between Corbyn or Johnson on December 13th.

Similarly, the issue of how Corbyn would vote when the deal his government had negotiated to leave the EU came back to the people later on in 2020. It often seems that it is only the insistence of broadcast journalists that Labour’s position on this is ‘complicated’ that keeps discussion on this point going. Rebecca Long-Bailey – whose star is surely on the rise on the Labour side – set out the case with such simple clarity during her later interview with Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis that even the BBC’s number one attack interviewer gave up on that line of argument.

So, Labour has an edge over the Tories on austerity and NHS issues, and an effective response to probing questions about Scottish referenda and voting on a new EU leave deal. As things stand this might produce another hung Parliament result which many would see as good enough as a victory. But Labour should be aiming for the sort of majority that would allow it to roll out its ambitious programme over the term of one Parliament and lay the grounds for a second and even third. How can it make that leap?

Change the economy, stupid!

The answer might begin to be found in the speech made on the same day as the leaders’ debate by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Setting out Labour’s plans for the economy he talked about “a comprehensive reform programme for corporate governance”. The need for this radical change lies with the failure of the current system, driven as it is by “the unfettered pursuit of profit maximisation [that] has been allowed to override all other considerations”.

All aspects of the treatment of company employees are under pressure from the overriding interests of profit-takers, extending to wages, pensions and conditions of employment and sometimes even health and safety. More widely, corporate priorities put societal and environmental priorities on the sacrificial altar.

There are many Labour leavers who would say yes to this analysis, but they often see these as issues to be addressed after Brexit has finally been done. This is the reason why they are prepared to lend their votes to a party and a candidate who they say they dislike but who represents the best way to be out the EU.

This would make perfect sense if you believed that it was only because of the EU that the UK economy is under-performing and failing to generate the sort of wealth surpluses that could be taxed and redistributed to much-valued public services and improve the lot of the wage worker. Coming out would mean an immediate spreading of the wings of the enterprise that is currently shackled by regulation from Brussels and lead the way to a new dawn. This is far from the truth.

Stagnant UK plc

What is lacking from this narrative is an analysis of the true state of the UK economy and the historic reasons for its chronically low growth rates which have fallen to the point of outright stagnation in recent times, and nothing to do with EU membership. Declining investment and flatlining productivity has meant that the only thing keeping the system running has been ramping up the supply of a workforce that has been pressed into ever greater states of precariousness in order to at least maintain the volume of output, even as the true indicator of prosperity – output per capita – is frozen at pre-2008 levels.

Labour seems resistant to the idea of telling the real story about the mess that has resulted from decades of Thatcherite obsession with policies that have as their objective letting the private sector rip ahead at the expense of all social and environment considerations. This might be because spin doctors are telling the leadership not to put themselves in a place where they can be accused of talking down UK plc. But it might be that making out exactly this case as to why the country is a rapidly declining economic power is the one that needs to be made most forcibly – especially during the short time we now have before polling day.

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network