Genial Corbyn seeks ‘bottom-up democracy’
As the Labour conference opens in Brighton new leader Jeremy Corbyn promises more power to party members. But is strong leadership more important than debate?
If Ed Miliband had any advice for Jeremy Corbyn when he assumed his new role as Labour leader, it might have been: don’t mix food and photo opportunity. While out campaigning in May 2014, Corbyn’s predecessor tucked into a bacon sandwich. Within hours, an unflattering photograph of him had been seen by millions. In the public mind the image would become closely associated with his party’s devastating electoral defeat a year later.
But on Saturday Corbyn hardly seemed to care. Handed a huge marrow as he toured a business centre in Brighton, Labour’s new leader – a keen gardener – happily posed with it. Where a public relations team might have sensed disaster, he laughed as the cameras clicked.
Observers of this summer’s leadership campaign had remarked upon his relaxed manner, and yesterday it was on display again. Corbyn’s interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr marked the start of the Labour Party conference; respected journalists from across the political spectrum called his performance ‘confident’ and ‘authoritative’.
Corbyn extends his laid-back approach to policy making. He said Shadow Cabinet members who disagreed with him on Britain’s nuclear weapons could be accommodated; and signalled an increasingly significant role for party members: they will be allowed to draw up ideas in open forums and see the decisions in conference votes become party policy. Meanwhile the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has named six academics who will help him draft economic policy.
The changes suggest a desire to move away from a centralised message and confirm the authority of the Labour Party conference. Similarly with the Liberal Democrats: their members can put forward their own proposals at the annual gathering, and their policies only become official once conference has voted in their favour. By contrast, the Conservatives’ conference, which takes place next week, is billed as a chance for ‘members, press and the public to come together and hear about the party’s ideas, policies and plans’.
Marrow minded politics?
‘Straight-talking, honest politics’ is Corbyn’s promise. What a refreshing change, his supporters say – politicians showing they can hold sensible debate and accommodate a broad range of opinions. No wonder, as Corbyn pointed out on Marr, Labour’s membership figures are approaching half a million.
A pipe dream, respond his critics. Endless debate will only reveal that some positions are irreconcilable; there can be no compromise, for example, on whether or not Britain renews its nuclear weapons. Corbyn’s approach will get Labour nowhere – a leader needs to have the courage of his convictions and set a credible agenda which has a consistent message.
- Do party conferences matter?
- Is Corbyn’s approach good for politics?
- Write down the five issues which you would most like to discuss with the leaders of a political party if you had the chance, in order of preference.
- As a class, hold a meeting on the issue which you care about the most (based on the answers in activity 1). Come up with a range of ideas for policies, debate them and vote on them. What can this activity teach us about political process?
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Q & A
- Will this mean Corbyn listens to people like me?
- That depends who you are. It means he’s likely to listen to ordinary members of the Labour party more when formulating policy. But critics have said that listening to people in his own party too much will mean he isn’t listening to anyone else, making it harder to get the general public to vote for him.
- How can I get my voice heard in politics?
- Political participation takes many forms. You could join a party or, if you feel very passionately about a particular issue, a pressure group. Once you’re old enough to work you could become a member of a trade union.
- But what about now? I’m not 18 yet.
- Try running for the UK Youth Parliament, which acts as a voice for 11-18-year-olds in Britain. See the link to their website under ‘Become An Expert’.
- Respected journalists
- Steve Richards of the Independent and Isabel Hardman of the Spectator made the comments mentioned; others also praised Corbyn’s handling of the interview.
- Shadow Cabinet
- This is made up of those who would be in the government if the opposition party gained power. Traditionally, Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet members have followed the principle of collective responsibility, meaning they must defend the policy decisions taken ‘in cabinet’. Those who feel unable to do this have usually resigned their positions.
- Conference votes
- Many delegates, and Corbyn himself, were keenly anticipating the opportunity to discuss Britain’s nuclear weapons at this year’s conference. But it was announced yesterday that it had not been high enough on the list of priorities to merit a discussion and vote.
- Six academics
- Among them are Thomas Piketty, author of a recent bestseller called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winner. McDonnell says the move will help to prove his party’s ‘economic competence’.