Labour’s Big Night

Last night's resounding debate victory for Jeremy Corbyn exposed both Jo Swinson and Boris Johnson as out of touch with the concerns of working people - and can become a springboard to win this election.

We’re often told Boris Johnson has a special ability to connect with non-Tory voters. Tory tabloids and BBC correspondents often tell us that Johnson alone has the stardust that can finally win over Northern, working-class and Leave voters – groups often melted together in a stereotyped blob. Yet even polling that gives Johnson a good chance in Midlands and northern seats doesn’t show the Tories’ vote rising: it seems he’s instead counting rather more on Labour voters not turning out.

Precisely for this reason, the Tories’ low-energy campaign is based on hiding from questions about their record – including Johnson’s own – while monomaniacally focusing on Brexit. He was heckled when he finally visited flood victims in Fishlake, South Yorkshire, and his aides increasingly seem to be shielding him from the public. In this same vein, the wannabe Victorian Jacob Rees Mogg has disappeared from our screens since his remarks on Grenfell victims, while the ogrish Iain Duncan Smith seems to have been hidden away entirely. 

Last night’s Question Time leaders’ special provided a fine illustration of why Johnson is trying to avoid too many interactions with ordinary voters. In the exchanges, where the four main leaders appeared before a studio audience in turns, he tried to distance himself from the Tories’ record in government since 2010, insisting that he had been prime minister for only 120 days. Yet able to quiz the prime minister directly, audience members were unimpressed – one young woman damned Johnson’s promises of investment ‘completely insulting’ after years of Tory austerity.

The Liberal Democrats, desperate to push their leader Jo Swinson into the limelight, seemed to think this format would have the opposite effect on their own chances. In the run-up to the last leaders’ debate on Tuesday, which included Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn alone, the Liberal Democrats even took ITV to court for excluding Swinson, accusing the broadcaster of silencing pro-Remain voices. The party’s presidential-style campaign heavily focused on raising the profile of their leader, including a series of memes and posters with the simple slogan “Debate Her.” 

However, from the very first question of Question Time, Swinson floundered. It started badly when she was asked if she regretted her “ridiculous” bid to present herself as a potential PM (provoking audience laughter). But in particular she failed to distance herself from her record in backing the 2010-15 Tory government, and notably its benefits cuts. Swinson weakly insisted “we got stuff wrong, and in the future, going forward, we’re determined to get it right,” before awkwardly pausing for applause that never came. 

As one Twitter user put it, after last night’s performance the Lib Dems ought to be suing the BBC for including her in the debate. Polls on the leaders’ own popularity have shown that the number of people with positive impressions of Swinson has flatlined, whereas the negative ratings are continually rising, as more people even become aware of her. 

Challenged in the street in Glasgow yesterday and again by audience members on Question Time, Swinson resorted to trying to pivot to discussion of Brexit. Yet more damaging was a challenge from a Remain voter who condemned Swinson’s call to cancel Brexit without any further public vote. Such a stance may help a zealous minority justify their preference for the Lib Dems over Labour, but its sheer impractability is proving an embarrassment. Attracting no sympathetic questions, Swinson’s performance was widely ridiculed.

Swinson’s collapse could provide headaches for Johnson, whose path to a majority relies both on new Tory voters in the West Midlands and the North, but also the Lib Dems splitting the Remain vote in urban seats. Last night’s debate provided a much-needed challenge to the Lib Dems’ blurry “progressive” image – one audience member damned them as a “right-wing party” whose actions belie their image. Swinson’s admission that the Lib Dems are “not for socialism” came across as weak and ideological, compared to the facts of her record in government. 

This embarrassment of Swinson stood in stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s strong defence of Labour’s spending plans. At least within the studio audience, his announcement that he would be neutral in a future referendum on EU membership seemed to dumfound criticism of his indecision. Corbyn also benefited from the enthusiasm within the audience itself, from one young man who defended his stance on Brexit as the only sensible solution to impasse, to a rather softball question which gave Corbyn rare space to outline Labour’s plans for a green industrial revolution.

This was particularly welcome given the tendency for this format to regurgitate media attack lines rather than allow in-depth discussion of key issues. Back in 2017 much of the Question Time special was devoted to audience members hammering Corbyn on whether he’d launch Britain’s nuclear weapons (then foreign secretary Boris Johnson described Corbyn’s refusal to do so as “spine-chilling”). The gammon meme was born. 

This time the attempts to portray Corbyn as an extremist seemed ineffective, not least a quixotic question about Bolivia, presenting his support for ousted president Evo Morales as somehow a defense of violence in that country. Corbyn also dealt effectively with one early intervention boisterously describing the prospect of a socialist government as “terrifying,” drawing laughter even  from the questioner by saying there was nothing to fear but he’d be happy to discuss the processes in the audience member’s head.

Brexit did appear around the edges of this debate – in fact, Johnson only drew serious applause right at the end of the evening, when he damned Parliament for blocking Britain’s exit from the European Union. He was not, however, allowed to turn to this issue time and again as he had in the one-on-one ebate on Tuesday. Corbyn’s announcement of a “neutral” stance did add an element of clarity – and indeed, made the debate a news event – and in the studio audience at least, seemed to qualm accusations of division in Labour ranks. 

But perhaps the bigger headache for Labour was the discussion of Scotland, including in Corbyn’s own section of the debate but also the impressive performance by Nicola Sturgeon. Her Scottish National Party can expect to come close to its 2015 result, when it swept to victory in almost every Scottish seat. Yet the problem for Labour is not limited to losing a handful of seats North of the border, but also the fact that the mere prospect of a government reliant on SNP support will harm Labour nationally.

Corbyn insisted that he was not seeking a coalition government, a line undercut by Sturgeon’s own insistence that she would seek an arrangement short of a coalition. Indeed, much of her own section of Question Time was devoted to what control the SNP could exert over a Labour government, including a fresh vote on independence. As Sturgeon well knows, this plays heavily to Johnson’s own attack line that Labour will “spend 2020 holding referendums.” Corbyn’s own responses suggested a vote could take place after the 2021 Scottish elections.

Back in 2015 the SNP surged to victory off the back of the narrow referendum defeat, felling forty Labour MPs but also damning Ed Miliband’s wider campaign. Tory attack ads then portrayed the Labour leader as literally “in the pocket” of former SNP leader Alex Salmond, and they have now produced exactly the same format, swapping in the new leaders of each party. Tory ttempts to portray Corbyn as an “unpatriotic” and destabilizing force will surely hammer at this issue. 

Corbyn can, nonetheless, draw great confidence from last night’s exchanges. Liberal Democrats often scuttle away from the light of scrutiny, but last night’s Question Time special will do much to shape public perceptions of Swinson. The audience, which applauded Corbyn far more than the other candidates, also made Johnson squirm about his record, forced onto a weak defense of his history of racist and homophobic comments. Johnson’s much-mythologised charm was nowhere to be seen, as audience members finally drilled the leaders on issues like investment and austerity. This probably won’t be a game changer. But anyone who was paying attention has ever more reason to vote Labour.