After a brief respite, Corbyn’s foes are back sniffing for weakness
A Tory attempt to nail him on student debt failed, but then Corbyn made a problem for himself
Jeremy Corbyn: claimed the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had undermined pay and conditions for British workers. Photograph: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg
Jeremy Corbyn’s enemies, who include the Conservative Party, most of the media and many of his own MPs, are still trembling from the shock of last month’s election result. The Labour leader did not – as they never tire of pointing out – actually win, but he greatly surpassed expectations. And he did it on a left-wing manifesto advocating higher taxes on the rich to pay for better public services for everyone.
In the days after the election, many of Corbyn’s detractors remained silent or offered grudging expressions of respect, sometimes acknowledging that they may have missed something going on in the country. But after a few weeks back in the reassuring embrace of their colleagues at Westminster, politicians and political commentators have regained some of their old self-assurance as they sniff around the Labour leader in search of his Achilles heel.
The Conservatives thought they had found it last week when they claimed that Corbyn had misled young voters before the election when he told the NME that he would try to “deal with” the debt carried by former students unable to pay back tuition fees. Labour promised in its manifesto to scrap all third-level tuition fees but the party said after the election that clearing all historic student debt would cost £100 billion and could not be achieved under the next Labour government.
Look before you leap
The Conservatives and their supporters in the media leaped on what they characterised as a broken promise to wipe out student debt, suggesting that it cast doubt on Labour’s promise to abolish fees and on Corbyn’s reputation for honesty. The problem was that Corbyn never actually made the promise he was alleged to have broken.
“Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden,” he said in the NME interview. “I don’t have the simple answer for it yet – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all this – but I’m very well aware of that problem.
“And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”
A YouGov poll showed that the attack missed its target, with just 17 per cent of 18-24-year-olds believing that Corbyn’s statement meant he would wipe out all student debt. Only 14 per cent of those aged 25-41, the group likely to be making tuition fee repayments now, thought he had promised to write off their debts. And the exercise ensured that, every day for over a week, voters were reminded that Labour wants to scrap student fees, while the Conservatives will keep them.
A bigger problem
Corbyn created a bigger problem for his party last Sunday when he said he said Britain should leave the single market when it leaves the EU and claimed that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had undermined pay and conditions for British workers. The following day, his close shadow cabinet ally Barry Gardiner went further, saying Britain must leave both the single market and the customs union.
The statements threatened to reopen wounds within the party over Brexit that had been lightly stitched together with a deliberately vague policy about Britain’s future relationship with the single market. Corbyn’s apparent support for a hard Brexit put him at odds with the Labour membership, the overwhelming majority of whom are Remainers.
On Wednesday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell corrected his leader’s line, saying that Labour had not ruled out any option on the single market. “Whether we’re in, whether we’re out, we’re not ruling anything out,” he said.
Later that day, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer confirmed that Labour’s official position of keeping all options open had been restored.
“Labour’s objective is tariff-free access to the single market, no new red tape at customs and a deal that works for services as well as goods. It is vital that we retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union,” he said. “How we achieve that is secondary to the outcome and should be part of the negotiations. We need to be flexible in our approach and not sweep options off the table.”