“Why do you think it’s a concession to lead the Labour party?” Jeremy Corbyn demanded of Robert Peston when he was asked about compromises in order to achieve party unity.
The Labour leader was right. Under him the party is developing a broad left-of-centre alternative, as any pragmatic leader should do.
Two of the most common criticisms levelled at Corbyn and his leadership are contradictory. The first is that he cannot reach out to the middle classes: his left-wing policies fail to reach beyond Labour’s existing supporters, many of whom work in public services. The second is that he is too representative of wealthy Islington and not enough of those on lower incomes so will lose working-class votes.
Diane Abbott faced a grilling from the BBC after the local elections and was challenged over the suggestions Labour had not reached out to middle England. On ITV yesterday, Corbyn defended himself against the accusation his pro-immigration stance would hit people on low incomes.
If Corbyn can be criticised from both directions – for being too left-wing and for coming from too middle-class a stance – then this shows he is doing something right. His leadership, still in its infancy, is part of a process of creating a broad left-wing Government which combines the range of views held by both the Labour membership and the population.
Corbyn’s gradual shift to supporting the EU illustrates this and he defended his position during the interview. Many suspect he remains far closer to his historical euroscepticism than he lets on. In the 1980s he described the EU as a “bureaucracy totally unaccountable to anybody” but has subsequently dedicated time and effort to the remain campaign.
He made speeches over the weekend about the importance of the EU to young people, workers‘ rights and the environment. Corbyn has moved towards a position where the party can be united rather than going against the will of MPs, as well as the Corbynistas, who embody an internationalist pro-European approach.
When pushed by Peston about whether he is comfortable compromising on individual issues, Corbyn drew the conversation back to his core purpose as Labour leader – rebuilding the party’s trust on the economy.
“On individual issues: fundamentally the most important one is on economic policy where we have very much changed the narrative.
“We are an anti-austerity party. We have pointed out that austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity. We’re developing a strategy about economic justice, it is about expanding our economy, it is about maintaining and expanding the welfare state and security for people – and challenging the narrative that the next generation is poorer than this one and the one after that gets progressively poorer.
“I think that’s a pretty big change Labour’s fundamental economic message.”
Winning the conversation on the economy is key to anyone leading the party. Achieving unity on issues like Trident, on which Peston also quizzed him, or military action, is almost impossible within Labour. However, we are all committed to developing a left-wing Government based on Labour values. Corbyn could have used this platform to talk about the Falklands, division within the party, vegetarianism or sex work, but sensibly took the opportunity to highlight the issue which defines our party’s purpose instead.
The “accidental leader”, as Peston labelled him, used this appearance to repeat his line on immigration – combining a desire for an open and connected economy with tougher safeguard to prevent the undercutting of wages – to bring together the broad range of opinion within the party.
He praised EU measures designed to prevent the dragging down of domestic workers’ wages and highlighted the net contribution of immigrants. He talked about the net benefit to the economy and cultural benefits of immigration, which speaks to more cosmopolitan voters with a positive view of freedom of movement.When the party is attracting more younger, urban and liberal voters, Corbyn is leading from the front by combining this message with policies designed to support those in the private sector who could be undercut by imported labour.
Of course, like so many British conservations, the Peston interview ended with a question about class. Corbyn conceded he was middle class but struck an aspirational tone by delivering a message about the importance of equality of opportunity.
“Yes, every MP has a lifestyle which is, I suppose, more or less middle class. But I see myself as somebody who represents, and proud to represent, a community of the poor and the better off, but above all, it’s a community that wants to come together, to ensure that everybody can achieve their maximum in life and in society. That’s what a better Britain would look like.”
It is becoming clear Corbyn performs better in interview than in speeches. However, he didn’t only use this appearance to come across as friendly and likeable. He did what a Labour leader should do and – as his old friend Liz Kendall would say – framed the party as a competent agent of the left ready for Government.