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UK election ‘debate’: Can Jeremy Corbyn maintain the momentum against Theresa May?

The world awaits to see if the populism sweeping Europe will take a progressive turn in Britain.

analysis Updated: Jun 04, 2017 08:33 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times
Theresa May,Jeremy Corbyn,UK election
A combination of pictures of Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and main opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn.(AFP Photo)

Five days to go till June 8 and UK’s election hangs in the balance and is making for some very interesting viewing. A win for the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May was a foregone conclusion as she was up by 24 points in opinion polls when she announced the election in April. Even Left-wing commentators were writing off Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn; the question they were grappling with was whether he will stay on as party leader after he lost the election.

But the momentum has dramatically shifted. Corbyn has bridged the gap to three points. May called for an early election hoping to have a bigger majority but is not holding up well to media scrutiny every day. She is projecting herself as “strong and stable” but has shied away from debating Corbyn directly. Home secretary Amber Rudd was sent to the BBC Leaders Election Debate to represent her; May did not make it to BBC Woman’s Hour and sent colleague Justine Greening instead. The impression gaining ground that May really struggles to answers questions without platitudes. An interview with her characterised as “three minutes of nothing” has been particularly damaging. Anne Perkins of the Guardian wrote that the notion of casting May as a charismatic leader was a “lunatic idea”. “To build a whole election campaign around one person who is so clearly lacking essential all crowd-pleasing skills indicates a striking lack of awareness”, she adds.

Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, is cruising for most part, basking in the adulation of the young who are drawn to his idealism and visions of a just society. May often got the better of him in Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament but Corbyn is a lot more comfortable with stump speeches and Q&A’s. He has a lot of experience of this as a left-wing campaigner and is a bit of a policy wonk himself, able to rattle off three-point arguments with ease. He is focusing on explaining his philosophy of government, of “doing things differently”, of taxing the rich to address inequality while she is defending her record, flip-flops and austerity that has hurt public services. May is making this about the capacity to lead Brexit talks, Corbyn is drawing attention to student debt and the kind of society Britain will be. Tories are usually better than Labour in defending policy positions but find themselves on the back foot this time for not “costing” their proposals. The lack of detail on the “dementia tax”, i.e. using the value of property to pay for care of the elderly, has backfired.

It is in this context that May and Corbyn separately took questions from an audience on BBC Question Time on Friday night. It is quite a revelation to see citizens and journalists in the UK throughout this campaign challenge their Prime Minister and opposition leader in the way they do. The first question on Question Time was whether voters could trust May when she has a track record of “bracktracking and broken promises”; another accused her of calling for elections for political gain. At one point the anchor David Dimbebly was visibly irritated when May contradicted him on social care.

The debate didn’t go well for May and it didn’t help that she did not get a single friendly question. She was not convincing when a nurse asked why she was getting only a 1% percent raise and ended up saying there “isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want.” May was asked about underfunding for state schools and about schools that would get less money each year per child than under Labour. Again she could not guarantee they would get more. May also didn’t answer the question as to why she did not sign the letter that leaders of France, Germany and Italy sent to Donald Trump about withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, merely stating that she conveyed her views to him over the phone the previous night.

Corbyn was more surefooted till halfway through, explaining his approaches to Brexit, suggesting that the process need not be as confrontational as the Tories are making it out to be. He deftly handled questions on raising the minimum wage and the impact of taxes on businesses, by either acknowledging difficulties or pointing to the need to raise funds for other public goods.

But Corbyn had his toughest moments facing questions about his approach to tackling nuclear threats. He said he was for no first use and said his focus would be to work to avoid such a situation in the first place. When asked if he would use nuclear weapons in retaliation or if he would refuse to use them under any circumstances, Corbyn reiterated preventive approaches, spoke about the need for disarmament and said millions would die and that “you have to think this through”. Corbyn struggled in that six minutes stretch till a young woman relieved the tension saying “I don’t understand why everyone in this room is so keen on killing millions of people with nuclear bombs.” The Labour leader’s answers were arguably too peacenik to convince independent voters. The strain showed and he lost momentum for about 10 minutes before recovering when the discussion moved to domestic policies.

Now what? The next five days will likely see the conservative press go to town about Corbyn’s unreliability on national security. The challenge for Labour will be keep the focus on Tory tax cuts and inequality and ensure that voter turnout is high. May will have to counter the impression that she is weak on empathy. Commentator Owen Jones has written the odds are stacked against Labour, not least because “the political map is so weighted towards the Tories”. But Corbyn has surprised many so far. The world awaits to see if the populism that is sweeping Europe can take a progressive turn in Britain.

The author tweets as @SushilAaron

First Published: Jun 04, 2017 08:32 IST