Jeremy Corbyn did it again. He didn’t mention Brexit at Prime Minister’s Questions. The Government was about to bring the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to the Commons, which Anna Soubry, a Conservative MP, had just described as a “power grab” by ministers. The Labour Party recently advocated staying in the single market for a transitional period after Brexit, a policy supported privately by many cabinet ministers. And the Leader of the Opposition asked about McDonald’s.
Corbyn is good at politics, isn’t he? Never mind that all the journalists in the press gallery think he should be taking the Government apart over Brexit, he has his eyes on the wider electorate. It is the ruling irony of this period that Corbyn, so derided for putting ideology above the compromises of politics, should turn out to be really quite good at vote-grubbing.
In the general election, he pulled off the unlikely trick of appealing to voters who wanted to stop Brexit and to Labour leavers who want to get on with it. He is not going to fall for siren voices from the press gallery urging him to annoy the second group by appearing to try to frustrate Britain’s departure from the EU.
That is why he is leaving it to Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, to conduct the Commons trench warfare over the Brexit Bill. When Starmer set out the policy of staying in the single market temporarily, Remainers were delighted but asked: does Corbyn agree? The answer is, of course he does. Starmer went to a lot of trouble to secure the agreement not just of the leader but of the entire Shadow Cabinet. But Corbyn wants to keep his distance, which is why he hasn’t given a long interview since the new policy was announced two weeks ago.
Hence the decision to ask Theresa May about the strike at McDonald’s. Corbyn said Steve Easterbrook, the boss of McDonald’s, earned £11.8m last year, while some of his staff are paid as little as £4.75 per hour. Easterbrook is the chief executive of the US company. He may be from Watford, but he lives in Illinois now and neither May nor a future Labour government has any influence on how much he earns. (And the £4.75 an hour figure may be low, but it is above the legal minimum for 17-year-olds, which is £4.05.)
But this is politics, not an academic debate. Corbyn may be a wooden performer in the House of Commons, but at least he knows that it is essentially theatre. That is why he asked the Prime Minister if she supported the McDonald’s strikers’ “case for an end to zero-hours contracts and for decent pay”.
It is no use people like Tom Harris, the former Labour MP, pointing out that Corbyn was indulging in anti-McDonald’s snobbery. The company is a comparatively good employer in the UK and its food is popular with its millions of customers. As Harris reminded us, it offered its employees the chance to come off zero-hours contracts and most of them declined, saying they preferred them. But it doesn’t matter. On this, Corbyn has caught the geist of the zeit.
There is a mood in the air against capitalism and in particular against the enrichment of its most visible beneficiaries. It doesn’t really reflect what is happening in the UK economy. The income share of the top 1 per cent may have risen steadily from the 1970s, but it fell sharply in the 2008 financial crisis and hasn’t recovered since. But that’s not how it feels, and it is perhaps Corbyn’s most striking repudiation of Blairism that he exploits this to the full.
When Blair was Prime Minister I remember him saying that New Labour would always adapt to changing circumstances. He thought he had it right for his time but that, “One day someone will come along and say you guys are doing it all wrong.” Little can he have imagined that the people who would do that, and do it successfully enough to win 40 per cent of the votes, would come from a tradition of the party that he regarded as alien, obsolete and marginalised.
But Corbyn did it in the election and he will carry on doing it, rather than risk dividing his Labour coalition over Brexit. Theresa May acknowledged the mood of the times in her Mail on Sunday article last month attacking the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. But who is going to come across as a more convincing scourge of the rich and defender of workers’ rights? Her or Corbyn?
That’s why Corbyn asked about McDonald’s, Sports Direct, energy prices, nurses and the public-sector pay cap at Prime Minister’s Questions. No doubt the Prime Minister wanted to say that the Government cannot just pay the low-paid more, in the private and public sectors, punish the rich and make energy cheaper, but she would be talking into the headwind of public opinion. So she had to give boring answers, saying “what is taking place at McDonald’s is a matter for McDonald’s” and “we absolutely value the work of all those who work in the public sector”.
Last Week I wrote about whether a leader who was a better debater in the Commons might be able to defeat the Government over Brexit, but I concluded that, although such a leader might make mincemeat more effectively of what is left of Theresa May’s reputation, he or she would not be able to bring the Government down, or to alter the shape of Brexit. (The important qualification being that a leader with a different history in Northern Ireland politics might have had a chance of doing a deal with the DUP to separate it from the Conservatives.)
It may be, therefore, that Labour’s best hope at the next election is to prepare for a post-EU Britain in which the argument moves on to questions about the distribution of wealth and power within the UK.
The next election is probably nearly five years away. Corbyn will be 73 by then, but, unlike May, no one has even asked him if he intends to fight it because there is no reason why he shouldn’t. Brexit will dominate most of the next two years and Labour has an unassailable position on that, just to the Remain side of the Government without going full Vince Cable.
That may allow Corbyn to get away with little scrutiny as he continues to exploit the anti-elitist spirit of the times.