Straight-talking? The subtleties of Corbyn spin
Everywhere you look at the Labour conference, there's a promise of 'Straight Talking Honest Politics'. The slogan is everywhere, but the words of the Labour leader are increasingly dishonest.
The advance briefing on Corbyn's speech does not bode well for those who want concrete ideas expressed in clear language. Most of it is pure cliché. "I don't believe anyone has a monopoly on wisdom," he'll say. The Labour leader will practise "bottom up, not top down" politics. It just keeps on coming.
But it doesn't stop at cliché. Twice Corbyn says that "I love this country". It's a clear attempt to undo the political damage from his failure to sing the national anthem. That episode clearly gave his team the jitters. Immediately afterwards he pledged to "take part fully" in future commemorations. That was the first time I'd ever decoded a Corbyn statement. He meant, yes, he'd sing the anthem in future. But he didn’t actually say it. It was the most like a career-politician he'd ever been. That appears to be just the start.
Today's speech looks like it will be low on specifics, but heavy with pleasant words which no-one could possibly disagree with. No matter how the left caricatures the right, no-one thinks of themselves as against kindness, apart perhaps from Katie Hopkins. And no-one thinks of themselves as being against fairness or decency either. The advance sections of Corbyn's speech fail the old test: Can you imagine any politician expressing the reverse of the sentence? Would anyone run for office saying they are against decency and fairness? Plainly not. And if not, the statement is politically meaningless.
But the retreat from real, straight talking, honest politics is broader than that. Corbyn's claims of acting without spin remind me of the story about prostitutes in Soviet Russia. When one foreign delegate was staying in the country, he was told by his government liaison that the Soviet Union had abolished prostitution. "There may be no prostitutes in Russia," he replied, "but I can assure you there are several in this hotel."
Well there may be no spin in Corbyn's Labour party but there's plenty in the conference centre, even if it no longer involves Peter Mandelson swaggering around dripping poison in journalists' ears. The entire presentation of this early stage of Corbyn leadership is spin. The spin is that Corbyn has no particular opinion on all these policy matters and, in so far as he does, it's not really pertinent. He's just the patient chairman of a series of discussions. The party will work out its position on these matters in due course.
To a certain extent, the spin is true. Corbyn promised internal democracy and now he is delivering it. But there is something profoundly disingenuous about the way it is being presented. Plainly Corbyn does have very strong opinions on these matters. He is not denying them now, but he is certainly refraining from mentioning them. It would be far more convincing if he said clearly what he thought, then insisted he would make sure there was a fair debate in the party afterwards. Instead there is the hint of him being a little bit clever and misleading about it all.
It's not actually a bad strategy. He needs to create a sense of calm to combat the shrill hysterics of the media coverage. He must bring together a warring party – especially when most of the members who signed up due to his campaign didn't have time to apply to come to conference this year. He's delivering the internal democratic culture he promised on the campaign trail. But whatever the reasons – this is still spin.
Despite all this, Corbyn remains miles ahead of any other political leader in recent memory in terms of how open and honest he is with the public. But when you plaster your conference with the words 'Straight Talking' you set yourself up to a higher standard. And the truth is this conference has actually seen Corbyn slip away from that promise, towards something which looks altogether more familiar.