So yesterday Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech which journalists had been given advance notice of. The Independent tweeted “Jeremy Corbyn to highlight economic 'benefit' of Brexit as he demands UK stop relying on 'cheap labour from abroad'” and referenced an article by their political correspondent Ben Kentish. As you might expect, the great and the good piled in to condemn the speech as anti-immigrant and pro-Brexit.
I was alerted to all being not what it seemed by this tweet from Financial Times Chief Political Correspondent Jim Pickard. He wrote: “Corbyn team is complaining that his words about "cheap labour" have been taken out of context and on this occasion they are absolutely right: he was talking about "imports" made abroad with cheap labour, not cheap labour coming here - here's the relevant passage. Please retweet.” My interest was aroused, but I could not find a copy of the speech online because it had not been given yet.
An example of the advantages of twitter follows. I asked in a tweet if anyone could provide me with the speech, and I received both the press briefing and the ‘check with delivery’ speech itself. You can now read the final speech in full yourself here, or watch an excerpt here. I then did something I do not think I have done before, and quickly composed a thread about the speech. The rest of the day saw lots of people using my own thread to correct others who had reacted to the original Independent tweet. If anyone wanted to notify me about anything else yesterday I’m afraid it has been lost in a mountain of what seems like thousands of notifications referencing my thread.
What we can say for certain is that the Independent’s tweet, which at the time of writing has not been withdrawn, is very misleading. Corbyn was not giving a speech about the benefit of Brexit, and the ‘cheap labour’ he referred to was that used to produce imported goods. Instead the speech was all about the active industrial policy that a Labour government would put in place to help manufacturing industry, which made sense as he was addressing a manufacturers organisation in Birmingham.
But surely he must of said something about the benefits of Brexit? The speech said this: “exporters should be able to take proper advantage of the one benefit to them that Brexit has already brought – a more competitive pound.” He suggested they had not because of the absence of any industrial policy. His statement about a benefit to exporters of the depreciation is innocuous.
To many Corbyn supporters this is just par for the course - it is happening all the time. I am no Corbynista, but I would agree. Much of the media, both Labour friends or foes, appears happy to distort things the Labour leadership says to an extent that I cannot remember happening to another Labour or Conservative leader in my lifetime. The macro evidence for this is the 2017 election, where Labour destroyed the accepted wisdom that election campaigns made little difference to the polls.
Labour’s extraordinary surge in the three weeks of the campaign is far too large to be due to just some mistakes by the Conservatives. The more plausible explanation is that both parties had direct access to the media, and for the first time voters were seeing the parties and their policies directly, rather than being filtered through media interpretation. This also helps explain why Labour’s position in the polls began to steadily deteriorate soon after their election bounce: the media filter came back on, with a constant stream of negative stories about Labour and its leadership. I have talked before about the contrast between coverage of Labour’s antisemitism problem and the Conservative’s islamophobia problem.
That is the context in which to see the events I described yesterday. A very small example of a much bigger and very serious problem. There is of course a lot you can say about the speech that is not misrepresentation. Is it right to be so focused on manufacturing when so much of our economy involves services, for example? Did it appear to promote an insular UK? For my own part I would be very critical to the reference to cheap labour. The reference occurs in the following sentence:
Can the misrepresentation of that tweet be forgiven in wanting to make this a story about Brexit? Well there is a Brexit story in the speech, and it is the opposite of the one suggested by the tweet. Corbyn is always accused of being a Lexiter: wanting to leave the Single Market so that he can use state aid to support domestic industry. Here is what he said on that:
“Too often, we have been told by Conservatives who are ideologically opposed to supporting our industries that EU rules prevent us from supporting our own economy. But if you go to Germany you’ll struggle to find a train that wasn’t built there, even though they’re currently governed by the same rules as us. When the steel crisis hit in 2016 Italy, Germany and France all intervened legally under existing state aid rules but our government sat back and did nothing. We have made clear we would seek exemptions or clarifications from EU state aid and procurement rules where necessary as part of the Brexit negotiations to take further steps to support cutting edge industries and local businesses.”
That, I would suggest, is not what a Lexiter would say.