Unlike the United States, Britain has not been doing leader debates for very long — and it shows. Aired live from an ITV studio, the aesthetics of last night’s leaders’ debate hewed closer to a game show (with computer graphics for a backdrop and even a quick fire round) than to the comparative grandeur and high production values of US presidential debates.
With a Q and A format — which hardly seemed to necessitate Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn even being in the same room given the lack of space for rebuttals — it was a piece of television that seemed well designed to provide material for the wearisome “gosh, aren’t both sides awful!” thinkpieces churned out with metronomic regularity by Britain’s centrist commentariat.
Nonetheless, in spite of the format, the debate revealed much about the two candidates and the respective strategies of Labour and the Conservatives for the coming election. Johnson is of course most at ease when he’s talking about Brexit — indeed, he’ll try to steer every conversation back to it. Corbyn and his party have strong answers in response. But they will have to make their case, both on Brexit and the plethora of Johnson’s lies on every other topic, much more forcefully in the continued lead-up to December’s election.
UK election leader debates are not mandatory and the format is subject to lengthy negotiations between the leaders’ offices and TV broadcasters. In the run-up to the 2017 election, Corbyn’s approval ratings — and that of the Labour Party generally — improved dramatically over the course of the campaign. The more Corbyn was in the public eye, the more the public seemed to like him. He thrived in the televised debates. With Labour behind in the polls again, the party had a lot to gain from the debate. Less clear is why Boris Johnson agreed to partake, since he risked aiding another Labour campaign resurgence.
Perhaps Johnson felt encouraged by the format of the debate, which devoted the entirety of the first half to Brexit while such apparent trivialities as inequality, Britain’s stagnating economy, the long-term funding crisis of the NHS, social care, and the climate crisis were relegated to the last half hour. Notably British foreign policy — and in particular Britain’s material contribution to the humanitarian disaster in Yemen — wasn’t mentioned at all.
The UK’s election-time broadcast rules are supposed to ensure that the two main parties are given a fair hearing during the campaign. This particularly benefits Labour, which is subject to unremitting hostility from most of the print press. But the focus on Brexit in the first half of the debate was to the obvious advantage of Johnson and the Conservatives, whose entire electoral strategy is centered on making the vote a referendum on Johnson’s Brexit deal, while Labour seeks to broaden out the debate to discuss the general state of the economy, public services and Britain’s fraying social fabric, stagnating wages, and the climate crisis.
Not content with having the first half of the debate conducted entirely on his favored terrain, Johnson sought to turn virtually every question in the second half of the debate back onto Brexit. Asked who his favorite world leader was, Johnson avoided any of the obvious candidates one could imagine him favoring (Trump, Bolsonaro, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the leaders of the Bolivian coup) and instead chose the EU27 leaders en masse, because they have signed off on his Brexit deal.
Asked what Christmas gift he would leave Corbyn under the Christmas tree (in fairness to Johnson not a question that invited a particularly serious response), he took the cue and suggested a print copy of his Brexit deal. Depending on one’s point of view, this was either impressive message discipline or self-parody, but there were increasing groans and mutterings from the audience as Johnson persisted in shoehorning Brexit into almost every response.
For his part, Jeremy Corbyn was surely glad to get through the Brexit discussion relatively unscathed, and it was pleasing to see him lay out Labour’s Brexit policy — negotiate a deal within three months and then put it to a public vote with remain as the other option — without this being portrayed as the height of arcane, convoluted complexity. (This tallies with anecdotal reports from Labour canvassers that voters seem perfectly able to grasp a policy position that seems to so befuddle Britain’s most esteemed journalists.)
Less comfortable was Corbyn’s dodging of the question as to which side of the debate he would campaign on in a second EU referendum. But Johnson’s repeated pressing of the point afforded Corbyn the opportunity to several times simply restate Labour’s position on a second referendum. As a result, we may be hearing less about Labour’s “confusing” Brexit policy in the coming weeks.
Though Brexit is more comfortable ground for Johnson, Corbyn was also able to effectively challenge his narrative of a swift trade negotiation that would follow the passing of his Brexit deal by pointing out that any trade deal would drag on for years and, in one of the more effective scripted moments of the night, held up the almost entirely redacted text of negotiations between the Trump administration and British civil servants as he insisted that Johnson planned to sell out the NHS to the United States and the pharmaceutical giants.
Mr Nice Guy
For Labour partisans, the second half of the debate was somewhat disappointing. Being a Corbyn supporter on occasions such as these can be a frustrating experience. Labour’s policy program is a radically redistributive one that will increase taxes on the wealthy and multinational corporations in order to materially improve the lives of the many. Yet Corbyn seems curiously reluctant to embrace the more explicitly adversarial class politics that Bernie Sanders and AOC do so well in the United States.
Corbyn instead prefers a more moral approach, dwelling on those at the sharp end of government policy. He spoke movingly about a friend of his who had died in hospital on Monday after waiting eight hours for urgent breast cancer treatment — rather than clearly and straightforwardly identifying the class enemy that Labour will target in order to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Perhaps this is reflective of Corbyn’s gentle personality and predilection for civility as much as anything. And it’s certainly to his credit that he refuses to engage in personal abuse — which makes the false equivalence often drawn between Corbyn and Johnson in much of the liberal media all the more absurd. Nonetheless, Johnson’s dishonest and racist comments are not personal quirks to be stepped over. They’re expressions of his political outlook more broadly. Corbyn might have done better by reminding the audience of Johnson’s frequently appalling public comments.
Though Corbyn was unsurprisingly asked about antisemitism in the Labour Party, Johnson escaped all scrutiny regarding the Islamophobia that is rife within the Conservative Party. Nor was he questioned on antisemitism, despite reports the day before the debate that a Conservative parliamentary candidate had suggested that some events of the Holocaust may have been fabricated and that Islam’s core teachings seek “world domination.” According to a YouGov survey, 54 percent of Conservative Party members regard Islam as “a threat to the British way of life.”
Media attacks on Corbyn’s integrity (especially regarding his supposed untrustworthiness on national security) mostly consist of guilt by association — “who was Corbyn seen with when?” In Johnson’s case, by contrast, it’s a question of overt racism (he has described black people as “picanninies with watermelon smiles”), open homophobia and misogyny, and the gleeful use of the language of “surrender” and “treason” regarding Labour MPs — in spite of increasing number of death threats received by MPs, and the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by the fascist Thomas Mair in 2016.
On the question of trustworthiness, there was an opportunity to hammer Johnson on his serial dishonesty — it has, after all, on more than one occasion led to him being fired from his job. One of the biggest laughs of the night came when Johnson tried to claim, with a straight face, that “truth matters.” Instead of trying to hold Johnson to account on this, the moderator sought to draw a false equivalence between the two leaders, getting him and Corbyn to shake hands like a pair of misbehaving schoolboys who had agreed to be good from now on.
Corbyn’s fundamental decency was in evidence again when the question of the Royal Family and Prince Andrew’s association with Jeffrey Epstein was raised. Corbyn responded by doing what Prince Andrew had not and asked the audience to dwell for a moment on Epstein’s victims; when asked for a brief comment on the Royal Family, he wryly suggested there was “room for improvement.” Johnson, for his part, described the monarchy as “beyond reproach.” A nod and a wink to the more feral elements of the conservative base it might have been, it nonetheless looked like the sort of tone deafness and inability to read a room that one would expect from Prince Andrew himself.
Britain’s Two Options
In the debate and throughout the campaign thus far, Johnson has repeatedly invoked the idea that “getting Brexit done” will “unleash Britain’s potential.” Typically, this is read in terms of freeing the UK from pernicious and restrictive regulations that supposedly stifle the dynamism of the UK economy — a longstanding theme in Tory propaganda. (In the 1980s, Hong Kong served as the model for a deregulated capitalism that would spark economic renaissance, today Singapore plays a similar role in the imaginations of the hardline Brexiteers.)
But, as Will Davies suggests, “unleashing” has darker connotations that might also include the freedom to say the politically incorrect, the defense of an unreconstructed chauvinist masculinity that is supposedly hemmed in by liberals and woke leftists and, most disturbingly, the sacrifice of entire populations to the ravages of climate change. Indeed, we may well come to feel nostalgia for the time of widespread climate change denial once we’ve fully transitioned into an era where much of the Right accepts the reality of climate change while happily signalling their willingness to pull up the drawbridge and sacrifice (mostly black and brown) people to the climate crisis.
YouGov’s snap poll after the debate gave the victory to Johnson by 51 percent to 49 percent for Corbyn. But given that Corbyn’s personal ratings lag well behind Johnson’s, his team will be pleased with that and also glad that there’s another opportunity to debate with Johnson to come later in the campaign. More significantly, among undecided voters, Corbyn had a clear lead of 59-41 on the question of who performed best during the debate.
One of the unintended consequences of the media’s war on Corbyn is that he gains credit whenever the public get a chance to see him, simply by appearing reasonable, sensible, and by making commonsense statements about the need for public investment. The YouGov poll also found that viewers perceived Corbyn to be more “in touch with ordinary people” — by a commanding 59 percent to 25 percent — indicating that if Corbyn and Labour can shift the debate onto their territory, another Corbyn-led upset at the polls is by no means impossible.
In his closing statement Jeremy Corbyn described the election as a “once in a generation opportunity” to end privatization, protect the NHS, and to tackle the climate crisis. He’s right. Britain and the world can ill afford another victory for a right-wing government at a time of multiplying social, economic and environmental crises. Corbyn won last night’s debate on points; Labour urgently need to knock out this government at the polls on December 12.