Five things Corbyn can say to win the next televised debate

The prevailing wisdom about last night’s ITV Leaders’ Debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn is that it was a score draw. A YouGov snap poll seems to support this, with 51% thinking the Prime Minister shaded it and 49% picking Corbyn was the winner. Given the gap in each leader’s personal ratings, that will be taken as a win in Labour HQ, but with an equally alarming gap in voting intention polls my own sense is that Corbyn needs to realise more benefit from these debates. The next opportunity to do so will be during a two-hour Question Time special on Friday — here are the things I think the Labour Leader needs to say and do to improve on last night’s showing.

1) Sort out the Brexit answer

Were it not for the first 15 minutes, you’d feel confident in calling last night a victory for Corbyn. But the contrast between Corbyn’s performance during the opening salvos on Brexit and the rest of the programme could not have been starker. Johnson repeatedly asked Corbyn “how will you campaign in a second referendum?” and Corbyn repeatedly, transparently and uncomfortably dodged the question.

Corbyn should expect more of this line of questioning on Friday, and he will need a much more robust response if he is to triumph. Such a response isn’t actually that difficult to formulate — there is nothing inherently irrational in Labour’s policy and there are plenty of Johnson bruises to punch in a counterattack — but Corbyn has always struggled to sound convincing when defending policies in which he personally doesn’t believe, and a People’s Vote clearly falls within that class. Given that, he and his team need to have an oven-ready (to coin a phrase) response to roll out on Friday that addresses the accusation of indecision head on — the audience will call out waffle in the more interactive Question Time format and that will unsettle Corbyn who can get tetchy under pressure. Here’s how I might respond:

“The important issue is not how I would vote in a referendum, but how the people would vote. We’re not going to heal the deep divisions on Brexit with a backroom deal cobbled together by politicians. The deal the Prime Minister is trying to flog is a hideous mishmash of Theresa May’s failed deal which Boris Johnson himself twice voted against, with the damaging addition of a border in the Irish sea which the PM repeatedly promised he would never accept. People are rightly worried that this will damage our jobs, our NHS and our rights. Labour will address these concerns by negotiating a Brexit deal that prioritises these rather than the deregulation the Prime Minister is pursuing so that he can sell-off our health service to American Big Pharma in a future trade deal. But it is the public who must decide how we end this, not politicians.

“The Prime Minister wants to know how I’d campaign in a referendum, but this is a man who in 2016 famously wrote two articles — one in favour of leave and another backing remain — because he wasn’t yet sure which side he should take to further his own ambitions. Labour is interested in getting Brexit done for the benefit of the public, not for the benefit of Boris Johnson.”

2) Tackle “Get Brexit Done”

Corbyn has very good reasons to want to steer the debate away from Brexit to avoid the debate being held on Johnson’s terms. But if he was in any doubt before last night that the Prime Minister would take every opportunity to wheel out the latest soundbite from CCHQ (or should that be FactCheckUK?) — “Get Brexit Done” — he will have been swiftly disabused of that.

But the format of TV debates can work to Corbyn’s advantage here: he can be confident that producers will want to “get Brexit done” on the night so that they can dip their toes into other policy areas, so he might as well use the inevitable Brexit question to put a few holes in the PM’s favourite catchphrase by tackling it head on.

In particular, Corbyn shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth: Boris Johnson has made a series of rash promises on Brexit that he’s already broken, and Corbyn didn’t capitalise on this nearly as much as he should have last night to question the value of this latest pledge. I’d want to say something similar to this:

“When the Prime Minister says that he will ‘Get Brexit Done’, he’s not being honest with you. He knows that it will take years and years and years to negotiate the free trade agreements he says he wants, and he knows that he’ll have to extend the transition period if he is to deliver that. He knows that even a no-deal crash out would simply take us back to square one, negotiating the deals that our economy and society need from scratch, but in a position of greater weakness.

“He knows all this because, of course, he has repeatedly failed to deliver on the promises he and his Tory colleagues have made on Brexit. He promised time and time again to deliver Brexit by October 31st, he said he’d rather ‘die in a ditch’ than fail in that mission, and yet here he is, alive and well and making you a new set of promises he knows he cannot keep. Labour knows that the only way to Get Brexit Done is to negotiate a credible Brexit deal and let the people decide. You can’t trust this Prime Minister to Get Brexit Done.”

3) Make Johnson’s trustworthiness an issue

Johnson’s shiftiness should also come to Corbyn’s aid on issues besides Brexit: if voters don’t trust what Johnson says, the force of his neatly-prepared soundbites is negligible. Trustworthiness is one of the few personal traits that Corbyn has parity with Johnson, and the TV debates are a great platform to force the PM to defend his integrity. In fact, one of the questions from Julie Etchingham spoke directly to this issue, presenting Corbyn with an open goal which he didn’t entirely capitalize upon.

To do so on Friday, Corbyn needs a much firmer grasp on the facts and figures, as well as the ability to reel off the litany of half- and untruths the Prime Minister has in his back catalogue. He partially alluded to some of these last night by referencing the dodgy figures that underpin the PM’s pledge to build 40 new hospitals, but to give this more force he needs to be able to back it up by quoting independent analysis. Given the latest furore about the Conservatives impersonating factcheckers on Twitter, it’s not impossible that we’ll get another direct question on trustworthiness on Friday, in which case I’d say something along the lines of the below. But if not, Corbyn needs short, sharp rebuttals to some of the more predictable claims the PM will make that can cast reasonable doubt on the value of what he says.

“The antics we’re seeing from this Prime Minister really are unprecedented: he’s taking the public for fools. We’ve already seen in this campaign the Tories doctoring TV footage to try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes, and now we’ve seen the official Conservative Twitter account try to pass themselves off as something they’re not in order to smear its opponents. This is the behavior of tinpot dictators and banana republics, not someone who aspires to lead this great country.

“I’m afraid there is a pattern to the Prime Minister’s behaviour. He says he’ll build 40 new hospital, but independent factcheckers Full Fact point out that he’s actually only planning to upgrade six, and the Health Foundation says that this is completely inadequate to reverse the dozens of projects that have been delayed and cancelled. The PM says there are 20,000 more police on the streets even though official figures show we’ve lost more than that since the Tories have been in power. Of course, he’s still not apologised for the divisive lies he spread during the referendum campaign, and even tries to claim that he didn’t say things that he’s on camera saying. The former Telegraph and Daily Mail journalist and Conservative supporter Peter Oborne has taken to trying to catalogue Boris Johnson’s lies — a herculean effort! — he’s currently documented more than 90.

“If we’re going to heal the divides in our country and restore faith in our politics, we need to be able to believe what our Prime Minister says. Unfortunately, nobody can trust a word Mr Johnson utters.”

4) The ‘other’ referendum

Besides Brexit, the other charge Corbyn failed to effectively defend himself against was that he was plotting with Nicola Sturgeon to hold a second independence referendum. I can understand the desire to avoid unnecessarily limiting the options of a future Labour-led administration. It’s also perfectly reasonable for a democrat to want to avoid dismissing the Scots’ right to self-determination. But these goals can be achieved without prevarication by firmly ruling out a referendum in the short term while leaving the issue open in the longer term. Here’s what I think he should say:

“I’m afraid the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum is entirely the product of the Prime Minister’s over-active imagination. We’ve been very clear that we’re not interested in forming a coalition with the SNP or anybody else, not least because we’ve seen nothing but chaos and incompetence from recent Conservative-led governments propped up by the Liberal Democrats or DUP. I’d hope that the SNP would vote with a Labour Government because they want to see an end to the austerity that is damaging lives both north and south of the border, but if they want that to continue they are free to vote with the Tories and explain those choices to the Scottish public.

“We don’t think Scotland needs another independence referendum now. There are so many issues that need our urgent attention — from the climate crisis to our crumbling NHS and rising poverty — that we need to tackle together. The only reason anyone is talking about the break up of the union is because of this Government’s botched handling of Brexit — whether that’s the Prime Minister’s reckless proposal to divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK or his inability to engage with the concerns of Scottish voters.”

5) Get the tone right

Last night’s debate exposed a weakness in the PM that Corbyn should look to exploit: his tendency to talk over the host and fall back on pre-prepared attack lines. While there is a method to this — the attack lines are punchier when clipped for TV news bulletins than they sound in the cut -and-thrust of the debate— Johnson does tend to approach these events as he does sparring in the House of Commons, and as we saw from the audible groans and laughs from the studio audience (not exclusively at Johnson’s expense, it has to be said), this tone can grate.

While the PM may have calculated that this is a risk worth taking to ram home his soundbites, Corbyn can also benefit by striking a different tone. One way he can use these debates to transform his campaign is by channeling an anti-politics authenticity that helped fuel his campaign in 2017. The PM’s debating society mannerisms reinforce the perception that he is of rather than against the much-maligned “elite”, and while Corbyn generally did a good job of remaining calm and grounded last night, he could do more to explicitly draw out this difference. He might think about saying something like this:

“The prime minister has been very disrespectful tonight, interrupting, talking over questions and ignoring what is being said by others. And I have to say, that’s rather typical of the way he’s acted as Prime Minister. He’s sought to avoid scrutiny and duck his responsibilities at every turn. He refused to debate me in the House of Commons, he’s refused to appear in front of the committees we have to hold him to account, and we now know he even lied to the Queen in order to attempt to illegally shutdown Parliament for five weeks.”

“Politicians often get accused of being an out-of-touch elite and it’s behaviour like that that leads them to do it. I believe that politicians are servants of the people not their masters, and it’s our job to listen to what they’re saying and to act on their hopes and fears. That’s why I spend so much of my time talking to people from all walks of life, from business leaders to the far too many homeless people we see on our streets. We can do politics differently, but we need to all act more humbly, more respectfully and more inquisitively, and I’m afraid what we’ve seen tonight from the Prime Minister falls far short of that.”

6) And finally…

Corbyn’s team need to think carefully about what they want to gain from Friday’s debate. While there’s not much evidence from which to glean insight from the UK’s relatively short dalliance with televised leaders’ debates, what there is suggests they don’t in themselves have the transformative impact on an election campaign that many in Westminster like to pretend they do (at least since the novelty of the 2010 debates has worn off), and which Corbyn desperately needs.

But that’s not to say that they can’t be powerful or help to close the polling gap between Labour and the Conservatives, it’s just that they tend to do this indirectly. In particular, the 10 second clips that get lifted for the subsequent TV reports tend to have much wider circulation than the debates themselves, where even those who watch them in their entirety tend to zone in and out. And more broadly, the debates help to frame the way in which the rest of the election campaign gets parsed by the media, who do pore over the minutiae of what was said to whom and how.

To take advantage of this Corbyn needs to think about how he can use the debate to frame a narrative that is discussed beyond Friday night and the debate’s immediate fallout. He had some success in doing this last night: he talked powerfully about his friend who had died the day before after failing to get the care needed at hospital, for example. But the difficulty he faces is that he hasn’t distilled a core message for his campaign as clear and memorable as the PM’s “Get Brexit Done” and nor has he had the same discipline in repeating it ad nauseam.

The 2017 refrain of “For The Many, Not Just The Few” made an appearance, but not with any regularity and not as the distillation of a wider pitch. Saving the NHS from a Trump trade deal, under-investment and spiralling waiting times underpinned many of Corbyn’s arguments but lacked a soundbite that could be easily clipped and repeated.

There is a balance to be struck here between marking a clear difference between Corbyn’s ‘authenticity’ and Johnson’s made-for-the-News-At-10 soundbites, but Corbyn’s team should think a bit more about what the elevator pitch is for a Corbyn-led government and how that can be communicated in a way that is both clear and punchy and sits comfortably with the image of their candidate that they’re trying to project.

Politics and data enthusiast currently working in tech. Proud alum of @FullFact, @Guardian & @ForesightNewsUK. All opinions are accidental.

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