LONDON — “He clearly hasn’t made a New Year’s resolution to improve his performance as the leader of the Labour Party. Confusion reigns still as far as policy is concerned.”
That’s what one Labour MP told Business Insider following the keynote speech that Jeremy Corbyn delivered in a tightly-packed community centre in a quiet corner of Peterborough on Tuesday afternoon.
Confusion has long reigned over key parts of Labour policy, none more so than on immigration, as Britain prepares to enter exit talks with the European Union.
Yet, despite Corbyn’s efforts, his “major intervention” on the issue — as billed by sources close to him — failed to clarify whether Labour will push for the continuation of the free movement of EU citizens to and from the UK. “We’re not wedded to freedom of movement as a point of principle, but I don’t want to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out,” he said.
Not only was this line an unpickable linguistic puzzle, but it was also a backtrack from just hours earlier, when in a version of the speech sent to journalists prior to the event Corbyn did not include the words “but I don’t want to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out”. The speech was rewritten following a wave of criticism from the pro-Remain, liberal wing of Labour supporters.
Nor is it any clearer whether Corbyn wants Britain to retain its single market membership — which, in turn, would require Britain to continue the free movement of people. The Labour leader continually used the term “full access” which is a highly ambiguous term given that the fullest access is provided by continued membership. Yet, despite being pushed both at this event and in broadcast interviews throughout the day, Corbyn refused to clarify the policy.
Corbyn is not the only party leader to face accusations of “muddled thinking” on Brexit. But perhaps no politician, other than the prime minister, is under more pressure to spell out a clearer plan going forward.
The event in Peterborough was almost a metaphor for Corbyn’s intervention. Disorder reigned as journalists, local party members, and guests squeezed into the tiny community hall, which aside from Tuesday’s event is used for much smaller functions. Paston Farm Centre was warm and welcoming but ultimately ill-equipped to deal with the hordes who had come to watch Corbyn. “It’s not even the best venue in Peterborough,” a local Labour Party member remarked.
In fact disorder was the order of the day for Corbyn. The plan was for the Islington North MP to speak to multiple media outlets and offer a clear vision of Labour’s Brexit plans. Yet most reports of the leader’s reboot focused on his policy reversals and his unexpected announcement about possible restrictions on executive pay.
The Labour leader initially said he would like to introduce an income cap on the executives of British firms, which would stop them from earning 20 times more than the living wage, which is currently £16,000 a year. In practice, this would mean that the executives of firms — including those offered government contracts — would earn no more than £350,000 a year. This came hours after Corbyn suggested that footballers should be subject to maximum income laws.
“We remain stuck in the 1970s groove when it comes to economic thinking. It will all end in tears,” one Labour MP told us. The Labour leader later backtracked on the plans.
Corbyn supporters who Business Insider spoke to at the speech in Cambridgeshire were encouraged by what they heard but critical of reporters for not giving the Labour leader a chance to fully explain his case. “He [Corbyn] can’t get a word in edgeways. The media are just looking for what they want to report — not the truth,” a member of the Peterborough Labour Party told us. Another agreed. “The reporters were really unfair with Jeremy,” they said.
Corbyn’s team plan to make him a more prominent and media-focused leader. Yesterday’s speech wasn’t just a one-off event but part of a “whole new approach,” one his aides told us earlier this week. On that front, the Labour leader delivered. He dominated the news cycle on Tuesday and is now being talked about in a way that he has not for some time. But, ultimately, today’s headlines focus on a Brexit policy which is no clearer than it was before.
Corbyn is here and speaking. Says Tories are in “disarray” over Brexit and can’t be trusted with the NHS, social care and labour market pic.twitter.com/PYXdDCkeJd
— Adam Payne (@adampayne26) January 10, 2017
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