Updated: Mar 26
Becci Heagney, North-West Socialist Alternative
In case you missed the first leaders’ debate, Boris wants to get Brexit done. So much so that this was his answer to every single question! It doesn’t matter if his deal is worse than Theresa May’s, will open up the NHS to be sold off to US big pharma or will mean a border in the Irish Sea.
Many people will be frustrated that the debate around Brexit has gone on for so long and may have sympathy with the idea of “getting it done”. But that is not the only issue. The kind of Brexit deal that is agreed is important. People are also concerned about everything else - jobs, pay, the NHS.
It was therefore correct that Corbyn was able to keep dragging the debate back to the fundamentals - the increasing levels of inequality and how this has been caused by the “coalitions of chaos” over the last nine years. From his opening remarks, Corbyn attacked the Tory government for presiding over a massive increase in poverty whilst giving tax cuts to the rich. He promised in relation to the NHS to end the internal market, to fill the job vacancies and to end privatisation.
Despite being mocked by some in the audience and Johnson himself, Corbyn defended the idea of a shorter working week which would increase productivity and also be better for people’s health - “along with better pay”. This received a huge round of applause from the audience and will be supported by many workers across the country, along with Corbyn’s pledges for a £10 an hour living wage and an end to zero hours contracts. Corbyn was mostly able to hold his own on the issue of Brexit. His position during and since the referendum has been confused and confusing as he has attempted to face both ways.
However, the clear message he repeated throughout the debate of renegotiating a deal within 3 months, that will defend jobs and the NHS, and having a referendum within 6 months is a step forward. In our view, though, by promising to have a close relationship with the EU Single Market, Corbyn will not be able to achieve a deal that will be in the interests of the working class.
The audible groans from the audience every time Johnson mentioned “getting Brexit done” were probably repeated throughout the country. He cannot defend the legacy of Tory austerity and wants to avoid talking about his election promises, because he knows he will abandon them if he wins.
The defence of “the union” above everything else would have raised some concerns for some in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Johnson was attempting to hark back to the early days of the Tory party by claiming the the union was the most “successful political project of the last 300 years”. But those days are gone! The Tory Party has lost substantial support and its ever diminishing membership is ageing. It is a party in crisis.
It is a mistake for Corbyn to have ruled out a 2nd Scottish independence referendum in the”early years” of a Labour government. Labour will struggle to get votes in Scotland on this basis. However, Johnson is also at risk of losing seats in Scotland over his position on Brexit. Corbyn is still facing issues with the Blairites in his party, reflected in the questions about anti-semitsm, which is in fact being used to undermine him because of his anti-austerity policies, but he answered this well in the debate by making a firm stand against all forms of racism.
Johnson struggled on the questions about personal integrity, telling the truth and Prince Andrew whereas Corbyn was able to present himself as more genuine. Whilst both promised that “austerity is over”, the debate didn’t really allow time for more detail about what that means. Just a matter of seconds were given over to talk about climate change for example, but Corbyn was able to get in points about jobs as part of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’.
Johnson accused Corbyn of wanting to overthrow capitalism and to “destroy wealth creation”. Corbyn was able to respond by saying it was wrong to have billionaires and and very poor people, that businesses and the rich should pay tax and that everyone should be entitled to free education.
The debate, only 50 minutes long, spent the first 30 minutes on Brexit. It ended with an absurd question about Christmas presents (which Johnson still managed to make about his Brexit deal), but overall Johnson came across as one dimensional whereas Corbyn’s message of voting for hope would have chimed with many working class people struggling in austerity Britain.
It remains to be seen whether this debate will affect the opinion polls, but it is clear that if Corbyn takes this message out to the people, organising mass rallies and protests, the situation can be turned around and we could see a Corbyn-led government on 12th December.