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31 May, 2017

Should Jeremy Corbyn have to remember how much his policies cost?

The problem as ever isn't the standards the left has to meet - it's how low the bar is for the right.

Jeremy Corbyn has had a tricky encounter with Emma Barnett on Women’s Hour, in which the Labour leader was unable to remember the cost of his flagship childcare policy – for 30 hours of childcare to be made available for free regardless of parental income, benefiting 1.3 million families.

The interview is great radio – you can read the transcript here but it’s better heard than read – but is it a good way to cover politics? My colleague Helen doesn’t think so, and nor does Matt Zarb-Cousin, formerly of the leader’s office, now turned pro-Corbyn commentator. They think that by asking these questions, they are turning elections into a test of memory, not an arena where the strength of the parties’ programmes are judged. Are they right?

Well, sort of. As Zarb-Cousin points out, we already know that every spending commitment in Labour’s manifesto has been costed, so the question of how much each commitment costs in of itself doesn’t tell us anything. A more revealing policy question is whether or not the £2.7bn would be better spent on children aged two to four in a different way.

(The answer there is: Sort of yes, sort of no. The really transformative stuff around early years education in Britain is happening in schools providing teacher-led care from two to 11, but that would cost a lot more than the £2.7bn childcare commitment would. It’s a bit like saying “Wouldn’t a new space station be better for interstellar research than a new university building?” – the answer is yes, but it’s beside the point.)

And Helen is right to say that ultimately, the ability to remember a figure is not a particularly relevant one as far as judging the next Prime Minister is concerned.

There’s the added problem of course that this style of questioning benefits the right, as any gaffe made by a leftwing politician is amplified and more widely-shared by Britain’s large right-wing press, which in turn shapes broadcast coverage. The leftwing press is far smaller, so gaffes by right-wing politicians often reach a smaller audience. A good example in this election is in the fate of the two parties’ home affairs leads: Amber Rudd’s call for experts versed in the “necessary hashtags” to stop offensive messages being posted on social media has had a far more limited afterlife than Diane Abbott forgetting how much Labour would have to spend to reverse the government’s cuts to policing. Abbott got her sums wrong, Rudd appeared not to have got her arms around a central issue relating to her department, and yet Abbott’s gaffe has become a dominant part of the election campaign.

There are two “buts”, however. The first, is that while the question might not be revealing about policy, these “gotcha” questions do stress-test the competence of the team behind the leader. Given that Jeremy Corbyn was on Woman’s Hour to talk about the party’s childcare policy, he should have been armed with a small piece of paper and to have rehearsed the cost of the policy, how it would be paid for, and so forth, as it was all-but-inevitable he would be asked. (Particularly as Labour are rightly making a big play of the fact that the figures in the Conservative manifesto can be boiled down to “Trust me, okay?”)

This isn’t the first time that Labour’s difficulty giving its frontline politicians the information they need has been a problem this campaign. As I explained at the time, John McDonnell’s fiscal rule set out clearly why they didn’t need to provide additional costing for their planned programme of re-nationalisations. But that so many shadow ministers, including loyal Corbynites, were unable to explain that in interviews revealed a worrying failure on the part of the leadership to get its ducks in a row.

And while policies should be a big part of elections, they shouldn’t be the only part: the characters of the leaders should too. Take the Brexit talks. Both Labour and the Conservatives have effectively the same policy on paper: to retain the benefits of European Union membership as far as possible while no longer being subject to the free movement of people. But of course, their ability to get the best possible deal – and their willingness to harm the economy to get control over immigration – ultimately rests on a question of what we reckon as to their characters and disposition.

Or last night’s not-quite-debates. Does it matter that Jeremy Corbyn worked on his tendency to be overcome by a red mist in heated interviews and was a model of calm, while Theresa May’s habit of shooting murderous stares at anyone remained unchecked? Well, as far as the telly goes, that Corbyn didn’t produce pictures of him gritting his teeth while May stared angrily at cameras obviously contributed to the Labour leader’s win last night. But they also speak to what you hear from staff in the leader’s office and civil servants on Whitehall. Corbyn’s aides will talk about how they feel able to speak truth to power without being shouted down – they don’t necessarily get their way but they don’t fear the consequences of dissent. Government officials however, do fear that they will be given a barracking if they go against May. That speaks to far bigger concerns than who looked better on telly – not least the question of who can negotiate Brexit or who should be in the room at moments of crisis. Equally, how prepared a politician is for a gotcha question does speak to how well-run their office is and is a commentary on how well-run their government would be.

There’s a second but. As my colleague Anoosh notes, the big problem isn’t that the media gives Jeremy Corbyn a tough ride – it’s that the media it gives the right an incredibly easy one. It’s not unreasonable that for Labour to win it needs not only to cost its policy but to brief its candidates well enough that they can explain that policy to voters and its leader in particular.

It is unreasonable and worrying that if the polls are right, Britain is about to re-elect a government planning a migration target that would blow a hole in the public finances with a Home Secretary who thinks that social media companies are capable of “breaking into” an encrypted message. And no-one has really asked them about it.

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