If you thought the mainstream media lived in a ‘Westminster bubble‘, then Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday 5 December just cemented your belief. Because the press analysis of Jeremy Corbyn’s performance was nothing short of toxic.
PMQs: the UN rears its head
During PMQs, Corbyn fired questions at Theresa May over a recent, damning report into the state of the country. The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, recently visited the UK. As I wrote for New Internationalist, he said the situation for millions of people was:
A ‘social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one’. The government is ‘determinedly in a state of denial’, engaging in ‘radical social re-engineering’ that has inflicted ‘great misery… unnecessarily’.
As Alston’s report stated:
14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.
A heated exchange
So, Corbyn thought this “social calamity” was worthy of some time at PMQs. He pushed May on this, saying:
While we debate the critical issue of Brexit, we must not neglect the crisis facing millions of people across our country. Last week, I wrote to the prime minister about the scathing report of the UN special rapporteur on this government’s brutal policies towards the poorest in Britain.
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But when… [she] read the report, what shocked her more? Was it the words the UN used, or was it the shocking reality of rising poverty in Britain?
May dismissed Corbyn’s comments and Alston’s report outright:
I say… that we don’t agree with this report, because what we actually see… in our country today is absolute poverty at record lows, more people in work than ever before, youth unemployment almost halved, wages growing – and that’s because of the balanced approach that we take to our economy.
Corbyn hit back:
It could be that she doesn’t agree with it because it’s an unpalatable truth that’s in that report. The new work and pensions secretary seems to have taken a lesson from her and created a hostile environment for those that are claiming benefits.
Indeed, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) boss Amber Rudd said Alston’s language was “extraordinary” in its “political nature”, and that the government “strongly disagree[s]” with him.
A press pile-on
You’d think that an issue affecting 14 million people in the UK would be a top priority for PMQs; and that Corbyn should therefore be applauded for bringing it up. Not if you’re the Westminster press pack, though. Because they rounded on Corbyn for discussing poverty, which affected four million children in 2017, instead of going for her on Brexit.
The BBC‘s Nick Robinson called 1.5 million people being destitute “something else”:
Given the chance of a head to head debate with the PM on Brexit a day after a historic series of defeats for the government @jeremycorbyn chooses to use his 6 questions at #PMQs to ask about something else
— Nick Robinson (@bbcnickrobinson) December 5, 2018
Meanwhile, the Mirror‘s normally lukewarm Corbyn supporter Kevin Maguire used two tweets to show his discontent:
Heroic of Jeremy Corbyn not to “cough” raise Brexit when the Con Govt is falling apart and a defeated May could be out of No 10 #PMQs
— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) December 5, 2018
Poverty, Foodbanks, Universal Credit &homelessness all huge issues but a strategic error by Corbyn to ignore Brexit at #PMQs instead of linking it to the country that Britain could be as the Tories fall apart and the PM could be ousted. Genuinely perplexed. May will be relieved
— Kevin Maguire (@Kevin_Maguire) December 5, 2018
After quite a backlash, he put out a video trying to win back some favour. But it fell somewhat short:
Jeremy Corbyn is right to tackle the Tories on poverty and foodbanks – but he missed an open goal by not taking Theresa May to task over her Brexit blundering.@Kevin_Maguire gives his #PMQs verdict pic.twitter.com/CPNd2hf3IL
— Mirror Politics (@MirrorPolitics) December 5, 2018
And looking at Twitter’s response, Maguire’s half-baked analysis was fooling no one:
I disagree, Labour have footage of Theresa May laughing at poverty and Corbyn berating her, that's a win that can be played over and over again.
— Ian Caveney (@IanCaveney) December 5, 2018
We’ve had Brexit all over the news media for months. A handful of questions on an issue that is driving millions into poverty shows that Corbyn understands what really affects people’s day to day lives.
— Homeslice #GTTO (@homeslice68) December 5, 2018
Then, talkRadio political editor Ross Kempsell also poured scorn on Corbyn for speaking up for millions of people:
💥 Govt first in history found in contempt
💥 Legal advice devastating for DUP and Brexit rebels
💥 Lost three votes in hour and five mins – worst for 40 years
💥 Grieve amendment
❌ None of this mentioned and not a single question on Brexit from Jeremy Corbyn at #PMQs
— Ross Kempsell (@rosskempsell) December 5, 2018
Probably one of the least critical tweets came from BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg:
These are hugely important issues of course – problems with universal credit and poverty – but govt is falling apart, defeated three times yday, if Labour really wants to push them into general election can’t help thinking not best topic today to put pressure on May
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) December 5, 2018
Out of touch
It is staggering that these journalists seriously believe Brexit is the be-all-and-end-all topic. Yes, the Tory government is on the ropes over it. But the dire situation for millions of people in this country is in spite of Brexit, not because of it. With the debate around our withdrawal from the EU continuing in parliament on Wednesday afternoon, why should Corbyn use his few, precious minutes at PMQs to talk about it then as well?
Maybe because the press pack would prefer we didn’t focus on the appalling state of millions of people’s lives; or because none of this actually affects them – at all. But if they stepped foot into one of the thousands of poverty-stricken areas in this country, they may find Brexit is well down people’s lists of priorities. Corbyn knows this, and should be applauded for it – not ridiculed by a flaccid, subservient media.
Featured image via ITV News – YouTube
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