On the day after the Armistice commemorations around the world, the London media are full of stories about one topic – Jeremy Corbyn’s inappropriate choice of attire for the Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall yesterday morning. It is being argued that his choice of a blue anorak rather than the sombre smart overcoat of the other politicians around him was disrespectful.
In response, there has been a torrent of comment in Corbyn’s defence on social media. It’s the usual media bias; remembrance is an establishment job designed to legitimise war; it doesn’t matter what he wears; Tony Blair wore an overcoat and he bears responsibility for Iraq; and so on.
But you don’t have to disagree with any or all of the above claims to realise that they’re beside the point, for two reasons.
First, this whole mess was entirely avoidable. If Corbyn had chosen – or had been advised to – wear a less casual overcoat, all of this would have been avoided. It’s an appallingly inept failure of media management. After all, more than 35 years on, the one thing that everybody remembers about Michael Foot is that donkey jacket at the Cenotaph. It appears to provide confirmation of what many people have long argued; that there is a culture of amateurism around Corbyn’s leadership, with jobs being handled out on the grounds of connection and ideology rather than ability.
But, more importantly, there is a serious – and in my view – revealing political weakness here. It shows a fundamental inability to understand that, to millions of ordinary people, including those whose votes Labour needs to win an election, remembrance matters. In the run-up to last weekend’s commemoration we have already seen some of Corbyn’s metropolitan social media warriors – the Aaron Bastianis and Owen Joneses of this world – ridiculing remembrance and poppy symbolism on social media. But what they – and on this showing Corbyn – miss is the sociological symbolism at work here. Communities come together to remember ordinary people in the context of an event where they believe the sacrifice of ordinary people made a difference. In that sense, proper observance of remembrance is, in the eyes of many, a highly democratic and participative event.
And Corbyn – and his supporters in what I increasingly think of as the Metropolitan Adolescent Tendency – may disagree with the assumptions underlying that, but that is not the point. It is a genuine expression of feeling and they should respect it. And in that context what looks like the studied scruffiness of the minor public school fifth former with his school tie at half mast appears to be – indeed is – a sneer, a piece of privileged adolescent posturing. The millions of people to whom remembrance matters deserve far, far better than that from the Leader of the Labour Party.
Seeing Corbyn’s casual attitude to remembrance – and the posturing of his social media supporters – I could not help thinking about one of the less celebrated but absolutely pertinent passage of Neil Kinnock’s great 1985 Labour Party conference speech. He said: “Comrades, it seems to me lately that some of our number become like latter-day public school-boys. It seems it matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.”
It seems to me that Kinnock’s words hold the clue to Corbyn’s failure. Because, whether he meant it or not, his behaviour looked like the pointless rebellion of the privileged trying to make a point. It’s a reminder, of course, of who are the people who run Corbyn’s Labour Party; but most of all of Labour’s need to reach out beyond its privileged urban bubble.