Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Flickr/Chatham House

The recent attacks on the Labour leader couldn’t be more transparent, argues Shabbir Lakha

The headlines coming out of the mainstream media since Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday have been centred around him apparently backtracking on a promise to write off existing student debt if Labour wins the next election. The BBC led the charge throughout the day and the Metro and Daily Mail ran front page stories about it on Monday morning.

Since Labour successfully removed the Tories’ majority in the general election on June 8th, media commentators have been forced to admit that they were wrong about Corbyn and direct their attention at the crisis the shambolic Tory government is in. The break from their vicious attacks on Corbyn was temporary and we all knew it – clearly it’s now over. It is notable that this new line of attack comes shortly after senior BBC editor Robbie Gibb decided to become Theresa May’s communications chief.

Much of the post-election analysis that sought to understand the “shocking” election result identified that a significant factor in Labour’s success came from the huge youth turnout that was majority Labour supporting. So it’s no surprise that the renewed attack on Corbyn is focused around convincing young people that he’s untrustworthy, doesn’t really hold young people’s interests at heart and that he’s another Nick Clegg perhaps.

But you don’t need to look very deep to realise that the story is nothing but hot air, and those peddling it are blatant liars at worst or disingenuous at best. The idea that Jeremy Corbyn made a promise to write off existing student debt after publishing the most detailed manifesto in the election that didn’t mention it makes zero sense.

It’s even more nonsensical when you consider what he actually said. In the interview with NME magazine which is being quoted (which, by the way, all the articles with misleading headlines do quote and still somehow think their commentary saying the exact opposite makes sense), he says:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden.

I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

It is absolutely clear that there was no pledge made that Labour would abolish existing student debt, even just for those who have been on the £9,000 tuition fee regime, had they won the election on June 8th, and neither was it a promise to be run as part of Labour’s programme in the next election. What’s even worse however, is that in his interview with Marr, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t say it isn’t a policy he is still considering:

“What I said was we would deal with it by trying to reduce the burden of it. We never said we would completely abolish it because we were unaware of the size at that time. John McDonnell has established a working party to look at this policy and we will be making a statement on it in the near future which will set out what our plans are for the future.”

So he said he would deal with trying to “reduce or ameliorate” the debt burden, and that’s exactly what he’s doing by having John McDonnell set up a working party to establish Labour’s policy on it. Even if there was any substance to this story, which there clearly isn’t, it’s frankly incredulous to suggest that young people would have been misled by Jeremy Corbyn who DID promise to abolish tuition fees, end zero-hours contracts, increase the minimum wage, build a million new homes, etc which made his policies a no brainer for the majority of young people.

It’s clear that the media would like people to believe that when Jeremy Corbyn said he would abolish tuition fees, what he really meant was that he would abolish student debt. And when he said he would look into student debt and he doesn’t have the answers on it yet, what he really meant was that he promised to wipe it out. Having learnt zero lessons from the general election, they really think young people are that stupid.

Keep fighting

Throughout the election, the media attacks on Corbyn were the most vicious and relentless they’ve been. In the inevitable honeymoon period after a surprise result, some of us may have forgotten this. But this is our reminder that they haven’t changed tack, and now that Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister very soon is a likely possibility, it’s only going to get worse.

The election demonstrated that the orthodoxy of dictating the narrative that the mainstream media usually enjoys has diminished if not ended. A major reason for this has been the ability of activists to build political consciousness on the streets and of independent left media to keep pushing the truth. We must continue. 

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.

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