Corbyn had a good week. But are people ready to listen to his ideas? | Helen Lewis

Helen Lewis
Jeremy Corbyn during his visit to the Wabtec Rail train factory in Doncaster. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

When Boris Johnson turned up to announce his withdrawal from the Conservative leadership contest last summer, his aides scrambled to cover up the “exit” sign in the room. They knew the assembled press would have found the image irresistible – and it might well have come to define his career.

If only someone close to Jeremy Corbyn had been similarly alert when he was invited to inspect a lavatory during a trip round a train factory in Doncaster. In photographs distributed to every newsroom in Britain, there he is, baseball cap on, safety goggles-a-go-go, next to a thankfully empty pan. With Labour trailing 18 points behind the Tories, the puns write themselves. Also: ho, ho, ho, at least this time he can find a seat on a train!

It was a sad clown-car honk of an end to an otherwise good week for the Labour leader, probably his best so far. His team succeeded in their plan to “own recess”, taking advantage of a lack of government business to get their message across.

The blitz started with a promise of free school meals at primary schools, took in a new law to stop banks closing their high street branches, a £10 minimum wage by 2020 and a “pensioner’s pledge card”, including a promise to maintain the triple lock until 2025. The first announcement even came with an eyecatching way of raising the necessary revenue by slapping VAT on private school fees. A little bit “soak the rich”, true, but given cover because it has previously been championed by noted communist Michael Gove.

The announcements were designed to pick a fight and tell a story. Most could be explained in a single sentence. Free food for kids. Higher wages for the low paid. Pensions that keep pace with the rising cost of living. In response, Downing Street pursued its usual chloroform-led media strategy. This might be the May team’s default mode, but it’s also hard for the Conservatives to attack Labour for joining bidding wars they started.

The Labour menu even offered some high-fibre cereal, in the shape of seven rules for any company that wants to bid for government business. The most controversial are a demand to recognise trade unions and to “move towards” a ratio of 20-1 between the lowest and highest paid employees. (Twenty times the average British full-time salary is £530,000.) “Government spends £200bn per year in the private sector,” said Corbyn in a tweet. “An incredible purchasing power, which we can use to support good companies.”

Labour also wants councils to be able to prioritise local suppliers, a system known as “the Preston model”. (Its council leader, Peter Rankin, is a rare Corbyn supporter in local government.) The basic idea is that big public sector bodies, such as the police, should spend their budgets as far as possible with local businesses. In Preston, the £1.6m council food budget was awarded to local farmers and the constabulary’s £600,000 printing contract went to a Lancashire supplier. Four years after starting the initiative in 2012, the city council spent an extra £4m a year in its area.

Let’s be honest. The finer points of public sector procurement are not going to set the doorsteps of Manchester Gorton alight in the forthcoming by-election. But the announcement is interesting for three reasons. First, the Preston model is similar to schemes in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Basque region, suggesting there is a productive exchange of ideas between grassroots politicians across the world.

Second, it’s a Labour idea aimed at Labour voters. As chancellor, George Osborne enthusiastically “devolved the axe”, shunting much of the burden of austerity on to councils. Deprived Labour areas were particularly badly hit and creativity is required to make the most of limited budgets. Traditionally Labour-held areas in the north of England are exactly the kind of places where the public sector dominates the local economy.

Finally, it’s a “post-EU policy”, which will be far easier to implement if European rules about procurement are relaxed. It is an open secret that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had no great love for the European Union. That’s an advantage, because they aren’t paralysed by despair in the way many Labour activists are. The shadow treasury team is determined to offer a vision of a “Labour Brexit” rather than trying to reverse or undermine the referendum decision. They see themselves as supply-side reformers rather than big spenders and hope the great repeal bill is a chance to reconsider the deep structures of the British economy.

Now for the bucket of cold water. After a few days, the parade of policies was slightly exhausting. By the time we got to Friday, it felt like Labour was trying to force out just one more wafer-thin announcement before recess ended. More seriously, with the bulk of the parliamentary party sitting out the Corbyn project, there is no squad of well-known faces to sell these ideas to the public. Switch on the TV and radio most days and you’d be forgiven for thinking Angela Rayner was the only person in the shadow cabinet.

Oh, except for Diane Abbott, who popped up on Friday to win the week’s “most unhelpful outrider” award. The shadow home secretary soured the unusually harmonious mood by suggesting that Labour would plunge to single digits without Corbyn as leader. It’s hard to think of anything more calculated to wind up the rest of the parliamentary party, since they have been hearing exactly what voters think of their leader while campaigning for the local elections on 4 May. Nationwide polls tell the same story. In January, when YouGov asked voters who would make the best prime minister, Theresa May scored a healthy 45%. Corbyn was pushed into third place behind Don’t Know. Even in London, only 18% of voters think he is doing well. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling if people don’t trust the salesman.

None of this is helped, either, by Corbyn’s impatience with journalists who ask him questions he doesn’t want to answer. His most ardent supporters love watching him stick it to the “biased MSM”, but to everyone else, he just looks irritable. It has become conventional wisdom at Westminster that the Labour press operation is poor compared with the Lib Dems (almost pharmaceutically upbeat) or Ukip (will put up with anything if it gets them on telly). That is overblown, but there is an uncomfortable truth underneath it, which is that the other opposition parties don’t feel entitled to attention. They know they have to fight to be heard. It’s hard to imagine Lib Dem activists protesting outside the New Statesman, as Camden Momentum members did this month, demanding 30 pages devoted to praising Tim Farron.

A small success such as Labour’s “Economy Week” is therefore a single ray of sunshine bursting through a very cloudy sky. Not least because voters don’t pore over manifestos and judiciously pick the best one. Instead, we ask ourselves: does this leader look and sound like me? Do they understand my life, share my values, have my best interests at heart?

On the left, this tendency to make emotional rather than rational decisions has had a fascinating side-effect. Both Corbyn supporters and sceptics tend to overestimate how radical he is: the former because they like the idea of him taking a hammer to what came before and the second because they don’t.

If it rains this bank holiday weekend, and you can’t face another round of Monopoly, you could always play a game with your loved ones. Miliband policy or Corbyn policy? (Look, I never said it would be fun.) Rent controls? Miliband. Rolling back privatisation of the NHS? Miliband. Scrapping the bedroom tax? Miliband. There are even areas where pre-2015 Labour was to the left of the current leadership, such as its promise to means-test the winter fuel allowance so that wealthy pensioners didn’t receive it.

That doesn’t mean Corbynism is just microwaved Milibandism. It’s just that, overall, there hasn’t been the kind of ceremonial torching of Labour history and traditions that both sides sometimes like to suggest has occurred. Still, Corbyn has begun to build on the party’s longstanding principles to flesh out a platform of his own. He’s a kind of Tesco Finest Robin Hood: taking from the rich and giving not just to the poor, but to the middle class, too. Remember: when you hear muttering about a policy being a “middle-class bribe”, that’s code for “popular”.

All of which points to a very noticeable absence last week – a lack of casual scorn from Tory backbenchers. They can’t all have been walking in Snowdonia, so there’s one obvious conclusion. One or two of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies might soon receive the ultimate compliment – being stolen by the government.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes