Or, how Corbyn’s ‘PR gaff’ perfectly epitomises the questionable balance of our democratic process.
Before I begin, I want to make this clear. I am not sure Labour can win a GE under Corbyn. I like him. He looks like the affable supply teacher you had at senior school, with much the same wardrobe. He is principled. He is not your token career politician, PR preened and pomped to be a sound-bite spouting abydocomist. He is, far and away, the better choice over Owen Smith. But it is poor choice, all told.
I do, however, believe in the power of democracy when it is allowed to operate on an even keel. And #TrainGate is the perfect example of the very questionable machinations of our current democratic process, and the very obvious political economy at play.
For those who don’t know; Corbyn sat on the floor of a train, as did many other passengers on that same train. Corbyn voiced his distaste at the privitisation of the rail services in the UK in a PR video, shot from the floor of said train. Even though the Train Manager offered Jeremy free seating in first class (an admission of guilt if ever I saw one), Virgin decided to break its own code of practice, and possibly the law, by releasing footage that apparently shows old J-Corbz walking past some seats that may or may not have been reserved. The British public huffed and finger wagged and we all feel like it might be a bit of a much of a muchness tbh lol.
But here, I aim to argue (as succinctly as possible), why this all needs to be taken with a large pinch of conveniently sachet-supplied Virgin Trains food carriage salt.
Corbyn is pro-NHS, and pro-rail nationalisation:
Fancy that hey? A principled Labour MP! But seriously, Richard Branson (perhaps illegally) releasing the footage is one thing. But we only need to scratch the surface of Virgin’s business interests to begin to question the basis of the video release against a pro-NHS, pro-rail nationalisation MP.
Virgin Care, one of Branson’s many business offshoots, currently profits greatly from, amongst other things, twenty four GP-led feeder companies that provide NHS services through networks of GP surgeries and community-based NHS services. Amongst its corporate structure, Virgin Care incorporates tax havens in order to pay no tax in the United Kingdom. Corbyn doesn’t like this sort of practice. This is a very clear vested interest, particularly with private contracts being sold at a rate of knots.
Since the rail networks were privatised in 1993, the cost of running Britain’s railways has more than doubled from £2.4 billion during 1990-95 to around £5.4 billion per year during 2005–10. Virgin Train Group surpassed sales of £1 billion this time last year, releasing £27 million of dividends to its parent companies in the process. The CCTV release was not a moment of ethical balance; it was a moment of corporate interests being protected.
The Barclay brothers and their interests:
Of all of Corbyn’s many critics, the Telegraph were the most vocal in the aftermath of #TrainGate. A paper that has shown strong Tory bias over the years, including a £30,000 fine due to it, it was this paper that broke the story, and has ridden it into the ground since.
Owned by the infamous Barclay brothers, Sir David Rowat Barclay and Sir Frederick Hugh Barclay, they are known for somewhat spurious tax practices, and aren’t devoid of their fair share of scandal. They have been Tory donors for quite some time, and are ambassadors of the Sir Phillip Green type model of buying up companies and breaking them up into fractions to sell off at a huge profit.
It isn’t difficult to understand the vested interest of Tory donors with tax practices that Corbyn directly denounced, but it also isn’t difficult to see how damaging to our democratic process it is when billionaire business interests and politics collude in order to further those interests.
Honestly, should we really care about this?
Well, yes. The obvious collusion of corporate and political interests aside, the actual narrative challenges this complicity of corporate power quite starkly. The BBC, amongst other seemingly respected, seemingly unbiased news outlets, decided to run this story unchecked, unquestioned and pretty much unabashed. It speaks of a very contemporary war of political narratives. Whilst several other, hugely important stories have gone somewhat under the radar, the fascination with #TrainGate has been ridiculous.
But aside from this, it is amazing how quickly we are told to forget the things that really matter. Blair, post-Chilcot, is still on a high-paying whistle stop tour of despots and fellow war criminals, and he is currently giving a lovely talk on political centrism and Trump. Cameron tried to dish out a sea of OBEs, MBEs and other such Bs and Es to his mates, donors… and gave the highest honour a PM can bestow to a Chancellor who took the UK debt to £1.6 trillion. He also likely put his dick in a pig, lest we forget.
#TrainGate, at worst, was a bit of a gaff from Corbyn. That is it. But it clearly demonstrates the very uneven playing field we are working with, particularly if you are Labour through and through, like me, and particularly if you actually favour, you know, humanity in politics, fair democracy, anti-austerity measures and things like that. The biggest damnation during this whole debacle however, came from managing director of Virgin Trains East Coast, David Horne, who had to stand next to a toilet during a 130-mile journey. His take:
“Putting politics aside, this incident demonstrates just how busy many of our services are, those in the middle of the day as well as at peak times.”
Perhaps Corbyn was right after all. Whether or not we should know that is another thing entirely.
Nick is a musician and writer from Bristol