The recent political news in the UK has been ‘traingate’. A few weeks ago Jeremy Corbyn sat on the floor on a train journey from London to Newcastle. The purpose of the stunt was to draw attention to the overcrowding on many train services throughout the country and to call for the renationalisation of Britain’s railway network. However the controversy began when Richard Branson, the head of the Virgin Group, criticised Corbyn’s actions. The billionaire, whose company operated the service that Corbyn took to Newcastle, accused the Labour leader of lying because CCTV footage showed that the train had plenty of spare seats. Let’s break down as many aspects of this story as possible.
The case against Corbyn is the following. Corbyn claims to be a different kind of politician but has been caught lying about train overcrowding because he was trying to make a political point. Further, not only was the train not overcrowded, there were lots of free seats that he could have used. I’m not actually going to talk about most of this in detail because I personally believe people are focusing on the wrong thing but I’ll address it for the sake of argument.
Was the train Corbyn was on overcrowded? No. Should they have done the stunt in the first place? Yes. They were right to do this kind of thing but next time I’d advise that the person in charge of message check that the train is actually rammed with customers. All this debacle has shown to me is that Seamus Milne shouldn’t be in charge of Corbyn’s messaging because evidently he’s shit at it. I’m sure Seamus is a nice person but it’s time to go.
In my opinion it’s much more fruitful to think of the political dimensions of the story. Was Corbyn factually correct to say that overcrowding is a problem? Yes, however because the circumstances of the stunt show the train almost empty in some places, some people are arguing that overcrowding isn’t an issue. I don’t know of these people are being deliberately obtuse but I’m sure that if you told someone commuting from Brighton into Victoria or from Slough into Paddington that they would disagree with you.
The other political aspect that I was surprised by was the reaction of people to Richard Branson. Corbyn wants to renationalise the entire railway network, and people are surprised that a billionaire tax-exile who makes a lot of money off the current privatised railway network wanted to discredit the Labour leader. I honestly don’t understand why people are surprised.
A related point makes me sound like a pretentious social critic but I don’t care. Is this the level of discourse that we now have in our democracy? Rather than talk about what the people in power are currently doing, and more importantly what the Tories aren’t doing, people are debating whether or not Corbyn’s policy is relevant because of the number of spare seats on a train.
Some people have said that the CCTV released by Virgin Trains may have breached the Data Protection Act, which if that is the case would be quite funny, but it’s best to simply move on and think of better ways of marketing your message. Polls show that policies like renationalising the railways are popular, so all Labour need to do is keep plugging away with this message. People may deride Corbyn for publicity stunts but these single events are how you influence the news cycle and generate moments that define your opponents. Labour shouldn’t be afraid to play politics, they’re a political party after all, and they should focus in on what separates a future Labour government from continued Tory-rule.