A week is a long time in politics, but…*
So, a bit of a thing turned up in the Guardian last week. Under the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn does a decent thing thing on a train’ (or something) it showed a brief video of the opposition leader making the point that the train he was on was absolutely rammed and so, naturally, rather than come over all ‘I’m the leader of the opposition’, he shunned first class and made himself comfortable on the floor.
All hail that decent man who does decent stuff, was my obvious first thought. But then I thought a little more and a couple of other things occurred to me, neither quite so weighed down with love and awe.
The first being that, dammit, he’s giving a bad name to pretty much everyone who ‘lords it’ up in the big seats. Not saying he means to, but it’s clear from the comment threads (this shot round social media like an atom in the Hadron Collider) that this was serious high-five territory, as comment after comment praised his ‘stand’ as something wonderful, for sticking it so beautifully to The Man, the high falutin’, the over-paid and over-privileged, not forgetting the Tory Toffs at Westminster-On-Alien-Planet, who wouldn’t know a standard class ticket from an artichoke.
All very fabulous and principled. But hang on just a cotton-picking minute, St Jeremy. You might not be the originator of all class-related misapprehensions, but they certainly exist, and you sitting on the floor of a train carriage feeds into them. To shun a first class seat in your position is to suggest it’s at best an indulgence and, if you work in the public sector, and are paid from the public purse, it’s borderline immoral.
No, actually, lets scrub that ‘borderline’. Yet the one thing that defines the average first class commuter is that they tend to work, flat out, for the whole journey. Which is why their employers presumably consider it worth shelling out for the space, privacy and, yes, tea and entry-level biscuits.
I’ve seen all sorts in first class, from Ann Widdicombe to BBC grandees to captains of industry and baronesses and, trust me, it ain’t no crack den or pool party up there. Just the monotonous tap of weary finger on keyboard, with the odd fabulously thrilling (well, to my mind) conversation about the machinations of various executive committees, what the dastardly defence counsel might be up to, whether old Grouseby might be up for the chop soon, or where the £27 million pound grant should be going. (I’ve yet to hear the splish of a Tennant’s can being opened, but when I do, you can be sure I shall report it.)
So while I’m with Corbyn on his heartfelt ‘more and better trains’ thing (our railways are an embarrassment compared to those in Europe, and have been for decades) he should go and get a bloody first class seat, because he’s cluttering up the corridor and perpetuating the whole class myth/divide thing as well.
It was also – for heaven’s sake – the London rush hour. (Could he have timed his journey better? Of course not – this was a sound-bite.) And the London rush hour adheres to a principle we’re all familiar with – that supply and demand dictates that the ones that pay most get the worst customer experience, as he’d surely know if he tried taking his family to Center Parcs at half term.
Bad Commuting (there’s a film there) is something, moreover, that everyone in London’s done their share of, me included. I spent most of my teens and twenties doing Bad Commuting on buses, tubes and trains. And, yes, Jeremy, at this time, they WERE nationalized.
But there’s another reason I’m cringing about this whole sorry nonsense. It’s that image, which I cannot unsee. This is the Leader of the Labour Party, and whatever you think about his leadership, is this honestly how the Leader of the Opposition should BE? Crammed on the floor, suit all rumpled, peering up into the lens – it’s only marginally less wince-making that Neil Kinnock’s timeless pirouette-n-splat on that beach. And, bless him, at least poor Neil didn’t mean to.
Corbyn did. For the entire trip, if the Guardian is to be believed. Just to make a (pretty clunky) point.
But though he might have saved the taxpayer the upgrade on his fare (debatable, since he could have spent that time engaged in useful government work) for me, it’s at the cost of his dignity. We want our leaders to fight for us, always, but not BE us.
Statesmen, not men looking a state.
*… a train journey on the floor feels even longer. If it IS spent on the floor. Since writing this column last week, it’s emerged that Virgin trains – not to mention Sir Richard Branson aren’t taking Corbyn’s sit-down sitting down either.See why here…
First published in the Western Mail Magazine August 20th 2016