Jeremy Corbyn was met with a ‘down-down-down’ chorus from his own backbenchers at Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday. They were not calling for him to step down however! On the contrary, they were showing their support for their leader as he went up against Prime Minister Theresa May.
I have written about these rhythmic choruses in the House of Commons in a previous blog. Their purpose is to emphasise and show support for the current speaker at the dispatch box, and the chant is normally timed to match the words of the speaker who is listing a number of points. This was used to great effect in the past by Conservative MPs in support of David Cameron when he was Prime Minister.
Its use here by Labour backbenchers to support their leader is significant because it represents perhaps a change in Corbyn’s fortunes at PMQs. His performance previously has been considered lacklustre and he has received little support from party members who have been unwilling to fully accept his leadership. In recent weeks however he has become more vocal and belligerent, perhaps emboldened by Theresa May’s less than sterling performance at PMQs (compared with her predecessor). The rhythmic chorus is the first small sign that his party are starting to warm to him.
The rhythmic ‘down-down-down-up’ chorus by the ‘Chamber’ (Labour backbenchers in this case) can be likened to a group of football supporters chanting for their team. The chorus, shown in the transcript below, acts to support and emphasise Corbyn’s words as he delivers his judgement of the government’s economic strategy. Corbyn lists four items as he outlines how he believes the government has failed:
... 01 JC: last week mister speaker 02 the autumn statement revealed the abject failure 03 of this government’s economic strategy 04 (1.5) 05 economic growth was revised (.) down 06 wage growth was revised (.) [down 07 Chamber: [down 08 JC: business investment was revised (.)[down 09 Chamber: [down 10 JC: borrowing and debt (.) revised up= 11 Chamber: =up 12 JC: yet again 13 (.) 14 surely now (.) the prime minister’s accepts 15 her predecessor’s long term economic plan 16 was (.) actually a failure
Corbyn (JC) starts his list in line 05 ‘economic growth was revised down’. Note the micropause (.) before the word ‘down’ to add emphasis. The backbenchers don’t join him in a chorus at this point although Corbyn has signalled his intention to use the parallel structure (some members can be seen mouthing the echo which suggest they have been pre-warned]. Corbyn has a second ‘down’ in line 06. Again there is a micropause before the word ‘down’, which cues the backbenchers, and they duly oblige with an echo of the word ‘down’ which precisely coincides with Corbyn’s utterance of the word. In lines 08 and 09 the word ‘down’ is again echoed and precisely timed.
In lines 10 and 11 the echo is delayed marginally to follow Corbyn’s utterance. This could have been due to the pause coming slightly early or the fact that backbenchers were not sure whether a ‘down’ or ‘up’ was coming. The pattern then is down-down-down-up with precise echoes on the second a third and a slightly delayed echo on the fourth item.
(.)down XXXX (.)[down [down (.)[down [down (.)revised up= =up
While Corbyn may have been pleased with the support from his backbenchers from this chorus, this does not match the power and timing of the choruses that David Cameron often received from his party members when he was in power. Compare the rather weakly articulated chorus above with the ‘yes-yes-yes’ chorus below from the Conservative backbench in 2013:
DC: will the unions still have the biggest vote at the conference [yes Chamber: [YES DC: will they still be able to determine the party’s policy [yes Chamber: [YES DC: will they still have the decisive vote in voting for the labour leader [yes Chamber: [YES
Cameron (DC) didn’t need to call on his backbenchers; they responded immediately and with more force.
Jeremy Corbyn may be turning his performance round at PMQs but his party will have to deliver the rhythmic chanting much more convincingly if he wants to be Prime Minister in 2020.