Corbyn, the media, and strategy
If last week’s behind-the-scenes Vice documentary on Jeremy Corbyn’s team, The Outsider, was meant to convey an impression of grace under pressure it’s safe to say it didn’t achieve it. The response was one of derision on the one hand and soul-searching on the other. We ought to be used to the former by now — it seems to be the stock bien-pensant liberal response to pretty much everything Corbyn does — but even Corbyn’s more sympathetic critics seem to have growing misgivings.
Corbyn’s approach to the media has been widely criticised, some of that criticism made in obvious bad faith and some of it justified. It can be hard to discern between the two, which tends to produce a hair-trigger response from Corbynites to all criticism. While the fact that Corbyn let the Vice crew in may be an indication that the Labour leadership is fumbling its way towards a more open media strategy, the film told us little we didn’t already know beyond gossip. Nobody could have been shocked to learn that the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland and the New Statesman’s George Eaton aren’t much loved in Corbyn’s camp, for instance.
Lacking in-depth analysis or context, The Outsider offered us no real insight into what Corbyn actually hopes to achieve as Labour leader or the challenges he faces. Even John McDonnell didn’t feature. Corbyn’s set-up certainly looked disorganised and near-chaotic but this is the inevitable consequence of a sudden, shock victory — the old party machine, assembled over the course of many years by Blair and Brown, just won’t pull together for ‘The Outsider’ himself. Nobody who’s politically in tune with the Labour leader has much experience of party and media management, forcing him to cobble a team together on the hoof. Corbyn’s lack of supporters in Parliament is well documented, but his grip on his party’s ‘civil service’ is also clearly tenuous.
It wasn’t a finely-tuned masterplan or years of determined organising that won Corbyn the Labour leadership election last summer. It was a backlash against the Labour Party establishment, and with only Labour’s ‘hard left’ untainted by compromises with Blairism it was the only faction of the party that could capitalise on that discontent. Revisit last summer’s hustings and it soon becomes apparent that Corbyn was the only contender offering more than (badly) managed decline.
The crisis of social democracy extends way beyond Labour’s self-styled ‘moderates’, of course. In fact, the centre-left across Europe is arguably at its lowest point for 70 years. This doesn’t seem to have made much impression on the British centre-left, which seems more preoccupied — as ever — with US politics. There’s nothing to suggest that the centre-left is honestly addressing its lack of compelling ideas and talent; instead it hectors and sneers at its opponents (those to its left, at any rate) rather than undertaking any serious self-criticism.
The strength of Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate — a hair’s breadth under 60% of the vote in the leadership election — masks the continuing weakness of his and the Labour left’s position. Corbyn has been helped however by the utter ineptitude of his more intransigent opponents. Labour’s showing in May’s elections was by no means brilliant, but the catastrophe we were told to expect simply didn’t materialise. The expectations management of the Labour right has been so cack-handed you might think they were deliberately doing Corbyn a favour, if you didn’t already know better.
Social democratic parties across Europe have been particularly committed enforcers of fiscal discipline since 2008, now serving no apparent purpose beyond buttressing their own credentials as reliable managers of the status quo. There is, therefore, no radical alternative to Corbyn and the hard left within the Labour Party. Labour’s rightwingers, to quote Lewis Minkin, ‘thrill to their own apostasy, sometimes without much questioning of the political costs’. The so-called soft left meanwhile is split — most pro-Corbyn and some hostile to him, but in any event lacking a distinctive alternative of their own.
As Susan Watkins says in an essay for the New Left Review, Corbyn’s Labour and the other new left movements of recent years are still only ‘small, weak social democracies’. Corbyn finds himself forced to work within the existing parameters at Westminster while at the same time organising the movement that’s gathered behind him, reorientating an electoralist organisation towards a broad-based social movement, and trying to eke out new openings where possible. He has to do all this while weathering the deep-seated enmity not just of the press but also of most of his own party’s apparatus.
The hostility Corbyn inspires among most lobby journalists appears to be instinctive. Of course, socialist politics will never get a fair hearing from those who work in the upper echelons of state and corporate media. If we’re going to have the temerity to oppose their power and privileges we should probably prepare ourselves for that. So, when most lobby journalists look at Corbyn they see an implacable political opponent. It might not be rationalised as such by most of the press pack — churlish of me to doubt they have anything other than the best interests of the Labour Party at heart, I know — but this is fundamentally a conflict of political and class interests.
None of this is to say that it’s unimportant for Corbyn to get the basics right. These would include, in particular, hammering away repeatedly at key messages and putting a proper rapid rebuttal unit in place. But while a slicker media operation could perhaps take some of the heat off Corbyn, it couldn’t do much more than that. With an ever-present gang of Labour MPs and ‘grandees’ — from Tony Blair to Betty Boothroyd — wheeled out to embarrass their own leadership at every turn, trying to impose any sort of message discipline must be rather like herding cats. Would John McDonnell’s media operation be quite as rickety if he were leader? Who knows. Anyone who attempted to lead Labour from the left would face very similar challenges, though.
Although Corbyn has attracted large numbers of people to his nascent social movement, it’s still poorly organised and politically inchoate. As Richard Seymour has argued, it’s a mistake to assume that the Corbynites are all socialists red in tooth and claw. It’s up to the left to make people socialists rather than hoping they’ll come to us fully formed and of their own accord. This political and organisational weakness means that Corbyn is in no position to simply cock a snook at the press. That might play well with the converted but to others it does look petulant, so it inevitably limits his (and our) reach.
Part of the problem is that too many of Corbyn’s supporters still seem to be labouring under the illusion that media could and should be ‘fair’ to him and his politics. Journalists who howl at the beastliness of the Corbynites appear to miss this point. Corbyn’s supporters aren’t asking for much — all they want is some sort of parity, although even this is an illusory hope. In the Vice documentary, even Corbyn appeared taken aback by the “shallow, facile and ill-informed” nature of most British political journalism. Given that he must have been reading it for at least half a century, this appears naive to put it mildly. Still, this does seem to be typical of the largely moralistic and utopian media critique coming from the Corbynite left.
As Labour leader Corbyn has said little about media pluralism, but the need for more diverse and democratic media is essential for a more democratic polity. The British public is extremely badly served by the big print and broadcast media, which is partly why people are generally so badly informed across a whole range of major issues. The media also serve to keep mainstream politics opaque and insular, with the requirements of short-term news management a continual distraction from attempts to broaden active political engagement. And the sneering contempt that characterises much media coverage of Corbyn and his supporters is palpable. After all, the dreaded Corbynites are merely trying to engage in constitutional politics so that their basic needs are met.
The left and its ideas aren’t just considered misguided by the dominant interests in British society, including the press, but utterly irrational. There is an age-old conservative-liberal tendency to pathologise social conflict and deny its objectivity altogether; this is one manifestation of it. But as media bias against the radical left is a given, the task is to find ways of working around it rather than bleating impotently about how unfair it all is or, even worse, simply obliging the lobby. Even so, why gift them excuses to criticise you? Social media aren’t a panacea either, not least because Labour’s own social media operation seems so half-hearted.
Of course, we could gain easy media plaudits simply by capitulating and deferring to the political professionals who know how to ‘play the game’. But if your aim is to bring about substantial, radical political and social change, the only way to do it is through mass organisation and action. The habits of passivity and deference which have become so deeply engrained will be hard to break. Even Corbyn’s supporters at times appear to assume that having elevated him to the Labour leadership they’ve done the hard bit, and can now leave him to do the rest.
What the Corbyn project work really needs isn’t so much media strategy as political strategy. It’s the latter that appears to be half-baked. Contrary to its media reputation, Momentum generally appears to baulk at causing serious upheaval in CLPs. Likewise Corbyn’s ‘kinder politics’ now appears to be something of a liability, gleefully used as a stick to beat him with every time one of his supporters says something uncouth on Twitter. It also seems to explain his reticence to go on the offensive against the Tories — but it’s no good trying to float ethereally above the fray when your opponents pull no punches.
As Foucault said, inverting Clausewitz, politics is war by other means. It’s about ensuring that the social interests you represent win out over those diametrically opposed to them. The inequalities of wealth and power in Britain are vast and you can’t overturn them through gentle persuasion. It has to be said that a bit more fire in the belly wouldn’t go amiss, given the gross and glaring injustices by which Britain is so clearly pockmarked. There’s a lot to be said for the rhetorical power of moral indignation.
Labour rightwingers react with melodramatic fury whenever this is pointed out to them, but to bring about lasting, radical social change you need to look beyond electoral deadlines. As socialists, we have to put forward our analyses and policies consistently and over time — in spite of the inevitable setbacks — as part of a concerted effort to build up the strong, organised popular support we would inevitably need to exercise power on our terms and withstand the inevitable onslaught a left government would face.
As things stand, Labour is nowhere near ready for power. If it were to win in 2020 it would be badly exposed in part due to its lack of a coherent strategy and organised popular support. What is clear though is that the collapse of Corbyn’s leadership would come as a hammer blow to the left, leaving it once again demoralised to the point of disarray. A militant opposition isn’t necessarily politically impotent, although a movement which attempts to assume office in the wrong circumstances will be — just ask Syriza.
Fortunately, we aren’t confronted with the binary choice between being a ‘party of government’ or a marginal sect. We can afford to raise our sights a lot higher than that. However, Corbyn and the left have to leverage the support they do have to turn local Labour parties into hives of education and agitation, actively engaging in social and class struggles rather than serving purely as get-out-the-vote machines. This is indispensable if Labour’s left is to create the conditions under which it can wield power effectively and change the political landscape for the better.