Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Six facts the commentators ignored when they wrote Corbyn off

The day revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, 14 July 1789, King Louis XVI wrote in his diary a single word to record the day’s events - “Rien”. Sometimes, there can be a profound disconnect between elites understanding of their own society and the reality.

In the UK, the middle-aged solid-middle-class, the Establishment, have for the most part such a visceral dislike of Jeremy Corbyn that they have demonised him. 

But Corbyn is no monster. A .L. Kennedy has described the “threat” from him as “strangely beige and gentle”. What he advocates is mainstream in many European countries; it is social democracy not Trotskyism. Since 1979, the UK has travelled very far to the right. Corbyn is offering a corrective.

Outside the Establishment, in the UK in 2017 there is widespread political, economic and social dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It should have been no surprise that a politician who spoke to voters as grown-ups and offered them achievable ways to improve their lives would do well. 

Corbyn offers hope. The comfortable often sneer at that but hope is the essential element in democratic politics.

It’s true that when the 2017 General Election was called, the polls pointed to Corbyn’s Labour party suffering a landslide defeat. However, there was plenty of other evidence - for those who looked for it - to suggest that Labour might defy the polls and do well. 

Almost all of the UK’s national political commentators inhabit a bubble within a bubble. They work inside the Westminster Bubble where the views of national politicians and their own colleagues inform their versions of reality. 

They also live inside the Establishment Bubble where almost everyone - prior to 8 June 2017 - repeated as a fact the accepted wisdom of the Westminster Bubble since the summer of 2015: - Jeremy Corbyn deserved all manner of criticisms but, in any event, he was unelectable. It was taken as inarguable, that Labour could only be elected if it moved to the political centre and courted the press-barons as Tony Blair had done in 1997.

Then, on 8 June 2017, Corbyn’s Labour party won 40% of the vote. A 10% increase on the vote won by Labour only 2 years before. Labour now leads the polls - polling above what Tony Blair achieved in 1997.

Different commentators responded in different ways to being proved wrong. Jon Snow of Channel 4, with commendable honesty declared: - “I know nothing. We the media, the pundits know nothing. We simply didn’t spot it.”

Most commentators were far more defensive than Snow. Some wrote mea culpas but then went on to excuse themselves on two grounds - first, “everyone was saying the same” and second “there were no reasons to doubt the opinion polls which pointed to a Tory landslide”.

Within the bubble within a bubble, it was true - everyone was saying the same. Plenty outside the bubble(s) were saying something different but the commentators simply dismissed their views, with what seemed to be patronising contempt - not least from the pages of the Guardian.

There were plenty of reasons to think Corbyn’s Labour might do well. Here are six facts which commentators ignored.                
Fact One. 2017 is not 1997. Different rules apply.

When Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock and others repeatedly warned that Corbyn was leading the party to disaster, they would cite the hard lessons that Labour learned in the 1980s and 1990s. They failed to recognise how electoral politics has been changed by the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007/8. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the grip of the ideas underpinning Thatcherism/Neoliberalism was so strong that a party of the left had to accept them in order to win - this they called “moving to the centre ground”.

The GFC, however, has changed the rules of British politics. Some have done well economically since the GFC. The majority are still suffering a decade on and after seven years of austerity.

The very rich have seen their fortunes swell. The middle-aged solid-middle-class (which includes most of the political commentators) have been largely untouched by austerity while the value of their assets, primarily property, has increased.

For most people in the UK, however, living standards have been declining; millions are feeling insecure; and millions - including people working full-time, disabled people, and children - are in penury and are even needing to turn to food-banks. 

It should have been obvious to anyone that the status quo had widely failed.
It was predictable that an argument for change might be electorally appealing and the counter-argument of “steady as she goes” might not.

Fact Two. Across the democratic world the established order was in turmoil - Corbyn would benefit as the anti-establishment candidate.

An anti-establishment wave has touched many countries since the GFC. In Greece Syriza; in Spain Podemos; in Italy Five Star; in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party; in the USA Trump; in France both the traditional left wing and right wing parties performed disastrously in the presidential election; and in the UK, there had been the vote for Brexit.

Elites - political, business, financial - are widely disliked throughout the democratic world. They have done well since the GFC, while at the same time, millions have not only suffered but see no prospect of things improving.

Corbyn was the anti-establishment candidate in the election. It was predictable that he might do well.

Fact Three. Media coverage up to the election had been systematically biased against Corbyn but that would change during the election period due to strict election broadcast rules and fairer coverage would benefit Corbyn.

For almost two years preceding the election, Corbyn was subject to a systematic campaign of bias and in some cases vilification in the mainstream media. 

A study by the LSE concluded that 75% of press coverage misrepresented Corbyn. A study by MRC and Birkbeck showed marked and persistent bias at broadcasters including the BBC. 

No current leading politician has faced as hostile a press as Corbyn. This reflects the fact that he represents the most serious threat to the power of the elites for decades. Corbyn’s unpopularity as reflected in opinion polls before the election was largely created by the mainstream media; previously obscure backbench Labour MPs hostile to Corbyn found themselves near fixtures on the front pages.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the media’s smears against Corbyn. He has been labelled all the following and more.

Joke. Terrorist-sympathiser. Pacifist. Extremist/loony left and/or Communist. Weak.  Anti-semite. Stalinist. Stupid. Cult leader. Misogynist. Unpatriotic. To blame for Brexit. Naive. To blame for Venezuela… Above all - unelectable.

Not a single one of these labels, I would argue, are true - and some, of course, are contradictory.  Naturally, if enough mud is thrown, some of it will stick. Many people in the Establishment repeat these smears as facts.

Different rules apply to broadcasters during an election period - they are obligated to be fair and to give appropriate airtime. This was crucial to the result.

It was predictable that once people had more of a chance to see Corbyn and his message, unmediated, the more they would support him.  The more people saw a decent, reasonable man with a passion to help the poor and comfortable in his own skin, the more ludicrous the media smears appeared.

Fact Four. Corbyn’s policies were known to be popular, particularly his anti-austerity message. He would reap the benefit when he had fairer media coverage. 

Labour’s 2017 manifesto sets out in clear language a pragmatic, achievable vision of a better society. It is not “extreme”, let alone “Communist”.  Nothing in the manifesto should have come as a surprise to the commentators. Much had already been announced or trailed. 

Opinion poll evidence before the election showed that Corbyn’s policies were popular. 

At the centre of Corbyn’s policies is anti-austerity. This was a clear break with Labour in 2015 under Ed Miliband.

At Corbyn’s election count in 2017 he said: - “You know what? Politics has changed, and politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before. Because what’s happening is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics. They’ve had quite enough of…underfunding our health service, underfunding our schools…and not giving young people the chance they deserve…people are voting for hope…and turning their backs on austerity.” 

Theresa May wanted the election to be about Brexit. Corbyn effectively neutralised the issue for Labour. He whipped the party to support Article 50, thereby signalling clearly to Leavers that he respected the result of the referendum and he argued for a soft Brexit thereby attracting Remainers.

Corbyn attacked the harsh, unforgiving Thatcherite vision of the Tories. He offered an message that was both hopeful and credible. It was predictable he would do this and it was predictable it would be effective.

Fact Five. In the hundreds of thousands of new members and in Momentum, Corbyn had grass-roots support not seen in British politics for decades.

Between Corbyn’s emergence as the likely party leader and the time the election was announced, hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as half a million, joined the Labour Party. The Labour Party had more members than all the other parties combined. This was a remarkable reversal of decades of declining party membership in the UK.

During both of his leadership campaigns, Corbyn attracted large enthusiastic crowds of a type not seen in the UK for decades. People were actually excited about politics!

Momentum, a group set up to support Corbyn’s agenda, had demonstrated before the election that they were savvy and highly effective.

Time and again commentators declared that none of this would be significant when the General Election came. This was frankly a bizarre conclusion. How could a mass, motivated party not make a significant difference? In the event, predictably, it did.

Fact Six. The public had been sold by the media, false images of May and Corbyn - which would predictably be exposed. Corbyn was a known excellent campaigner. May not so.

Before the election, Theresa May had high poll scores. By the end of the campaign she had suffered a precipitate decline - unmatched in recent memory.

May had been seen as “strong and stable”. But the world now knows that she is neither. She is widely seen as wooden, insincere, lacking empathy, robotic and uncomfortable meeting “real people” unscripted. 

Corbyn’s popularity moved in a mirror image of May’s during the campaign. By the end of the campaign, he was seen by many as principled, decent and sincere.

None of this should have been a surprise to the commentators. May and Corbyn’s images before the election were media fabrications. The commentators had access to the “real May” and the “real Corbyn”.

It was predictable that May would be awful in the campaign.

It was predictable that Corbyn would perform well.


Unfortunately, some commentators, know what is expected of them whatever the facts maybe and write accordingly. In the words of the American novelist Upton Sinclair: -“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” 

For those who genuinely want to understand the significance of the 40% vote for Corbyn’s Labour and what may happen next in British politics, it is essential above all that they escape the confines and the assumptions of the Westminster Bubble and the Establishment Bubble too.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Cognitive Dissonance, Corbyn and the Labour big beasts

Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone is presented with evidence that a pre-existing belief is wrong. Holding two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time is upsetting, even painful. People naturally seek to resolve cognitive dissonance as quickly as possible. One way is to accept the new evidence and amend their pre-existing belief. The other way is to reject the new evidence by rationalising it away, which gives people the comfort of retaining their pre-existing belief - even though the evidence shows it is wrong.

People’s approach to cognitive dissonance depends on how important the pre-existing belief is to them. For example, a UKIP supporter is likely to rationalise away any evidence presented to them which undermines their beliefs about the EU. Such rationalisation might be: - “I don’t believe that is true. You are just saying that because you are a Remainer.”  It is easy to think of examples concerning climate change, politics, economics, nationalism and many other fields. 

The American novelist Upton Sinclair pointed out an additional factor which might prevent someone following an argument where it leads: - "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

For two years, I have argued that the fabric of our society is being gravely damaged by the Tories and that Jeremy Corbyn deserved support as the person best placed to beat them. This has been a very unpopular argument among my peer group - the leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class. I have constantly been told that Corbyn “is unelectable”.

The journalist Gary Younge has clearly been having the same experience as me. In an article published a few days before the election he wrote this:-

For the past two years, it has been received wisdom that, when put before the national electorate, the Labour party under Corbyn was unelectable. Not simply that it would lose, but that there was no plausible way it could compete. These were not presented as opinions but as facts. Those who questioned them were treated like climate change deniers. Those who held the wisdom were the scientists. To take Labour’s prospects seriously under Corbyn was to abandon being taken seriously yourself.

In the event, Corbyn did very well in the election. After a highly impressive campaign, he won 40% of the vote - 10% above Ed Miliband two years ago. He also mobilised millions of voters who had previously not engaged with the political system at all. He has put the party in a good position to win the next election.

If Corbyn had been trounced I hope I would have had the intellectual honesty to admit I was wrong. I know that would have been painful - even somewhat humiliating. It would certainly have been tempting to rationalise away what had happened. Perhaps I would have chosen that tempting option. I really hope not. 

What matters is not who was right and who was wrong. What matters is that Labour people who have opposed Corbyn on the grounds that he was unelectable, now accept the clear evidence that he is certainly electable. There may well be another election within 12 months. Corbyn can win that but he needs all possible support - very much including the influential leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class.

In particular, the Labour big beasts - like Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith, Angela Eagle, Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan - need to accept the evidence of this election. They need to now commit and work wholeheartedly behind Corbyn’s leadership and they need to serve if asked. 

It won’t be easy for them. They will need to swallow their pride. It will be painful.

But the country needs them to do this and to do it urgently.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why I would like to see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister

Some weeks after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party - for the first time - in September 2015, I went to a meeting in Harlesden, north west London, called to consider setting up a branch of Momentum, an organisation that supports Corbyn’s agenda and the Labour Party. There were about 60 people there. During the meeting we went round the room with every person explaining why they had come. 

For me - a middle-aged, solid-middle-class left-winger - it was a powerful experience to hear what people had to say. Most of the people were working-class; many were struggling to make ends meet. Some spoke of their struggles and described the kind of scenes as later depicted in I, Daniel Blake. The message that was repeated over and over was that in Corbyn, for the first time in decades, they saw a politician who actually cared about people like them and who gave them hope.

Some people sneer at “hope” but consider its absence - hopelessness. Hope is the essential ingredient behind all progressive change.

If “being left-wing” means anything, it means I believe wanting to help people like those who spoke at that meeting in Harlesden. 

I hope that people will read the Labour Manifesto before voting. It is not a “loony left” document - as some “respectable” publications claim - but a realistic, fully-costed and necessary blue print to save our country from the dark, divisive future that the Tories promise, complete with food-banks and US style public services.

Corbyn has shown remarkable leadership since September 2015. He has faced a constant barrage of lies, abuse and distortions. (Corbyn is no more a “terrorist-sympathiser” than Barack Obama who faced the same accusation in 2008). He has kept his cool and never responded in kind to the personal attacks. He has produced the best manifesto for decades. He has achieved polling figures which Labour has not seen for many years. He has engaged millions in the political process. He has run a highly professional campaign. He is, to coin a phrase, “strong and stable”.

As to the question that Theresa May wants  to be at the centre of the campaign - who would be better negotiating Brexit? Just consider the two alternative teams. May, Davis, Johnson, Fox on the one hand or Corbyn, Starmer, Thornberry, Gardiner on the other.

Is Corbyn “electable”? Often when people ask this, they mean in effect, is he acceptable to Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre (who between them control over half the UK press). Since 1979, Murdoch has backed the winner at every single General Election. Tony Blair made a deal with Murdoch - and Murdoch naturally extracted a heavy price.

Corbyn thinks the UK deserves better than to be in thrall to Murdoch and the rest of the super-rich. 

I would like to see Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister not only for people like those at the meeting in Harlesden but for my family and all of us. Corbyn can create a society which no longer values greed and which has contempt for the poor - as has been the case throughout the decades where Thatcherite values have held sway - but instead a society which values every person, community and simple decency. I would very much like to see that.