I’m appalled, but not altogether surprised, at the pummelling being handed out to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership and before more people get on the same bandwagon it is good to think for a few moments about how we got here.
Immediately Jeremy Corbyn was selected (by a huge majority of Labour Party members under a democratic process) a sizeable group within the Parliamentary Labour Party set about subverting his leadership. They thought that Corbyn and his Marxist allies were seizing control of the party so that it would cease to be democratic. It turned out not to be the Labour Party that was being bankrolled by foreigners! They claimed that anyone who disagreed with him would face de-selection. It wasn’t the Labour Party where that happened on a grand scale! They constantly stressed potential division and they elevated debates within the party into arguments and scandals. It’s not that this group of MPs haven’t backed the leadership in the election, it’s that they never did – even to the extent of forcing a second leadership election and then still refusing to accept the democratic result. Worse still, with a nudge and wink, they instigated and then fed a flow of critical stories. Perhaps to their surprise, the Party never moved against them and permitted this constant undermining of its own chances from within.
Of course, Brexit played a major role as well but we need to remember that it started with David Cameron who, as Prime Minister, made the absurd decision, in response to pressure from his backbenchers, to hold a referendum on whether the country should leave the EU. The simple majority clause was just plain daft and the campaign was a shambles on all sides. An argument within the Conservative party was elevated to a national issue despite it being largely irrelevant to most people.
One of the reasons why the referendum campaign was a shambles was a political vacuum which allowed the supporters of the no vote to thrive. Newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express and the Telegraph spent the run up influencing the agenda so that the vote was about immigration, foreigners and our imperial dreams. Ever since then, the political agenda has been set by the same newspapers which have turned flag-waving for right-wing ideologies into an art form. This wasn’t driven by the Conservative party but by altogether nastier influences and it’s fair to say that although it has put Boris Johnson in Downing Street it isn’t altogether his show either and there will be a price to pay.
It has also been increasingly obvious since the referendum that the political agenda has been set by the same ideologies and that the BBC assiduously reports what they say without finding an alternative point of view. Seeking balance in this environment – which is already oddly out of kilter – leads to Nigel Farage being given too much airtime and an assumption from anyone left of centre that the BBC is inherently biased. The problem is that ‘the story of the day’ should already come with a health warning!
A failure to control the political narrative has been a real problem for Labour since 2017 and one of the things that made this more difficult was that the voice of the disenchanted Labour MPs was amplified by the Guardian – the last liberal chance for balance. The Guardian provided a weekly sounding board for them, repeating stories from ‘reliable sources within the Labour Party’. Guardian columnists then used these titbits to produce sarcastic copy and a newspaper which has been traditionally associated with radicalism drifted to the right. Sadly, the Guardian has also appeared to have lost touch with its capacity for radical investigative journalism. It assiduously investigated the Iraq war but it hasn’t got to grips with the billionaire bankrolling of the Brexit movement and the Conservative party, or with the sources of the orchestrated campaign concerning anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. This has been left to small groups and to other individuals but it would once have been bread and butter employment for Guardian journalists.
Anti-Semitism was a big issue on the doorstep. The Labour Party is not anti-Semitic but that was not the perception. A policy of supporting Palestine and the rights of its subjects was assumed to be anti-Israeli and by association anti-Semitic. Jeremy Corbyn was seen not to have acted fast enough to deal with something largely chimerical. A cartoon, a meeting to support the peace process, some daft online comments by individuals and so on do not make a political party inherently anti-Semitic. There was a ruthless media campaign designed to say the opposite and it succeeded.
Whatever the Labour Party said it was doing was simply not believed or rubbished as a lie and lies have been a particularly unpleasant feature of the election. A scant regard for truth characterised the Brexit negotiations and the election campaign, particularly that of the Conservative party was triumphantly managed to make the public think that all politicians are liars and that, therefore, Boris Johnson is no worse than the rest.
Detached observers have been clear that setting up Facebook pages designed to deceive and running untruthful stories in newspapers were largely the work of the Conservative party and their sympathisers but that isn’t what people were persuaded to think. Telling lies brought rewards. People on the doorstep believed that the child on the floor in the emergency department photograph was a fake, well after that lie had been rebutted. The BBC and ITV political correspondents both apologised and blamed Conservative party sources for saying that one of Matt Hancock’s team was struck when video evidence proved that he hadn’t been. But, of course, they had already filed their stories!
In the end, it wasn’t the outcome we wanted and the road ahead is anything but smooth if you’re a Labour supporter, it’s not the first time the combined force of the media and the establishment have worked together to destroy a party leader and an agenda for radical change. It’s happened and it’s time to regroup but it is still useful to reflect on why people voted how they did and rushing to blame Jeremy Corbyn does not help.