This is our truth, tell us yours
As I commented yesterday, it’s been a frustrating week for the labour movement.
It’s not an isolated incident. Since 2008 Labour in parliament has been in disarray, reflecting the deepening incomprehension of the post Thatcher generation of politicians who genuinely believed that market forces would protect the British economy from slump provided it was ‘competitive’. The failure of that mindset is epitomized by the way George Osborne is pursuing the same path as the Irish economy pre-2008, of low corporate taxes and a flexible workforce allied to an overheated housing market, ignoring entirely what happened to Ireland when the global economic weather changed in 2008.
You’ll search in vain for a Labour press release or speech on that topic. You’ll find nothing to challenge the government’s programme. John McDonell would have been better off throwing a copy of the Irish Times from 2008 at George Osborne rather than a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book; there again, most recent mentions of Mao’s Little Red Book have been in court reports of the trials surrounding a cult that kept several women prisoner since the 1970s, and McDonnell also has the air of a man who joined a cult in the 70s and hasn’t quite adapted to freedom.
Instead of talking about the economy the Labour left chatterati are obsessed with the media. You’ll find hundreds of articles about Stephen Doughty’s resignation; this one takes the biscuit by providing an in-depth analysis of the BBC’s political correspondent’s Twitter output as well.
At heart all of this froth about the media and Labour is just that; froth fuelled by a failure to understand the media. The media does not make the weather, so far as politics is concerned, it reflects it. A weather man standing on TV saying that it’s going to rain for forty days and forty nights isn’t causing the jetstream to shift northwards bringing warm wet air with it, he’s reporting the phenomenon.
So it is with the media and politics. If the BBC appears obsessed with personality above politics, with intra party fighting over campaigning on issues, it is reflectig the way the Labour Party, or a substantial proportion of it, is behaving.
Back in the 1990s, the Labour Party made the weather in this regard. The 1992 election defeat was blamed on Neil Kinnock; the party obsessed on froth and the short campaign, not the reality, that it had failed to articulate a programme that would inspire sufficient voters. When John Smith died he was replaced, not by the most intelligent or most capable leader, but by the one the party judged most attractive to voters, and least likely to scare away the voters of middle England. I remember reading Tony Blair’s newspaper output in the 80s and 90s; his occasional articles for New Statesman and other papers were vapid, naive and gauche. Compared to genuine thinkers like Brown or Gould he was a lightweight, and the selecorate knew it, but still they chose him, because he looked the best.
If the media focus on the personality, looks and personality of Labour’s leaders, Labour’s members in the 1990s have only themselves to blame.
There’s a real, serious misunderstanding here about culture, politics and the media. Labour surrendered hegemony to the neo-liberals after 1987, having spent ten years before 1987 unable to coherently articulate an alternative to the monetarist reaction to Britain’s being derailed by its early 1970s dependence on imported oil and its bloated defence budget. After 1981 Labour had no policy framework that could explain how a Labour run economy would be different or what the principles would be that shaped that policy. If the media have got out of the habit of debating issues, it’s because Labour accepted the childlike formulations of Fukuyama and his acolytes that there were no great ideological clashes left, and that history was over. Once the high ground of politics was abandoned, the ever increasing amount of media time and space could only be filled by the froth and fluff of the political ground war, who’s in, who’s out and who looks good this week.
Labour fed this nonsense; it shaped the weather.Tony Blair, a man who regards ideology in the same way a fundamentalist might regard scepticism, ran his campaigns and his government on an ideology free basis, preferring the political homeopathy of the third way, an idea so diluted it could never be detected or analyzed. There was no narrative arc, just a day to day grind of endlessly repeated press releases, photo ops and emotional hooks designed to reassure anyone looking that honestly, the emperor must have some clothes because really, he’s just like you.
Part of Labour’s dislocation since 2010 has been because its leaders have struggled to cope with the fact that the Conservatives do have an ideology. They are dreadful at government; chaotic, sometimes shambolic, sometimes embarassingly bad at explaining what they are doing, but they don’t care, because they believe in a small state, in the elimination of the welfare state except as an insurance policy against protest, and in the supremacy of wealth and power. In a media environment where Labour has struggled to explain why it exists, and where it is hopelessly split between a leadership group supported by the majority of the membership, and the majority of the parliamentary group who claim the support of the majority of Labour voters, there is no defining debate in which Labour can claim to be shaping the news agenda.
Want an example? I’ll give you one. The NHS. The NHS was supported by Labour in 1945 on a functional level, because it was the most effective way of addressing public health and the provision of health care to maintain the workforce, and also because of an overarching ideological belief that no-one should be so poor that they could not afford to treat preventable disease. The problem, bluntly,was that the NHS was such a good thing that no-one had to think too hard about NHS values and ideals. Labour never unpicked whether the instincts of the NHS were charitable, that it should treat whoever needed it, or contributory, that it should act as national insurance against medical costs. The difference, of course, is that the former requires institutions and staff who are charitable by design; the latter requires business units that can accurately calculate and re-claim charges.All the parliamentary disputes about the reforms of the NHS since 2010, its parcelling up for privatization, have been at the operational and administrative level, not the ideological. Labour never fixed the big idea of what the NHS is for,and now it cannot defend it because Labour is internally divided between two sides, the charitablists, and the cost benefit accountants of the contributory side.
If the media report that the only stories from Labour are of division and turmoil, that probably reflects not just the way Labour is divided, but the way Labour is being run. For Jeremy Corbyn to vanish from public view for three days while his staff anonymously briefed the media about what they’d like to see happen was not just bad politics, but naive. If you have a difficult reshuffle to carry out, have a distraction. Get out of the office as much as possible; reject every press inquiry about the reshuffle by putting out a series of constructive press releases, highlighting who the enemy really are, and where you’re going, not who you want to sit next to on the journey.
An ideologically divided party has elected a weak leadership about whom it is deeply ambivalent. It has to be said that, judging by the last week, Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t appear keen on being leader. If he had to talk about the reshuffle, he should have been on camera talking about his style of leadership,and the rules he believes will make it possible to make an effective challenge to the Tories.
It’s a maxim amongst cyclists that thereis no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. For politicians it’s similar; there is no such thing as unfriendly media, just bad politics acted out in public. The left shouldreflect on that, that many of the problems we have with the media are of our own making. If we blame the media for where we are, as a movement, we are the equivalent of sailors blaming the breeze for the fact that we’ve failed to set a course, not because we’re neglectful, but because we don’t know where we want to go.