A few weeks ago, it would have sounded realistic to say that Labour was bogged down in internal process and losing momentum, at least if you only read the Guardian or listened to the BBC. In fact, that has never been the case: the membership figures continue to grow and several of the ‘issues’ on which the media have focused have at no time been static, but have been worked through logically and profitably. However, we all go into this week’s conference with raw nerves, worried that the tensions over the democracy review might blow up into a fight, or that anti-semitism accusations might drown out principled debate.
I am hugely relieved to have watched the first few hours of the conference and seen a flawlessly confident party structure absorbing the tensions, addressing the issues head-on and showing a sensitivity to the wide range of voices within the party while keeping the focus determinedly on what really matters: challenging the Tories’ brutality and corruption and preparing to win the next election.
The closest we’ve had to a scandal so far is a distortion by The Guardian of Dawn Butler’s excellent speech to Women’s Conference, in which she referred to the brave history of resistance within Liverpool’s socialist past, which they tried to spin as a call to Labour councillors to break the law. Quoting Progress members (the Blairite pressure group within the party that forced through New Labour’s ‘reforms’, such as the dropping of the commitment to public ownership, in the nineties, and turned Labour into a Tory-Lite capitalist party), the Guardian article tries to raise spectres of Trots cheering city councils to ruin. Of course, Butler did nothing of the sort: it was a reference to the fact that local government cuts are direct assaults upon the poor, embedded in a speech of celebration of the achievements of the Labour Party over the last few years and a rousing call to be ready to campaign against the heartless government which uses those cuts as a weapon against vulnerable people.
This morning, in the main conference, there was some contention over the vote to accept the Conference Arrangement Committee report, as the schedule disadvantages CLPs by not allowing much time to argue over the Democracy Review, which was only published yesterday and supplied to delegates this morning. Eight or nine delegates tabled objections, which were acknowledged promptly, and the CAC report accepted, narrowly, so the Democracy Review debate began on schedule. I would have been happy to see it delayed, in the interests of delegates going into the debate fully prepared, but the debate seems to be lively and informed anyway.
This does not look like a micro-managed showpiece conference, of the sort we became used to in the Blair years: this has substance over style. Ably chaired by the very good-humoured Andy Kerr, this morning’s session, as far as I have watched it, has stayed on track while permitting debate and dissent. Neither, though, does it look like a return to the eighties, where angry voices brought proceedings to regular bitter impasse over their chosen (usually procedural) issue. There really is a sense of unity: the speakers are speaking the same language as the delegates, addressing the issues the delegates are exercised about, because this really is a movement whose leadership are listening to, and being guided by, their membership.
The highlight, so far, has been the speech by the new General Secretary, Jenny Formby, whom I met (just long enough to tell her I intended to vote for her) at a Labour Economics Conference in Southampton back in the spring. The vote to endorse her position was unanimous and met with huge cheers. She then gave the speech that I have been waiting to hear for months: a summary of where we are, what we believe, the challenges we face and have overcome, and what we intend to achieve.
What struck me about Jenny’s speech was that we are living through another of those moments we saw in 2017, when all the fog, all the rubbish thrown at Labour by the establishment and the crony capitalists who think that the Labour Party should either become Tory-lite or go away and die in a corner, is swept away by the clarity of thought that a vast group of people, fired by hope, can achieve collectively. Interestingly, it chimes with the message of this article, which I read yesterday morning, by Lorna Finlayson in the LRB.
We are on track. We can do this. The chaos the Tories have sown is not the normative position of our rightful rulers, but a perverse aberration that has marred democracy for far too long. We can rebuild Britain for the many, not the few, and it looks as though we are going to get the chance.
A month or so back, a friend of mine who suffers from long-term, severe mental illness was attacked by a group of boys on her estate. They took photographs of that attack and posted them on social media.
They are pretty much immune from prosecution, thanks to the ‘viral’ response to their post. Granted, they are now pariahs in their close-knit community, and their ugly, stupid act will follow them into their adulthood, cropping up whenever they attempt to make any public progress in their lives. If you believe in mob-justice, then justice might be said to have been done. The state, however, because of the illegal publication of their identities on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, is powerless to take action against them. It can only attempt to protect them from the self-aggrandizing vigilantism to which they have opened themselves by their use of social media and their grotesque immaturity. The legitimate, accountable, democratically-authorised legal system has been short-circuited by a foreign-owned capitalist monopoly that uses the everyday indignities of humanity as grist to its algorithms and regards legal and democratic structures as barriers to wealth creation and the self-actualisation of the cleverest, luckiest and most amoral elite in history.
I saw my friend last weekend. She is terrified. She is not engaging with the community which piously leapt to her defense after years of treating her as a local embarrassment, and she thinks the police are trying to victimise her: their inability to give her a clear course of legal remedy for her ordeal has confused the issue beyond her ability to engage with it. She is also mesmerised by her Facebook feed, which seems to be confirming her long-standing belief that the world is purposed towards her destruction. Horribly, I think that her fear that the hatred towards the boys will swing back to her may be justified. That is the nature of restless, self-righteous, technologically-enabled groupthink.
The rule of law is a mainstay of democracy. Facebook undermines that rule. It is inherently anti-democratic.
A Short History of Social Media and Political Campaigning
The 2015 Labour Leadership Poll was a triumph for people who sought to manipulate social media in the service of meaningful political change: what Jeremy Corbyn called, “…a thirst for something more communal, more participative.”
By the 2017 general election, however, the political promise of the medium had begun to be diminished by forces other than the well-directed groundswell of public feeling that had empowered the Elect Corbyn for Leader movement. I am not an unquestioning fan of Momentum, but I think that the campaign to elect Corbyn as leader was a model of how to use social media to a positive purpose. What they achieved in ‘15 was to break the ‘echo chamber’ or bubbling effect of Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms, by pulling in unsympathetic friends of sympathisers, and engaging them in debate and exposing them to sincere voices of political hope. By the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and by 2017, the social media companies had realised that this was a loophole in their control of users’ media consumption and had adjusted.
Before Facebook became a publicly quoted company, focussed on advertising spend, it had been chasing engagement over content control, powering for growth, and there was a certain freedom of expression allowed to its users. By 2016, it was chasing the control of what its users were seeing to a far greater extent, refining their offering to advertisers and data-purchasers and trying to present a soothing, ‘mimetic’ (ie, reflective, flattering) experience to users which would make viewing Facebook a comfortable and reinforcing experience to which people would return without worry. That is why they bubble you. It’s not a service. It’s a mechanism of control.
Furthermore, the sophistication of the JeremyForLeader campaign, alongside the Occupy movment and the lessons learned from The Arab Spring movements, had caught the attention of other forces, both within the U.K. and outside it. Academic studies translated to media management policies which were adopted by right-wing forces and foreign intelligence services to undermine the impact of organised popular campaigns. Populism swings in many directions.
In short, the glory days are over for democrats who use social media. An open technology -the internet- that was designed to release knowledge, communication and democratic access from the establishment gatekeepers who had directed public debate since at least the 1850s, has been co-opted by a new capitalist, plutocratic, neo-liberal elite, to bind its customers into a tower of Babel, in which coherent exchange of ideas is anathema, labelled as TL:DNR.
The Limits of ‘Privacy’ Settings
Know this: a private Facebook group is not private. It is exclusive, in that the labour put into it is restricted to those who choose to sign up to it. This means that it serves as a mechanism of exclusion of those people who, for whatever reason, choose to not participate in social media. However, that ad hominen rant against a comrade to which you succumbed during the Owen Smith leadership challenge is available to the right level of advertiser, if they’re searching for dirt on the Labour Party during an election campaign.
And that situation assumes that you’re wise enough to restrict your rants to a ‘private’ group, and to not share your breathless prose in a moment of vainglory to your main feed. Or that all the members of the group have the best wishes of the party at heart. Or that the administrators have kept up with the constant changes to Facebooks privacy rules, and that the group is still actually set to ‘private’, rather than just ‘closed’. Or that no one is taking screenshots for malicious purposes.
But you know that, really. How else do the rumours of ‘green infiltrators’ get started?
Unless you delete your account -not just a single comment, but your whole account- and forego logging back into it for two weeks after you have deleted it, everything you have ever uploaded, written, sniped or ‘shared’, is sitting in a folder on Facebook’s servers, available to the highest bidder, and linked to you. Have you ever enjoyed watching someone try to backtrack on an opinion they expressed five years ago in a drunken moment? It could be you. Only the safety of the crowd protects you.
The Great Con
There is a rather mischievous argument doing the rounds in internet freedom circles that claims China actually has more politically effective internet access than the free West. I consider that nonsense: Chinese citizens have definitely scored real successes in changing government policy through internet activism, but they’ve been pretty well educated in staying away from economic, central government and foreign affairs topics. However, the state is not the only enemy of freedom, and in the West, it is not even the most powerful.
As John Lanchester puts it:
Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens…Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
The sight of large chunks of a socialist party beavering away, providing free labour to create content for a few American monopolist corporations fills me with despair. It is as if the Chartists had had their discussions about citizens’ rights in the tearoom of the House of Lords. In the light of what we know about how Facebook played (or, as they claim, were played, during) the last American presidential election, we should understand that they have worked out how to neutralise justice movements’ energy and commitment. They want to keep you happy, yes; that is why there are cat videos, but angry people click as well, and division is incredibly easy to sow, if you know where to lay the seeds, and you own the field.
Know this also: social media, particularly Facebook, is as much a product of manipulative psychological theory as it is a product of technology. Zuckerberg actually pursued a dual degree at Harvard: Computing and Psychology. The mechanisms written into Facebook behavioural algorithms are rooted in the theories of conditioned response which underpin the most nakedly dishonest branches of marketing, propoganda and behavioural control. The desire for a ‘like’ or a notification of any kind on a social media app or browser window, is the same conditioned twitch seeking content-free reward as is used by the designers of gambling machines. It is the behaviour of the rat that has been trained to associate a button with pleasure and will starve to death seeking the signifier of that pleasure, even when the actual reward has been removed from the process.
Von Clausewitz said that armies lose when they try to re-fight the last war. The limited, almost-victory of the 2017 election was successful, as far as it went, not because of social media, but because Labour concentrated on what mattered: having control of its content and being clear about what it stood for. The brief flowering of commercial social media as a medium of democratic liberation is over. We need to create our own fields.
We need a CLP Facebook feed, but it should be treated as a shop window, only being populated with content approved by the CLP, in a professional manner: another method among many to spread our Labour ideals to the public. It should be curated, nurtured and controlled.
We do not need a public kvetching arena, which is what our ‘private’ Facebook group is.
Get off Facebook. Start creating our own discussion groups on secure media that we own: Diaspora is a good first step, but a Rocket chat server would be more instinctive for most users and would be easy to set up, and cheap to run, and we would own it in a way we would not own a Facebook page. It would also be free of the pressure to keep up, to keep chasing the approval of an algorithm. It would remove the competitive fury inherent in social media slavery, and it would allow us to discuss again, instead of constantly arguing.
Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power (1st ed), OR Books, New York & London, 2016,
Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839.
Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006
Cited in Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, (1st ed) OR Books, New York & London, 2016, p143 ↑
Lanchester, John, You Are The Product, London Review Of Books, Vol 39 No. 16, Aug. 2017. ↑
Miller, Patrick R., et al. “Talking Politics on Facebook: Network Centrality and Political Discussion Practices in Social Media.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015, pp. 377–391. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24371839. ↑
Schroeder, Ralph, Digital media and the rise of right-wing populism Social Theory after the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization UCL Press. (2018) https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt20krxdr.6 ↑
Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–235. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44235006. ↑
The Link above is from Pride’s Purge, a satirical blog that is doing what British media, on the whole, fails to do by looking the sheer evil of the British establishment in the eye. I’ve embedded the letter at the end of this post.
Esther Mcvey is a horrible, Thatcherite corruption profiteer who appears to revel in the hatefulness of her arch-tory positions. Even her wikipedia page is damning from beginning to end, which, given the fact you are free to contribute to your own page, is quite a feat. Try this for a quote:
After losing her seat, McVey took up the post of chair of the British Transport Police Authority from November 2015, on a four-year contract with a three months’ notice requirement. However, 10 days after it was announced that a 2017 general election would take place, McVey resigned the post having been paid between £86,000 and £89,000 in 15 months. Between the elections she also had part-time jobs as a special adviser to two investment firms and a fellowship at the University of Hull.
Her daddy had a building firm that got fat on Tory government policy and that appears to have given her a bullet-proof sense of entitlement and a hatred of the poor and, in particular, the sick, weak and disabled. Disastrously, after Mcvey was handed a safe Tory seat in the 2017 election, Theresa May thought it would be a good idea to give her the job of being in charge of the benefits system. Wikipedia again:
On 8 January 2018, McVey was appointed as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Labour MP Dan Carden said McVey’s appointment, “will put fear in the hearts of the vulnerable and disabled. The last time McVey was at DWP she was rightly ejected from parliament by the voters of Wirral West, not least for her callous attitude to claimants.”
In July 2018 it was revealed by the head of the National Audit Office (NAO) that McVey had misled parliament over the new universal credit scheme by claiming that the NAO report showed that it should be rolled out faster when in fact the report concluded that the roll-out should be paused. She apologised to the House of Commons on 4 July 2018 amid calls for her resignation.Margaret Greenwood said in Parliament, “The secretary of state should be ashamed that she has been forced to come to this house again. If she misread this report so badly this brings in to question her competence and her judgment. If she did read the report and chose to misrepresent its findings, she has clearly broken the ministerial code. Either way, she should resign.” McVey has admitted that there are problems with Universal Credit. The Guardian wrote, “Tens of thousands of ESA claimants will receive back-payments of £5,000–£20,000 as a result of what MPs have called a series of ‘avoidable’ mistakes. The DWP was warned of the error as early as 2014, but failed to take action until 2017.”Polly Toynbee wrote, “It’s no surprise that a minister who misleads parliament and thumbs her nose at the NAO is even more indifferent to the people who really matter – the millions suffering her department’s infliction of extreme hardship as they are transferred to UC.”
Why don’t you know more about her? Read on:
McVey lives in West Kirby, Wirral. McVey has previously been in a relationship with BBC producer Mal Young, as well as former Conservative frontbencher Ed Vaizey and when in London, she formerly shared a flat in Pimlico with Conservative colleague, Philip Davies, with whom she has had a “long time on-and-off romantic interest” and is currently partnered. The house-sharing arrangement ended when McVey lost her first seat at the 2015 general election.
So, she hates poor people, she’s wedded to lies, she’s out for everything she can grab for herself and she has friends in the BBC. She’s the epitome of Tory corruption.
I’ve subscribed to The Washington Post for the last couple of months and, on the day of Paul Manafort’s conviction and Michael Cohen’s confessions, it has paid off. Do not believe that Trump is unassailable: his poll numbers are at least 10 points below what a president with current employment figures and a bull market should expect.
Previous presidents who were in office during times of robust economic expansion, with low unemployment and a roaring bull market, generally had average approval ratings well over 50 percent. Trump’s egregious misbehavior consistently costs him at least 10 points in the polls.
Trump’s economic policies are, almost inevitably, going to lead to another huge economic crash, probably in the next twelve months. At that point, he is finished, apart from the prospect of a drawn-out, agonising criminal trial. While his incomprehensible moment of political power will, hopefully, lead ultimately to a redrawing of the structures of economic and political injustice in the U.S., I shudder to think what the immediate consequences of another 2008 will be for ordinary Americans, and, worse, poor people around the world.
Sickening and frightening as the apparent collapse of democracy and the rule of law in the United States is, the miasma of chaos that the ultra-rich have spun around politics is a global disease. In the video above, Christian Caryl, the democracy editor of The Post, gives a nice overview of the essence of inequality in politics: corruption.
This website may be down for some time in the near future, as I’m migrating my domain name to a different DNS service and hoping to self-host the blog. With my history of I.T. projects, this will not be a simple matter.
I have done a dry run of setting up a server, on an old laptop inherited from my mother-in-law. I managed to create the server, install an SSL/TLS certificate and setup a Nextcloud server, which is running nicely. However, I have come unglued on a number of issues, including renewing the certificate and attaching adequate storage for it to be a really useful server.
I have now bought a second hand fanless computer running a quad-core Celeron chip and with 4 gig of RAM. I’m planning to install Virtualmin and have several servers running on it, but the storage issue still has to be worked out and I have a number of other ‘to-does’ to get round. Thus, it may take some time.
Since the domain renewal isn’t far off, I thought I would transfer it now, to get that sticking point out of the way. In the meantime, I’ve set up the fqdn for my server on another domain name and am waiting for that to verify before I go ahead with installing Virtualmin. Thus, at some point, my hosting company is going to get arsey with me, and I’ll be cancelling my hosting with them, at which point, this website will disappear until I can set it up again on my home server.
Adventures loom. I know there aren’t many readers of this blog, but if any of you do look in here occasionally, I’ll see you on the other side.
Besides half an episode of the first series of Big Brother, which I switched off in cringing irritation, I have never watched a reality TV programme. Like Nando’s, homeopathy and Chris Ryan books, reality TV seems like an experience which belongs on a list of exceptions to the ‘don’t knock ’till you’ve tried it’ rule.
I just put “try anything once except…” into DuckDuckGo and discovered that it was Sir Thomas Beecham who said he drew the line at incest and folk-dancing. It reminded me how dull I am.
Nevertheless, it is a familiar world. On tired evenings, I like watching The Big Bang Theory on E4, and it is usually sandwiched between extended trailers for the bizarre sexualisation of a tropical beach or Spanish villa, with steroid-queen English boys smirking at siliconed English girls in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, humiliation and hypocritical endearments.
Worse than that incidental exposure to the wretched form is the ‘serious’ criticism that tries to elevate ‘reality’ to a meaningful topic of discussion, rather than the intellectual and moral scab-picking it really is. Oddly juxtaposed with stories about the menopause and FGM, reality TV as a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a stand-by on Woman’s Hour, as predictable as the choice of Book of the Week. Roland Barthes, I suppose, can be used to justify this attention to a form that is so static, so lacking in any sense of revelatory epiphany that even he, I suspect, would have given a Gallic pfft to this stymied vortex of attention-seeking and not-quite-rape. Semiology, seeking to find enlightenment in the dignifying of popular forms, is rendered into a simulacrum of a non-representation by an art that is only artifice: form without even the ambition of meaning.
It is a measure of my trust in the writer John Lanchester that I even started his story in the current issue of the LRB, ‘Love Island’. Such is my disinterest in the topic, that I almost decided to pass over it, even though I am usually delighted to see that he has an article in the Review. His essay on the lasting impact of the great financial crash in an issue a month or so back finally convinced me that we really are living through the death of capitalism. A review last year, You Are The Product, about the confidence trick that is social media, gave me a summary of all the fury I feel towards the corporate monopolisation of the internet and the ruination of this wonderful technology. Over the past couple of years, I have read articles and reviews by him on Brexit, Bitcoin and Nabakov, and they have all been the sort of reading that leaves me feeling empowered by a clearer vision than I can manage on my own.
I really, really recommend Love Island. Buy the edition of the LRB or read it online. It is a short story that has echoes of several science fiction stories that are buried in my collection of old anthologies, never to be rediscovered, but it is beautifully constructed and perfectly paced. He has done what I could never bring myself to do: look at the reality TV form closely and see it through the eyes of the participants: the people for whom the ritual is an elite rite of passage into the gleaming uplands of celebrity and vindication. Not individually stupid, they have buried themselves in stupidity for the sake of validating their devotion to the surface-trapped onanism of our culture. They do it to themselves and they pursue the promise that one, every other year or so, will rise out of the murk to make a career that echoes that of the most wretched of fame’s sub-tribes; the presenter.
There’s a strange further quirk to this story. In the same edition, David Thompson has a (subscriber only) article on binge-watching a drama series about Berlin in the 1930s. His experience has some of the pointlessness of watching an entire series of reality TV, as he highlights the hallucinogenic quality of view-on-demand, multi-layered narrative television drama that, to allow for follow-on series, (excuse me: seasons) never comes to anything but conditional climaxes. However, the particular topic of the series he discusses, the decadence of a doomed culture dancing towards apocalypse, came to have a far more contemporary value, once I had read Lanchester’s story about lost souls, pretending to be happy, pretending to be pursuing love, in a sun-drenched prison, isolated from any redeeming dialectic of meaning.
I’m just posting this so that I can find it again.
I’ve got to go to work and I’ve only had time to half-listen to this lecture while I get my paperwork together. However, the first half is a magnificent summary of the recent history of the world and the forces that have conspired to undermine the progress of human politics since the second world war. I’ve stopped at the point where President Obama begins to outline some recommendations about how people of good will should be opposing the forces of oppression that threaten us.
I’ll update when I’ve listened to it properly and thought it through.
This title is available directly from the publisher, OR Books, as a print-on-demand paperback and as a DRM-free ebook. Click on the image to go to the order page. This review is of the first edition and all page references are for the paperback.
In the 2015 election, I didn’t bother to take part. In fact, I pretty much buried my head and avoided it. I did vote: of course I voted, and I voted Labour, believing that Ed Milliband was a decent man at the head of a lousy party, but I was, as I had been since at least the Iraq War, if not since Peter Mandelson demonstrated the Blairites’ real priorities in 2000, a reluctant voter, who felt he had no real representation within the official political system.
If you’d asked me at that time what my ideal prime ministerial candidate would have looked like, I would have said, someone who did not seek the position, who spoke clearly about the world, rather than dodging round ideas, who opposed war and injustice, who was not muddied by association with the Blair years and who was prepared to aim for a move away from the apparently unstoppable drift towards a free-market economic free-for-all. Thanks to the deafening hegemony of the press, business lobbyists and cowed or corrupted politicians, that position, even under three years ago, seemed like a naive dream.
That year’s election result, an increased majority for the Tories (although on a considerably increased Labour popular vote), contrary to the expectations of the media and their opinion polls, didn’t, therefore, take me by surprise, although I had seen one Guardian cover which had shown Milliband to have been catching up with the Tories, and my hopes had been lifted somewhat. Though a Labour government, as the party was then, would not have made much of a difference to the country, it might at least have wiped the smirks off the faces of Osborne, his lackey Cameron and their odious puppet master Murdoch. In the end, though, as we all expected in our heart of hearts, Murdoch got his way as usual, and the Tories got back in, apparently stronger than before.
It would have amazed me then to discover that, a little over a month after the election, not only would I have joined the Labour Party, but that I would be on Facebook (which I had left several years before) posting enthusiastically for a Labour back bencher to become leader, attending Labour meetings and arguing with Blairites about the leadership election, and even wearing tee-shirts declaring my allegiance to the leadership candidate.
I can remember sitting in our garden, late on a summer evening, after having returned from the Isle of Wight Festival, and deciding that this man was for real, and that it was time to put my money behind him. I joined straight away: I didn’t want to just be a £3 supporter; I wanted to be a part of the movement to reintroduce socialism into British politics, and to do my bit to bring together all the angry people who had had no way of finding a voice that could reach beyond the paywall the British establishment had erected around itself. Jeremy Corbyn was saying things that had been too outre for mainstream discourse: things like, poverty is bad and not inevitable: war is a manufactured evil, not forced upon us; the news media is distorted by vested interests and hatred and we should be fighting the racist anti-immigrant propoganda; we should be funding schools properly; we should own our vital infrastructure networks; we should be reversing privatisation of the NHS, rather than collaborating with the corrupt capitalist clique who are stealing our country while lying through their teeth to us. And, most amazingly, millions of people were listening. Within two years, I was campaigning for a Labour Party that was propelled by this man to reduce the Tories to a minority government, change the political dialogue and unseat the hegemony of the elite mainstream media.
It has been an extraordinary couple of years: from despair to hope. This book tells the story from inside the left wing circles of the national Labour Party and, if at times it feels a little confused, and a little too busy, that is because it has a lot of material to cover,
There had been some precursors to the Corbyn movement, but, living on the Isle of Wight, working in public service and dependent upon mainstream media for my information as I was, I had largely missed them. Principally, the anti-austerity movement had been standing for all the right things for a few years, and gaining some coverage, but had been unable to inconvenience the insulated political class. The anti-war movement was similarly strong in voice but still fairly weak in influence, although the greatest parliamentary success of Ed Milliband’s leadership of Labour was probably the defeat of Cameron’s plan to bomb Syria, although Cameron went ahead and did it anyway in his next term. The anti-tax avoidance movement had caused a certain amount of change of narrative among the Tories, but no real change of direction. Online protest movements like 38 Degrees had begun to draw together people who were not active protestors but felt angry about political conditions. Looking back, I think that, for me, the biggest nudge towards thinking I should drag myself out of hopelessness had been reading The Establishment, by Owen Jones, which was widely read in 2015-16 (I remember the enthusiasm of the bookseller in Waterstone’s when I bought it as a moment of political fellowship). In particular, I was fascinated by what is now a reasonably familiar concept; the Overton Window, which is the constructed restriction on what is considered permitted discourse within the political realm. This concept, new to me then, perfectly explained the previously incomprehensible way in which issues that I saw as urgent and real were contained and marginalised by the political classes.
I can remember a thrill of recognition when I read, “…as the late socialist politician Tony Benn would often put it, social change is a combination of two things: ‘the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope for a better world’” Though I certainly didn’t lack the flame of anger at injustice, I had been lacking hope for a long time, and every event that seemed it should inspire hope would, after the first headlines, get dragged back down into the mire of politicians’ vacilations and newsreaders’ contemptuous headshaking.
After the 2015 election, the candidates who came forward to stand as replacements for Ed Milliband did nothing to remedy that. Instead of change, we faced more greyness and surrender to neoliberalism. My despair was shared by Nunns:
The whole narrative was ‘we need to move to the right’… This was getting to the point where you go, ‘I’m not sure I’ll be able to take this if this is the direction it goes in. We’ve got to at least have a go, through the debate, to pull it back.’
The standard profile of the politician to whom we had become depressingly accustomed by now was a professional technocrat, addicted to playing a game defined as much by its restrictions as by any desire to achieve anything beyond personal advancement. In the Tories, this created the dominance of, frankly, a class of corrupt second-raters, skilled at delivering power to their corporate sponsors in return for personal advantage, staying just within the rules they had, over decades, set for themselves. Tragically, the Labour Party had followed suit.
…within the ranks of the Blairite MPs there was a decline in quality over time…made up of spads-special advisors-many of whom had moved effortlessly from university to MPs’ researcher to ministerial advisor to a safe seat to being in government (this applied to Brownites as well as Blairites). It was a career path that produced technocrats, people who had never needed to fight.
As the candidates lined up to succeed Ed Milliband, this was exactly what we were offered: a line-up of identikit technocrats. Andy Burnham (‘soft left’), Yvette Cooper (Brownite) and Liz Kendall (Blairite) presented nothing of any substance to someone who wanted to be led against the corrupt orthodoxy of austerity and privatised public services.
They have probably been thinking for years about their unique ‘policy offer’; which combination of the words ‘future,’ ‘Britain,’ ‘forward,’ and ‘together’ they will adopt for their slogan; and how they will answer the question about whether they took drugs at university.
In that environment, the hopes of left-leaning Labour members were not high. Some even simply thought that the Left should simply avoid the contest. Owen Jones is quoted saying as much.
My view was that, in the midst of general post-election demoralisation, a left candidate could end up being crushed. Such a result would be used by both the Labour Party establishment and the British right generally to perform the last rites of the left, dismiss us as irrelevant, and tell us to shut up forever.
Had I been thinking about it, I would probably have felt much the same. I was not part of ‘the left’, but their views, as outlined in this book, were the very ideas I was dreaming of, and had been dreaming of for many years, thinking that they were politically impossible to believe in. I remember telling my sister that, at least, Cooper had been sound on the establishment of SureStart, but, given her bland, centrist campaign for the leadership, that felt like a quirky anomoly, rather than an indication of her radical, egalitarian politics. She, like Burnham, looked less like a campaigner who had sold out than a careerist who had a couple of slightly radical sales positions.
This very dreeriness and the weight of rightward-peering consensus was, however, what drove the left to search for a candidate. John McDonnell and Diane Abbott both ruled themselves out, Mcdonnell for health reasons and because he felt he was too abrasive and Abbott because she wanted to run for London mayor. Clive Lewis declined because he felt he lacked experience; “…I don’t even know where the toilets are”, but the desperation for a Left candidate to at least shift the debate away from surrender to capital was powerful. As McDonnell put it in a journal article,
That the candidates for the Labour leadership so far have failed to mount the slightest challenge to capital shows the abject state of near surrender of the Labour Party. No core Labour principle is safe in the rush to not only return to Blairism but even go beyond. Redistribution of wealth through taxation is denounced as ‘the politics of envy.’ Privatisation of the NHS is acceptable as long as it ‘works.’ Caps on welfare benefits and toughening the treatment of migrants are suppoerted because they were ‘doorstep issues.’
In this atmosphere, the idea of running to win was not really on the table. Merely fielding a candidate who could put the case for an alternative to servility to capitalist austerity was the only aim. Jeremy Corbyn was not even considered: “We suffered from a blindness to anything other than a conventionally acceptable candidate” Jon Lansman is quoted as saying.
The story that Corbyn tentatively proposed himself at a meeting of the Socialist Campaign Group is, according to Nunns, true. Despair had almost set in: “They discussed the alternative of backing one of the existing candidates in return for concessions…” and he put his name forward, assuming that he would be defeated, but unwilling to see a contest without a genuine Labour voice. In fact, Byron Taylor, the national officer of the Trades Union Liaison Organisation had suggested Corbyn to Lansman already, pointing out that Corbyn was “…the nicest man in politics…he hasn’t got any enemies.”
At this point, the Left’s highest ambition in the leadership contest was not to be wiped out. Nunns quotes one anonymous source as having said, “I don’t want the Left to fall flat on its face. The main thing is, we don’t finish fourth, or even worse than that, a distant fourth.” However, very quickly, a new factor became evident: people power.
The early signs were all good. Even before the campaign had any kind of central command, things were happening out in the wild. Throughout the summer what was known as the Corbyn campaign was actually an amalgam of spontaneous local activity, but in practice the official operation was often “at the reins of a runaway horse,” as Corbyn’s press spokesperson Carmel Nolan described it…[Marshajane] Thompson found an image on the internet with the #JezWeCan motif and paid her own money to have 100 t-shirts printed with the design…”We had a meeting in Newcastle where we literally advertised it 48 hours in advance and we got 250 people” says Ben Sellars. “This is in the first week of the campaign.” Meanwhile in London, an activist gathering held in a pub in Tottenham Court Road attracted 300 people wanting to campaign for Corbyn.
Jumping On Board
This must be around the time I came in, signing up to Facebook, partly because of a happy event around The Isle of Wight Festival and partly because I was, like nearly everyone I knew, amazed and delighted to hear a politician saying what I had been thinking, and speaking in terms that reflected the real world, rather than a photoshopped, PR-led mirage of ‘political reality’ that seemed divorced from the reality of my life and the world around me.
I’d found my dream candidate. Within days, I had joined the party, as a full member, not a £3 supporter.
The excitement of that time comes back to me now. I was far from the centre of things, on the Isle of Wight, going to my first constituency meetings, arguing for Jeremy, making new friends, voting in the constituency nomination poll, which overwhelmingly supported Corbyn. The local party here, like in many areas, was both excited and somewhat shocked by the influx of new faces, bringing an agenda that threw all the work they had done over the years up into the air. I must say here that the Island Labour Party, with a few exceptions, responded with great grace to the change. On Facebook, things looked rather different. A few very vocal figures were entrenched in their nostalgia for the Blair years and there were unpleasant and often circular arguments, which a couple of trotstkyite/leninist/whatever revolutionaries stirred with monomaniacal delight. However, the divisions were overwhelmed by the unanimity of the new voices, who leapt upon the opportunity to participate in politics that, at last, had some relevance to them.
This was the story nationally, according to Nunns. Local parties, by and large, were reinvigorated by the arrival of new members, while being, initially, somewhat sceptical about whether the surge in membership would translate to active participation. However, in the national party, the PLP, things were rather different. The best description is panic, and the most appalling example of the PLP’s failure to recognise the nature of their new support, and the change in the political landscape that it heralded, was interim leader Harriet Harman’s disastrous decision to not oppose the Tory government’s welfare reform bill.
Harman’s Horrible Blunder
The sheer barbarity of the Tories’ welfare reform bill, which Harriet Harman decided the Labour Party should not oppose, is well covered by Nunns.
It is a bill that piles the cost of the government’s austerity drive onto those in work on low pay-the very people Labour was founded to represent. But in her wisdom…Harman has decided not to oppose the bill. Labour will first table a ‘reasoned amendment,’ an obscure parliamentary mechanism for setting-out objections, and when that inevitably fails it will abstain…
John McDonnell, Nunns says,
has been sitting on the backbenches seething at the debate he has heard…With his first sentence, he cuts through all the vacillation: “I would swim through vomit to vote against this Bill, and listening to some of the nauseating speeches tonight, I think we might have to.”
He [McDonnell] continues:
Poverty in my constituency is not a lifestyle choice; it’s imposed upon people…This Welfare Reform Bill does as all the other welfare reform bills in recent years have done and blames the poor for their own poverty and not the system…I find it appalling that we sit here-in, to be frank, relative wealth ourselves-and we’re willing to vote for increased poverty for the people back in our constituencies.
That line-”…blam[ing] the poor for their own poverty and not the system…” gave me another new hero. It summed up the confidence trick that the Thatcherites had inserted into British politics in my teens and that subsequent governments, Tory and Labour, had embedded and refined as a cover for the blatant thievery of an establishment that regarded itself as above question: sneering at disenfranchised, abandoned people for their victimhood. The fact that anyone was prepared to speak with such moral certainty against the corruption of the Draco Malfoy of British politics, George Osborne, and his Pansy Parkinson, Cameron, gave me a little hope. The fact that the PLP bottled its duty in such spectacular fashion by not opposing this brutal, snide bill with every weapon at its disposal secured my certainty that supporting Jeremy Corbyn was not just an opportunity, but a moral imperative.
When the division bell rings at the end of the debate, 48 Labour MPs-over a fifth of the parliamentary party-defy Harman to oppose the Bill. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are not among them. But John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are.
The chapter on this inglorious moment in Labour history is particularly rich. Harman’s motivation for this career-defining blunder is discussed, and suggests that she was
…”traumatised” by her previous experience as acting leader after the 2010 election, when under her watch the Tories pinned the blame for the financial crash on Labour overspending.
According to Nunns, both Burnham and Cooper were desperate for Labour to oppose the Bill, but divided by a squabble over who should speak first in a Shadow Cabinet meeting, and therefore suggest the reasoned amendement. “But Harman was resolute that Labour would not vote against it. The Shadow Cabinet was fragmented.”
I remember being aghast and weary. Had Burnham or Cooper resigned the Shadow Cabinet and joined the rebels, I think the leadership contest would have been a lot closer, but they drifted into the disaster, tied to their belief that a facile show of unity trumped principles and, in so doing, lost my respect.
I wasn’t the only one.
There was…a perception of moral decay in Labour’s position, a feeling captured by Diane Abbott in an outraged op-ed published the day after Harman’s interview (on the BBC’s Sunday Politics on 12th July 2015). “How did a party that once promised to end child poverty in a generation become one that will shrug and vote for measures which will force tens of thousands of children into poverty?” she asked.
Stunningly, this is an argument that Labour won, to an extent. After Corbyn’s election as leader, Iain Duncan-Smith, the right-wing Tory welfare minister, resigned over further cuts, this time to disability payments.
“Fiscal self-imposed restraints,” said Duncan Smith while explaining his resignation on the Andrew Marr programme, “are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.” He might just as well have directly quoted Corbyn’s campaign slogan that austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity.
The (Over) Reaction
There was a quality of blinking disbelief to the media coverage of the leadership election. The over-ironed, open-necked shirts out of which comfortably Blairite skinny-necked ‘experts’ opined their certainty that a Corbyn victory was an impossibility were viewing the end of their cosy hegemony, and seemed to become shinier and starchier, simply denying it could be happening. Jonathan Freedland, Anne Perkins, Andrew Rawnsley, Michael White and Polly Toynbee, all of The Guardian, were notable columnists of the ‘left’ who circled their Priuses against the assault on the British media’s four-decade-long war against disadvantaged and marginalised people. Andrew Rawnsley lost his reason:
That Rawnsley should react with animosity rather than curiosity was perhaps understandable. Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion-with considerable skill-the books and journalism that had won him acclaim. Newbies were putting that all at risk.
I gave up buying The Guardian (I had been a twice-a-week reader, on average, for thirty years) and have only bought one copy since (although I am thinking of paying an online supporter fee, now that the anger it inspired at the time has settled).
A selection of the headlines from The Guardian website’s front page on 22 and 23 July gives a sense of the almost hysterical tone that thook hold: “Blair urges Labour not to wrap itself in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket”; “Think before you vote for Jeremy Corbyn”; Labour can come back from the brink, but it seems to lack the will to do so”; “Blair: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform.” On these two panic-stricken days alone, The Guardian website carried opinion pieces hostile to Corbyn from Anne Perkins, Suzanne Moore, Polly Toynbee, Tim Bale, Martin Kettle, Michael White, Anne Perkins (again), and Anne Perkins (yet again). There was no a single pro-Corbyn column…
But The Guardian had a problem: its readers [disagreed]…78 percent of the 2500 people who responded [to a Guardian poll] backed Corbyn…Such sentiment was often reflected on the letters page, an oasis amid the relentless negativity elsewhere. And anyone brave enough to venture ‘below the line’ into the netherworld of online comments could not mistake the strong feeling that Corbyn was being unfairly treated and his supporters patronised. Commenters showed themselves to be expert at puncturing pomposity and exposing illogic, but the most striking feature of their contributions was anger at The Guardian itself…The charge was that The Guardian was effectively trolling one particular candidate-one who had the support of many of its readers.
The long term effect on the press of the earthquake beneath the British political elite’s inward-looking fortress of privilege is a subject for another essay, but it is worth noting that The Sun, which before 2015 dictated popular political culture to a pathological degree, seems like an irrelavence two and a half years later. Who is The Sun’s current political editor? Any guesses? I don’t think it important enough to bother looking it up.
The New Statesman was particularly egregious. I followed it on Facebook and noted, as did many other people, that it became not dissimilar to The Daily Mail in tone. Indeed, when The New Statesman’s editor did “…stake out his position on July 22nd, [it was] in the Daily Mail of all places…”
The section on the press is, perhaps, the bit of the book which has had the most impact upon me. Part of the establishment’s great confidence trick is that it is supremely skilled at sidelining voices that are not in accord with its own. Its greatest trick in this regard is to accuse oppositional voices of being ignorant and deranged: think of how often you hear establishment lackeys like Melanie Phillips or Andrew Rawnsley describe criticism of power as ‘conspiracy theory’. They alone have the right to express opposition, because they alone have the inside knowledge which the ordinary democratic voter does not have a right to share, except through the filter of their power. In the Labour leadership election, this closed shop collapsed in upon itself as it realised that, for the majority of people, and, in particular, the people it thought it had effectively demotivated from political participation, their voices were innaccessible, irrelevant and ridiculous. The people who chanted Jeremy Corbyn’s name at a rock concert less than two years after the leadership campaign haven’t heard of Jonathan Freedland, Polly Toynbee, Max Hastings or Andrew Marr. They had heard of Laura Kuenssberg by then, but only as a figure of ridicule on Facebook and Twitter. The edifice of inward-looking, London-property-owning hegemony only really began to notice that the world had moved beyond it during this leadership campaign.
And this was not an accident. In the leadership election, the Corbyn campaign knew that it needed to reach around the fortress of hopelessly corrupted commercial and ‘public service’ news power and it succeeded.
Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 percent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of other candidates. “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more.” believes ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation rum by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips.
It was patently clear that some journalists felt threatened by the arrival of this new realm. A media narrative asserting that there is no alternative is much easier to sustain if there is no alternative media. The existence of a different point of view, forged among a network of people who would previously have been atomised, is what provoked the snobbish accusations of “virtue signalling” and “identity politics.” Being continually challenged about their bias and presuppositions brought howls of exasperation from journalists that congealed into a collective feeling of offence. It contributed to the general sense of consternation at Corbyn’s rise. Events were spinning beyond the media’s control.
Note: Spookily, as I write this, I have received a marketing email from O/R books for the second edition of The Candidate. This new edition is expanded to include the 2017 election and the email uses social media quotes by ‘Britain’s major political pundits,’ all predicting the demolition of Labour at the polls. The same quotes are used in this publicity video.
Hubris doesn’t get much better than this.
As John Prescott says, the heart of the Corbyn campaign was not tactical, but issues-led: they talked about policies. The true pleasure of recalling the campaign, for me, is the excitement I felt every time an issue I cared about, that had become codified, contained and sidelined by ‘the political process’ was dragged into the spotlight and became live and real. The horrible corruption of privatisations, the mental health care disaster, the cruel and sickening purge of poor people from the economy by ‘welfare reform’, the collapse of education, the barely-coded racism of ‘immigration control’, the designed chaos of Tory prisons policy: issue after issue would turn up on social media and, instead of being buried in establishment pundits’ headshaking, would be discussed, witnessed to by the people who were suffering from the policy and would drown out the lies that had been told about it with real, human truth.
The years between Jeremy’s first leadership election and the general election of 2017 included the doleful attempt by the right-wing capitalists within the Labour Party to challenge him with the corporate lackey Owen Smith’s pathetic leadership campaign. It only strengthened Jeremy as leader, although you wouldn’t believe it if you read the Guardian, for whom the only story was “how long will Corbyn last?” Even the stunning political earthquake of the general election, during which I campaigned with enthusiasm and blogged with fury, hasn’t blunted their hypocrisy and partiality. In that election, as during the recent local election campaign, manstream media has been on the attack, settling upon one particular lie, that anti-semitism is an attitude unique to the Labour Party and a characteristic of it. It has done harm, mainly through the old fascist trope of repetition and ubiquity, and I worry that the anti-semitism campaign, contrived and corrupt as it is, has done a certain amount to split the party at a time when it should be coming together.
Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we will see a revival of the enthusiasm when the current government finally collapses in on itself. The people who listened with interest when I was leafleting for Labour during the 2017 election weren’t members of the party, but they were careworkers, disabled people whose support payments had been decimated and blocked by JobCentrePlus target campaigns, carers whose elderly dependents had little or no support from a National Health Service being deliberately run into the ground, and they felt hopeful then, as I hope they will feel when Jeremy leads us into the next election.
I really can’t afford to buy the second edition of The Candidate much as I would like to read it. I read my copy of the first edition last summer, and going back through it to write this has revived my political fire a bit. I am still in the party, as the secretary of my local branch and, incredibly, I have been nominated to be assistant secretary of the Island CLP, which is a bit embarrassing. In March, I attended an economics conference hosted by John McDonnell, and I was awed by the depth of talent and energy that has coalesced around the Labour Party’s policy making: academics, campaigners, charity workers and, most importantly, people like me who just care enough to get involved, are all having their say, so that, come the next election, we will go in with policies even more deeply worked out and clearly thought through than those we offered the electorate, and so nearly delivered, in 2017.
There is still hope.
Jones, Owen, The Establishment And How They Get Away With It London, Penquin, 2015, pxxiv ↑
Nunns, Alex, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path To Power, OR Books, 2016, p84 ↑
I’m working tonight, and couldn’t decide on what music to have on as I did my marking. After half an hour of listening to France Musique, I took a break and hit on going to Bandcamp, which I haven’t browsed for some time, and I found this.
It’s a contemporary piece, but it feels very mid-twentieth century to me, like the music we used to sing in the communion service when I was a choirboy: John Rutter-ish. It’s worth a hearing, I think, and, as it’s available as a ‘name your price’ purchase, it seems only fair to paypal the composer $10 and download it. I’ll update this with a proper review when I’ve listened to it a few more times. At the moment, I’m left with an impression of darkness, which goes with the title, I suppose. Tonally, it fits what I’m reading at the moment: Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky Brothers. I didn’t want to like it, but the book has got under my skin. Again, a review will follow, if I find the time.