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The UK General Election, Corbyn’s Vilification and Labour’s Possible Fight

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Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

 

The context for analyzing this election must first acknowledge that the UK’s media is overwhelmingly rightwing.

Only one tabloid, The Daily Mirror, avoids hewing to rightwingery.

Of the others, The Sun is owned by the foreigner Rupert Murdoch, known in the UK for good reasons as the “Dirty Digger”.

The Nazi-supporting and tax-dodging Rothermere family have long owned The Daily Mail.

Richard “Dirty Des” Desmond (the former head of a soft porn empire) owns The Daily Express.

A Russian oligarch owns The Evening Standard.

Of the so-called “quality” newspapers, only The Guardian is remotely centrist or centre-left.

All the other “quality” papers are owned by the right-wingers or those on the centre-right.

Murdoch owns The Times, basically gifted to him by Thatcher, who bypassed the usual regulatory process regarding media monopolies to bestow this gift.  The Times, which used to be known in bygone days as “The Old Thunderer”, is now just a slightly upmarket tabloid.

The tax-dodging Barclay brothers own The Daily Telegraph.

Another Russian oligarch owns The Independent.

The BBC, terrified by the not so subtle Tory threats to sell it off to Murdoch, and undermined editorially by these threats, is now basically a mouthpiece of the Tories.

This situation has, in the main, existed for a long time.

The last left-wing leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot, was ruthlessly pilloried by the right-wing media in the early 1980s for all sorts of reasons (including the somewhat less formal, but very presentable, jacket he wore at the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday).

Every Labour leader since then, with exception of Tony Blair, has been undermined by the UK’s media.  Blair’s predecessor, Neil Kinnock, was derided endlessly by the media (“the Welsh windbag”, etc), even though he took Labour towards the right and effectively prepared the ground for Blair and Brown’s neoliberal “New Labour”.

Another factor to be acknowledged concerns the UK’s continuation of several versions of Thatcherism since the ascendancy of the old witch in 1979:

Thatcherism Mk 1: Thatcherism in its original form with her inimitable snarl and handbagging of opponents

Thatcherism Mk 2 (Tony Blair): Thatcherism with a seeming human face (the constant suntan, some from vacations spent at one of Silvio Berlusconi’s several luxury villas, and the characteristic rictus smile)

Thatcherism Mk 3 (David “Dodgy Dave” Cameron): Thatcherism with the patrician smirk and patronising tone.

Thatcherism Mk 4 (Theresa “the woman without qualities” May): Thatcherism must now be placed in the hands of an utterly pragmatic and post-ideological professional politician.  Example:  May voted Remain in the Brexit referendum, but nowadays favours a “hard Brexit” to placate the rightwing of her party.  Her party will be campaigning in this election as UKIP lite.

Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party, has been vilified ever since he was elected as party leader by a percentage higher than that achieved by Blair when he was elected leader (59.5% versus Blair’s 57% in 1994).

The disparagement and backbiting of Corbyn has, alas, come from the Blairite remnant in his party as much as it has come from the Conservatives and their megaphones in the media.

But while this is to be expected, a powerful source of anti-Corbyn vituperation has been The Guardian, supposedly the most liberal UK newspaper.  Its journalists– most notably Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland, Suzanne Moore, Anne Perkins, and Owen Jones– have done as much as Murdoch to undermine Corbyn.  

To some extent this viciousness on the part of the Blairite faction, and its media acolytes, is understandable.  Corbyn, who voted against the war in Iraq, believes Blair should be in the dock of the international court at The Hague for war crimes.   The Conservatives, always a war-loving party, want no such thing for Blair, even though he defeated them in 3 general elections.  Blair however is a closet Conservative.

Some of this media-fuelled animus exists because Corbyn is not a media-age politician.  He avoids personal attacks on his rivals (“I don’t do personal”), and he doesn’t speak in soundbites, which is not to say he is erudite or eloquent.

The first UK political leader since Churchill not to have a university degree (but without the latter’s upper-class background that can compensate for this in the UK), the earnest and taciturn Corbyn frequently struggles in the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary debate, where, often, witty but irrelevant deflections and fleet-footed evasions win the day.

In Brit soccer parlance, he has been known to “miss an open goal” in his parliamentary exchanges with the plodding Theresa May (herself no star in this regard).

But these parliamentary exchanges are a sideshow.  The real battle lies elsewhere, beyond the confining barriers of parliament.

Here Corbyn and his advisers, fearful of exacerbating splits within Labour, have made a mistake by not embarking on a full-blown leftwing agenda with a populist (though I prefer Perry Anderson’s substitution of “anti-systemic” for “populist”) slant.

Labour is basically toast if it somehow maintains itself as a pro-systemic, that is, pro-capitalist, parliamentary party.  The Tories and to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems, have set up tent on this patch of political land, and all Labour can do here is pretend to offer capitalism with a more human face.  The Tories offer a rawer, more “authentic” version of capitalism, which, coupled with gerrymandering and the support of the right-wing press, gives them a head start over Labour.

Thatcherism without the sharp edges worked for Blair, who took advantage of an electorate fed-up with Thatcherism’s harsher and visibly punitive manifestations.   Blair’s Thatcherism, by contrast, came with a smile and perpetual suntan (the latter often courtesy of his good friend Berlusconi’s hospitality).

The Tories learned their lesson after the scowling and grimacing Thatcher lost popularity, and, learning from Blair, repackaged her agenda in more emollient terms: hence the puke-inducing patrician chumminess of Dodgy Dave, and now “the woman without qualities” May who purports to be all things to everyone.

Labour’s survival will not come through this pro-systemic and official parliamentary route, as much as its Blairites think this is still their only salvation.

Labour has been wiped out in Scotland.  It joined the Tories in opposing Scottish independence, while offering its milquetoast version of social democracy.   The Scottish Nationalist Party offered independence and a slightly more robust social democracy, and took Labour to the woodshed.

Gerrymandering and electoral bribery have made the UK’s south into a Tory stronghold, except for London.

Labour has some strength in the former industrial heartlands of Wales, but not elsewhere in Wales.  It has no representation in the north of Ireland.

Labour’s strength used to be in the industrial Midlands and North, but these are now rustbelt areas, and their dejected electorates find the far-right white nationalist UKIP, with its screeds against immigrants and the EU, to be as appealing as Labour.

This is a clear parallel here to the Trump-effect in the US.

UKIP is a screeching-stop dead end, but betrayed and less-educated voters are trusting it more than Labour’s gleaming-eyed careerist politicians with their Oxford degrees.

When presented with yet another a clone of the slick Blair, these disenchanted voters prefer a UKIP politician who speaks “their language”.

UKIP politicians are comfortable in pubs (we’re not talking here about posh gastro-pubs!), and can negotiate eating a sandwich, unlike Corbyn’s predecessor as Labour leader Ed Miliband’s much publicized photo-op in the last general election, where he made a stoic attempt at eating a bacon sandwich.  Judging from the utterly tormented look on his face as he did so, the sandwich appeared to be laced with arsenic.

Labour needs to go on the attack, on two fronts especially.

The first is Thatcher’s baleful legacy, entrenched by her successors, which has been minimal economic growth, widespread wage stagnation, widening inequality as income has been transferred upwards from lower-tiered earners, mounting household debt, and the extensive deindustrialization of formerly prosperous areas.

At the same time, the wealthy have prospered mightily.  Contrast the above-mentioned aspect of Thatcher’s legacy with the world of Dodgy Dave Cameron’s “Chipping Norton” social set, as described by Michael Ashcroft (a former Cameron adviser who fell out with Dodgy Dave) in his hatchet-job biography of Cameron.  The following is quoted in Ian Jack’s review of Call Me Dave: “Theirs is a world of helicopters, domestic staff, summers in St Tropez and fine food from Daylesford, the organic farm shop owned by Lady Carole Bamford”.

The Tories and their supporters are partying away as a class war is being waged, and Labour has been too timid in bringing this contrast to the attention of the electorate:  the Chipping Norton set feasts on Lady Carole’s organic smoked venison and artisanal gin (available to the online shopper at https://daylesford.com/), while UN data (in 2014) indicates that more than 8 million British people live in food-insecure households.

“New” Labour did have a credibility problem when it came to doing this– Ed Miliband had at least 7 millionaires in his shadow cabinet, and another 13 in his group of advisers.  So, a fair number of Labour supporters are likely to be connoisseurs of Lady Carole’s luxury food items in addition to the usual bunch of Tory toffs.

The austere Corbyn (he is a vegetarian and prefers his bicycle and public transport to limousines) is less enamoured of the high life, in which case the credibility problem might not be such a big issue.

Labour also needs to take advantage of the papered-over divisions in the Tory party over Brexit, by taking Brexit out of its white nationalist orbit and arguing for a fully-fledged Lexit.

Corbyn has not endorsed a Lexit, perhaps because he does not wish to inflame his party’s Europhile wing.

However, Brexit opens a space in which it can be argued that leaving the EU provides an opportunity for weakening the grip of the UK’s financial sector, the latter being one of the main impediments to the restoration of even a minimal social democracy.

The grip of the financial sector will never be broken as long as the UK remains in the EU—as part of a quid pro quo, the EU will let the UK keep this sleaze factory in its current bloated form in order to secure the UK’s acquiescence on the overall EU framework.

Getting out of the EU at least allows the possibility of reducing or eliminating the financial sector, which is basically a money laundering racket for Russian oligarchs, Gulf sheikhs, and Chinese billionaires, as well as the giant casino operated by the City of London.

A tide of anti-establishment sentiment is surging in the advanced industrial countries, and Corbyn and his associates need to use this to the advantage of Labour.

This, i.e. saying straight out that a class war is being waged by the Tories, and getting into a savage fight through proxies with the rightwing media (who will do Labour no favours even if it is meek and mild), is their only remote hope in June’s general election.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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