Nelson Mandela in 1990. Photograph: Getty Images
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10 June 1988: Mandela's image problem

Marek Kohn examines Nelson Mandela's image through the prism of the mass media world.

The Nelson Mandela 70th birthday celebrations begin on Saturday. A troupe of major-league rock per-formers will draw 70,000 people to Wembley stadium. Millions more will watch the event on BBC2 or via satellite on foreign networks around the world. The next day, a demonstration in Glasgow will send a party of marchers on their way to London, where they will be greeted by another rally. The birthday itself, a full month later, will be marked by a church service and other events.

The Wembley concert takes place on another Mandela anniversary—that of his conviction 24 years ago. All this provides an outstanding opportunity to publicise the cause of resistance to apartheid, at a time when the South African regime's restrictions on the media have been effective in obscuring the struggle from the outside world. But, as we applaud the fact that the imprisoned nationalist will be honoured around the globe, it would be as well to consider some of the consequences of the way the idea of "Mandela" will be broadcast through the world's media.

Since Live Aid, there has been a widespread tendency to shun any real scrutiny of the global charity jukebox phenomenon in the face of its unarguably welcome results. It raises a lot of money for needy people—and large sums of money are particularly impressive in a money-obsessed culture. It also causes the simultaneous detonation of vaguely benevolent impulses among millions of affluent people, which creates an attractive counter-image.

And there it stops. The global jokebox, where-by the electronic media extend the mass gathering of the stadium rock concert to armchair participants around the world, is outstanding at disseminating simple images and messages. It is unable to articulate more complicated political concepts. Bob Geldof was phenomenally successful when he spoke as the voice of the ordinary, decent, apolitical humanitarian, but his calls for Live Aid's commitment to be turned into a political movement for greater justice in the relationship between rich and poor, although widely reported, fell on deaf ears.

It may be that the Mandela commemorations will be more successful in this respect, but that seems unlikely. A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend the meeting in London between Ismail Ayob, Nelson Mandela's lawyer, and Annie Lennox, the Eurythmics singer, at which the con-cert and matters surrounding it would be discussed. The idea was that this tete-a-tete between representatives of the worlds of rock and politics would be recorded and analysed by me for Another Publication. A couple of TV crews would record brief interviews before-hand, and then it would be just us. In the event, the pair answered the TV interviewers' questions for a couple of hours and then got up to go. In my desperate bid to snatch a scrap or two of useable material, a predictable confrontation developed. Ayob declined to answer one question for fear of compromising his security on his return to South Africa. This is obviously a consideration of the greatest importance. However, I did feel that the general fuss that ensued owed much to the desire that representations of the campaign in the media be as bland and uncontroversial—that is, apolitical—as possible. This impression was deepened by the subsequent reaction to the unmentionable words "Paul Simon".

Early last year, the diminutive singer had deftly outmanoeuvred his critics in the anti—apartheid movement over his controversial Graceland album. The day before Simon's now notorious press conference, the word from the Artists Against Apartheid office was that Simon was going to eat humble pie and admit he was wrong to record in Johannesburg. He did no such thing, asserting instead that his action had not broken the UN cultural boycott. In a powerful appeal to liberal perceptions, the black musicians who played on the album were portrayed as victims both of apartheid and the anti-apartheid movement. AAA had committed itself to a fundamentalist interpretation of the terms of the cultural boycott; one based on the old picket-line principle—"nothing moves in or out of here". In private, its response to the Simon debacle showed a preference for the lecture over the debate. A bit of practice in genuine debating skills might have enabled the movement to contest the ideological high ground Simon so successfully occupied.

AAA had been facing this impasse for some time. In a culture of traditional left political activism, the picket-line principle—no compromise, no flexibility, obedience to the edicts of the Party or its equivalent—was generally understood and accepted. So was the idea of personal activism. Pop musicians were a different kettle of fish. They could grasp a simple idea, like that of not playing in Sun City, but the comparative complexities of negotiating with their record companies to exclude their records from sale in South Africa were beyond all but a handful of them. When AAA has been able to articulate the liberal pop consensus, it has been spectacularly effective. The huge concert held on Clapham Common in 1986 was a testament to its success as a politically-motivated rock promotion agency. But its attempts to politicise pop performers have been ineffectual by comparison.

Annie Lennox was certainly ill at ease in the role of activist when she met Ismail Ayob. Disclaiming political sophistication, she emphasised the moral basis of her commitment to the cause. The PRs approved of this tack. We want to get away from the politics and concentrate on this guy in prison, one said. Her colleague helped get the MTV rock video network's inter-viewer away from politics, by vetting the questions and objecting to the one about Paul Simon.

It's easy enough to pick on PRs for making fatuous remarks and sanitising information, but that's their job, and there is only so much point in blaming them for doing it. The question is whether the attempt to use the mass media for what starts out as a political cause is not doomed to result in the reduction of the cause to banality. The set-piece question of the evening concerned Mandela's present condition. Much of Ayob's answer dwelt not on the prisoner's inner state, but on his external appearance. A ripple of amusement went round the room when, answering Lennox' inquiry, Ayob decided that the nationalist leader's hairstyle and face resembled those of the bleached-blonde rock singer.

The emphasis on appearance was revealing. The power of the apartheid regime is such that, in a world so extensively surveyed by television, the only new broadcast image of Mandela in a quarter of a century was that indistinct and uncertain shape of a man picked up by a TV crew with the wit to train their camera on a security monitor in a hospital where Mandela was receiving treatment. For "Mandela" to become an effective symbol in the lexicon of symbols circulated by the electronic media, there must be an image. So the newest of media must depend upon the oldest; the eyewitness. This is an indictment of Pretoria's repressiveness, but it is also a symptom of a shift in symbolic meaning. Mandela becomes detached from the millions he represents. The world is encouraged to consider the plight of the individual rather than a people.

The combination of hi-tech banality and a left political culture which frequently seems more concerned to impose its authority than to win arguments is a worrying one. Popular culture is capable of articulating contradictions and complexities. Sir Richard Attenborough, arguably Britain's cleverest liberal politician, demonstrated this with Cry Freedom. Backstage, he brought the energies of a Kissinger to his diplomatic exchanges with important black activists. The film itself is aimed squarely at a white audience, and therefore concentrates on the story of a middle-class white family. But it continually reminds its audience of the contra-dictions and inadequacies of the whites' political position. The tale of the white family is carefully framed and intercut with images of mass black struggle.

It would be futile to demand a similar political fertility from pop music. Pop is undoubtedly a potent publicity medium. But it would be a sad irony if, as Mandela the man continues to be confined by the apartheid regime, Mandela the symbol should be drained of its political substance as the price of getting on to MTV. After all, to paraphrase Mandela's most famous saying, that political substance is his life. 


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Paul Mason: How the left should respond to Brexit

It's up to the labour movement to rescue the elite from the self-inflected wound of Brexit.

For the first time in a generation there is a tangible split between the Tory leadership and the business elite. Forget the 41 per cent poll rating, forget Theresa May’s claim to have moved towards “the centre”; the most important thing to emerge since the Tory conference is a deep revulsion, among wide sections of normally Conservative voters, at the xenophobia, nationalism and economic recklessness on display.

Rhetorically, May has achieved a lot. She quashed any possibility of a soft Brexit strategy. She ended 30 years of openness to migration. She scrapped the Tories’ commitment to balanced books by 2020 – though she neglected to replace this keystone policy with anything else. And she pledged to stop constitutional scrutiny over the Brexit process from Holyrood, Westminster or the courts.

Yet in reality she achieved nothing. May’s government is not in control of the crucial process that will define its fate – the Brexit negotiations. And on Scotland, she has triggered a sequence of events that could lead to the end of the UK within the next five years.

In the light of this, the left has to be refocused around the facts that have emerged since the referendum on 23 June. Britain will leave the EU – but it faces a choice between May’s hubristic nonsense and a strategy to salvage 30 years of engagement with the biggest market in the world. Scotland will hold its second referendum. Labour will be led through all this by a man who, for the first time in the party’s history, cannot be relied on to do the elite’s bidding.

Brexit, on its own, need not have caused a great shift in British politics. It is the new, visceral split between Tory xenophobia and the implicitly liberal and globalist culture in most boardrooms that makes this a turning point. It is a challenge for the left as big as the ones Labour faced in 1931, when the gold standard collapsed; or in 1940, when the reality of total war dawned. It represents a big opportunity – but only if we jolt our brains out of the old patterns, think beyond party allegiances, and react fast.

Let’s start with the facts around which May, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd constructed their rhetorical body swerve at the Tory conference. Britain is £1.7trn in debt. Its budget deficit cannot be eradicated by 2020 because, even on the steroids of quantitative easing, growth is low, wages are stagnant and its trade situation deeply negative. Austerity, in short, did not work.

With sterling weakened, by next year we’ll begin to feel the pressure of imported inflation on real wages, re-creating the economic pain of 2011-12. On top of that, by attempting a “hard Brexit”, May has created damaging uncertainty for investment that no degree of short-term positivity can mitigate. Even if the range of outcomes only widens, investment will get delayed – and with May’s commitment to hard Brexit the range of outcomes will get significantly worse: 7.5 per cent lopped off GDP, according to a leaked Treasury assessment.

Civil servants believe Britain’s negotiating position is so weak that it will have to leverage its intelligence-providing services to Europe and concede “free movement of high-skilled workers”, just to persuade the French and the Germans to cut any kind of decent bilateral deal. Yet in the two years of brinkmanship that begin when Article 50 is triggered, the EU27 will have no reason whatsoever to concede favourable terms for bilateral trade. By adopting hard Brexit and hard xenophobia, Theresa May has scheduled a 24-month slow-motion car crash.

To orient the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider progressive movement, we need first to understand the scale of the break from normality. Labour already faced deep problems. First, without Scotland it cannot govern; yet many of its members in Scotland are so dislocated from the progressive Scottish national movement that the party is bereft of answers.

Next, the old relationship between the urban salariat and the ex-industrial working class has inverted. With a vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia – the cities that voted to stay in Europe. Its electoral battlegrounds are now places such as Bury, Nuneaton, Corby and Portsmouth, where the “centre” (as measured by the Lib Dem vote) has collapsed, to be replaced by thousands of Green voters and thousands more voting Ukip.

This was the known problem on the eve of Brexit, though layers of Labour MPs and councillors refused to understand it or respond to it. The solution to it was, even at that point, obvious: Labour can only attract back a million Green voters and hundreds of thousands of Ukip voters in winnable marginals with a combination of social liberalism and economic radicalism.

The alternative, as outlined in the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, was an overt return to social conservatism. That cannot work, because it might win back some ex-Labour Ukip voters but could not inspire Labour’s new urban core to go on the doorstep and fight for it. On the contrary, it could easily inspire many of them to tear up their membership cards.

A new strategy – to combine social liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism with left-wing economic policies aimed at reviving the “communities left behind” – was, for me, always the heart of Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself, whatever his personal strengths and weaknesses, was a placeholder for a political strategy.

Brexit, the attempted Labour coup and the Tory swing to hard Brexit have changed things all over again. And Labour’s leadership needs to move fast into the political space that has opened up. The starting point is to understand May’s administration as a regime of crisis. It is held together by rhetoric and a vacuum of press scrutiny, exacerbated by Labour’s civil war and the SNP’s perennial dithering over strategy to achieve Scottish independence. The crisis consists of the perils of hard Brexit combined with a tangible split between the old party of capital and capital itself. The elite – the bankers, senior managers, the super-rich and the ­upper middle class – do not want Brexit. Nor does a significant proportion of Middle Britain’s managerial and investing classes.




All this presents Labour with a series of achievable goals – as an opposition in Westminster, in London, as the likely winner in many of the forthcoming mayoral battles, and at Holyrood. The first aim should be: not just oppose hard Brexit, but prevent it. This entails the Labour front bench committing to an attempt to remain inside the European Economic Area.

The wariness – shared by some on the Corbyn side, as well as the Labour right – is born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour. The party’s new spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, expressed perfectly what is wrong with this approach: first it’s a negotiation, not a finished relationship; second, you start from the economics, not the migration issue.

Leaving the single market will be a macroeconomic disaster, compounded by a social catastrophe, in which all the European protections – of citizens’ rights, labour rights, consumer and environmental standards – will get ripped up. That’s why the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.

John McDonnell’s “red lines”, produced hurriedly in the days after Brexit, embody this principle – but not explicitly. McDonnell has said Labour would vote against any Brexit deal that did not involve some form of single-market access, and preserve the City’s passporting arrangement, where banks are authorised to trade across an entire area without having to be incorporated separately in each country. Freedom of movement is not included in the red lines.

May, meanwhile, insists there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating stance, or of the outcome. This position cannot stand, and overthrowing it provides a big, early target for Labour and the other opposition parties. They should use their constitutional influence – not only in Westminster but at Holyrood, Cardiff and the mayor-run cities, to bust open the Conservatives’ secrecy operation.

By declaring – formally, in a written pact – that they will refuse to ratify a Brexit deal based on World Trade Organisation tariffs, the progressive parties can destroy May’s negotiating position in Brussels overnight. Let the Conservative press accuse us of being “citizens of the world”, undermining the national interest. They will dig their own political grave even faster.

In parallel, Labour needs to lead – intellectually, morally and practically – the fight for a coherent, pro-globalist form of Brexit. In order for this to embody the spirit of the referendum, it would have to include some repatriation of sovereignty, as well as a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.

In response, Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration and – forgotten in the rush to “tinder box” rhetoric by the Blairites – puts refugees at the front of the queue, not the back. At its heart must be the assurance, already given to three million EU-born workers, that they will not be used as any kind of bargaining chip and their position here is inviolable.

Finally Labour needs to get real about Scotland. The recent loss of the council by-election in Garscadden, with a 20 per cent swing to the SNP, signals that the party risks losing Glasgow City Council next year.

It is a problem beyond Corbyn’s control: his key supporters inside Scottish Labour are long-standing and principled left-wing opponents of nationalism. Which would be fine if tens of thousands of left-wing social democrats were not enthused by a new, radical cultural narrative of national identity. Corbyn’s natural allies – the thousands of leftists who took part in the Radical Independence Campaign – are trapped outside the party, sitting inside the Scottish Greens, Rise or the left of the SNP.

The interim solution is for Scottish Labour to adopt the position argued by its deputy leader, Alex Rowley: embrace “home rule” – a rejigged devo-max proposal – and support a second independence referendum. Then throw open the doors to radical left-wing supporters of independence. If, for that to happen, there has to be a change of leadership (replacing Kezia Dugdale), then it’s better to do it before losing your last bastion in local government.

The speed with which Labour’s challenge has evolved is a signal that this is no ordinary situation. To understand how dangerous it would be to cling to the old logic, you have only to extrapolate the current polls into an electoral ground war plan. Sticking to the old rules, Labour HQ should – right now – be planning a defensive campaign to avoid losing 60 seats to May. Instead, it can and must lay a plan to promote her administration’s chaotic demise. It should have the ambition to govern – either on its own, or with the support of the SNP at Westminster.

To achieve this, it must confront the ultimate demon: Labour must show willing to make an alliance with the globalist section of the elite. Tony Blair’s equivocation about a return to politics, the constant noise about a new centrist party, and signs of a Lib Dem revival in local by-elections are all straws in the wind. If significant sections of the middle class decide they cannot live with Tory xenophobia, the liberal centre will revive.

The best thing for Labour to do now is to claim as much of the high ground before that. It must become the party of progressive Brexit. The worst thing would be to start worrying about “losing the traditional working class”.

The “traditional working class” knows all too well how virulent Ukip xenophobia is: Labour and trade union members spend hours at the pub and in the workplace and on the doorstep arguing against it.

All over Britain, the labour movement is a line, drawn through working-class communities, which says that migrants are not to blame for poor housing, education, low pay and dislocated communities. For the first time in a generation Labour has a leader prepared to say who is to blame: the neoliberal elite and their addiction to privatisation, austerity and low wages.

It was the elite’s insouciance over the negative impacts of EU migration on the lowest-skilled, together with their determination to suppress class politics inside Labour, that helped get us into this mess. An alliance with some of them, to achieve soft Brexit, democratic scrutiny and to defeat xenophobic solutions, must be conditional.

We, the labour movement, will dig the British ruling class out of a self-made hole, just as we did in May 1940. The price is: no return to the philosophy of poverty and inequality; a strategic new deal, one that puts state ownership, redistribution and social justice at the heart of post-Brexit consensus.

That is the way forward. If Labour politicians can bring themselves to explain it clearly, cajole the party apparatus out of its epic sulk and make a brave new offer to Scotland – it can work. But time is important. We are up against a corrosive nationalist bigotry that now echoes direct from the front page of the Daily Mail to Downing Street. Every day it goes unchallenged it will seep deeper into Britain’s political pores.

Paul Mason is the author of “PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge