Beyond the spectacle

How can the anti-cuts movement break through the media’s short attention span?

Violence is good television; peace is not. The people who smash things know this. They aren't necessarily natural vandals who would go around breaking windows or setting fire to pallets – though let's not rule that out – but they know the best way to be looked at is to break something. The naughty child in a classroom who always plays up gets the most attention from the teacher, while everyone else working quietly can be ignored.

It's the same reason why terrorists try to blow up aeroplanes rather than organising 200 separate fatal car crashes: one will make the news worldwide, the other will not. Break something, charge a police line, chuck a brick, arrange a colourful stunt – you'll get coverage, while thousands of people can march peacefully along in the background, completely ignored.

News channels think that footage of someone smashing a window or chucking paint at Top Shop are more interesting to their viewers than staring at Ed Miliband's face. They may be right. As Charlie Beckett says, we shouldn't necessarily go blaming the media if the "wrong" messages are taken away from an event by news outlets. The rolling news channels think their viewers are like dozing, elderly, half-blind cats who need a poke in the ribs and a bit of wool dangled in their whiskers before they get interested; they've either hugely miscalculated their audience, or they know them all too well.

The short attention span of the viewer, fingers forever poised over the remote control, demands that excitement be maintained in whatever way is possible. The sight of things being smashed is sexier to look at than tens of thousands of peaceful protesters slowly processing along a prearranged marching route. After a few seconds, you get banner fatigue, and quickly start wondering what's on the other channel.

None of this is a glib dismissal of Saturday's March for the Alternative, or an assertion that it was all a waste of time; the event was a coming together of many different groups with a range of viewpoints, sharing common ground over a way forward that doesn't have to involve the savagery of cuts planned by the coalition government. It was a wonderful show of feeling and determination, and could prove to be a springboard for a wider grass-roots movement. But the difficulty in getting the message across, without having your peaceful protest hijacked by rent-a-mob or having your movement tainted by the actions of unconnected others, is evident.

So what impression are we left with, those of us who didn't attend? Do we think of the thousands of smiling faces, the high spirits, the masses of families and individuals getting together for a shared cause? Or are we left with the sinister fag-end of the day's events – the reports of light bulbs filled with ammonia or fireworks stuffed with coins, the "anarchists" and troublemakers, regardless of what relation they had to the vast majority of protesters?

Where the anti-cuts movement goes from here, and how it conveys its aims, will determine its success. Building a broad grass-roots movement takes time, effort and hard work, most of which is going to happen away from the cameras, away from big events like Saturday's, away from the troubleseekers and troublemakers, too. That's where the battle will be won or lost.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses