The "challengers" TV debate. Photo: Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images
Show Hide image

Broadcasters must be more robust to tackle multiparty Britain

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of smaller parties - and they weren't quite prepared.

There will soon be shedloads of empirical research about this campaign, and the broadcasters will have their seminars about what went right and what went wrong as they trudge their way towards the next set of elections. But if I had the misfortune still to be stuck in those cheerless meeting rooms, there are items I’d want to be on the agenda based on a personal and subjective view of what we’ve just witnessed.

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of multiparty Britain. In previous elections there had been a tight focus on the three biggest parties, and it was refreshing to get a wider range of opinions that reflected more people in the UK. And yet there is a difference between a fair hearing for smaller parties and over-­representation, especially in the biggest events, which can distort the election outcome. My instinct is that an early mistake was made by adding Ukip to the list of major parties. It’s all very well talking about opinion-poll performance and European elections, but media representation has historically been based on the House of Commons – where Ukip won no seats in 2010.

Once you lost the anchor of the composition of the Commons and the 88 per cent of the vote won by the big three in 2010, and started looking at the transient polls and by-elections instead, the appearance of Ukip in the plans for leaders’ debates understandably provoked a challenge from the Greens and the nationalists. Although the Conservatives never really wanted debates at all, and were at times simply obstructive, they were right that allowing in only Ukip would have been unfair.

So, that then led to Plaid Cymru, which had entered the campaign with three MPs and only 165,000 votes, having two UK-wide debate appearances on a status equal with Ed Miliband’s. There would have been an unfairness in Wales in excluding them altogether; but the outcome felt disproportionate, and it particularly weighted the scales against Miliband in the contenders’ encounter. At least one senior broadcaster I spoke to is expressing unease at nationalist parties getting such prolonged network exposure in the debate series and, arguably, disrupting the overall balance of coverage.

There was also some injustice to Northern Ireland. I was one of the people who argued against the Irish parties being at the top table because I could see no way of including the DUP without featuring all the other contenders there, too, and 12-way debates would have been impossible. But, leaving aside the lack of visibility that annoyed Ulster voters, it slewed the UK campaign. Labour was asked endlessly about an SNP alliance, while the scarcity of DUP ­appearances helped the Tories avoid challenges about a deal with a party that has some startling views about social issues.

The broadcasters probably ended up being over-kind to the SNP. It was right that they were in at least one of the debates, and given full attention on BBC Scotland and STV, but it’s not clear why Nicola Sturgeon was granted additional UK set-piece interview slots when she could be voted for only in Scotland. There was an additional problem in the news bulletins where the SNP clips were almost entirely on their favoured territory about the power they would wield in a hung parliament. They were seldom heard talking about policy or defending their own record in government in Edinburgh. Across the board, there was too much chatter about what would happen after the election compared with coverage of manifesto issues.

The television campaign most came alive when it focused on the choice of who would be prime minister: the highlights were the Channel 4/Sky interviews with David Cam­eron and Ed Miliband, and the BBC Question Time that added Nick Clegg into that mix. It was particularly cheering to see what a difference it made having a passionate audience in Yorkshire, fuelled by the sense that they were taking part in something which mattered. That is why the broadcasters were right when they tried to protect as many of those defining moments as possible. The success of the highest-visibility Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby programmes underlines why executives should resist the argument in future that every debate has to feature everyone.

What the broadcasters need to preserve is their right to make judgements – in the way they construct the framework of the campaign as well as in their journalism. They have a public-service obligation to reflect democracy in action, but they shouldn’t shy away from making choices based on the evidence. It doesn’t do anybody any favours, least of all Natalie Bennett, to pretend that the Greens will be in government; or that we need to spend much time discussing Ukip’s policy on higher education. But with this comes an obligation to be more transparent about decision-making. It still hasn’t been properly explained why the Lib Dems were not in the contenders’ debate, and there was the mystery of why Nigel Farage got his own mini-Question Time when that was not part of the announced plans.

Fortunately for the broadcasters, though, the final lesson is about the indispensability of the old battalions. For all the partisan huff-and-puff of the press, and despite the hyping of digital and social media, it was most often network television and radio that drove the agenda. In this lacklustre campaign, that wasn’t always a blessing.

Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.