Weather makers

As storms break around Gordon Brown and David Cameron, politics is being shaped not by the party lea

On the evening before Gordon Brown's career-defining speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester, he met James Murdoch, the 35-year-old who is chief executive in Europe and Asia of his father Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate, News Corporation, and whose position includes control of the British newspaper group News International. The two men talked for nearly an hour, discussing in particular the global financial crisis. It is unprecedented for Brown to have spent so long on anything other than refining his leader's speech on the night before he delivered it. That this meeting took place when it did and for the length it did confirms what many already suspected: James Murdoch has become the most powerful figure in the British media.

Before Tony Blair became leader, Labour politicians would complain about the deep-rooted Conservatism of the British press, and with good reason. In the Eighties, only the Daily and Sunday Mirror, the Guardian and the Observer supported Labour. The Mail and Telegraph titles were robust backers of the Conservatives, as were the Daily and Sunday Express. Murdoch's market-leading publications - the Sun, News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times - were Thatcher's cheerleaders. The Sun and News of the World continued to endorse John Major following his election victory in 1992, even as they chronicled the collapse of his fatigued and divided government. Winning the support of the Sun, in the run-up to the 1997 election, was a pivotal moment for new Labour, the culmination of a sustained campaign to woo Murdoch that began when Peter Mandelson became Labour's director of communication in 1985. This meant that a Labour administration could operate in a climate where the political weather wasn't being created by an overwhelmingly hostile press.

When Gordon Brown and his advisers first surveyed the media landscape after he became Prime Minister in June 2007, it was agreed that it was imperative they retain the support of the Murdoch titles. But there was also optimism in the Brown camp that a hostile Tory press could be neutralised. There was a feeling that old allies in the press, including the Guardian, edited by Alan Rusbridger, would embrace Brown after losing faith in Blair over the Iraq W.ar. The Guardian columnists Polly Toynbee, Jonathan Freedland and Jackie Ashley were all trenchant supporters of Brown. The Daily Mail had been vitriolic in its criticism of new Labour and of Tony Blair personally, but Brown has long enjoyed good relations with its editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre. Dacre, it is said, admires the Prime Minister's probity and moral convictions, if not his politics, and the decision to shelve the construction of several planned "super-casinos' delighted the Mail. The Daily Telegraph is broadly supportive of the Conservatives, but senior executives as well as commentators such as editor-at-large Jeff Randall and associate editor Simon Heffer are sceptical of David Cameron's social liberalism. The Sunday Telegraph is close to the Brown government; the political editor, Patrick Hennessy, is a friend of Ed Balls and he was given an exclusive interview by Brown on the eve of the Manchester conference.

Yet the tectonic plates have started to shift beneath Fleet Street. The Daily Mail leader columns still occasionally profess admiration for Brown while also fiercely denouncing his government elsewhere in the paper. Last month, the Mail also published a significant editorial in which David Cameron was acclaimed as a possible future Prime Minister. The Guardian has begun to take the Conservative revival more seriously, and Toynbee, Ashley and Freedland have turned against Brown; they now call weekly for his departure. That might explain why Brown made only a fleeting visit to the paper's late-night party in Manchester, choosing instead to spend half an hour at the rival Daily Telegraph party, where he chatted at length to its editor-in-chief, Will Lewis.

Over the summer, as the Tories built a 20-point lead in the opinion polls, the media became less sceptical of Cameron, choosing to focus instead on Brown's diminished popularity and party disunity. That became the central story around which every other political event was made to fit. In those circumstances, the Prime Minister's widely maligned press adviser, Damian McBride, deserves credit for ensuring that his employer did not receive harsher treatment from the press during his annus horribilis. McBride has been accused of briefing against members of the government, and some cabinet ministers are urging Brown to sack him, but there are some political correspondents who believe that without him the Prime Minister's position would be irrecoverable.

The Prime Minister does not have the same close relationship with James Murdoch as he does with his father. Rupert Murdoch - and his economic adviser Irwin Stelzer - respects Brown's intellect and knowledge of global economics. Last week's conversation between Brown and James Murdoch was an attempt to bring the two closer together. Sources close to the government say that Rupert Murdoch remains important to Brown internationally, pointing out that his experience and opinion is valued by other world leaders. They believe that if Murdoch told the White House that Brown was finished, he would wield far less global influence. As it is, Murdoch urges world leaders to seek the Prime Minister's advice, particularly on economic matters, which is one of the reasons Bush granted Brown a 90-minute audience in the Oval office during an unscheduled visit to Washington last week. "Murdoch's respect for Brown's understanding of the world economy is absolutely key to his ongoing respect for him," says one source. "Murdoch's critics might argue politicians are too quick to credit him with power he does not possess, but they will continue to court him as long as he remains influential on the world stage."

In an era when ideological differences between the two parties are less pronounced, personal relationships have more currency, and No 10 has worked hard to strengthen links with the press, although it is a source of frustration for some in Downing Street that Brown does not engage with members of the so-called commentariat, many of whom enjoyed regular access to Blair. The Prime Minister is, unlike his predecessor, unwilling to spend time having coffee with commentators such as Peter Riddell of the Times or Anne McElvoy of the London Evening Standard, not because he doesn't respect or like them, but because he thinks he has more important work in hand. Blair's good and open relations with newspaper commentators and opinion formers meant he could generally rely on supportive columns, even after a terrible week. Brown has not been so fortunate.

Relations with Fleet Street executives are more cordial. The Telegraph editor Will Lewis knew Brown well when he was a young Financial Times journalist and Brown was shadow trade and industry secretary. They subsequently drifted apart, but the respect remains mutual. The Prime Minister is also friendly with Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Media Group, and a fellow Scot.

Alliances with News International remain strong, thanks in large part to the work of Sarah Brown, who, in a brilliantly executed piece of political theatre, introduced her husband's main speech in Manchester. Sarah has been described as Gordon's "secret weapon", but those close to her point out that she has been carrying out an emissarial role for some time, effectively acting as an unofficial press attaché for her husband. She hosted a recent charity dinner in New York with the Sun's editor Rebekah Wade and Wendi Murdoch, Rupert's third wife. A plan to take Wade on the Prime Minister's plane to the United States was scrapped, but the Murdoch clan's close relationship with Sarah was much in evidence on the American trip. His daughter Elisabeth Murdoch, who runs her own TV production company, delivered a glowing tribute to the Prime Minister's wife at the function, which was attended by bankers, models and actresses. Wendi was seen at a private dinner at Soho House, in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, attended by Sarah the following night. Sarah also organised a trip with Paul Dacre to see Hamlet at Stratford, and she helped plan Rebekah Wade's 40th birthday party earlier this year. As befits a former professional public relations executive, Sarah has good relations with the editors of some of the bestselling, and most influential, women's lifestyle magazines.

Further evidence of the deep ties between the government and the Murdoch family were on display earlier this month at a party to celebrate Elisabeth Murdoch's 40th birthday, held at the country home in Oxfordshire she recently bought with her husband Matthew Freud. At the gathering, Rupert Murdoch read out a message from Gordon Brown apologising for his absence, explaining that he and Sarah were with "the other Liz" in Balmoral that weekend. Etiquette may have required the PM to visit the Queen, but there is little doubt which is the more powerful family. Other guests at the Murdoch party included Tony Blair, David Miliband, the Times editor James Harding and Will Lewis of the Daily Telegraph. David Cameron was there, too, but he is still largely on the outside, waiting in hope for an endorsement from Rupert Murdoch. That Cameron's director of com munications and planning, Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor, is a member of Cameron's inner circle may help to change that. Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy, has wide influence, but he has few direct dealings with the press and, in any event, is living in California (his wife works for Google). James Murdoch's friendship with the shadow chancellor George Osborne, whose social liberalism is consistent with his own, may ultimately have more influence on the Murdochs' position - and, by implication, that of their British newspapers - on the Tories.

But are we at the end of an era? The next election may be the last at which national newspapers exert such a decisive influence over the way the country votes. Although newspapers still reflect the nation's mood, and help to shape it, sales figures suggest they are no longer as powerful as they once were. The combined circulation of daily newspapers (excluding the Daily Star) has fallen from 11.3 million to 9.68 million since the last general election; the decline since 1997 is even more pronounced. Those circulation figures obviously do not take account of the growing power and influence of newspaper websites, or the startling transformations media groups have made in their online operations in the past year, but no one doubts that the information industry is fragmenting.

Unlike in the US, where sites such as the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report often break stories followed by the national media, this country has not produced a truly influential online commentator with power to set the news agenda, though bloggers such as Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are read. They are both right-of-centre commentators, and it is notable that the left has been particularly slow to harness new technology, as Barack Obama has done so successfully in the US.

The internet has changed the news cycle, rendering front-page exclusives out of date long before they are read. Newspapers looked slow and flat-footed when they told readers last week that the US treasury secretary Hank Paulson had won support for his $700bn bailout deal hours after it was scuppered by Congress. Broadcasters, now regarded as more important than the press by No 10, still take their lead from Fleet Street, however. The BBC regularly follows Daily Mail scoops, although senior BBC sources say they uncover enough stories of their own and follow newspaper exclusives regardless of where they are published.

There is some disgruntlement at No 10 about new arrivals at the BBC, which is placing former Conservative supporters in executive roles, such as John Tate, the BBC's new director of policy and strategy, and hiring senior producers on flagship programmes in anticipation of a change in the government. Tate, who formerly ran the Opposition Policy Unit, co-wrote the 2005 Tory manifesto with Cameron. But a senior BBC News executive says the atmosphere of mutual distrust between the corporation and spin-doctors in both parties has been replaced by one of co-operation. When Cameron visited Georgia, the Tories were eager for the BBC to cover his press conference. But, instead, its camera crews and reporters were employed at the border, where Russian tanks were advancing. A polite conversation explaining that covering the conflict had to take priority was enough to assuage complaints, according to one BBC News executive, even if some programme editors tell a different story. Many describe Coulson as "a shouter" and claim he has tried to exert control over the questions Cameron is asked in interviews, though he ensured that the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson had unfettered access to the Tory leader for a Panorama special screened on Monday 29 September. There is no doubt that Coulson has professionalised the Conservatives' media operation. Senior Tories who seldom ventured into daytime TV studios now regularly appear on the GMTV sofa, for example.

With the rest of Fleet Street neatly divided along party lines, with the possible exception of Roger Alton's Independent and the Financial Times, the value of a Murdoch endorsement is magnified. Some observers believe it is inevitable that the Murdoch newspapers will ultimately support the Tories if they retain their poll lead as an election approaches, citing the old adage that Murdoch "only ever backs winners". But senior News International executives counter by saying that its four titles have never backed the same party, and a senior source at the Times insists he has little idea which party his paper, or the other titles, will come out for. Intriguingly, he adds that much will depend on who leads the Labour Party into the next election. If Brown is deposed, his successor may have to fight harder than the current Prime Minister to win Murdoch's backing.

In the meantime, the global financial crisis has provided Fleet Street with a dramatic new narrative, and boosted Brown's standing in the opinion polls. At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, some delegates muttered that the unprecedented turmoil in the markets might prove to be Brown's equivalent of the Falklands War: a crisis that offers an opportunity to reclaim lost credibility and restore his electoral appeal. Much has been written about the power of the Murdoch newspapers, and Rupert Murdoch's willingness to use his papers to promote and protect his commercial interests. But at a time of international emergency Murdoch is likely to support only those politicians whom he believes are best placed to deal with the crisis. Perhaps that is what Gordon Brown and James Murdoch were discussing last week.

James Robinson is media editor of the Observer

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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