Show Hide image

The election will not be televised

The internet will revolutionise the parties’ general election campaigns. For our leading politicians

For politicians and journalists, British general election campaigns are the equivalent of playing an album they have not heard for a few years. A prime minister names the big day and all of them discover that the old tunes are still there. They know instinctively how to dance to them.

Over recent decades, the music has started up each day at the morning press conferences. The Liberal Democrats offer their latest soundbites
at about 7am; they get an early hit on the media outlets, and the conscientious journalists drink some strong coffee. After the Labour and Conservative morning conferences, the leaders buzz around the country delivering speeches in key marginal seats. They also give interviews to an army of broadcasters and newspapers in which they more or less repeat what they have declared a thousand times before. The disciplined choreography is rarely punctuated by discordant or upbeat notes. I suppose John Major appearing in Luton on a soapbox in 1992 was odd, a little silly, but not a spectacular, game-changing moment. Neil Kinnock getting carried away at the Sheffield rally during the same election fuelled prejudices against him, but the wariness was already present. Since that campaign, elections have come and gone, with Labour predictably winning them - the reverse of the 1980s, when formulaic election campaigns were brief pauses during Margaret Thatcher's long reign.

But with the next election only months away, everything is about to change. The rhythms we have come to know so well are seemingly gone
for ever, like a distant waltz that is no longer played. Across the parties and within the mainstream media, there is a widespread assumption that the internet will transform the campaign in revolutionary ways. There is plenty of evidence for this, from the main parties' obsessive interest in the way Barack Obama used the internet to raise cash and engage more directly with voters to the increasingly influential political blogo­sphere, where news and comment are available around the clock.

Gordon Brown's close ally Ed Balls has told the Prime Minister to stop worrying so much about the newspapers and focus instead on what's online. Brown has followed this advice in part. He has shown a greater interest in the internet, not least with his infamous appearance on YouTube, in which he put the case for changes to the arrangements for MPs' expenses, although his awkward delivery gave him the air of a man trying out his new camcorder with an experimental monologue. He has also twittered about the National Health Service while on holiday.

The other part of Balls's advice has not been followed. Brown still reads the newspapers when he wakes up, which means by the time he's had his first cup of tea he is probably pretty miserable. Labour strategists are spending a lot of time working out how to engage with the voters on the internet and thus bypass the largely hostile conventional media.

Senior Conservative strategists expend much energy in the same quest, but they are also nervously ambivalent, wondering what this great leap into the campaign unknown will really mean. They are haunted by a fear that, for all their intense advance preparations, they are no longer in control of the agenda: instead, the internet will control the so-called political control freaks.

One of the Tories' media advisers tells me of a possible nightmarish sequence that could wreck their carefully laid plans. After an early-morning press conference in which David Cameron and George Osborne deliver their latest slogan, news reaches them that an obscure Conservative candidate has gone outrageously off-message with some spontaneous remarks at a local meeting.

In the past, the chances were that such a casually reckless intervention by a nonentity would go unreported. But in the era of mobile-phone cameras and YouTube, the Tory adviser suspects that film of the candidate delivering the calamitous words will be available almost immediately to every broadcaster in the land and become a major news story, derailing the party's agenda for the day, possibly for several.

The Conservatives have even more cause for worry after Alan Duncan's supposedly private comments about the poverty of MPs were posted on YouTube and the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (profiled on page 32) reminded voters in his rant against the NHS about the narrow reach of Cameron's modernising leadership. If the Conservatives have lost control in August, by far the quietest month of the political year, they could be in deeper trouble during an election.

Labour is fearful, too. Brown and Peter Mandelson were architects of the highly disciplined 1997 victory, even though they hardly spoke to each other at the time. They are used to operating in the old ways and will probably find it harder than the more youthful Tory leadership to adjust to the wildly unpredictable impact of YouTube and bloggers giving their round-the-clock analysis, more potent in some ways than 24-hour broadcast news, where the reporters are heavily constrained by strict rules of impartiality.

The next election will therefore feel unrecognisably different for political leaders, newspapers and broadcasters, the trio that, in their diverse ways, are used to planning the campaigns without having to take into account other external factors. In a curious way, although competing with each other noisily, they are all desperately trying to adapt to the impact of the internet. There are parallels between the decline in political parties and the crises facing conventional media outlets. They suffer similar questions of identity as they seek to extend their appeal beyond a declining core audience. They are troubled by the internet, but they are tentatively aware of its potential.

Yet, for all their difficulties, newspapers and magazines continue to play a distinctive role, in print and on the internet. Those writing for the mighty (and mightily subsidised) BBC website can offer only news and a very limited degree of interpretation. No broadcaster has the freedom to write the equivalent of the informed columns available on newspaper and magazine websites. We need informed comment as much as ever.

As usual, most of the influential newspapers will be on the right during the election campaign. The Times has wisely moved upmarket over the past year or so, aligning its news pages with its already impressive comment pages. But politically it opts for a narrow range; most of its columnists skate between ultra-Blairism, disdain for the current government and strong support for David Cameron and George Osborne. The Telegraph could move into the Times's old position of being a broadly centre-right paper of record with a wider range of voices that includes Mary Riddell, a well-informed columnist on the centre left. Nonetheless, the Telegraph is recognisably rooted on the right. They are joined in different ways by the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and quite a few of the other Sunday tabloids.

In contrast, the Guardian's political voice is far from clear. Recently, three of its columnists and a lengthy editorial screamed for Brown to go, without explaining what would follow and how. The newspaper's leader writers evidently have no feel or sympathy for Labour or the centre left, happily proclaiming recently that "Labour is toast", as if that were the end of the matter. They are more generous to the Cameron project, taking at face value claims that the party has modernised. I am reminded of an observation Harold Wilson's old friend Marcia Williams made to the Guardian's senior political columnist in the 1970s: "While the Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party, the non-Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party."

Similarly, some of the strongest - or at least loudest - voices in the world of political blogging are on the right. They vary in range and tone from the libertarian-right Guido Fawkes to the more traditional ConservativeHome. There are also the relentlessly Thatcherite economic pro­clamations on the Spectator's Coffee House forum, where the spending axe is wielded with unnerving relish. All are addictive; I read them several times a day. More importantly, so do BBC producers, frequently inviting the authors on to their outlets. The recently relaunched New Statesman website reads like a breath of fresh air as writers dare occasionally to put the case for a government policy and to challenge the notion that Cameron and his party are the crusading progressives in politics. But they are the exception, and I note that some of the contributors are hammered over this, attacked by other columnists and bloggers for being cowardly in their subservience, when they are being brave in challenging popular fashion.

Without much of a constituency in the media, Brown becomes more insecure, which is why, up until the summer break, he kept announcing daft initiatives in the neurotic search for a rare good headline. Cameron and the Conservatives will be under much more pressure from their supporters in the media to move rightwards, ­especially in relation to economic policy. I recall Tony Blair observing to me during his first term that the Conservatives' supporters in the media were not helpful to their party, as they always urged the leadership to move to the right. They are still doing so. Brown, like Blair, seeks to woo these mighty battalions, too, which is partly why his leadership has been of uncertain sound.

So, everything has changed and nothing has changed. The next election will be a roller-coaster ride during which no one will be entirely in control. At the same time, the news will be beamed largely through a Eurosceptic, small-state and anti-public-spending prism - a familiar challenge for a Conservative leader seeking support from voters whose political sympathies are not necessarily shifting rightwards, and for a Labour leader who needs to get a hearing from media that remain largely hostile to the centre left.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496