Political rebellions are rarely clean and this one is no exception. Here is what we normally see when a politician assumes the leadership of a major party. They have a history of appearing on TV programmes and are well acquainted with influential journalists; they have a highly professional team with experience of dealing with reporters hungry for news lines. They can expect to recruit sympathetic former journalists and have a trusting network of others. Thanks to their long-standing ambitions, they have avoided saying or doing anything controversial for many years.
This is what happens if they are a member of the political elite and accept the current consensus. If you are a backbench MP with no prior personal ambition beyond representing your constituency and your causes – such as workers’ rights and peace – this does not apply. It especially doesn’t apply if you join a party leadership contest at odds of 200-1, with beliefs that put you outside the political consensus accepted by the media.
The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon is an insurgency, a grass-roots movement that latched on to his leadership candidacy, which only with the benefit of hindsight seems to have been inevitable. Political discontent sweeps the western world, finding varying expressions; social democracy has been left with little to say after embracing austerity. New Labour no longer has a hopeful message that, despite its grievous flaws, it once had: public investment, a minimum wage, LGBT rights, devolution, and so on. Corbynism filled the vacuum.
Jeremy Corbyn had been in political Siberia for his entire career. His allies were largely outside parliament. Like everybody else, he surely never expected to win. He has gone from obscurity to leader of the country’s second political party in the space of weeks, instantly facing a media firestorm.
Corbyn has the highly professional Simon Fletcher, Ken Livingstone’s former chief of staff, working for him but otherwise his team is still threadbare and in the process of formation. He enjoys the support of a mass grass-roots movement of the kind that almost no politician ever has but no professionalised apparatus – and he will now meet one of the most aggressive media on earth.
There are two popular theories about what will happen. The media elite are unpopular and poorly trusted in this country; the situation is “febrile”, as the thoughtful right-wing commentator Iain Martin recently put it. The Scottish independence movement faced near-universal hostility in the press but surged in support to win 45 per cent in last year’s referendum – far above what had originally been predicted – and it led to the SNP’s near-extermination of all other Westminster parties north of the border at the general election. If you have a substantial grass-roots movement, perhaps media hostility can be resisted.
Voters aren’t sheep, somehow programmed by the media, but it would be fantastical to believe that the media’s onslaught in May against Labour had no impact on it. Here’s the undeniable issue: Westminster politics consumes a tiny proportion of most people’s lives. A big event such as the election of a new party leader might be a reason to take more interest but often the effect is only fleeting. If an aggressive campaign by the Tories and their media allies is unchallenged, it may help form a lasting impression that is difficult to shift. Whatever the opposition does, however much it get its act together, the risk is that it will always be seen through that initial prism.
The temptation for some on the left who have often had to endure the politicised media’s war against their causes and beliefs is to think: “Sod them. Why bother engaging with them?” As someone (unintended small violin here) operating in mainstream media largely hostile to my views, I’m more than sympathetic. I can go through a range of objections: that the media are mostly ruled by a tiny group of deeply political moguls; that the press often behaves like a lobbying front; that journalists are filtered out by background because of unpaid internships and expensive postgraduate qualifications; that the division between news and opinion has been eroded; that character assassination and wilful distortion are rife; and so on. But my whingeing about it is one thing: I’m a writer trying to push issues on the agenda, rather than a politician trying to inspire enough people with a vision that they will support it and change the country.
That’s why the conventional media have to be engaged with, however horrible and nasty they are. They still largely monopolise the means of information. Social media is far from being an alternative; otherwise, the Tories would not be in power. Labour needs to have clear, sharp messages and repeat them endlessly, as the Tories do. Smears and distortions need rapid rebuttal. Major stories and lines need to be highlighted and passed to journalists, with good timing. Tory policies must be framed in a way that resonates outside the world of signed-up lefties. Yes, New Labour did all this but it is possible to engage cleverly with the media while maintaining authenticity – and without capitulating to right-wing ideas.
The grass-roots movement gives Corbyn and his supporters an advantage but it’s not either/or. Building a progressive movement with roots in communities can go hand in hand with a sophisticated media operation that refutes lies and transmits messages to millions. Policies and visions that appeal to both low-income and middle-income people need a popular hearing and must be conveyed in a way that is understood by those who don’t, as a rule, think in terms of “left” or “right”. An incredible political moment arrived over the summer. It would be a travesty if it was buried because of an all-out media offensive that wasn’t checked.
Owen Jones is an NS contributing writer
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War