First Thoughts: Corbyn and the press, the NS election party, and the next Labour leader

The Labour leader’s complaints about “meejah bias” may seem like special pleading, but let’s admit that he has a point.

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There is nothing wrong with a partisan press. But in the general election campaign, British newspapers, not for the first time, crossed the line into propaganda. For example, a Daily Mail headline claimed couples would lose £1,100 from Labour’s proposed abolition of the marriage tax allowance. You would need to read the article carefully to understand that a couple could lose that much only if they had neglected to claim the allowance for five years.

Later, the Mail on Sunday published an “11-page special” on the “Battle for Britain”, no doubt expecting to stir folk memories of 1940. Britain under Jeremy Corbyn, the headlines screamed, would be a “Pariah state shunned by the world”; the Labour leader was “a strange obsessive” who believed that Islamic State was “not a great threat to the UK”; and if you went to his house on Christmas Day, you’d get “apple juice and a veggie lunch”.

According to academics at Loughborough University, all parties got more negative than positive coverage, but Labour’s negative mentions exceeded the Tories’ by nearly seven to one. Since anti-Tory and pro-Labour coverage was largely in lower-circulation papers, the disparity in what reached readers was far greater. Despite print sales declines, the four most right-wing papers – the Sun, Mail, Express and Telegraph – each reach more than 20 million people a month.

Moreover, the front-page headlines are in the faces of anyone who enters a supermarket, a petrol station or a WH Smith. Corbyn’s complaints about “meejah bias” may seem like special pleading, but let’s admit that he has a point.

Taxi for all

The New Statesman’s election night party in central London went with a swing until 10pm, when the announcement of the exit poll was followed not long afterwards by the longest queue for a cloakroom I have seen. Most guests peered intently at their mobile phones, as if searching for some heavenly sign that the exit poll was a terrible mistake. Of those I spoke to, only the Old Etonian former editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart, seemed cheerful, instructing me that Johnson’s success in former Labour seats meant a moderate social democratic government in Tory clothes.

Cruel Britannia

Mr Goodhart’s comments were my first inkling of a narrative we now hear repeatedly: that Boris Johnson will lead a “One Nation” Tory government, distributing largesse to the toiling masses and turning the English North into a land overflowing with milk and honey.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. In 2012, Britannia Unchained, a book by five then obscure Tory MPs, stated: “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.” The UK should “stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between manufacturing and services, the north and the south, women and men”. All five authors are now ministers, three of them – Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss – in senior cabinet positions.

Leave lost

Because Johnson said little during the campaign except “get Brexit done” and the Lib Dems, the most pro-Remain party, were supposedly “humiliated”, the election is being treated as a proxy referendum and the result as a Leave victory. But combine votes for the Tory, Brexit and Democratic Unionist parties with a few other odds and ends, and you get less than 47 per cent for Leave. The Lib Dems, though falling far short of their ambitions, got a 4.2 per cent uplift in their vote – more than any other party except the SNP. I don’t claim that Remain won, but Leave certainly didn’t.

Jess we can

Why did Johnson win so handsomely? The most plausible explanation is that he makes people laugh. Labour needs someone who can rival him in the comedy stakes. That rules out all those named as leadership contenders except for Jess Phillips, who memorably told the Commons: “I thought I had met posh people before I came here, but I had actually just met people who eat olives.” If she stands, she’ll have my vote.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning

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