Mainstream journalists are unlikely to step outside their own political ‘gated community’ of lobbyists and think tanks – which is why we need alternative media, says SOLOMON HUGHES
WHY did the “serious” media get Labour’s prospects so seriously wrong? The Stupid Prize goes to the New Statesman, with a cover showing an asteroid about to destroy Jeremy Corbyn.
The Statesman’s editor Jason Cowley backed the cover with a 3,000-word editorial, as wrong as it was long. Written on the eve of the election, Cowley confidently predicted: “Whether it loses 30, 50 or even 70 seats, the Labour Party is heading — and it gives me no pleasure to say this — for a shattering defeat under Jeremy Corbyn, just when it should have been seeking to remake our politics for the common good.”
The exact opposite happened. It is not fair to pick on Cowley. We have had two years of almost every “pundit” of every national newspaper telling us Corbyn would inevitably lead Labour to disaster.
Conservative papers were always against Corbyn. The liberal press was almost always against Corbyn. One or two commentators on the Guardian backed him, but even they, under tremendous pressure from their peers, wobbled.
But 300,000 Labour Party members re-elected Corbyn to the leadership. Every one of them was wiser than the wise heads in the newspapers and magazines.
The Conservative press was full of simple lies and vile smears. But look at the “liberal” press: The Observer gave room for Nick Cohen to predict the Tories would tear Labour “to pieces” in an election campaign, reducing Labour to 100 seats.
He wrote — actual words passed by the editor — that any Corbyn supporter should “stop being a fucking fool by changing your fucking mind.” Foul-mouthed and broken-brained.
The Observer’s “edgy” columnist Barbara Ellen joined the Lib Dems in protest at Corbyn. The Observer did allow its veteran journalist Ed Vuillamy to write one pro-Corbyn piece in 2015.
By 2017 he confessed in the paper: “I was wrong to defend Jeremy Corbyn.” Vuillamy generously said: “I gave him a chance, but he is unfit to be called leader of the opposition.”
Why were their best thinkers coming up with all these bad takes? How will they stop getting it wrong?
If a journalist keeps getting it wrong, it means they have a problem with their sources, or their judgement.
On sources: pundits will keep getting it wrong if they don’t change their contacts — who are lobbyists, anti-Corbyn MPs and corporate-funded think tanks. It is a small ecosystem of business-funded political operatives, who will always find a way to resist social change.
I was struck by one long article by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian in May predicting Corbyn-led election defeat, under the title: “No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown.”
He based his views on a focus group of voters organised by PR firm Edelman. Focus groups are easily manipulated, with participants guided towards stereotyped answers.
Most commentators learned this lesson during the first government of Tony Blair, who tried to justify policies on focus groups.
But Freedland forgot all that in his enthusiasm to attack Corbyn. He also didn’t seem bothered that Edelman is also a political lobbying company. Edelman clients include Murdoch’s News UK, private water firms Anglian and South West Water, Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Sainsbury’s and choccy bar firm Mars. Its free focus group show for journalists was not going to be even-handed. Freedland described watching a “group of Labour voters” in another room “ through a two-way mirror.”
A journalist who relates to Labour voters by looking at them like animals in a zoo, where the zookeepers are corporate lobbyists. What could go wrong?
What is to be done? The press is clearly embarrassed by its failure. But will it hire commentators who are not mostly Oxbridge, middle-aged, overpaid men with conventional world views and a mindset totally stuck in the Blair wonder years?
I hope the national political reporters do make some effort to step outside their political “gated community.”
But the bigger answer is in your hands. We have to develop an alternative media, including of course the Morning Star, one that reflects the movement from below.
It would be better if the national press did develop new sources, in Corbyn’s camp, at grassroots, in Momentum, in trade unions, outside London — if they did try seeing things though eyes of grassroots campaigners, not through Westminster gameplay. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Suspended CLPs need justice and answers
A big slice of the Labour Party also got Jeremy Corbyn wrong. The election results show how Labour’s left saved the party — but a chunk of the Labour machine and PLP did all it can to avoid being saved.
Corbyn’s campaign beat back the Tories to a Pyrrhic victory, a minority government that will crumble.
It showed Labour has a path back to power, based on a positive socialist programme and grassroots organisation. Labour doesn’t have to try — and fail — to squeak in past the tabloids by making concessions to Murdoch. But had Labour MPs and Labour head office got their way, none of this would have happened.
Labour’s regional offices did not believe the party was going to make advances in the election, and focused on Labour-held seats with a 1,000 or so majority. In many Tory-held-marginals and seats with a smaller Labour majority it was up to local members to have bigger ambitions — often with Momentum and Unite activists in the lead.
Take for example Brighton’s Labour branches. They have grown massively thanks to enthusiasm for Corbyn. They have elected Momentum-supporting constituency officers.
The party machine responded in 2016 by first suspending the whole branch, then suspending individual officers.
But those same Momentum-led grassroots activists went beyond the official target seats in this election. In 2017 they put their energies into Tory-held Brighton Kemptown — and won: Brighton Kemptown’s new MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, turned a Tory seat into a Labour one with a 10,000 majority, on a 19 per cent swing.
In several other constituencies, Momentum, left and local activists went beyond Labour’s official campaign and won the seat for Labour.
Labour MPs’ standing ovation for Corbyn in the Commons this week shows the bulk of the PLP now knows he was right.
But we need to make the same recognition for grassroots activists: some of the best members of Brighton Labour Party, the ones who helped win the party a new seat, are still suspended, still waiting for an explanation.
They need to be allowed to return to full membership right away.
Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.