29 July 2016
On 28 July the New Statesman online carried an article by Martin Robbins on Corbyn, his staff, his campaign and his supporters round the country. Robbins describes himself as someone who writes about ‘evidence-based politics’. His long tirade against Corbyn doesn’t offer much evidence nor anything much new – apart from an academic reference to the McCarthyite era – but what it does spectacularly well is to gather together in one place almost all of the accusations, innuendoes, half-truths, untruths and distortions thrown at Corbyn over recent months. So for that we should all be grateful. The article by Robbins is reproduced below (in italics) with some annotations from myself (in bold), challenging much of what Robbins says – but with some actual evidence. No doubt I’ve missed one or two things but there’s a lot of anti-Corbyn ranting to wade through.
Jeremy Corbyn and the paranoid style
The Labour leader’s team has a bunker mentality, and their genius has been to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory.
28 July 2016
By Martin Robbins
There was an odd moment on the BBC last summer, during Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. A reporter had asked him a simple question about nationalisation: “Where did you get these words from?” he snapped. “Has somebody been feeding you this stuff?”
Click on the link and listen to the interview for yourself . It’s a little different to the scenario of a bad-tempered and paranoid Corbyn, described by Robbins here. The exchange with the rather breathless and over-excited interviewer went like this:
Interviewer: ‘What about other utilities that were privatised? Would you like to see them back under state control, and what about the issue of compensation for them perhaps, or would it be confiscation?’
Corbyn (smiling): ‘You’re getting too excited. You’re getting very excited. Nobody’s talking about confiscation of anything. Where do you get these words from? Is somebody feeding you this stuff?’
Interviewer: ‘I’ve been talking to people in the party who are asking questions about what this policy of greater state control over industries would mean, and greater nationalisation, which is what you talk about. What would that mean in practice were you to be leader?‘
Corbyn: ‘I’ve given you the outline on railways and Royal Mail. I’ve given you the outline and it’s in our policy document on the energy industries, but we’re also proposing a National Investment Bank – which is not unique to this country, they have them in Germany, they certainly have them in Italy – which would be investing in new industries, investing in new jobs, investing in sustainable development. This government is selling off the Green Investment Bank. This government is selling off shares in RBS. This government is doing nothing to promote investment in industries. All they’re doing is promoting property speculation. Surely we can do things a bit differently, a bit better.’
The word that Corbyn is clearly objecting to is ‘confiscation’, which is loaded towards a very different take on public ownership.
At the time I was taken aback, but before long the campaign would become defined by paranoia, manifested in its leader as an extreme suspicion of “mainstream media”, and in its supporters as a widespread belief that establishment forces were conspiring to “fix” the Labour leadership contest, the so-called #LabourPurge.
This summer, Corbyn is fighting another leadership election. The main focus of his campaign so far has been an attempt to paint his rival Owen Smith as a “Big Pharma shill”, while Corbyn’s most influential supporter, Unite’s Len McCluskey, has claimed that MI5 are waging a dirty tricks campaign against the Leader of the Opposition. On stage Corbyn has attacked national media for failing to cover a parish council by-election.
There are three points in this short paragraph which aim to show Corbyn and his supporters as engaged in character assassination, lizard man conspiracy theory and electoral self-delusion.
First, on Smith and Big Pharma. Smith is a little coy about his work for the pharmaceutical transnationals. His website just says: ‘worked for five years in the Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals industry’. However, it’s simply a fact that Smith worked as Head of Policy and Government Relations for Pfizer and then ran corporate affairs, corporate and internal communications and public affairs at the British division of Amgen, another pharmaceutical. Whether that makes him a ‘shill for Big Pharma’ depends on your point of view but he was certainly in charge of policy and government relations at Pfizer while it was pushing to extend privatisation in the NHS – he wasn’t a research scientist working on a drug to prevent cancer.
On McCluskey’s comments about MI5. I’ve no idea if MI5 are involved in trying to discredit Corbyn (as McCluskey suggested) but it would be wilful naivety to completely rule out the possibility, given what we know about the proven and documented infiltration and dirty tricks of the security services and Special Branch into radical movements in the UK (the miners and the environmental movement being just two examples).
The parish by-election. You can hear what Corbyn actually said here (1min 53secs in) – a small section of a wide ranging speech to launch his leadership campaign. He referred to a number of local election results and, of course, it is easy to mock the focus on such low level elections. Overdone – certainly, misjudged – probably, but really not very important in the overall point he was making about the importance of contesting and winning elections. And given that his critics regularly claim that he doesn’t care about winning elections, it’s a bit rich to attack him when he emphasises the importance of winning elections – even at the lowest level of our democracy.
Corbyn’s time as Labour leader has been marked by an extraordinary surge of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the left. The sheer intensity of it, combined with some of his supporters’ glassy-eyed denial of reality and desire to “purge” the party unfaithful, has led some to compare Corbynism to a cult or a religious movement. Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper. Corbyn didn’t create or lead a movement; he followed one.
This paragraph is completely devoid of any evidence whatsoever. He doesn’t provide any evidence nor tell us who describes Corbyn’s supporters as a ‘cult or religious movement’ – presumably because it is people like himself who oppose Corbyn. If you click on the link provided, instead of supporting evidence of ‘the cult’, you arrive at the Guardian’s version of ‘Officegate’ in which Seema Malhotra claimed that her staff were intimidated and that ‘her’ office was subject to ‘illegal’ and ‘unauthorised entry’. The reality is that the office is assigned to the Shadow Cabinet team by Parliament and that she resigned from the Shadow Cabinet a month ago. The office manager for the Shadow Treasury team apparently wanted to find out if Malhotra had finally vacated the office to which she was no longer entitled. Embarrassingly for Malhotra, the response of the Speaker of the House to her complaint was:
‘Having taken advice, I am satisfied that there is nothing in your letter or in the information subsequently elicited by the deputy Serjeant at Arms which would justify regarding these events as a possible breach.’
In the last few years, a new breed of hyperbolic pundits has emerged on left-wing social media who embody what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style” in politics, “a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”.
Hofstadter’s 1964 essay was inspired by McCarthyism, but the Paranoid Style as a political and psychological phenomenon has been with us for as long as modern politics. Of course conspiracies and misdeeds can happen, but the Paranoid Style builds up an apocalyptic vision of a future driven entirely by dark conspiracies. The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours. Opponents aren’t simply wrong, but evil incarnate; near-omnipotent super-villains control the media, the banks, even history itself. Through most of history, movements like this have remained at the fringes of politics; and when they move into the mainstream bad things tend to happen.
Robbins presumably believes that the reference to Hofstader adds some intellectual and academic gravitas to his attacks on Corbyn, but unwittingly undermines his own argument. He sets up a series of statements intended to sound both absurd and to appear as though they are the views of Corbyn. He then stands back and loftily proclaims how silly they are. One of the Aunt Sally statements is: ‘The NHS won’t just be a bit worse; it will be destroyed in 24 hours.’ We are clearly meant to believe that this is something Corbyn has said (or would say). In fact, the person who actually made this argument was Tony Blair, who said just before the 1997 election that there were ‘24 hours to save the NHS’.
The other point is that while Robbins concedes Hofstader’s notion of the Paranoid Style was inspired by McCarthyism, he doesn’t see the parallels in the thinking of Corbyn’s opponents. Hofstader (1964: 82) relates how the McCarthyites were convinced that
‘…top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.’
This sounds remarkably like the claims made by a succession of commentators and Labour MPs like Graham Stringer, Barry Sheerman and John Mann that the influx of new members is actually Trotskyist infiltration to support Corbyn:
‘It is pretty clear that what is happening amounts to infiltration of the Labour party.’
To pick one example among many, science broadcaster Marcus Chown’s Twitter feed is full of statements that fall apart at the slightest touch. We learn that billionaires control 80 per cent of the media – they don’t. We learn that the BBC were “playing down” the Panama Papers story, tweeted on a day when it led the TV news bulletins and was the number one story on their news site. We learn that the Tories are lying when they say they’ve increased spending on the NHS. As FullFact report, the Tories have increased NHS spending in both absolute and real terms. We learn via a retweet that Labour were ahead of the Conservatives in polling before a leadership challenge; they weren’t.
I’m not sure why Corbyn should be held accountable for a succession of tweets by Marcus Chown, so this paragraph is a complete red herring.
The surprise Conservative majority in last year’s election shocked the left to the core, and seemed to push this trend into overdrive. Unable to accept that Labour had simply lost arguments over austerity, immigration and the economy, people began constructing their own reality, pasting out of context quotes and dubious statistics over misleading charts and images. Falsehoods became so endemic in left-wing social media that it’s now almost impossible to find a political meme that doesn’t contain at least one serious mistruth. Popular social media figures like Dr Eoin Clarke have even built up the idea that the election result itself was a gigantic fraud.
If you click on the link for the ‘misleading charts and images’ that supposedly illustrate ‘the left’s’ inability to accept that they lost the arguments about austerity, immigration and the economy, you find yourself at an article on the Conservative-supporting Spectator’s website. Fair enough, it might carry some insights into the left’s use of ‘out of context quotes and dubious statistics’ to explain Labour’s defeat. Instead what you will find is an article bemoaning the use of screenshots of the Commons Chamber which claim to show the interest (or lack) of MPs in particular debates. Now that’s moderately interesting and conceivably has a contribution to make to the debate about the disconnect between voters and parliamentarians but it tells us absolutely nothing about the left’s inability to explain Labour’s defeat – still less does it show the left using ‘out of context quotes and dubious statistics’.
Robbins then targets Dr Eoin Clarke – ‘a popular social media figure’ (who incidentally has been supportive of Corbyn but does not speak for him) – and suggests incredulously that Clarke claims the last election was a ‘gigantic fraud’. What Clarke has actually done is draw attention to accusations that the Conservatives failed to declare and mis-declared thousands of pounds of election expenses, which is, of course, illegal. You can read Channel 4’s account here
The Electoral Commission began an investigation but felt that it was being hampered by the failure to co-operate of the Tory party:
‘The investigation has been delayed and hindered by the failure of the [Conservative] Party to provide complete and timely disclosure.
‘There is very significant public interest in this matter… the implications of the allegations are that individuals and/or the Conservative Party may have committed deliberate acts intended to circumvent the party and election finance rules… these allegations go to the very heart of our democracy.’
The Commission made an application to the High Court to force the Tories to co-operate and only withdrew the action on 15 July when the Tories backed down and agreed to assist the investigation. The Commission is now continuing with its investigation and inquiries.
I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound to me like the deranged ravings of a paranoid leftwinger that cannot accept or understand why Labour lost the election, although it does sound like a serious issue to anyone concerned about the way democracy works in this country.
The problem with creating your own truth is that you have to explain why others can’t – or won’t – see it. One answer is that they’re the unwitting stooges of an establishment conspiracy that must involve the “mainstream media”, a belief that seems more plausible in the wake of scandals over expense claims and phone-hacking. Voters can’t be expressing genuine concerns, so they must have been brainwashed by the media.
The left have long complained about the right-wing bias of the tabloid press with some justification, but in recent years the rage of a hardcore minority has become increasingly focused on the BBC. “Why aren’t the BBC covering X” is a complaint heard daily, with X nearly always being some obscure or unimportant protest or something that in fact the BBC did cover.
Bewildered and infuriated by the BBC’s refusal to run hard-left soundbites as headlines, the paranoid left assume Auntie is involved in some sort of right-wing establishment plot. Public figures such as Laura Kuenssberg, the Corporation’s political editor, have been subjected to a campaign of near-permanent abuse from the left, much of it reeking of misogyny. By asking Labour figures questions as tough as those she routinely puts to Conservative politicians, she has exposed her true role as a “Tory propagandist whore”, a “fucking cunt bag”, or a “Murdoch puppet”.
I don’t know anyone on the left who believes that the population ‘must have been brainwashed by the media’, but I also don’t know anyone on the left who doesn’t think that the media has an influence in setting agendas, influencing debates and, in general, pushing a particular conservative and Conservative line. If we put to one side the unattributable and unsourced abuse towards Kuenssberg that Robbins cites (appalling though it is, we don’t know who is supposed to have said it) and ignore the arguments of the ‘card-carrying Tory’ Willard Foxton who Robbins calls upon when claiming the left is obsessed with the BBC ignoring its issues, there a couple of important points here.
Robbins seems to think that it is an indication of left wing paranoia to imagine that there is media bias against the left. However, the evidence is available if he cares to look. Interestingly, Laura Kuenssberg’s predecessor as BBC political editor, Nick Robinson, told the Spectator that he had written to several BBC colleagues over concerns that BBC political coverage is biased against Jeremy Corbyn and on being asked by Lynn Barber whether he was ‘shocked’ by the way the BBC ‘rubbish Jeremy Corbyn’, Robinson replied ‘yes’.
A study by the Media Reform Coalition, based at Goldsmith’s University of London and the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, University of London, analysed TV and online news during the 10 days after the shadow cabinet resignations following the Brexit vote. They found:
‘.. a marked and persistent imbalance in favour of sources critical of Jeremy Corbyn, the issues that they sought to highlight, and the arguments they advanced. This was the case across both the online and television sample’ (Schlosberg, 2016: 4).
In a letter to the Guardian on 8 July 2016, 100 media academics wrote:
‘The leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has been subject to the most savage campaign of falsehood and misrepresentation in some of our most popular media outlets.’
Academics from the Department of Media and Communications at the LSE, analysed media representation of Jeremy Corbyn in eight British newspapers from 1 September to 1 November 2015. They found:
‘an overall picture of most newspapers systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics …in the case of Corbyn the degree of antagonism and hatred from part of the media has arguably reached new heights’ (Couldry and Cammaerts, 2016: 12).
This is not exactly hot news. The Glasgow Media Group has been monitoring and analysing bias in the media for many years and sees a continuation in the treatment of Corbyn with past experience.
But it’s not just academics – Sir Michael Lyons, chair of the BBC trust from 2007 to 2011 (and a former Labour councillor) says that there have been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party” and that the BBC may have bowed to political pressure to show bias against Labour and Jeremy Corbyn.
This was the context in which Corbyn’s leadership campaign was fought, and with his own dislike of the media and love of a good conspiracy theorist, he swiftly became a figurehead for the paranoid left. Suddenly, the cranks and conspiracy theorists had a home in his Labour party; and they flocked to it in their tens of thousands. Of course most Corbynistas aren’t cranks, but an intense and vocal minority are, and they have formed a poisonous core at the heart of the cause.
Robbins claims that Corbyn likes a good conspiracy theorist and ties this to a story about Church of England vicar, Rev Stephen Sizer, linked to conspiracy theories about 9/11. He was previously better known for campaigning on Palestine and Corbyn wrote to his archbishop in defence of his right to campaign. Robbins probably knows, but this was before Sizer was linked to the 9/11 conspiracy theories, as Corbyn’s office explained to the Jewish Chronicle in 2015:
‘Mr Corbyn wrote to the Church authorities two years before the 9/11 ‘conspiracy’ post about a different matter altogether. At this point Mr Sizer was involved in a dispute about his involvement in Middle East political issues and Mr Corbyn supported his right to do so. It was much later that Mr Sizer was found to have posted the link to the 9/11 article and then disciplined by the Church. He made no intervention on his behalf or in his support on that question. Neither was he asked to.’
‘Mr Corbyn wholly rejects the conspiracy theory and ‘truther’ theories about the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, which are distressing to the families and friends of those lost and hurt on that day and very often involve antisemitic views to which he has – and always will be – opposed.’
Robbins claims that there are ‘tens of thousands’ of ‘cranks and conspiracy theorists’ who have ‘flocked’ to the Labour party to support Corbyn. Perhaps surprisingly, this believer in ‘evidence-based politics’ appears unable to provide any evidence for this claim, although he generously concedes that ‘most Corbynistas aren’t cranks’.
The result is a Truther-style movement that exists in almost complete denial of reality. Polls showing double-digit leads for the Conservatives are routinely decried as the fabrications of sinister mainstream media figures. The local elections in May, which saw Corbyn’s Labour perform worse than most opposition leaders in recent history, triggered a series of memes insisting that results were just fine. Most bewildering of all is a conspiracy theory which insists that Labour MPs who quit the shadow cabinet and declared ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn were somehow orchestrated by the PR firm, Portland Communications.
To describe the support for Corbyn as akin to the Truther movement is simply barmy. Just remind ourselves what the Truther movement believes, that is, that 9/11 was really the work of the CIA, various US government agencies and/or the Israelis.
The May local election results were certainly not fine, however much some Corbyn supporters may have tried to portray them. On the other hand, neither were they disastrous – especially compared to the catastrophe that was being predicted before the election, for example, Stephen Bush in the New Statesman quoted the projection of two academics (Colin Railings and Michael Thrasher) that Labour would lose 150 seats. In fact, as is pointed out in the article that Robbins links to:
‘…Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn’s claims that the party wouldn’t lose seats have more or less held true. There’s also Sadiq Kahn newly installed as Mayor of London, Joe Anderson re-elected as Mayor in Liverpool and the landmark election of Marvin Rees in Bristol to celebrate’.
I have no idea whether Portland Communications or its staff were or were not key players in the resignations of shadow cabinet members. What is undoubtedly true is that a senior account manager at Portland, Thomas Mauchline, managed to get an amazing amount of BBC coverage of his hostile heckle of Corbyn at a Pride event and even helpfully supplied the BBC with his own video clip. Most hecklers do not get national media coverage.
The paranoid left even has its own news sources. The Canary manages, without irony, to take the worst traits of the tabloids, from gross bias to the misreporting of a suicide note, and magnify them to create pages of pro-Corbyn propaganda that are indistinguishable from parody. On Facebook, Corbyn has more followers than the Labour Party itself. Fan groups filter news of Corbyn and his enemies so effectively that in one Facebook group I polled, more than 80 per cent of respondents thought Corbyn would easily win a general election.
It’s difficult to know quite how Corbyn is responsible for what the Canary publishes, still less its coverage of a suicide, so another red herring.
The second point made is bizarre – Robbins seems to be attacking Corbyn for being popular on Facebook. The nearest we can get to a point being made here is the rather obvious implicit one that if Corbyn only talks to people who already agree with him, then Labour won’t win a general election. However, who’s to say that all of the 770,000 ‘likes’ that Corbyn has on Facebook were people who already agreed with him. It must be at least possible that some of them have been drawn to his ideas and the policies that he proposes over the course of the last year.
This kind of thinking tips people over a dangerous threshold. Once you believe the conspiracy theories, once you believe you’ve been denied democracy by media manipulation and sinister establishment forces mounting dirty tricks campaigns, it becomes all too easy to justify bad behaviour on your own side. It starts with booing, but as the “oppressed” gain their voices the rhetoric and the behaviour escalate until the abuse becomes physical.
Corbyn’s opponents have spent a lot of time working very hard with little evidence to portray the Labour party as a bear pit where members are routinely verbally abused or worse. This is in line with Angela Eagle’s (equally evidence-free claim) that Corbyn had provoked ‘personal attacks on MPs, [and] a string of death and rape threats and bricks through windows’. The booing referred to above is that of BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg. If you watch the clip you’ll hear that there one or two pantomime boos and a few hisses that last at most 5 seconds before Corbyn hushes everybody so as to hear Kuenssberg’s question. The idea that this is the slippery slope to physical violence is ludicrous and insults the intelligence of anyone who reads it. It also insults the memory of Jo Cox who was murdered during the referendum campaign by somebody mouthing fascist slogans.
I’m prepared to believe Jeremy Corbyn when he says that he doesn’t engage in personal abuse. The problem is, he doesn’t have to. His army of followers are quite happy to engage in abuse on his behalf, whether it’s the relentless abuse of journalists, or bricks tossed through windows, or creating what more than 40 women MPs have described as a hostile and unpleasant environment.
The letter from the 40 women MPs refers to what they describe as an ‘extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility’ towards MPs in which women were disproportionately affected by these ‘disgusting and totally unacceptable’ incidents. The letter goes on to refer to ‘rape threats, death threats, smashed cars and bricks through windows’. The only answer that can be given to this is that if anyone has any evidence of such incidents taking place, they should be reported to the police and to the disciplinary bodies of the party. No specifics are provided in the letter but presumably these MPs have now sent any evidence they have to the relevant authorities. A lack of detail on these allegations is understandable, but not for the claim made that
‘We have also been alarmed to learn that our Shadow Chancellor and other members of the Shadow Cabinet have addressed rallies and events in which demonstrations outside MPs’ offices and bullying at CLP meetings have been either actively encouraged or quietly condoned.’
Here we have the Shadow Chancellor accused of encouraging or condoning bullying. It is incredible that they do not feel the need to provide any evidence for this. But that’s not the only problem with this letter. The signatories call on Corbyn to subscribe to three pledges and to commit to regular meetings with the Women’s PLP to update on progress. The pledges are:
- The Leader should make an unequivocal statement declaring his support for all MPs, particularly women, and clearly condemning campaigning outside MPs’ offices, surgeries etc.
- The Leader and his Shadow Cabinet must be prepared to actively challenge any behaviour which does not conform to Labour party values, regardless of its origin.
- Senior Labour figures should be accountable for their actions in supporting events where such behaviour would appear to be encouraged. For example through language used and being present where posters, T-shirts etc are abusive and encourage threatening behaviour.
Corbyn and McDonnell have been pretty clear in condemning abuse, personal insults and threats – leave alone anything resembling actual violence (e.g. http://labourlist.org/2016/07/corbyn-condemns-abuse-as-40-female-mps-attack-disgusting-threats/ ). A statement from Corbyn’s office said that he is ‘always happy to meet with Labour MPs, particularly in relation to issues as serious as this’ and that he has ‘consistently condemned all abuse and called repeatedly for a kinder, gentler politics. No demonstrations outside MPs’ offices or surgeries will be tolerated, nor will abuse of any kind’. McDonnell tweeted on June 27 urging people not to protest outside MPs’ offices.
So they have met the terms of the first two pledges. The third however seems designed to be impossible to meet – how could the Leader or anyone be accountable for the posters people bring or the T-shirts that they wear to events attended or supported by the Leader?
The ‘brick through Angela Eagle’s office window’ turned out to be a brick through a stairwell window in the building in which Angela Eagle (among others) has an office. Now I don’t know whether this was done by some crazed Corbynista, a vandal or a would-be burglar. But neither does she and yet, she was perfectly happy to link the window smashing with Corbyn and tell him to ‘get control of his supporters’. Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy (and Eagle ally) who should know better also lost no time in linking this to Eagle’s decision to stand for the leadership. It comes to something when it is left to right wing newspaper columnists like Peter Hitchens to actually ask some questions about this incident.
Supporters will point out that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t asked for this to happen, and that in fact he’s made various statements condemning abuse. They’re not wrong, but they fail to grasp the point; that the irresponsible behaviour of Corbyn and his allies feeds into the atmosphere that leads inexorably to these kinds of abuses happening.
We see this in Corbyn’s unfounded attacks on media conspiracies, such as his absurd complaints about the lack of coverage of council elections. We see it in the shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s angry public jibes at Labour MPs. Surly aggression oozes out of the screen whenever a TV reporter asks Corbyn a difficult question. Then there’s the long history of revolutionary rhetoric – the praise for bombs and bullets, the happy engagement with the homophobic, the misogynistic, the anti-Semitic, the terrorist, in the name of nobler aims.
The supposed unfounded nature of media bias was dealt with earlier as was the coverage of local elections so we can pass on these.
John McDonnell’s ‘angry public jibes at Labour MPs’ refers to a speech he made at a rally in London on 12 July, in which he said:
‘They’ve been plotting and conniving. The only good thing about it is that as plotters – they’re fucking useless.’
Rather than being part of an aggressive rant, it was more like a world-weary joke, and provoked laughter from the crowd. The language was misjudged perhaps but you can tell the tone for yourself by listening to the clip.
You will also be able to judge for yourself in the dozens of interviews with Corbyn available on Youtube and elsewhere (there are some links earlier in this piece) as to whether it’s true that he oozes ‘surly aggression’ when asked a question by an interviewer. I always get the impression that he’s got the patience of a saint to remain so calm in the face of what is often extremely hostile interviewing.
Even the few statements Corbyn makes about abuse and bigotry are ambiguous and weak. Called upon to address anti-Semitism in the Labour party, he repeatedly abstracts to generic racism – in his select committee evidence on the topic, he mentioned racism 28 times, and anti-Semitism 25 times, while for his interviewers the ratio was 19 to 45. Called on to address the abuse of women MPs in the Labour Party, he broadened the topic to focus on abuse directed at himself, while his shadow justice secretary demanded the women show “respect” to party members. Corbyn’s speech is woolly at the best of times, but he and his allies seem determined to water down any call for their supporters to reform.
The charges of anti-Semitism are the most disingenuous of all. With a few exceptions, they are usually either a wilful misrepresentation of what has been said or a mischievous conflation of opposition to the policies of the government of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism. Responding to the accusations of anti-Semitism within the party, Corbyn set up an inquiry under Shami Chakrabarti, former Director of Liberty, which concluded that
‘The Labour Party is not overrun by antisemitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism.’
She did, however, recognise that there were some concerns and made a series of recommendations about conduct and procedure. Despite the explicit rejection of the claim that the Labour party is overrun by anti-Semitism, this has not stopped Owen Smith and Angela Eagle (among others) from repeating this charge, after the publication of the report.
Still, why reform when things are going so well? Taken at face value, Corbyn’s summer has been appalling. It began with the poor local election results, continued with Labour’s official position being defeated in the EU Referendum, and then saw the party’s leader lose a vote of no confidence, after which he was forced to watch the resignation of most of his shadow cabinet and then face a leadership challenge. Labour are polling terribly against Theresa May (who, admittedly, is in her honeymoon period), and the press are either hostile or find Corbyn impossible to work with.
If Corbyn were a conventional Leader of the Opposition these facts would be catastrophic, but he’s not and they’re not. To understand why, let’s look at some head-scratching quotes from leading Corbynistas. Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum, was heavily mocked on Twitter recently for saying, “Democracy gives power to people, ‘Winning’ is the small bit that matters to political elites who want to keep power themselves.” The former BBC and Channel 4 journalist Paul Mason released a video clip suggesting Labour should be transformed into a “social movement”, along the lines of Occupy.
These arguments that Corbyn and his allies think that elections are unimportant, were dealt with earlier. But it does allow us to raise a question that Robbins seems unable to grasp, that is, what is the purpose of an election victory in Britain today? It isn’t simply to ensure that Team B takes over from Team A but continues on broadly the same trajectory – perhaps with a bit of fine tuning here and there. That attitude is what lost Scotland. It is also the attitude that has resulted in millions of working class voters feeling abandoned by Labour, who are often seen as just another part of the political elite, looking after themselves without a care for those on zero hours contracts or those involuntarily self-employed, under-employed or part time employed. Almost twenty years of technocratic pink neoliberalism is not much of a beacon for those workers clinging on to jobs in a declining manufacturing sector, or to those working in retail, hospitality, care homes, health and a continually attacked public sector. The Labour party is now a mass party again for the first time in decades. It is not yet a mass movement and as Owen Jones points out mass membership doesn’t make a social movement in and of itself, but it’s a start and it’s not possible to create a social movement without a mass membership. And the purpose of a mass movement is to change the political commonsense, to shift the political centre of gravity within Britain. Owen Smith’s 20 policy pledges show how effectively Corbyn has changed the political centre of gravity within the Labour party but it is with the electorate at large that the challenge lies.
These sentiments are echoed at the heart of Team Corbyn. Owen Smith claimed to have asked Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, whether they were prepared to let the Labour party split. According to Smith, whose version of events was denied by John McDonnell but backed up by two other MPs, Corbyn refused to answer while McDonnell said “if that’s what it takes”. Many activists seem to hold the same view – Twitter is full of Momentum warriors quite happy to see the bulk of the PLP walk away, and unconcerned about their diminishing prospects of winning any election.
Which on the face of it makes no sense. Labour has 232 seats, considerably more than David Cameron inherited in 2005. Their opponent is an “unelected” Prime Minister commanding a majority of just twelve, who was a senior figure in the government that just caused Britain’s biggest crisis since the war, and is now forced to negotiate a deal that either cripples the economy or enrages millions of voters who were conned by her colleagues into believing they had won a referendum on immigration. Just before leaving office, George Osborne abandoned his budget surplus target – effectively conceding it was a political gambit all along.
A competent Labour leader, working with other parties and disaffected Remainian Tories, could be – should be – tearing lumps out of the government on a weekly basis. Majority government may be a distant prospect, but forcing the Tories into a coalition or removing them from government altogether by the next election is entirely achievable. Yet it’s fair to say that many Corbynistas have little interest in seeing this scenario play out.
Which makes sense, because to these people Labour – real Labour – doesn’t have 232 seats, it has about 40. The others seats are occupied by “Red Tories” or, worse, “Blairites”. Since these groups are as much the enemy as the Tories are, exchanging one for the other is meaningless. The Corbynites could start their own party of course, but why do that when they can seize control of Labour’s infrastructure, short money and institutional donors. The only long-term strategy that makes sense is to “purify” Labour, and rebuild from the foundations up. That may mean another 10 or 20 years of Tory rule, but the achingly middle-class Corbynistas won’t be the ones to suffer from that.
These accusations that Corbyn and McDonnell et al would welcome a split – purity in a smaller party etc – don’t stand up to examination. If that is the case, why did Corbyn make so many overtures to all wings of the party with his first Shadow Cabinet? Why did he give important portfolios to key opponents? Why was he so tolerant of the repeated sniping? Why did he permit free votes? Why did he rule no compulsory re-selection, despite his supporters arguing for it and its merits as a basic democratic reform? We can only conclude that Corbyn has made and continues to make efforts to involve as wide a group from the PLP as possible. If they choose to turn their backs on the struggle to hold the Conservatives to account, Corbyn has to try and make the best of it.
The jibe about the achingly middle-class Corbynistas is a bit rich given the make-up of most of the PLP. The demographics of the new intake of members into the party are not much different to those already members (although there are more women) so the sneer about middle class interlopers doesn’t really wash. On a serious note, it is imperative that Labour attracts more working class members, councillors and MPs. To do that it needs to appeal to the interests of workers, rather than – as in the recent past – try to create some precarious balance between the interests of Labour’s base and the interests of the elites of the City and elsewhere. It needs to repair relations with the unions and to encourage unionists into the party – both of which Corbyn is attempting to do.
Seen through that prism, Corbynism makes sense. A common theme among the dozens of resignation letters from former shadow ministers has been his apparent disinterest in opposition policy work. A recent Vice documentary showed his refusal to attack the Tories over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith. Even Richard Murphy, a supportive economist who set out many of the basic principles of ‘Corbynomics’, lost patience in a recent blog post:
“I had the opportunity to see what was happening inside the PLP. The leadership wasn’t confusing as much as just silent. There was no policy direction, no messaging, no direction, no co-ordination, no nothing. Shadow ministers appeared to have been left with no direction as to what to do. It was shambolic.”
So where are his attentions focused? Unnamed “insiders” quoted in the Mirror paint an all too feasible picture of a team that, “spent hours in ‘rambling’ meetings discussing possible plots against him and considered sending ‘moles’ to spy on his Shadow Cabinet.” That claim was given more weight by the recent controversy over Karie Murphy, Corbyn’s office manager, who allegedly entered the office of shadow minister Seema Malhotra without permission. Vice’s documentary, ‘The Outsider‘, showed Corbyn railing against the BBC, who he believed were ‘obsessed’ with undermining his leadership, and other journalists.
By all accounts, Corbyn’s team inhabit a bunker mentality, and their genius – intentional or otherwise – has been to use the ‘paranoid style’ to extend that bunker to accommodate tens of thousands of their followers. Within that bubble, every failure becomes a victory. Negative media coverage simply reinforces their sense of being under attack, and every bad poll or election disappointment becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of their faith. Shadow cabinet resignations and condemnations reveal new ‘traitors’, justifying further paranoia and increasing the feeling of being under siege.
It’s terrible for a functioning opposition, but brilliant for forming a loyal hard-left movement, driving screaming protestors into CLP meetings, keeping uppity MPs in line with the prospect of more abuse or deselection, and ensuring that Corbyn will sign up enough supporters to win the leadership election by a landslide.
I have no idea whether there is a ‘bunker mentality’ in Corbyn’s office. I do know that the ‘Officegate’ controversy was pathetic and Seema Malhotra succeeded only in embarrassing herself. I can’t comment on whether the Bristol West CLP AGM really did feature ‘screaming protestors’ but at least two other accounts online provide a different version of events.
Hofstadter wrote that ”the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” In the United States, Bernie Sanders was ultimately forced to compromise when Hillary Clinton won the Democrat nomination. The Bernie Corbyn & Jeremy Sanders Facebook group, hardcore loyalists to the end, immediately disowned him, and suggested the group change its name.
Corbyn need make no such compromise, which is his whole appeal. Those who expect him to step down after a general election defeat, or to compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success, have completely failed to understand what they’re dealing with. For Corbyn and his followers there is no compromise, only purity, and a Red Labour party with 50 MPs is better than a centrist party with 400. That is the reality of the movement that Labour and the left are facing, and it is catastrophic.
It is foolish to argue that Corbyn and allies refuse to ‘compromise with the rest of the party to achieve greater success’. He’s already demonstrated a willingness to do that. Everybody in politics compromises at certain times and certain places – the question is not so much whether or not to compromise but what to compromise on. Corbyn gains his mass support precisely because he is seen as someone who is not prepared to compromise on the things that matter.