Image: Labour Party Political Broadcast "We're Rebuilding Britain", September 2018, Fair use.
Everyone enjoyed Labour’s new broadcast. The four-minute redemption story served affirmation to believers and drew admiration from critics. This was the party on safe ground and winning over opponents, rather than the treacherous terrain where it is denounced by its own officials.
For many viewers, the tale of rundown communities rediscovering their confidence and dignity through new opportunities provided by a benevolent state was a distillation of the Labour mission at its most elementally pure. No flag waving in pursuit of some esoteric foreign goal. No saving the whale or disbanding the army. Nothing radical at all. Just bread-and-butter, no-barnacles-on-the-boat, common-sense civic nationalism that every warring faction with a stake in the big tent could embrace and claim as their own tradition.
But there were other sources of inspiration beyond Labour’s over-romanticised history, too. The portentous strings and downtrodden masses owe something to Les Misérables. And look closer at the video and a shadow falls over the rolling hills of England’s green and pleasant land. His hot breath gasps out of the red-brick chimneys and his tiny hands paw at the scenery. It’s...The Donald.
Labour supporters have naturally been quick to reject the lazy and often outrageous comparisons between their movement under Corbyn and Trump’s Confederacy of dunces. Pundits have added up the two unorthodox political insurgencies, Momentum and the Tea Party, and found they made one. No matter the absurdity of equating Corbyn’s involvement with the sometimes problematic fringes of pro-Palestinian activism, with the prejudice of a US President who has banned Muslims from the country, branded Latinos rapists, called for the execution of black teenagers, and praised white supremacists. No matter that you could scarcely conceive of more dissimilar characters than the trash-talking pussy grabber and the softly-spoken vegetarian who would probably take weeks to get over treading on a snail.
And yet, there is clearly something to be learned from a campaign that carried a 150-1 outsider with outsized personality defects to the White House. Just as every post-box is red but not everything red is a post-box, it does not follow that every idea touched by Trump is automatically rendered toxic. Some may be useful. The right has proved adept at assimilating elements of progressive discourse, from Steve Bannon’s attempt to realise Gramscian cultural hegemony via Breitbart, to the white identitarian movement’s appropriation of identity politics. Labour’s new video shows its strategists are happy to return the compliment.
The similarities with one of Trump’s final pre-election broadcasts in 2016 are uncanny. He too spins a story of neglect and decay, right down to the rusting factory gates, with once-proud communities now on their knees in the left-behind heartlands. Both videos mourn the loss of jobs and industry overseas. The call to “Rebuild Britain” is a directive to Make Britain Great Again. While Trump openly plays on fears of immigration, Labour makes clear it has internalised the main message of Brexit by lamenting “We lost control” over shots of a coastline and a depleted fishing business.
The theme of betrayal is at the heart of both broadcasts. “We’ve been sold short by an economic and political system,” says Labour’s achingly sincere narrator. Trump attacks the “political establishment...that have bled our country dry.” Labour is coy about giving the enemy a face, preferring an allusion to casino capitalism in the finance sector. Trump dispenses with subtlety and throws in a dash of antisemitism by making use of a readily-demonised set of villains to install the Clintons and George Soros in the stocks.
By late 2016, Trump’s campaign had shifted away from ‘great man’ messaging that emphasised his business wins, vast wealth, and shiny towers, in favour or more inclusive appeals targeting working class voters - or losers as he would put it. The later ads give the sense of a popular movement building from below, with power returning to the people. Labour’s broadcast echoes and develops the theme rather more convincingly, with greater detail on the party’s plan to equip people to help themselves, and the suggestion that social solidarity can be a dynamo powering the recovery of communities. Labour also go further in emphasising the need for a collective, bottom-up approach by almost ignoring their figurehead – Corbyn appears only in the final frames – which may also reflect polling that shows the public prefer the party to its leader.
Of course, Trump does not have a monopoly on such well-worn themes of loss and redemption, and sharing parts of an opponent’s diagnosis does not entail adopting the same remedies. Labour’s invocation of community solidarity is one major point of departure from Trump’s broadcast, and the film features more faces of colour to substantiate its message of inclusion. The tone is altogether softer and more conciliatory than in Trump’s bleak picture, with more space for ideas and solutions than blame and punishment.
But despite the sensitive tone, nettles are grasped and tanks are parked on terrain that has belonged to the right. The delicate subject of immigration is addressed with care but it is addressed, suggesting this Labour party will not duck a debate it has often appeared uncomfortable trying to triangulate a position on. The film searches for the elusive sweet spot where patriotism becomes progressive. A sincere attempt is made to wrest back the mantle of anti-elitism that is currently and preposterously held by the plutocrat cabal of Trump, Bannon, Farage, and Rees-Mogg, and there is space for Labour to articulate an altogether more profound and coherent critique of establishment power.
As Stephen Bush of the New Statesman points out, the broadcast offers further evidence that Labour has made a priority of the swing seats in its rusting former heartlands rather than the liberal, metropolitan wing of its coalition. This may be to the chagrin of the latter, and any echo of Trump will understandably ring alarms. But the party is tapping a rich seam of disaffection it cannot afford to ignore. If a billionaire can profit from invoking empty factory floors and railing against the elite then Labour certainly can too. This new video shows a party fighting for opposition-held territory - and thirsty for a taste of Trump’s winning formula.