openDemocracyUK: Opinion

To take on the right wing media, we need to build a political movement

Labour's defeat and the triumph of Johnsonism, part five: the movement and the media.

Jeremy Gilbert
17 January 2020
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For decades, Labour has been hampered by having to operate in a right wing media environment. 2019 was certainly no exception, and the question, as ever, is what to do about it.

This is the fifth in a series of articles about Labour’s 2019 election defeat. In the previous essay, I suggested that one of the things that made Brexit so irresolvable for Labour was the fact that the British left had never successfully challenged the authority of the right-wing media in many communities. The widespread belief in the claims circulated by the tabloid press – blaming immigrants and immigration for almost all social ills – created a context in which it was almost impossible for Labour to pursue a progressive policy successfully, whichever side of the Brexit debate it came down on. I think it is clear that this is a situation that Labour was never going to be able to address without a strong movement of members and supporters – active on the doorsteps and in the public sphere – making counter-arguments on its behalf. In this article I will consider how a ‘movement-based’ politics might overcome the right wing media.

Labour has faced a hostile media for most of its history, and consistently since the crisis of the 1970s. From that time it has been clear that the BBC has tended to reproduce the ideological biases and priorities of the professional political class at any one time, while the press has been committed to an ideology of xenophobic and authoritarian English nationalism. It became apparent in the mid 1990s both that the Tory leadership were not willing to make any significant concessions to the latter, as Major refused to give ground to the Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ in his parliamentary party. At the same time, Tony Blair made explicitly clear to Murdoch that he was willing to grant him an effective veto over every area of policy. So a section of the press (most notably the Sun) became willing to back Blair. Once he left office, conditions returned to normal.

Media theorists and political sociologists have debated the influence of the press on voter behaviour for decades. It is true both that newspaper circulations are in decline and that reading a Tory paper clearly doesn’t not necessarily turn a person Tory. But it is also clear – as many Labour campaigners learned on the doorsteps in 2019 – that the press continues to play a vital role in shaping the perceptions of floating voters with low levels of formal education.

The question is, and has been since the 1970s: what to do about this?

The Redundancy of the Soft Left

One of the Labour party’s most persistent delusions is the idea that if only it finds a sufficiently telegenic leader and adopts a sufficiently ‘moderate’ programme then the implacable hostility of the press can be assuaged. Arguably neither Kinnock nor Miliband were ever telegenic enough to play this role. But surely their respective tenures as Labour leader have demonstrated conclusively that the ‘soft left’ strategy does not work. This strategy basically consists of putting forward a moderately social-democratic programme, of a type that all opinion polls since the beginning of recorded history have suggested should command the support of a majority of the British electorate, but one that is not too radical to incur the abject hostility of the press and the wider establishment.

The problem with this strategy is that it assumes that there is such a thing as a moderately social-democratic programme that is not too radical to incur the abject hostility of the press and the wider establishment. This has simply not been true since the mid 1980s. Following the historic defeat of the labour movement and the collapse of the Soviet Union, following the full restoration of the power and prestige of finance capital at the end of that decade, why should any section of the capitalist class be willing to accept even moderate limitations on its ambitions? The behaviour of the media and the other institutions that they control have made clear ever since that they will not, and will savagely attack any political project that threatens to force them to. That is why both Kinnock and Miliband were mercilessly and relentlessly attacked even for their moderately social-democratic programmes.

The Movement Solution

The obvious democratic and socialist response to this dilemma has always been to seek to mobilise a movement of supporters capable of challenging the authority and ideology of the establishment, and the parasitic elite that it serves, on the doorsteps, in communities and in workplaces. Today, that also means using social media and movement-generated content to challenge capitalist ideology in the virtual social sphere. In this regard the success of Corbynism must not be overlooked and cannot be overstated. These were precisely the conditions for the surprisingly positive election result of June 2017.

But, yet again, the failure to build on that success can at least partly be attributed to a failure of the party leadership and of Momentum to heed the warnings of some of us who have been concerned with these issues for a very long time. The first time I ever gave a seminar for the Momentum full-time staff and key cadres (some time in 2016, I think), I stressed that in my view the failure of the party and the Labour movement since the 1970s to undertake a direct and explicit campaign to de-legitimise the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail was our most significant failing, and one that would eventually have to be addressed. I pointed out that the campaign against ‘the Sun’ in Liverpool, while obviously being very much dependent on local conditions, did seem to have had some success in weakening the popularity of the xenophobic politics that has been that newspapers’ stock-in-trade since the 1970s. I suggested that we would need something like that on a national scale, and that without it, the influence of that politics would inevitably undermine our capacities to win people over on the doorsteps.

Whether anything like that was really logistically feasible in the time that was available to us between 2017 and 2019 is debatable. But I do think that the unexpected success of 2017 also persuaded many that no such strategy was required: that clever use of social media and a vigorous doorstep campaign during elections would be all that would now be required to topple the Tories. That view was always perfectly understandable. But it is clear now that the failure to challenge the tabloid narrative about Britain’s recent history – the story according to which immigration is the source of our social ills – was ultimately fatal to our hopes.

The question this raises is whether the apparent success of 2017 was entirely an illusion. Was it the case, as right-wing critics always claimed, that Labour’s success in that election was entirely down to May’s incompetence and lack of personal charisma? Doubtless those factors played a role. But so did the fact that a section of our ‘traditional’ base in the ‘heartlands’ could be told on the doorsteps that Brexit would happen and free movement would consequently end (as stated clearly in the 2017 manifesto). By 2019 they could be told no such thing, by a party whose conference had voted to preserve free movement at all costs in September of that year. By 2019 we could no longer present ourselves as falling on both sides of the immigration debate at the same time; and we had done nothing like the ideological work necessary to challenge the idea that immigration was the problem people should be worried about.

What was not illusory was the raw numbers, and the fact is that Labour won considerably more votes in 2019 and 2017 than at any general election since 2001. This is surely a testament to the relative success of the movement-building strategy that the Bennite left had always argued for, ever since the calamity of the 1983 election. Beyond this, the sheer scale of Labour’s mobilisation of activists during the 2018 election was astonishing. I am 48 years old and I cannot remember anything like it. I canvassed and leafletted for Labour in 1992 and 1997 and this felt like something on a wholly different scale. It felt like the beginning of a return to mass democracy, of a kind that had been in long-term decline in the UK since the middle of the 1950s.

It would always have been wildly optimistic to expect that this new political movement, a mere four years in the making, could hope to reverse those decades of democratic decline, in just a few short years. And it is surely obvious, just by comparing the relative electoral success of Labour under Corbyn and under previous leaders, that a determination to maintain this movement-building momentum must remain a central element of any Labour strategy going forward. Any future leader must have the capacity to enthuse and inspire the membership, as Corbyn did; or at least to lead a team including some charismatic individuals who can. If this is sacrificed for the sake of a more apparently establishment-friendly persona, then we know perfectly well what to expect. Members and voters will desert the party in their hundreds of thousands; and unless every progressive element of the programme is dropped, the press will find a way to smear and undermine the leader. If you think they can’t do that to Keir Starmer, just because he has a knighthood and looks good in a suit, then you really have not been paying attention to the politics of the British press in recent decades.

What is a Movement Anyway?

But it’s easy to say that Labour needs a movement. The question is: what kind of a movement does it need? Corbyn often talked of his desire for Labour to become ‘a social movement’. To be fair, one always knew what he meant by this. He meant that Labour should be a mass organisation, embedded in communities, seeking to use its collective power to change public attitudes and fundamentally alter the power relations shaping British society. But, technically speaking, the idea of the Labour party becoming ‘a social movement’ is a nonsense. It is a phrase that betrays a lack of understanding of what a social movement is, and that elides the necessary differences between a social movement, a political movement, and a political party.

A social movement and a political party are just not the same kind of thing. By its very nature, a social movement (such as women’s liberation), must be too diffuse, too spread out across society, too internally diverse, and yet too ambitious in its aims, for it to be able to simply coincide with a single political party. A political party may very well become the main institutional vehicle carrying the hopes of a social movement at a given time and place; but it can never be the same things as the movement as such, and must be much more focussed and much more specific and limited in its objectives, which must always involve winning elections. A political movement can perhaps be understood as sitting somewhere between the two – never simply reducible to a single organisation and its institutions, but not necessarily acquiring the scale and characteristics of a social movement as such.

From this perspective, Corbynism has certainly acquired the characteristics of a political movement. Going well beyond institutional confines of the Labour party, incorporating institutions such as Momentum, The World Transformed, Novara Media, the Canary, Red Pepper, New Socialist, Tribune etc, this political movement has made great strides. This is the formation that the next Labour leader must be able to hold together and help to keep expanding.

To become a social movement would require something more. It would require the specific institutions of Corbynism to become more porous to, and more connected with, the wider ecology of campaigning groups, alternative media, and political institutions that all share more or less the same long-term objective. That goal can be summed up as the creation of a more democratic society that is collectively capable of tackling the climate crisis, while reversing the redistribution of wealth and power to the most privileged that has taken place since the 1980s, without collapsing into authoritarianism. To actually build and lead a social movement committed to this goal would require the Labour party, amongst other things, to accept that it might be able to play a leading role in this movement, but that it could not hope to contain it or control it. It would require the partisans of Corbynism to accept that they must build alliances wherever they can find allies, and that in many places that might mean working with members of other political parties (or none).

Of course, both expanding the political movement and contributing to the emergence of a social movement would require other things as well. There is a great deal of talk at the moment, as there always is when Labour has just lost an election, about the need to engage in deep and sustained ‘community organising’. I keep hearing that Labour did better in 2019 in those constituencies the community organising unit was active (especially Putney); I haven’t seen the evidence yet, but this seems plausible. Community organising is powerful and important because it creates a sense of collective agency and possibility, and there is absolutely no way to convince people that socialism is a viable project if they do not have that shared sense of potential. Of course, ‘community organising’ can mean lots of things, from street parties to all-out strikes. To some extent, though, all of these activities are valuable if they create, however momentarily, a sense of shared power and possibility for their participants.

At the same time, for Labour to keep developing as a radical political movement, it must, as I have already suggested, be able to mobilise around a project of explicit counter-propaganda in the face of right-wing media attacks. This is something that Labour simply hasn’t made any serious attempt to do over the past half-century, although it would once have been considered the most obviously primary form of political campaigning to engage in. It is worth reflecting on this. What if, for example, local parties and supporters groups took it upon themselves to publish and deliver local newsletters, specifically identifying misleading, inaccurate and ideological claims in the press? The fact that so many people now have in effect, full printing facilities in their own homes makes this a viable material possibility as it would never have been in the past. The party nationally could provide templates, content, even complete pdf files. I’m not saying that this is necessarily what should be done: this is just an example of the kind of initiative that would now be plausible. And we must think along these lines.

Devolving Power

For any such initiatives to succeed would require a significant devolution of power and resources to local parties and regions. In fact, some of the most intelligent commentary on the conduct of the election campaign that I have seen has stressed the need to devolve the conduct of election campaigns and to facilitate more distributed and autonomous production of substantial social-media content by supporters. And this would require a cultural and institutional change in the party that Corbyn was never able to effect. Primarily what it would require is for the most powerful actors in the complex ecology of modern Labour politics – the trade union representatives, MPs and the leaders’ office – finally to grasp the point that those of us arguing for distribution of power and resources across the membership are not trying to take something from them; we are trying to create the only conditions under which the realisation of their political objectives is possible.

Corbyn was only Labour leader for four years. During that time the party, and the organisational ecology around it (especially Momentum), made considerable strides in the direction of a party and a political movement that would be capable of undertaking the tasks that I have been enumerating here. But there remained a crucial imaginative threshold that it was never able to cross. It was never able to face up to the reality of its historical situation, and the extraordinary difficulty of overcoming both an institutional apparatus and a media machine that was overwhelmingly biassed in favour of its enemies. Instead, too many of Corbyn’s supporters mistook the first, faltering steps of a revival of the British left for some kind of pre-revolutionary moment, in which our sheer will to fight and loyalty to our party leadership would be enough to sweep aside the apparatus of neoliberal and Conservative hegemony. This is by no means to downplay the extraordinary successes of the movement. But if those successes are to go down in history as a foundation on which a new socialist future was built, rather than a glorious diversion from a century-long history of failure, then their limitations, and the causes of those limitations, must be addressed. I’ll try to do this in the final article of this series.

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