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Will person-to-person politics put wind in Corbyn’s sails?

Social media and public meetings are filling in what the mainstream ignores, to Labour’s advantage, while an informal climate alliance is isolating the Tories.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 November 2019
Jeremy Corbyn sitting in the front row of a group of people sitting in a large room
Galvanisation is imminent
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Pete Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

Jeremy Corbyn has an advantage you don’t often hear about in the mainstream media: a direct connection with Labour Party members and an ability to draw large crowds, quite often out of thin air.

I pointed this out a few months before the last UK general election campaign started. Three weeks before polling day I suggested that Labour’s prospects were much better than was widely assumed. Quoting Tony’s ‘Something’s Coming’ song in ‘West Side Story’ I argued that an undercurrent in British politics was being missed. The article ended with:

We are in uncertain times, but with Theresa May having called an election on the back of a working majority, anything less than a fifty-seat majority will look a poor result for her. As I ended last September’s column: Jeremy Corbyn may be with us for a quite a long time yet.

Depriving the Conservative Party of an overall majority caught most pundits by surprise. It has certainly had an extraordinary effect on what has happened since, not least in making an early election inevitable.

This time, too, Labour has started very much behind the Tories in the opinion polls, with Corbyn himself polling particularly poorly. Bearing in mind the 2017 result, can we get some kind of handle on the likely outcome this time?

That is particularly tricky to do just now, given the near-chaos of the first week of campaigning. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comment on the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the resignation of a cabinet minister – the Welsh secretary, Alun Cairns – and controversies over media manipulation have hardly helped Johnson get off to a good start, but Labour’s much better performance has been overshadowed by the sudden resignation of its deputy leader, Tom Watson. There are, though, two interesting indicators that are being missed by most analysts and deserve a bit of attention.

Last Thursday, on the day that Corbyn launched Labour’s campaign to a large gathering in London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson went on a high-profile visit to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. This was widely covered on national radio and TV news but was tightly controlled, with only local journalists present and the output for the national media, including a television interview, produced in-house. Most people at the hospital did not know the visit was happening until after Johnson arrived.

What was not reported on the national news channels that evening was that on his departure Johnson was roundly booed. It was covered in the local paper, the Cambridge Evening News, but, much more significant, it went viral on social media with smartphone footage of the event all over the place. Even by the next day it had only got into a couple of national newspapers, with little on the mainstream broadcast media likewise. But for social media it was a very different matter.

We are now in the campaign proper and the BBC and ITV are expected to be more balanced, but with the mainstream national press dominated by just three exceptionally wealthy and right-wing families (the Rothermeres, Barclays and Murdochs), social media is going to be highly significant. On the basis of the Addenbrooke’s experience that may tend to play a lot more to Corbyn’s advantage than Johnson’s.

The second thing to watch is what Corbyn himself has been up to. The conventional view, widely pushed in the print media, is that he went to ground in the run-up to the campaign while Johnson was touring the country visiting schools, hospitals and factories. Here again, things are not quite what they seem.

Last month, and for many months before the election was called, Corbyn was speaking to large and enthusiastic gatherings of supporters all over the land, hardly any of it reported in the mainstream media. A notable example was at a packed Newcastle City Hall on 5 October, where over 2,000 people gathered with many more unable to get in. By any stretch of the imagination this was a major and successful event: Corbyn got a lengthy standing ovation even before he started speaking. He has had similar welcomes at dozens of other events which, if it had been Johnson, would have been chronicled with much enthusiasm in the press. Once again, though, with Corbyn it was down to social media to spread the word.

From Labour’s perspective, it really doesn’t matter very much if Corbyn’s perambulations prior to the campaign proper have been ignored by the mainstream media. Their main purpose was to galvanise his supporters for the campaign itself. On the basis of Newcastle and many other events in recent months he may be succeeding in this more than his opponents and media pundits realise.

These are still early days, but it is quite possible that this election will not have the foregone conclusion of the great communicator Boris Johnson sweeping all before him, but rather Jeremy Corbyn coming in from left field, as in 2017.

If that does turn out to be the case, then one other factor could play a much more significant role than expected – Labour’s climate change policies. They have not attracted much attention yet, but are far more radical in their decarbonisation plans than almost anyone anticipated, even if some early signs were there many months ago, in marked contrast to Conservative policies.

They represent a policy direction that could be a huge attraction, especially to the under-forties. Moreover, what Labour is arguing for on the climate is broadly similar to the policies of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, if rather more radical, and very close to the Greens. None of these parties will form a government on its own, but it does indicate that the national tide of political and public opinion on the climate has changed radically in the past year.

The Tories want this election focused on Brexit but Labour is going for a range of issues including the NHS, the economy and opposition to the neoliberal agenda. If they add to this their environmental agenda and make that one of the key issues of the election, they could be in for a pleasant surprise with the support they will gain. Furthermore, they have nearly five weeks to do it and, as Harold Wilson put it, even a week is a long time in politics.

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