#JezHeDid – Maybe Miracles Do Happen. Or Is It Something More?
September 13, 2015
by Martin Odoni
No one should have any illusions about the sheer enormity of what happened yesterday. It is both an astonishing outcome, given the huge odds against it at the outset, and a potentially gigantic turning-point in British politics, in terms of where it might lead.
Jeremy Corbyn, for so long the most veteran of backbench MPs, yesterday was made the new leader of the Labour Party by a margin so wide that he had roughly eighty thousand more votes than all his rivals polled put together. Corbyn had only decided to stand as a candidate at the outset in an effort to broaden the leadership debate from the very limited ‘pick-the-Blairite’ contest it had shaped up to be. He had no expectation of winning, or even of getting particularly close. He was the epitome of the rank outsider.
There was also the very suspicious and undemocratic ‘Labour purge’, which was, in an all-but-open secret, a very obvious attempt to bar eligible voters from taking part in the ballot if the Party elite deemed them likely to vote for Corbyn. This took at least forty thousand – some estimates suggest up to one hundred thousand – voters out of the process, most of whom would almost certainly have preferred a left-wing candidate. The vague justification that the Labour bigwigs put out – that they were attempting to filter out people who did not share Labour’s ‘values’ after a massive increase of party registrations during July – was exposed as the clumsy sham it undoubtedly was when it was discovered that, while countless lifelong leftists such as Kerry-Anne Mendoza were barred, an actual former member of the Tory Cabinet was not.
To the hopeless starting position and the unashamed election-rigging, we can add the protracted, persistent, and spiteful campaigns by mainstream media and rival candidates alike to discredit Corbyn, often through misleading accusations and ‘mined’ quotations.
In the face of all this, the possibility of Corbyn merely finishing outside of last position sounded incredible.
But he did more than just finish outside of last position. He did more than merely win the leadership. He absolutely annihilated his opponents by any and every sensible measure that can be used. Even with the complexities of the Alternative Vote system, he won in just one round. Not only did his total number of votes received blast their way to way beyond fifty per cent of the total, but he won on all the breakdowns as well. Even without all the new ‘affiliated voters’, he scored over fifty per cent. Indeed, even if all of Corbyn’s affiliated supporters were discounted, but the other candidates’ affiliated supporters were included, he would still have won in the first round. Come to that, he would almost have won in the first round, even if only the Full Members’ votes were counted. It was an absolute, complete, unlimited victory for a candidate who had spent three months in what seemed the most impossible of positions.
A miracle? Well, I find ‘miracle’ is just a label used to describe an unlikely event when people are unable to understand how it happened. I think I have a possible explanation that is rather more coherent, but I will come to that shortly.
So a phenomenal turn-up on reflection of the recent past, but today also has enormous potential for the future, because it means the ‘real’ Left is back in one of the key positions in British politics, something that has probably not been true since the demise of Michael Foot in 1983 (whatever the Tribune links his successor Neil Kinnock might have had). We should not get carried away; it is certainly a very long way from being the death certificate of neoliberalism in Britain, and it is perhaps not even the birth certificate of the second generation of the Left. We can only say for certain it has happened if Corbyn can establish a stable and predominantly left-leaning Shadow Cabinet.
In that endeavour, it is no loss at all to Corbyn that there have been predictable and petulant rejective noises from many of the present Shadow Cabinet, with the likes of Jamie Reed (whoever he is – joke; oh, I do hope the hashtag #JamieReedWho catches on on Twitter) and Tristram Hunt announcing their resignations, or that they are returning to the backbenches. Corbyn does not need them in his team, they are yesterday’s news, plastic headline figures who had their turn and in practise have shown little conspicuous talent for anything other than appearing much the same as each other. New, fresher figures emerged at the General Election, and many of them have arrived via the left wing of the Labour Party. It is from there that Corbyn should look to recruit most of his new Shadow Cabinet, with maybe one or two appointments from the neoliberal wing as a peacemaking concession.
But even if yesterday was not the birth certificate of the ‘Second Labour Left’, the crushing defeats of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and most particularly the hapless Liz Kendall – and the retreat of the rest of the Blairites to the backbenches – are the probable death certificate of New Labour. The watered-down neoliberalism project that has had jealous control of the Labour Party for over twenty years appears to have broken a mirror; since the Credit Crunch, it has suffered seven years of purgatory, which reached their apex yesterday. This is a hugely significant development in its own right, one that had to occur before the rise of the ‘Second Labour Left’, and the eventual demise of neoliberalism in Britain as a whole, could become possible. The struggle, in that sense, has only just begun, but yesterday was the turning point that has allowed it to begin. If Corbyn and his allies can just get the next few months right and have the Labour Party in good shape from the early months of next year, the opportunity is now there to revive the wrongly-discredited social democratic consensus of the 1950’s-to-the-1970’s. Margaret Thatcher’s infernal dismantling of social democracy, replacing it with the dice-rolling guesswork of neoliberalism, has caused economic instability, chaos, and pointless hardship for over thirty years.
Reflecting on why the Blairites failed is as important as fist-pumping the air over Corbyn winning. Early on, Burnham looked like he was a nailed-on winner, but from the moment that he chickened-out of voting against the Tories’ draconian Welfare Reform and Work Bill, one could almost feel the country, and most particularly the grass-roots of his Party, turning their backs on him in deep, deep disappointment. This was the man who had once had the fortitude to ear-bash an unsympathetic Cabinet into suspending the Thirty-Years Rule so that the Hillsborough Disaster could finally be properly-investigated. For him now to show such a dearth of courage when vulnerable people’s lives were endangered by cruel legislation in Parliament was bound to do his campaign severe damage.
But then the campaign-performances by all the Blairites were awful, and in a strange, overlapping way that underlined why Corbyn was so much more appealing; all the Blairites kept saying the same sorts of things – especially the teeth-grinding over-use of the word ‘aspiration’ – kept failing to answer questions, kept flip-flopping on positions of principle, and kept making the same paranoid anti-Corbyn noises. In so doing, they gratifyingly demonstrated exactly why Corbyn had felt he had to stand in the first place; they really were all much the same, and none of them were particularly far removed from Ed Miliband. They came across as negative, cowardly, android-like, and devoid of ideas or conviction – just more of the same Red Toryism that had put the Party into this long-running mess in the first place. Even with so much of the media preferring them to Corbyn, it was just impossible for the Labour support to see the Blairites in a favourable light.
Looking again at the ‘Labour Purge’, I should mention that I was not one of the people who tried to register as a voter in the Labour Party. As a paid-up member of the Green Party, it felt somehow wrong to me that I try to switch to Labour for the sake of one candidate, when at the time I doubted he could win. If he lost, I would have to go back to the Greens again, which would all feel a little frenetic and volatile. That was a matter of personal choice, and while it was not for me, I fully respect the decisions of those who decided to register with Labour and try to bring about change. Now Corbyn has won, I have made a pledge that I will vote for Labour at the next General Election, should he still be their leader. I will remain a paid-up member of the Green Party in the meantime though, as they still need regular support and funding, and I still agree with many of their values. Call that a foot-in-both-camps if you like, but I am content with the position I am taking, both ethically and tactically.
This leadership contest will, I suspect, be remembered as a tipping point in the media, as well as in politics. What stood out throughout the course of the campaign was how much verbal ‘manure’ was hurled at Jeremy Corbyn throughout, especially by right-wing tabloids, and how utterly ineffective it all proved to be. When its effects on the wider public are assessed, we may find things are a little different, but by and large, the pattern was clear; nobody who had a vote in this contest was impressed or swayed by the rumour-mongering or scare stories. In fact, Corbyn’s support almost seemed to increase every time he was smeared, and some voters may even have transferred their votes to him from other candidates in protest against the very undemocratic nature of the ‘Purge’.
I honestly doubt that Corbyn could have brushed off with such cool aplomb all the attacks had this campaign happened in the 1990s or earlier, because the nature of the media back then was different. Twenty years ago, newspapers and television pretty much were the media, all news was relayed to the public through them. When a right-wing tabloid chose to smear someone, a rebuttal could take days while research was done to fact-check the claims, and to write up a response and get it published in print. With debunking being such a slow process, mud was able to stick far more viscously.
In the modern era of social media, however, the smear is not quite as effective as it once was. When a false accusation is published now, the internet offers a very quick and simple repository from which facts can be checked without ever having to leave one’s seat. Far more people use the Internet than have ever worked in TV or newspapers, so that leads to far more potential fact-checkers being on-hand at any one moment. And while it is true that false rumours can circulate around the world at far quicker speeds than they used to as well thanks to the Internet, debunking efforts can be published and proliferated in response so quickly that damage can be contained. If anyone wants to publish a rebuttal to a false story they have encountered, they no longer have to submit it to a newspaper and cross their fingers that the Editor decides to print it. Instead, they can create their own blog in just five minutes, write up their rebuttal, self-publish it, and then share links to it far and wide over social media, like Facebook groups, Pinterest and Twitter.
In short, the ground of media propaganda has shifted some way since about 1995, and the print-media in particular is now too slow to be the receptacle that is always first with the news. When a tabloid is in the mood to do a hatchet-job (and we can be sure that many, many more of them will be printed against Corbyn in the next few years), a story that its writers take days developing and putting about is then getting debunked within a couple of hours; see how completely the accusation that Corbyn described Osama bin Laden’s death as a ‘tragedy’ was debunked, on the same day it was published. It happened because thousands of people checked the story, realised the quotation was presented out of context, and then bombarded Twitter and Facebook with so many furious rebuttals that it was scarcely possible to miss them.
My hunch is that the mainstream media is a bit slow cottoning on to the new reality, hence the general futility of their crude, obsolete smear-methods, and their breathless shock at yesterday’s result. The mainstream media, while still a very powerful organ, is no longer as unchallenged as it once was. The world of online journalists and bloggers has started to siphon off some of the old media’s previously-unchecked influence, and because it is a world in cyberspace and shifting software, rather than printed on paper or spoken in studios, the reach of social media is not always easy to keep track of.
My hope is that this changed reality continues to elude the mainstream media. Its ignorance of its own lost powers is the very weakness that can eventually be played upon to curb its excesses. If such excesses are truly curbed, then the chances for Corbyn and a ‘second era’ for the Left will be transformed, and the prospects for a better, fairer Britain will be transformed with them.
“#JezWeCan,” they said, and #JezTheyDid. And I hope, with the blossoming power of social media on their side, that #JezTheyWill.