Labour, the media and the cultural battle

If you are interested in UK’s politics and self-identify as left-leaning, reading my previous post might have got you screaming “Yes, yes, but WHAT ABOUT the overt hostility shown by THE MEDIA?

This reaction would be predictable and somewhat justifiable, but also a sign that my point about the cultural battleground was right.

Amused to death album cover

Roger Waters’ Amused to Death because it’s brilliant and relevant.

Why? Because failing to see the direct link between whether or not Labour’s cultural foundations are recognised as legitimate and how Labour policies are represented in the public sphere is a big part of the problem[1]. This link is a root cause of why so much of the political battles that Labour needs to win are profoundly asymmetric and tilted heavily against Labour’s side.

In the previous post I claim that it is extremely important to establish some solid cultural foundations able to provide legitimacy to left-wing policies[2]. In practice, this means that it is necessary to have ready-made arguments in favour of social and policy solutions that rely on cooperative and collaborative approaches, whenever we have proof, or strong reasons to believe that market-based solutions won’t work. The current problem of Labour in the cultural battlefield[3] is that these cultural foundations are nowhere to be found, at least not within anything that resembles the mainstream.

Why is it so? The short and oversimplified answer is: Blair’s legacy.

I wasn’t in the UK during Blair’s tenure, but my impression is that he appeared on the scene during a rare moment when a Labour government could get elected even if it vacated the cultural battleground. It’s possible that doing so even gave it the decisive advantage, at the time. Be as it may, I think it’s uncontroversial to claim that Blair’s success relied in proposing some state-driven, not-marked-based solutions to problems that had been becoming more and more acute during the previous decade, while also taking an openly laissez-faire stance regarding many other “established markets”. There is, in my view, nothing wrong with this approach, but unfortunately, there was something very wrong with the way that such approach was justified. The situation allowed to propose some unapologetically left-wing policies and justify the choice simply by claiming: well, we know the current system is failing, so let’s try something different.

It worked, and it worked well for quite a while, but Blair made the fatal mistake of not catering for the long-term consequences of this move. I believe that in his case, he was genuinely convinced to have found a long-lasting solid middle ground, and for this reason, perhaps he thought (probably still thinks) that there was nothing to be done or gained by investing in the cultural battleground (as I’ve defined it).

We can see the effect of this disastrous error still today, Labour is still paying the price. How? Well, Brown and Darling first, Miliband after, simply had no argument available to propose anything different from “austerity-light”[4].
Having witnessed their efforts in person, I am sure they thought they had already lost the cultural battle and tried to produce a strategy based on this fact. They might have been right, as well. Proposing something that relied on a worldview that values cooperation more than competition might indeed have hurt their electoral prospects. What they did instead, however, clearly did not work either. This, in a nutshell, is why I am claiming that the cultural battlefield is of critical importance to Labour. Without making sure that people recognise some “cooperation first” perspectives as legitimate and defensible, the work that is required to justify and defend left-leaning policies on the media is simply too much. It cannot be done effectively in the time allocated (be it an interview, an op-ed on some newspaper, or even a full electoral campaign). As I’ve said previously, without those cultural foundations, most genuinely left-leaning policies look like well-meaning wishful-thinking, which is a polite way of saying that they lack a minimum amount of credibility.

Back to Blair (no, I won’t mention the war, yet): if my analysis is right, the generation of politicians that were formed during his governments were self-selected amongst those who did not feel an urge to defend the “cooperative” foundations of left-wing thought. This is what I mean when I say that the cultural battlefield was vacated. People just left – there remained no-one with influence willing to defend the set of ideas that make Labour what it is (or what it is supposed to be). This being the case, the poor performances of Brown and Miliband become predictable and very easily explained – see for example Simon Wren-Lewis‘s recent analysis of that period.
Looking at the relationship with the media, you can then notice that their policies were actively ridiculed, pretty much like Corbyn and his policies were, because they had no well-known and respected intellectual line of defence. “Why is a little less austerity better, if austerity is what we need?” There is literally no credible answer to this question that does not rest on the recognition that competitive markets are not the solution to all problems. It’s as simple as that, I’m afraid.

Moving over to Corbyn, the situation changes in some ways, but once again, the lack of recognised and publicly respected foundations is one of the reasons why Corbyn was never going to succeed. When Corbyn was elected, for a brief period I was hopeful and fully onboard – he quickly showed his ability to challenge the hegemony of neoliberal assumptions and did it, with some success, on main stream TV. Thus, for a little while I could cultivate the hope that Labour was going to re-engage in the cultural battlefield, which is, if I’m right, the precondition to fulfilling its social function. What a fool I was – I was hoping that Corbyn understood the need of establishing solid cultural footholds! As we’ve seen, as soon as the Brexit referendum happened, Corbyn lost both his (visible) interest in this endeavour, as well as the legitimacy necessary to actually succeed. Ignoring the Brexit position of the majority of Labour members made it clear that his declared intentions to democratise the party structures were nothing but nice words, while pandering to anti-immigration sentiments made it impossible to propose a coherent world view centered on the value of collaboration.

The awful treatment of Labour offered by all of the mainstream media was the direct result. Why? Because not a single policy proposal made by Labour now rested on solid foundations (maybe disputed foundations, but at least widely known and recognised as legitimate). The Neoliberal outlook is still seen by most as the only legitimate position, meaning that all progressive policies that Labour offered needed to be defended from scratch, no shortcuts were available and generally, proposals like spending on social policy and investing in infrastructure and well-being are treated as unproven, wishful and optimistic at best, actively dangerous otherwise. In other words, during the 2019 campaign, Labour had the need to fight and perform extremely well on both the cultural and political battlegrounds, and do so in just six or eight weeks. It was impossible, would have been prohibitively difficult even to much better communicators than Corbyn.

Of course the media battleground is and always will be asymmetric: rich media owners will always be hostile to genuine left wing policies and ideas; the BBC will always have some pro-government bias (especially as a consequence of the Iraq war fallout). It is true that during the 2019 general election the BBC expressed this bias with unprecedented clarity, but again, this was predictable: in this occasion the BBC did not have the need of balancing two worldviews, because only one was available – the other went AWOL when Labour decided to allow the triggering of article 50 and to appease xenophobic undercurrents.

The upshot of all this is that the precondition to make the media scene a little less biased against Labour is to start promoting, defending, elaborating and developing the foundations of left-wing thought. Still unconvinced? Fine, here is some supporting evidence.

First of all, some raw data: I’ve claimed above that Corbyn did initially engage on the cultural ground and that he later went AWOL. I also claimed that later on, it was too late to even try. If I’m right, there should be a clear difference in Corbyn’s performance and effectiveness when interviewed at different times. We can look at three examples, all involving the same interviewer, to aid comparability.
Here is Corbyn in 2015, explaining to Marr the reasons behind his proposed policies. We then jump to 2019, interviewed by Marr again, during Labour’s conference. Something big changed: almost all the second interview is used up by topics that concern infighting, discontent and the “elusive” stance of Corbyn himself towards Brexit (these are the consequence of his other mistakes). He then gets about 5 minutes to talk about policies, during which he has no chance to try explaining their rationale.
Marr and Corbyn would meet again shortly after, for an interview during the election campaign, here is the transcript; this time, after spending even longer exposing the inherent contradictions of Corbyn’s position towards Brexit, Marr tries to formulate a question by saying (emphasis is mine):

[Y]our instinct in every area seems to be that where there’s a choice the state can always do something better than the private sector, whether it’s broadband or dentistry or anything else. And I wonder is there any part of the economy which is completely safe from the threat, as they would see it, of nationalisation.

Boom. This passage clearly indicates that Corbyn at this point can rely on exactly zero recognised foundations to his policies: he’s being asked to explain their rationale from scratch. Moreover, his policies are concurrently described as a threat. What happens after is worse, depressing and predictable: just as Corbyn tries to rise to the challenge, Marr interrupts with “we’re out of time”. QED – Corbyn never had a chance, once he abandoned the approach he showed back in 2015.

If this isn’t enough, maybe now Anna Turley’s anger can be understood in a new light. She writes (emphasis is still mine):

Despite 10 years of Tory austerity that has led to Dickensian levels of poverty, and the end of 175 years of steel-making in my constituency, people didn’t believe Labour would be any better.

Why? If I’m right, it’s because, having vacated the cultural battleground for decades (with one short exception), Labour had no way to build its own credibility in time. The preparatory work should have been done incessantly from 2015, but alas, was abandoned as a consequence of Brexit.

If you’re still unconvinced, please read this recent report by Luke Pagarani on his direct experience of canvassing, and of how the problem of credibility kept recurring. He writes (emphasis added)

With such voters, retired or coming towards the end of their careers, Corbyn’s collectivist language of what we could build together left them sceptical and uncomprehending. It seemed more zero sum to them, where one person’s gain must be another’s loss.

What’s the message here? That they didn’t know the fundamental reasons why not all games are zero sums, and why cooperation can and sometimes must work. On young people, Pagarani again (added emphasis):

I also canvassed many young, working-class people who were not engaged with politics. Many had never heard about class politics at all […]. The idea of voting for a party to tax the rich to pay for redistribution and public services was completely novel, and generally immediately attractive. It was amazing to see how quickly and instinctively they grasped a leftwing agenda while saying they had never thought about it before.

Surprise! Actually articulating the reasons why left-wing policies are sorely needed does work, after all. Phew!

In conclusion, while figuring out what went wrong, it is essential for Labour to recognise the immense long-term damage done by not spending enough resources and efforts in building and promoting its cultural foundations. Without this background work, Labour will always be vulnerable to the unavoidable hostility of much of the media.

Notes

[1] If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you may have to check out my previous post (sorry). In a nutshell, I’m saying that currently, society is organised around the idea that competition is inevitable and also good. This vision forgets the virtues of cooperation, which are in turn fundamental to understand the merit of Labour’s policies and aspirations.

[2] Careful readers are likely to notice that I’m not using the word “socialism” anywhere in this series. That’s because you do not need to identify as a socialist to grasp the merits of cooperative societies. Moreover, the world is changing and while the S word is a negative trigger to many, the policies and solutions that are needed right now look quite different from the ones normally associated with traditional socialism (collective ownership of means of production, central planning, etc.).

[3] I am deliberately filling these posts with war metaphores, even when I am promoting the value of cooperation. This is because even if war does require two sides, only one needs to have destructive aims in order to trigger a fight. Framing the struggle of Labour as a violent confrontation against irreducible enemies is, I believe, correct. On one side, the political game requires to do so, on the other, global capitalist forces are indeed hostile and trying to destroy left-wing thinking as well as all its political expressions. Talking about class war, and a war that the left did not initiate, wouldn’t be wrong, but might alienate whoever sees socialism as a dangerous ideology.

[4] Here I refer to the rationale used to justify the policies proposed in their electoral manifesto, as well as their decision of how to present them to the public. I think that Brown, Darling and Miliband (Ed), would all be quite onboard with my approach and emphasis on collaboration and not-zero-sum games. However, I also believe that, for electoral purposes, they thought that being seen to do so would be punished in the ballot box.

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One comment on “Labour, the media and the cultural battle
  1. […] ahead is uphill, from beginning to end. But still, not fooling ourselves must be a start. In the next post we’ll see how [we can change gear edit (30/12/19)] to handle hostility from the media and […]

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