Two good conferences for Corbyn?

Currently, the reporting of Labour politics necessarily includes a construction of Jeremy Corbyn as one who can no longer be easily ignored by the mainstream media when, ideally, they would much rather pretend he didn’t exist. Sometimes described as an embarrassment to the Labour Party, he rather exposes the establishment to ridicule. That Corbyn must be made to appear unattractive is, of course, nothing new; this is how leftist arguments and those who voice them are conventionally marginalised. However, given that Corbyn (unlike, for example, Tony Benn before him) is party leader and what he has to say must be addressed, the role played by demonisation – as Goffman would have it, stigmatisation – is slightly different. In this week’s conference speech, for example, David Cameron was reduced to a soundbite attack on Corbyn: that he was somewhat economical with the truth is probably less important than the fact that he produced a series of media‑friendly snippets, but attention paid elsewhere to Corbyn makes it a little less likely that the spun version will stick (which, of course, doesn’t mean the Conservatives won’t continue with this line of attack).[1]

Another example of the problem presented by a left-wing leader (rather than a ‘mere’ rebellious backbencher) is shown by the ongoing ‘will-he-won’t-he’ story of Corbyn joining the Privy Council. The Telegraph desperately wants to consider it a snub to the Queen, and this might well be the view of some, or even many; but Corbyn has successfully drawn attention to a procedure that more often remains hidden, far from public scrutiny. At the time of writing, there remains some doubt as to whether or not he will go through the motions of participating in a medieval ritual that, viewed charitably, might just about be regarded as comical (descriptions invoke the kind of tacky tourist trap most likely located next door to a church where you can be married by Elvis). Either way, the point has been well made: the more the issue is raised, the greater the risk that, when all is said and done, this tradition will be regarded a nonsense. To put it differently, #piggate it isn’t; but when was the last time the political elite was exposed as just another subculture with arcane rituals? This story is a stage further than the annual circus that surrounds Black Rod and the Queen’s Speech. Similarly, Corbyn has, from the time he first emerged as a leadership candidate, successfully exposed lazy truisms about ‘the way things are’ simply by challenging them. Since June the austerity myth has been exposed as empty rhetoric and now Osborne and Cameron have tried to relaunch the government as the worker’s friend. Further, attention has now shifted to defence when, last week, Corbyn decided Trident would have to be discussed after all.

In the aftermath of party conferences, one might begin by noting their main function as a spectacle, one typically micro-managed to within an inch of its life. The party is advertising itself, so the argument goes, and must ‘put on a show’ for ‘voters’ (that is, consumers who might or might not opt for this or that ‘brand’). Until the 1980s the Conservatives were probably better than Labour at this kind of conference, for the simple reason that open discussion was integral to Labour culture but not that of the Conservative party. The ‘wisdom’ (or ‘media speak’) that parties must present a united front was produced as a way of differentiating the two main parties and favouring a Conservative approach to top-down policymaking with little if any discussion. Any thought that policy is necessarily produced by discussion became irrelevant; and the fiction of party unity was similar, for example, to the fiction of cabinet responsibility. We all have to speak with one voice. Consequently, for 30 years or so, Labour has moved away from the belief that a conference should involve discussion of policy options because that would lead to negative reporting and headlines that focused on ‘party disunity’. Discussion became disunity; and reporting drew attention to a Labour back region that, by implication, has no counterpart in the Conservative party.[2]

And so to last week’s Labour conference in Brighton, and the expectation of a quite different affair when open discussion might, given hostile media looking for anything they might turn into what passes for a story, provide a different kind of spectacle. To simply identify areas where discussion is taking place is to suggest a process of rational inquiry and perhaps imply that there are alternatives, even alternatives to what has been carefully presented as ‘common sense’.

Most likely this will take the form of a ‘civil war’ narrative. On Channel 4 News, for example, there was Michael Crick’s pathetic attempt to ‘doorstep’ John McDonnell and Peter Mandelson, hoping one of them would give him a story he had done nothing to deserve.[3] Apparently, Crick is a master of the art but, if he hoped to provoke something as glorious as Godfrey Bloom’s assault, he was left disappointed. It transpired that neither McDonnell nor Mandelson had learned their lines, and the man best described as a Poundland Nick Broomfield became the only one laughing at his own ‘joke’.[4] In that earlier case, perhaps, Bloom had simply been ‘himself’ (as the current buzzword has it, ‘authentic’); or perhaps he took advantage of the platform he had been given to draw attention to himself. Either way the performance could be seen as an embarrassment for his party leader; in what passes for journalism, Crick would claim to have given the viewer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of political reality. This wasn’t the case at Brighton.

In the event, the efforts of Crick et al notwithstanding, the dominant narrative went something as follows. Labour’s conference was successful, kind of, for Corbyn as ‘the party at least avoided a bloodbath’. However, before everyone had gone home Corbyn had let slip a refusal to use nuclear weapons if he were prime minister, leading to inevitable criticism from within the party, including Maria Eagle and other shadow ministers. The wording here (‘let slip’) implies a gaffe on Corbyn’s part, of course: if only he had kept his mouth shut! However, the story of his emergence as leader and potential prime minister has been the way in which he has been able to force his rivals to discuss (or at least wander in the general direction of) policy or risk being exposed as having nothing to say. Over a three-month leadership campaign the so-called ABC candidates were weakened by their failure to offer a coherent alternative to Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies. Beyond Labour, it is now possible to hear conservative voices saying government policy has more to do with politics than with economics, all without the sky falling in. The same has been, and will continue to be, the case with discussion of an independent (supposedly) nuclear deterrent (again, supposedly). Yes, Corbyn has been challenged, but it is the anti-Trident argument that has, and is seen to have, substance. Even The Guardian, hardly a Corbyn newspaper, immediately published articles (by Diane Abbott and, for anyone who thinks the left-wing Abbott has nothing to say worth hearing, Simon Jenkins) that competently demolished the pro-Trident argument (cf John Prescott in the Mirror more than two years ago). As with economic policy, the politics of defence have been exposed because Corbyn insisted on it. Time and again, the problem for Corbyn’s opponents (in government or the media, or within Labour itself) is that discussion simply allows the rehearsal of alternatives to received wisdom. On Trident, any competent A-level politics student could drive a bus through the argument that ‘we need it because’ and, in the coming weeks and months, it will become less difficult to offer that justification for defence policy.

For the most part, since June, there has been some limited attempt to challenge the policies Corbyn advocates, yet such challenges have been evasive: within Labour, his ‘electability’ is questioned while, elsewhere, he has been dismissed as ‘a threat’, Conservative ministers repeating the same slogan, word-for-word, as often as possible (a dry-run for Cameron’s conference speech). This, of course, is the politics of negative advertising based on the principles of classical conditioning: the hope is that, once struck, an arbitrary link between ‘Corbyn’ and ‘threat’ will hinder any engagement with ideas. At the same time, of course, the requirement to offer the new leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition a platform, one his office cannot be denied, means it is possible for Corbyn to ‘make a good impression’. Even those critical of his politics often admit that he is ‘a nice chap’ and ‘sincere’ (with, perhaps, an implication that other politicians might not exhibit those qualities, of course). There is a tension here between the need to trash Corbyn’s politics while also acknowledging his status as Labour leader. It has been said that he ‘came from nowhere’, having been an obscure backbencher for 32 years; possibly many people had not even heard of him before the summer of 2015, or would recognise him walking down the street. The point is that, marginal to what is considered mainstream politics – that is, the tiny part of politics that media workers, knowing little if anything, can ask MPs and other media workers about – no one ever had to worry about Corbyn. It is a long time since, in Tony Benn, the left had a leading figure who could be denounced as mad or the most dangerous man in Britain. That Margaret Beckett and her fellow morons allowed him to take part in the leadership election, all in the name of a ‘wider debate’ that terrified them when it became reality, was an attempt to patronise Corbyn as, more or less, harmless. Once his success in attracting widespread support meant he could no longer be ignored, of course, there has been a perceived need to ‘deal with him’. Labour right, media and government are all still working out how to do so effectively.

[1] The editing of what Corbyn has said can be turned against Cameron (more accurately, his speechwriters) as in this response.

[2] The fact that Conservatives occasionally fail to keep up the act, as with John Major’s Eurosceptic bastards in the 1990s, simply confirms the general principle.

[3] Monday 28 September.

[4] I should acknowledge the theft of a joke here: Russell Brand called Nigel Farage ‘a Poundland Enoch Powell’, of course.

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