Kadira Pethiyagoda writes:
In future history classrooms, students will likely be told the tale of the tag-team assault on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the mainstream media and MPs. It will be taught as a harbinger of what is erupting into the most pivotal crisis facing Western politics in half a century: the chasm between ordinary people and the elites. We are seeing it with the Republican establishment’s failed efforts to derail the Trump train and the Democratic establishment’s more successful efforts to extinguish the Bern. This is an emerging contest in which the opposing sides are defined by an ever-growing wealth gap. The two groups are now viewing each other as adversaries thanks in part to an internet and social media that exposes the disconnect between the mainstream media (MsM) narrative and what the masses feel.
Corbyn, the self-effacing, mild-mannered veteran activist who was elected with a larger mandate than any party leader in British history, and had pleaded for a ‘kinder, gentler politics’, has become the most media-persecuted politician since George Galloway protested the Iraq War. While the right-wing press is expected to be harsh on a Labour leader, biased coverage of Corbyn crosses traditional boundaries, infecting centre-left papers as well. The MsM’s seeming contempt for the people’s decision gives pause to anyone who values democracy, whatever one’s ideological persuasion, whether you agree with Corbyn’s policies or not. The unrelenting bullying of the ordinary Party members’ choice of leader may even represent the death-throes of a ‘politico-media complex’ in futile denial that it has lost the hearts and minds of the masses. We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of what Noam Chomsky eloquently deconstructed in his Manufacturing Consent.
Since Jeremy’s historic victory, the MsM, seemingly in coordination with some MPs, have carried out hit and run attacks. Trawling the bottom of the barrel, they find what might otherwise be un-newsworthy statements or incidents and in unison, twist events to suit the prior agreed upon talking point: Corbyn is a bad leader. Defamation lawsuits are avoided by inserting phrases like ‘Corbyn seemed to’ or ‘appeared to’ before each outlandish accusation. Like any dishonest or poor debater, once the scurrilous claim, outright lie or flimsy argument is disproved by their opponents, they hastily move on to the next attack, creeping under the hitherto reliable darkness of public amnesia. The cynical objective of this approach is to sully the victim’s image by planting vague, amorphous negative associations in the public mind.
This is combined with an ‘authoritative voice’ technique, whereby those critical of Jeremy Corbyn are implied to have some authority or status which in reality they lack. When Corbyn requested an early election following Theresa May’s victory, the Telegraph cited “critics” (not further defined) who labelled it “foolish” and an “attempt to hang on”, despite the Lib Dems and Greens calling for one too. It described “moderate figures” in the National Executive Committee (NEC) using the “party rule book” to insist Corbyn needs the backing of 51 MPs to run in the likely leadership ballot, despite these rules being at the time under dispute and later being found to be in Corbyn’s favour. The BBC earlier stated “Tom Watson is to hold emergency talks on Tuesday with union leaders in a fresh attempt to put pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to resign”. An average reader would assume from this that union leaders are either anti-Corbyn, or are neutral and amenable to Watson’s ‘authority’, when actually, Britain’s major unions had backed Corbyn. The article attempts to flip reality, combining conciliatory, seemingly submissive statements by Jeremy with declarations by ‘some’ anti-Corbyn MPs that there are “strict limits” upon what they would compromise - MPs who have no authority over the leader, much less any mandate to decide who leads, and even less any chance of beating Corbyn at a fair election.
The Telegraph even includes, twice in the same article, an NEC member’s comparison of Corbyn to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, saying “You can’t have people elected for life”. This was in reference to Jeremy’s wish to be, as per the rules, automatically included in the running for a democratic election less than a year after his first democratic election victory. Those who’ve not heard of the NEC before would assume that the body is largely opposed to Corbyn despite that in reality more than half the committee was pro-Corbyn, a fact reinforced by their subsequent decision to vote in his favour on the issue.
A recent London School of Economics study provided academic evidence of what many of us had observed since Corbyn’s election. It found that 74% of newspaper articles on Corbyn did not include his views, or represented his views out of context, with media coverage generally de-legitimizing him as a political actor. The following graph reveals the tone of articles:
The techniques have paid off to some extent, reflecting a reality of the last half century described in Manufacturing Consent. As an Australian expat, I lived in Oxford, and up and down demographically diverse London suburbs, from Hampstead to Essex, from Kensington to Kilburn. I spoke to people of all walks of life and differing party loyalties. Almost all liked Corbyn as a human being. The few negative comments about him pre-referendum included ‘weak leader’ or ‘incompetent’. When pressed as to why, there was usually silence. When informed of his policies on the economy, foreign policy and social issues, there was often agreement, and if not, there was at least a repeating of the concession that ‘he’s a decent guy’. While their positive views toward Corbyn were due to his policies, record or values, negative associations seemed based on nothing more than the media’s assiduously repeated talking points.
After the referendum chaos, there was something more solid to hang on the embattled man, gleefully provided by Media Inc. People said either ‘he was weak/lazy in his campaigning for Remain’ or ‘he disingenuous as he was a secret Leave supporter’. When it is offered that, in the long line of politicians upon whom to heap Brexit blame, perhaps the guy who campaigned against it should be after those who made calculated political decisions to support it, my fellow converser usually remembers that people like Nigel Farage also exist.
Also pervasive is the media-induced fallacy that the leader of the Labour Party’s job description includes “above all, convince voters to Remain”. Corbyn, like most ordinary people, considers each issue through the prism of his value-system. From a left wing perspective the EU had pros and cons, the latter driving the left wing leave campaign ‘Lexit’. For Corbyn, the Remain proposition may have been somewhere over 50% but less than 100% righteous, say 70% for example. So he would be consistent with his principles to devote only 70% of scarce time and resources to it. For causes he believed in 100%, he would exert more effort, as his 30 year record proves beyond doubt. Reasonable, given members elected him primarily to fight austerity, for a peaceful foreign policy etc, not for remaining in the EU. Beyond that, Corbyn’s performance on Brexit was not even that bad. Over two thirds of Labour voters elected to Remain, far more than the Conservatives. His efforts were even praised by then would-be leadership challenger Angela Eagle.
We are expected to believe that, despite the same media sources casually reporting Labour MPs coup-plotting on and off since Corbyn’s election, the Brexit vote was somehow an unexpected, qualitatively unique justification for his ousting. In fact, articles as recently as March suggested that a coup was likely should Labour perform sufficiently poorly in local council elections. Labour performed better than expected, necessitating a new excuse.
The further line of attack is that which was used early in the US presidential primaries to dismiss Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, the old go-to: un-electability. The UK journalists and politicians peddling this line must think that the public have no access to news from across the Atlantic, as this talking point was turned on its head by poll after poll showing Bernie would lay waste to D Trump when Hillary was barely beating him.
Most people, however, are declining the Kool-aid on offer. Throughout the West, the chasm between the elite and the other 99% is unprecedented, not only in wealth distribution, but in the perceptions of politics and politicians. The system of manufacturing consent is facing an unprecedented challenge, one that seems still wilfully ignored in the MsM echo chamber.
On the inside, 172 MPs voted no confidence in Corbyn in a secret ballot, avoiding accountability to local party members. The puzzling arrogance and flippant dismissal of the public will was on full display when Ian Austin MP, who opposed an inquiry into the Iraq War at least three times, told Corbyn - who had protested against Saddam in the 80s when he gassed the Kurds and opposed the 2003 invasion (right side of history on both counts) - to “sit down and shut-up“ during his parliamentary apology following Chilcot. Politicians’ antipathy to Corbyn has been as consistent as JC’s record on Iraq. When he began his journey as leader New Labour stalwarts were wheeled out to express their dismay at an ‘unelectable’ being permitted to occupy such a hallowed seat.
However, in a shocking act of impertinence, Labour members chose someone who actually held the same views as them. Corbyn won with a thumping majority of 59.5%, annihilating his closest rivals who received 19% and 17%, with the Blairite candidate bringing up the rear with 4.5%, suggesting a repudiation of New Labour. Who would have predicted that members of a party built on a workers’ movement would have rejected an ideology that Margaret Thatcher referred to as her greatest achievement? Labour membership swelled to vote in Corbyn as old school ‘true believers’ returned to the fold, joining hands with millennials filled with indignation nourished through a bypassing of the MsM and reliance upon the internet which had exposed to them unjustness of the present reality. In just the final 24 hours before the deadline, the Party received over 160,000 applications to vote. There were three surges in membership in 2015: one after the election, one after Corbyn entered the leadership race and another when he became leader.
The most recent threats to their fragile input into democracy have ordinary people again doing what little they can to defend Corbyn. A vote of confidence petition for Jeremy received around 200,000 signatures in a few days. A rival petition calling for his ouster ignominiously received around 100 signatures in the same period. After about a week the anti-Corbyn petition had 232 signatures and the pro-Corbyn petition 257,000, a ratio of roughly 1:1000 (possibly the same ratio of remaining Blairites to left wingers amongst Labour members). Pro-Corbyn group Momentum had around 54,000 likes on Facebook, while the anti-Corbyn camp had roughly 4,000.
100,000 people joined the Labour Party in the days after the coup was launched, most of them to support Jeremy. Within hours’ notice, 10,000 people turned up to a pro-Corbyn Momentum rally next to the very Parliament inside which their deepest beliefs now seemed to occupy such low regard; a massive display of passion and sacrifice by people who can’t afford to take time off work, have families to look after and most likely live nowhere near Westminster. Membership is set to reach 600,000, making British Labour the biggest social democratic party in the Western world. This is what democracy looks like.
It’s not only Party members whose views are being studiously ignored by the MsM. The actual electorate’s opinions are also seemingly irrelevant to media assessments of Corbyn’s electability. In Jeremy’s tenure, Labour has won all four by-elections, including with increased majorities, performed better in local elections than under predecessor Ed Miliband and won the London and Bristol mayoralties. Overall, polls show Labour trailing the Conservatives by a smaller margin, 4%, pre and post-referendum under Corbyn’s leadership than in the final months of Miliband’s tenure where it trailed by between 6 and 14%.
Additionally, Corbyn’s monumental popularity amongst Labour members and the explosion of membership numbers provides a key advantage in a country without compulsory voting: an enormous, enthusiastic army of volunteers to execute the all-important ground-game that carried Obama to victory twice. With the poor being underrepresented in voter turnout in Britain, this presents a significant electoral opportunity that can be tapped not through centrist pragmatism but via passionate supporters. People, more than advertising, can convince people to get out and vote. And as the referendum’s colossal turnout proved, when they’re mad at the establishment, they’ll turn out in droves.
Given this and the example set by Bernie Sanders, you could only honestly describe Corbyn as definitively unelectable if you’d stumbled into the Large Hadron Collider and entered a parallel universe which combines Orwell’s 1984 and Seinfeld’s Bizzaro World. That or you obtain all your ‘news’ from the mainstream media, which has created its own Orwellian bubble. Black is white, up is down. Victims of racism, and veterans sporting battle scars from a lifetime of fighting racism, are labelled bigots. Supporters of the elected leader are castigated for dividing the Party. Politicians most in touch with the current popular anti-establishment mood are lampooned as relics of the past. Headlines report an attack on Corbyn by an ‘LGBT activist’ while dutifully omitting any reference to Jeremy’s long history of LGBT activism, including back when it wasn’t fashionable.
The MsM, reassured within its echo-chamber, has mistakenly continued to assume each one of us believes that all our neighbours buy this, that everyone else supports the officially sanctioned line and you’d be a tinfoil-hat-crackpot not to. Instead, a thing called the internet and its social media component have empowered ordinary people to, at least to some extent, see what their fellow citizens really think and connect with them.
These platforms have become stages upon which a rebuff is occurring, one as embarrassing to the MsM as the leadership vote. Article after article, Youtube video after video produced by the MsM touts the official talking points proclaiming Corbyn and other Left figures’ incompetence, bigotry, unpopularity etc. In every one of these, however, a quick scroll down to the comments section reveals hundreds of real people, almost exclusively saying the opposite of what the article/video instructed them to think.
When thousands of indignant ordinary people launch criticisms of MsM and political elites on social media, they are dismissed as bullying trolls. Those nakedly conspiring to destroy Corbyn maintain such a self-entitled mentality that they seem to expect him to drop to his knees and apologise to them for every tiny scratch they incur in the course of jamming knives into his back.
‘Trolling’ was originally coined to describe the act of abusing or lampooning someone on the internet purely for sadistic pleasure, not the legitimate expression of discontent by everyday people with no other platform. These are not billionaires who own shares of media corporations that can pedantically twist any story to serve their masters’ interests. When even the one avenue to affect government policies that ordinary working people felt they had finally attained - having a say in a major political party - seems to have been snatched away from them, what else are they to do?
A poignant example of what might be called the ‘troll-shaming’ of ordinary people occurred with the intervention of JK Rowling, who in the past has tended to support the underdog. This time, however, Rowling tweeted the following picture which was re-broadcast by the mainstream media without question.
Rowling - with net worth $1 billion - in front of her enormous Twitter following criticised this man who is unlikely to have had access to such resources to promote his viewpoint. All he had was a t-shirt. But even that seemed too much.
Many have said that the photo was either a manipulation of the old man by two the people who have been cropped out of this version of the picture, and/or the t-shirt was photoshopped. If the picture is genuine, in spite of JK’s accusation it is unlikely he wore the t-shirt for comedic effect. More likely he is expressing frustration at policies that probably hurt him more than billionaires like Rowling. His anger may even be based on altruistic opposition to Blair’s foreign policies. But because an extreme right winger, holding views diametrically opposite to the man pictured, tragically murdered an MP, this elderly left wing protester should be denied the right to express his opinion through even the humblest of means.
Like Bernie, Jeremy is an outsider in both policy and style: genuine, slightly scruffy, even being castigated to “put on a proper suit” during Prime Minister’s Questions. He abjures the ruthless, focus-group talking points-led tactics of more polished operators; his mere existence enraging some because it shines light on their own vacuity. He speaks openly about big issues that impact people’s daily lives. Corbyn’s rise signifies that the game has changed, that values and principles are now political capital, not political baggage. The baby-boomer almost stands out as a festering indictment of some of his colleagues who, through no fault of their own, came of political age in the post-historical 1990s when careerism filled the void left by idealism.
Like with Bernie in America and across the Western world, the people are not fighting for one man. They are fighting for themselves, for each other and for those overseas who have even less say in the policies that may impact them most. They are fighting for change. Defaming, bullying, interrogating and tearing asunder the humble, elderly Jeremy Corbyn amounts to spitting in the face of the alienated masses he represents. The manufacturing of consent is no longer consensual. Now, what you do to Corbyn, you do to them.
The chasm between the masses and the elites, represented by the out-of-touch MsM, threatens not only democracy and justice, but also stability. Since Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reaganomics and Thatcherism, ordinary people have watched inequality skyrocket to levels unprecedented in modern history while being lectured by the MsM that spending even the paltriest sums on the most essential services for our fellow human beings is unrealistic. Any leader that disagrees is tagged unelectable - despite the small fact that 99% of the population has 99 times more votes than the 1%. But the top 1% of the world own more than the remaining 99%. Ordinary people feel not only that they have no wealth but thanks to the MsM, no voice. This flammable combination of injustice and disempowerment exploded in the 210,000 strong tide of Labour members voting in Corbyn the first time. Now, with a re-election contest forthcoming and the overwhelming odds stacked against them being unmasked, the people are doing what little they can to shield the flickering candle that had been so hard to ignite for so long...until the time when it can spread into a roaring bonfire that lights up the night.
First published here