Anyone still harbouring illusions about the objectivity or veracity of the British media should have been disabused of them after the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour party in September. It soon became clear that almost without exception the reaction to his election was hostile. In the case of the corporate print media which includes most national newspapers, this was to be expected. But coverage in more liberal papers such as The Observer and The Guardian was sometimes little better. Likewise political coverage by the BBC and commercial news channels adopted a manner and tone which ranged from condescending incredulity to bullying interrogation in interviews, of an intensity that would not have been used with more mainstream politicians. The hostility is not confined to the media. It encompasses almost the whole Westminster political establishment. The Tories have declared that the Labour party is now a threat to the nation’s security and to every family in Britain. The grandees of New Labour such as Blair, Mandelson and their ilk have declared war on Corbyn and make no secret of their determination to see him ousted. Most of the parliamentary Labour party is hostile to him. Only a handful of Labour MPs, the SNP and the single Green MP have refrained from joining the anti-Corbyn chorus. For the record it is worth noting that he was elected with an unprecedented 59.5% of the vote (251,417). The runner-up, Andy Burnham, polled 19%. The combined vote for his three rivals was 171,247.
For many years membership of political parties in Britain has been in decline, to the point where recently it has reached an all time low. In 1950 the Tory party had 2.5 million members; the Labour party, 1 million. The decline from this high point continued through subsequent decades until the rise of New Labour and the high hopes aroused by Blair’s victory in 1997, which saw the party’s membership boosted to around 400,000. But disillusionment with New Labour soon set in and by 2010 it had declined by 50%. Similarly with the Tories, in 2005 when Cameron became leader of the party, membership stood at 253,000. By 2010, when he became prime minister, it had fallen to about 190.000. It now stands at 134,000. But since last year there has been a surge in membership of the Green party, the SNP and now the Labour Party. The Greens now have 61,000 members (more than the Lib. Dems.), the SNP 110,000 and Labour 360,000 and rising. Particularly significant about these figures is that membership of the SNP has increased by 75% since the 2014 independence referendum and Labour’s membership has almost doubled since 2010 with more than 50,000 joining since Corbyn was elected leader in early September.
Of course, the self-appointed guardians of “serious” politics – the Westminster elites and their friends among the media commentariat - attach no importance whatever to such facts. For them, the be-all and end- all of real politics is Parliament and all that matters is election to office. In these stakes the Tories are at an enormous advantage which has little to do with the rank and file party membership, except in so far as it is of assistance in the fund-raising activities that will help persuade their billionaire corporate friends to keep the party’s coffers well supplied. Their other great advantage is that they can rely on the press barons who own the biggest chunk of the national print media to indoctrinate their readers daily with an endless flow of right wing propaganda mingled with brainless trivia designed to blunt their critical faculties and keep them purblindly in the grip of corporate ideology. In this, they may not always succeed but their ruthless determination to do so should never be underestimated.
Labour, Social Democracy and Neo Liberalism
Throughout most of its history since the beginning of the 20thcentury the Labour party has neither sought nor enjoyed the Tories’ close association with the power bases and personalities of the British ruling class. Its roots in the trade unions and its Fabian ideological origins have shaped it as a party dependent on the working class and committed, through reform, to ameliorate the worst excesses of laissez faire capitalism. In this respect the Labour party has been the British version of what after the First World War and the emergence of Bolshevism, came to be understood as a social democratic party – that is, not a party of social revolution, nor even a party of socialism. Indeed, during its first two brief spells in government (1924 and 1929 – 1931) there was very little to distinguish it from the Liberal party upon which it was dependent for its majorities. But between 1945 and 1951, in terms of domestic policy at least (although not foreign policy, where, with the possible exception of Indian independence, it behaved exactly as the Tories would have done), most of its record was classically social democratic. Its inspiration with respect to progressive taxation and public ownership was Keynesian, not Marxist.
It has been argued in this column for several years that the advent of Blairite New Labour in the mid-1990s marked the demise of Labour as a social democratic party. However it may have been packaged as a “modernising party” committed to some ill-defined “Third Way”, the reality was the abandonment of social democratic reformism in favour of the neo-liberalism that had, since the 1970s, been the ideological obsession driving the economic policy of the Tory governments of Thatcher and Major. This, notwithstanding the allocation by New Labour to various social welfare programmes, of tax revenues accruing from a de-regulated corporate and financial sector. It was such socially valuable initiatives that enabled the Blairites to support their claim to have a progressive agenda distinctly different from the Tories. Gordon Brown, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Prime Minister even went as far as to claim that, unlike the Tories, he had banished “boom and bust” from the economy.
Corbyn and Left Social Democracy
During the ascendancy of New Labour its champions claimed that what they termed “Old Labour” was comatose and fit only for the dustbin of history. They seemed untroubled by the vacuous incoherence of their own attempts to define the “Third Way” modernising enterprise to which they were committed. Such vacuity is evident in Blair’s own explanation of his “vision” in an article written for Marxism Today in 1991, three years before he became leader of the party: “The notion of a modern view of society as the driving force behind the freedom of the individual is in truth the implicit governing philosophy of today’s Labour party.” This was the sort of thing that had come to replace serious thought in the party by earlier theoreticians on both the left and right, such as Strachey, Crosland, Crossman, Bevan, Zilliacus and Laski. There had been a right wing and a left wing in the Labour party. On the left, pressure groups such as Keep Left (1947) and Victory for Socialism (1958) were dynamic and articulate in defence of “democratic socialism.” The weekly newspaper Tribune reflected the views of the left on a range of political issues in a bold, campaigning style. It is to this left social democratic tradition that Jeremy Corbyn belongs.
Very few left social democrats in the Labour party regarded themselves as Marxists, let alone Marxist-Leninists. Some of them, such as John Strachey (until 1940 when he abandoned Marxism), Sydney and Beatrice Webb, GDH and Margaret Cole, Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, Konni Zilliacus, Ian Mikado, and Sydney Silverman retained a life-long affection for the Soviet Union. But they were Fabian social democrats. They called themselves democratic socialists and believed passionately in a parliamentary road to socialism. They believed that the Labour party was the only viable vehicle for the socialist transformation they sought, which, like the Marxists, they believed necessitated the complete dismantling of the capitalist system. There are very few like them in today’s parliament. For about four decades most Labour MPs have studiously avoided use of the term “socialism.” Mainstream political discourse has become so debased in Britain that anyone advocating such policies as re-nationalizing the rail network, raising the top rate of income tax above 50% or introducing a financial transaction tax is regarded as beyond the pale of sensible economic debate – a partisan of the “hard” or “extreme” left with no chance of getting elected. But there is nothing remotely extreme about such policies; between 1947 and 1950 most of the “commanding heights” of the economy were taken into public ownership, the top rate of income tax in Britain in 1979 was 83%. Keynes advocated a financial transaction tax in 1936. Such policies were regarded as mainstream and both Labour and Tory governments accepted the mixed economy between 1947 and 1979.
But in the view of the ruling elites the notion that, faced with the terrible consequences of the 2008 crash, there needs to be an alternative to the ideologically driven tightening screw of austerity cannot be allowed to take hold. Even the moderate and rational alternatives proposed by Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, that would shift the burden away from the most vulnerable and begin to correct the gross inequalitiesdisfiguring a society dominated by finance monopoly capital, have to be resisted and defeated at all costs. Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell have embraced that alternative. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a concerted determination on the part of the Westminster elites and their media allies to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn. However, the present situation differs substantially from that prevailing in the early 1980s, to which the anti-Corbynites frequently refer. Differently from the circumstances in which Michael Foot became leader of the party, Corbyn’s victory was made possible by the enormous upsurge of support for him by many thousands of people, largely young, who have swelled the ranks of the Labour party in recent months. It is too early to tell how this will play out, particularly in the face of the relentless onslaught of his opponents. This new movement is similar to those that have arisen in recent years in Greece and Spain, but unlike them it has resulted in an entirely unpredicted injection of new life into an established party of social democracy. It must be hoped that it also maintains a strong and active presence outside the formal structures of the Labour party and takes on the character of a popular mass movement. Given the ubiquity and power of social media there is good reason to hope that this may happen.
Scoundrel Time: Playing the Patriot Game
The easiest way for unprincipled and unscrupulous tabloid journalists and some of their barely distinguishable colleagues in the more respectable media outlets to trash the character of anyone whose reputation they seek to demolish, is to claim that their victim is unpatriotic. If they can’t easily make it stick to the chosen victim, then they may (as the Daily Mail did with Ed Miliband) level the accusation against a parent in the hope that their readers will believe the son to be guilty of the same sin. These unscrupulous scoundrels are using the same methods against Corbyn.
British people of advanced years remember the time, which thankfully came to an end in the 1960s, when the last screening of the day in cinemas finished with a recorded orchestral rendition of the national anthem. Everyone was expected to stand dutifully until it was over. Every evening large numbers of people clamoured to leave their seats before the anthem started. Sometimes there were altercations as people scuffled to get out.
On September 14th Jeremy Corbyn attended a ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Shown on camera standing with prominent members of the Westminster political elite who all sang the first verse of the national anthem – the only verse anyone knows - it was plain to see that Corbyn was not singing; he was just standing looking pensive. The following day the news media exploded in fury: The Daily Telegraph announced “Corbyn Snubs Queen and Country”; The Sun: “Corb Snubs Queen”; the Daily Mail: “Fury as Corbyn refuses to sing national anthem at Battle of Britain memorial.” The Battle of Britain in 1940 was a heroic episode in this country’s lone struggle to resist the Nazis’ attempt to invade this country. It is certainly worthy of commemoration. But any rational person can only be rendered speechless by the expectation that s/he must be obliged to utter publicly the inane words of the monarchist paean that passes for a national anthem in Britain. It is not a national anthem at all; it is a pre-national, pre-democratic hymn extolling hereditary monarchy. To expect a republican atheist to intone this meaningless drivel is to demand enthusiastic indulgence in blatant hypocrisy. As has been sensibly remarked, any such person has the right to ask if it is seriously expected that they should call upon a non-existent being to save an unelected head of state. Had Jeremy Corbyn wished to add a mischievous touch to his principled abstention, he might have chosen to appease his patriotic detractors by singing the little known sixth verse of the anthem, which was recently reprinted in the full version that appeared in the Daily Telegraph. It refers to the crushing by Marshal Wade of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745:
“Lord grant that Marshal Wade May by thy mighty aid Victory bring. May he sedition hush, And like a torrent rush, Rebellious Scots to crush, God save the Queen.”*
(*In the original of course, the last line is “God save the King”, which rhymes with “Victory bring.” The king was George II.)
On reflection, had he done so it may have jeopardised his chances of winning back support from the SNP in Scotland.
Patriotism and Nuclear Annihilation
In September, before the results of the Labour party’s leadership election were known, this column dealt with the question of Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system which will be the subject of a parliamentary vote in 2016. It was argued (Labour’s Leadership Election: Corbyn, Trident and NATO. 13. September), that the so-called Independent Nuclear Deterrent, was neither independent nor a deterrent and should be known as the Dependent Nuclear Non-Deterrent (DNND). It was well known before his election that Jeremy Corbyn opposed Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons and was therefore against the upgrading of Trident, in favour of scrapping it entirely. There is nothing “extreme” about this view; it was the policy of the Liberal Democrats before the 2010 election, though they have now abandoned it. The majority of the parliamentary Labour party support Trident’s renewal. The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green party oppose it. The fragile alliance that Corbyn has managed to put togetherto form a shadow cabinet leaves him in a minority both there and in the PLP as an opponent of Trident’s renewal. The debate that was expected to take place at the Labour party conference at the end of September has been postponed. The media have seized on his difficulties, attempting to push him into a corner and pressurizing him to renounce his anti-nuclear stance. Once again, they play the patriot game. Their line of attack has been quite nauseating.
As this column attempted to make clear last month, the issue of nuclear weapons is never addressed seriously in the media. Now, in bullying interrogations of Corbyn, all pretence at serious discussion has been abandoned in favour of the single question “Would you be prepared to press the button to unleash the weapons? Answer Yes or No.” His answer: categorically “NO”. Further pressure –more bullying: “Let’s be clear, Are there no circumstances in which you would press the button?” Once again:“NO. Not in any circumstances.” The conclusion we are expected to draw is that he lacks patriotism and that Labour under his leadership threatens Britain’s security and represents a mortal danger to every family in the country.
We may leave aside the point made very clearly by everyone who understands the real chain of command about the use of Trident; no British prime minister would be able to take such a decision without the prior agreement of the U.S. President. Corbyn’s categorical refusal to unleash Armageddon is the only rational answer anyone seriously concerned about the future of humanity could possibly give. To expect him to say otherwise, to goad him into denying his deeply held humanist principles, simply demeans those who choose to stoop so low in their willingness to prostitute their professional standards in pursuit of a news sound bite.
These are very difficult times. Jeremy Corby will need all the support he can get from his allies andwell-wishers if he is to stand firm against the storms he will surely have to face.