You don’t see the consensus in all of its suffocating conformity until someone challenges it.
If you want to know what the consensus is made of, just look at what the media considers a gaffe. Recently elected UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a republican, doesn’t sing the royalist national anthem. Gaffe. Corbyn, a socialist, appointed a hard-left socialist as shadow chancellor. Gaffe. Corbyn refused to answer journalists’ questions. Ultra-gaffe. That’s just rude.
From the Guardian to the Express, from the New Statesman’s craven toeing of the Blairite line to the lies in supposedly neutral dailies like the Metro, from the Sun’s made-up “exclusives” to the queue of Labour MPs and liberal pundits lining up to spew bile for the Daily Mail, from Tory attack ads to the Telegraph screaming for Corbyn’s head, the media and the political class have near-total unanimity in their ferocious anti-socialism. I know we call them “the bourgeois media,” but not even the most crass, petty-minded Stalinist apparatchik could have produced a caricature as venomous and despicable as our lot.
In that vein, let me draw your attention to a story that appeared in the Independent with these words in the headline: “Jeremy Corbyn ‘loses a fifth of Labour voters.’” Understand, this headline is a complete lie.
The first warning is those scare quotes. Before the authors even get to the story, they’re distancing themselves from its major argument. The next is the fact that the article opens, not — as would be logical — with a quick summary of the point of the story, but with some entirely different statistics.
The third is that when they actually do refer to the main point of the story in the second paragraph, they are already watering it down, saying that one in five people who previously voted Labour are “more likely to vote Conservative next time.” That is not the same as Corbyn “losing” a fifth of Labour voters. Unsurprisingly, even this claim is given no elaboration. Instead, the juice of the story is presented in a series of charts, which represent the results of the study.
What the figures actually show is as follows: 63% of Labour voters say they are more likely to vote Labour in the next election with Corbyn as leader, as opposed to 20% of those voters who say they are more likely to vote Conservative.
There are similarly polarized responses among other voters. So, for example, over a third of Scottish National Party voters, approximately a third of Liberal Democrats, about one-fifth of UK Independence Party voters, and 8% of Tories are more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as Labour leader. By the same token, four-fifths of Tory voters are more determined to vote for their own party, just under a fifth of SNP voters would be more likely to vote Tory, while a third of Liberals and a whopping 40% of Ukipers would be more likely to vote Conservative.
Corbyn has not lost a fifth of Labour voters. What he has done is polarized the voters. And polarization, in this context, is a good thing. It shows that there’s something in the fight, for once, and that people are being motivated.
What is more, these results give us a clue as to how to evaluate the responses to other questions. In ORB and Yougov’s polling, there have been questions asked that follow the agenda of the Conservatives and the anti-Corbyn media, inquiring as to exactly how much like a prime minister Corbyn looks, how much you’d trust him with this or that.
The results, of course, don’t look good. Corbyn is a new figure for most of the public, his policy ideas are new, and they are being brought up in a context of near-total ideological monopoly of neoliberalism for over thirty years. His first days as leader have been characterized by an intense campaign of character assassination. I think it would be odd, in the best of circumstances, for a majority of people to suddenly find him utterly trustworthy on the economy and schools, and these are not the best of circumstances.
And yet, here you have evidence that far from being put off, a very considerable number of people are attracted to Corbyn’s Labour. The only electoral poll we’ve had since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has given the party a small bounce, rather than registering some sort of collapse in the Labour vote.
To me, this is a good reminder of how carefully to handle such polls — the answers to polling question are as polysemic as the questions themselves. If asked whether Corbyn looks prime ministerial, you could quite honestly answer “no,” given the way the image of Corbyn is mediated, and still think he’s a huge improvement on everyone else thus far.
The Independent’s story is actually a relatively sophisticated example of the media’s assault. The Sun’s made-up story about Corbyn being willing to descend on bended knee to kiss the queen’s hand just to get some state funding for the Labour Party is more typical of the tone. It also embodies in its way the media’s dilemma about whether to fault Corbyn for being too principled in his leftist way, or a hypocrite who will do anything for power.
Indeed, there is a tone of desperation sneaking into the smears — such as the attempt to find some way of embarrassing Corbyn over a normal, adult, consensual relationship from 1978, which the Telegraph characterizes as “damaging.” Where there is not despair, there is contemptible innuendo, as with the predictable line of attacks insinuating antisemitism on Corbyn’s part coming from the opportunist right and the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd, today disgracefully amplified by Labour mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan.
The near Venezuelan-style vehemence of the media is in some senses an attempt to create a Venezuelan atmosphere of instability from day one. Consider the Sunday Times, which doesn’t seem to think it at all alarming or scandalous that an army general should say to the paper in an interview that a Corbyn government could face “mutiny” from the armed forces, who would use “whatever means possible, fair or foul” against such a government should it consider shrinking the role of Britain’s imperial military.
Understand this. The ferocity of the British media in this instance has nothing whatsoever to do with Corbyn’s media strategy, spin or lack thereof. Certainly, they’re offended at Corbyn’s refusal to play their game. Certainly, they would be kinder to a slick, amoral businessman bashing immigrants.
But the media will never coddle Corbyn in the way that it does UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Not for him the complicit, stagey antagonism with which right-wing populists are greeted. The difference is that the mass media in this country agrees with and defends and articulates the principles upon which Farage stakes his claims, but can barely understand let alone sympathize with the principles underlying the current Labour leadership’s position.
You can’t understand the reasons for this in simple commercial terms. It isn’t about securing advertising accounts or selling copy. Nor is it simply about the short-term interests of their proprietors.
It is primarily about their integration into the party-political machinery. It is about their dependence on, and participation in, the exercise of state power. They are active participants in policy debates, the selection of political leaders, and the outcome of elections. Apart from the schools, they are the major institutions through which the dominant ideology of the national state is reproduced. They are, in short,“ideological state apparatuses.”
And the reason they are going feral is because the traditional mode of their domination is under attack. That, too, is a good thing.