Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 7 September 2018

Jeremy Corbyn and Balance

I’ve just completed my book to be published in November by Bristol University Press called ‘The Lies We Were Told’. It is the story of UK austerity, the Eurozone crisis, how mediamacro swung the 2015 election, the Corbyn phenomenon, Brexit and more besides. These things are described as they happened in selected blog posts with new introductions, postscripts etc. (It can be ordered at a 20% discount here, rising to 35% if you join the publisher’s mailing list.)

During the process of selecting the blogs I needed to tell these stories, I came across one I had forgotten completely. It was called “Do we get the leaders our media deserves?”, and it asked why many of the successful (in terms of popularity) leaders of today are of the likes of Johnson, Farage and Berlusconi, while leaders with far more integrity and honesty like Ed Miliband appear unpopular. The post was written at the end of 2014, and a postscript for the book notes that Trump versus Clinton was in part a devastating example of this trend.

It is tempting to respond by saying this is just what voters want: politicians that make them feel good. There may be an element of that, but what has nothing to do with voters is how the Johnson type politicians get a easy ride from the media. When he deliberately stokes islamophobia, the criticism is disarmed with a cup of tea for waiting reporters. I have yet to see an interview with Farage where he is questioned about his support for far right parties in Europe and his Russian links. This interview with Johnson by Eddie Mair stands out in talking about past sins because it is so unusual. Most of the time the media seems content to reflect his easy charm.

While people like Farage or Johnson are normally treated with kid gloves, others get a much harder ride. The left tried it with Cameron and Osborne: posh Eton and Bullingdon club boys who were clearly out of touch with ordinary voters. Sometimes these attacks work, and sometimes they do not. No doubt the reasons why are complex, but it seems to me that two things matter a lot. The first is whether or not the person being attacked has the personality to deflect such criticism, and the second reflects the extent that attacks become part of the non-partisan media’s agenda.

Here is a time series of how Corbyn’s leader ratings have been getting steadily worse over the last year, and by far more than those of his party. This could be for many reasons. It could reflect disillusionment by Remain inclined Labour voters as events have shown Labour’s pro-Brexit position is not just opportunistic triangulation. It could reflect a lack of initiatives coming from the leadership (although it does not help that when he does make speeches they are blatantly misinterpreted). It could be that Labour’s problems with antisemitism are constantly in the news: although these stories do not have high impact among voters, for those that do notice they are seen as a negative for Corbyn.

I have argued before that the Labour surge before the 2017 election and the subsequent decline are part of the same phenomenon: the ability of the media rather than the politician to control the agenda outside of election periods. The MSM is clearly much more hostile to Corbyn than any other major political figure today, and the row over antisemitism shows that clearly.

Because this debate has become so partisan, I have to say the following. First, I am no Corbynite (read my posts during the Corbyn vs Smith campaign). I also think antisemitism within the Labour party is a real problem, and that large parts of the membership seem to be in denial about this. Not adopting all the IHRA examples (but with accompanying text to clarify meaning drafted in consultation with Jewish groups where possible) was a big political mistake. It created concerns in the Jewish community that the media was right to reflect. The idea that the non-partisan media’s reporting of this is just a smear campaign is nonsense.

All those things can be true, but it can also be true that the broadcast media has given the issue excessive prominence. How do I know this? The obvious comparison is with Islamophobia in the Conservative party. This has been given much less coverage, but I would argue that problem is at least as bad. As far as I know, Labour has never run a clearly antisemitic campaign for a major political post, but the Tory party have run an Islamophobic  campaign in which the Tory leader played a major part. Some say the difference is because Corbyn himself has been described as antisemitic, but the betting odds for next Prime Minister for Johnson and Corbyn are similar. To say that broadcasters cannot help reporting what is going on is very naive about how the media selects what is newsworthy and what is not.  

Many would argue this bias is because Corbyn has few friends in the media, and that may be a part of it [1], but I prefer more structural explanations. For the broadcast media balance seems to involve MPs in Westminster rather than their own viewers. Labour MPs are prepared to criticise the leadership in public while Tory MPs are not, and this means one story gets much more airtime than the other. [2] We can see this clearly with Brexit: because the two main parties went with the 52%, the point of view of the 48% (now more) who oppose Brexit was largely ignored by the media. Exactly the same can now be said about the Muslim community.

A good test of all this is to reverse roles. Suppose Jeremy Corbyn had written an article in which he had made fun of how orthodox Jews dress, and all the party had asked him to do is apologise but he had refused. Suppose the Labour party had no code at all covering antisemitism. Would the broadcast media have been happy to show pictures of him offering vegetables from his allotment to reporters and then forgotten about the whole thing? I’m sure natural charm has something to do with why some political leaders are treated differently than others, but I think that is only a small part of the story.

[1] It may explain, for example, the lack critical reporting. Most of the time it is presumed that Labour did not adopt all the IHRA examples because of antisemitism. Until recently the Israel/Palestine conflict was hardly mentioned, and neither was the fact that a select committee had suggested the IHRA examples were unsatisfactory on their own. Ludicrous statements about existential threats or rivers of blood go unchallenged. In some quarters it is deemed insensitive to question motives (Stephen Pollard, Jewish Chronicle editor, has said: “The left, in any recognisable form, is now the enemy”). In contrast a Conservative minister is happy to dismiss claims of Islamophobia by attacking a group that made the claim as unrepresentative, and no one in the media notes the Conservative Muslim Forum has made similar complaints.

[2] Whatever else this is, it is not good for democracy. Because Conservative MPs keep quiet about Islamophobia in their party, the issue only appears occasionally in the media. As a result, nothing is done about the problem. In contrast Labour are trying to do something about antisemitism, and their reward is constant attack.


  1. It's a pity that you don't see Ed Miliband in the same league as Johnson, Farage and Berlusconi, for it was he who stood against his brother David who would have been better placed to win the 2010 election for the Labour Party. In addition, David Miliband would not have been in hock to the trade unions for favours granted. The transition to Corbyn post-Miliband amplified the affect of trade union influence. The recent trials and tribulations of the Labour Party clearly have been driven by principles rather than an interest in power. During this 'Brexit period' the conservative government are consistently leaving open goals through which any half decent opposition could score but Corbyn and his allies seem unable to to seize the day. This isn't just a dis-service to the Labour Party but the country as a whole. If the country is to Brexit, we need a confident and competent government interested in doing a deal for the benefit of all. At present the Brexiteers are winning not because they aim to win or lose but simply by smoke and mirrors frustrate decision making within the government. This makes a no deal result inevitable. In short, Ed Miliband has a lot to answer for even if you think he has integrity and is honest.

    1. A return to David Milliband and the resurrection of New Labour would be suicidal. The reaction from the public would be worse than anything we have seen _ including Trump, Brexit, Johnson or Farage.

      To get real leadership we need new, inspired and well_informed ideas - that requires reform in the economics profession and civil service. We have an absence of solid intellectual leadership.

  2. SRW's arguments and assessments are invariably relevant and usually correct, but sometimes suffer from over-statement.
    His brave and important crusade against MSM is perhaps a case in point: sure it is biased against Labour - the abuse of Ed Miliband perhaps a better example than that directed against JC, insofar that it was largely personal unrelated to anything much of substance but certainly politically motivated - but hasn't that been ever thus? What about its treatment of Harold Wilson?
    MSM bias should not be used as an excuse for political failure to engage, enthuse, and to explain.

  3. I gave up reading this article about a quarter of the way through it because it really doesn't offer anything new that we don't already know.

    Clearly your position is anti Corbyn and pro Neo-Liberal lite, I introduce that because you can't bring yourself to admit that you support the corporate state as it is obvious that not only is it fantasy economics but undermines the very foundations it is built on.

    Your corporatist views fit very neatly into the Ed Miliband form of Neo-Liberalism, he said on his leadership election campaign that New Labour's Neo-Liberalism had gone too far, where what he really meant was - yes privatise but do it slowly and with plenty of regulation and all will be fine.

    What of course really sunk Miliband was the preferred provider reference to his policy of the NHS. People well understand that the market has no place in providing a free at the point of use, health service.

    He came to power as the leader of the Labour Party because most thought he would change the direction of the party, away from the Neo-Liberal agenda and return Labour back to its grass roots. As time went on and his direction of travel became obvious, people rightly lost faith in him, his ludicrous statement that a country such as our's must pay down its debts summed up neatly, why he was not fit to lead the Labour Party.

    It would be obvious to anyone with an ounce of common sense, that with the relentlessly coordinated media attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, that it would have an impact, is undeniable, but the level of malevolence and vitriol heaped on one individual is unprecedented, and that he can survive that is also unprecedented.

    To understand why he has not gone under where lesser men would, is due to his personal integrity that has been undiminished over his whole parliamentary career. Is he a saint? Of course not, and people also recognise that, but he does honestly speak to people and readily interacts with about common issues that we are all concerned about. That is in fact unique. I personally asked Ed Miliband during his election campaign how he could square the circle as to saving the NHS from privatisation, by in fact maintaining the market in the NHS. He of course conflated the issue saying the NHS would get the first bite of the cherry, ignoring the fact that the NHS previously would not need to tender out its services in the first place. So you see dishonesty isn't rewarded, needless to say I never voted for him at that election like many other real Labour supporters. What was the point, he was no better than Brown and Blair.

    For those of us that are really concerned about anti-Semtism look for genuine facts surrounding the so called debate and ignore the tirade in the media by groups of Zionists dedicated at destroying the Labour leadership and who do not represent Labour in the first place, 60% of Jews vote Tory, but this is what Orthodox Jews say about anti Semitism in the Labour Party, not withstanding that those of us that are members, have never ever come across anti-Semitism in their local parties. So where you get your claim from that Anti-Semitism exist in the party is something I personally have never seen, being a member since 1974.

    Perhaps you should take note as to what these rabbis have to say in their letter, where they do not have to claim bogusly that they speak for all Jews, but as you see are widely representative of the Orthodox community.

    Misrepresentation and distortion in the media is widely understood, and why Jeremy Corbyn is admired, as a politician he stands head and shoulders above the rest.

  4. Just pop along and tell Sajid Javid (the Home Secretary) about Tory islamophobia. I am sure he will be struck by how 'balanced' you are.

  5. The Tory and other right wing parties like UKIP are full of bigots. It is obvious. It is amazing that the Labour Party and its leader have been traduced as somehow anti-Semitic? Just absurd. People need to stop being brainwashed by media owned by billonaires. The disloyal labour right are deplorable in their irrational search for any issue to upset the Leader of their party. I am surprised you waste your time continuing this charade.


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