Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 7 December 2019

The othering of Jeremy Corbyn

By othering I mean treating Corbyn (or more generally the Labour left) as beyond the pale in terms of conventional politics. Othering implies that because of his past or current beliefs, associations and actions Corbyn should not be even considered as fit to be an MP, let alone a Prime Minister. Other politicians can be evaluated in conventional ways, but this does not apply to those who are othered. Othering has a number of distinctive, and potentially useful, features. Let me list two.

First, those who associate in any way with those othered are themselves regarded as questionable. I discovered this myself when I joined Labour’s short-lived Economic Advisory Committee, as I discuss here. This can be a potent threat. Second, those who are othered can be discussed in terms that would not normally be used to discuss politicians. After Johnson compared Corbyn to Stalin, Andrew Neill asked a Tory MP if he thought Corbyn would have the wealthy shot. “I do not know”, the MP replied.

Sometimes othering may be a valid position to take. I still remember the days when the far right was othered by the mainstream media, rather than being invited on Newsnight to discuss the latest bit of far right terrorism. I think that othering was helpful in ostracising racism, and its absence today is reflected in the rise of hate crime. But no such justification applies to the leader of the opposition, elected by hundreds of thousands of people, who is the only alternative to our current Prime Minister.

For othering to be justified those being othered have to have some attribute, or have done some things that are uniquely bad compared to their fellow citizens. The BNP were racist, and it is quite right that racism is ostracised. If we are talking about politicians, the same has to be applied to individuals. Is there something these politicians have done that is uniquely bad compared to other politicians.

Corbyn fails this test. There is nothing Corbyn has done that is uniquely bad compared to the obvious person to compare him with, his opponent Boris Johnson. Corbyn is not racist, which is not surprising as he has a lifelong history of fighting racism. Yet the media, almost without exception, has done its best to suggest otherwise.

The most obvious example of othering is the way the media have handled antisemitism within Labour. Labour has a real problem with antisemitism, but the media have acted as if Labour are the only party with a racism problem. In contrast Johnson is not constantly asked why he called Muslim women letterboxes and bankrobbers, and whether he will apologise for the increase in hate crime that followed that article.

As a result of this media othering of Corbyn, there are plenty of voters who say they cannot vote tactically because of Labour’s antisemitism, seemingly without any thought that they are therefore keeping in power someone who has actually made racist statements, and was part of a government that instituted some of the most discriminatory pieces of legislation of recent times that goes by the collective term hostile environment. Any outside observer would conclude that for UK society as a whole, including its media, Islamophobia is considered acceptable.

When I make these points some people accuse me of whataboutery, or in trying to minimise the problem of antisemitism in Labour. Both claims are false. The whole point about othering someone is that their alleged behaviour must be unusually bad compared to their comparators, so othering is all about whataboutery. And of course none of this is minimising Labour’s very real problem of antisemitism. Yes antisemitism exists in all parties, but there are reasons (like support for the Palestinians) why antisemitism may be worse in the Labour party, although the evidence is still that this is a problem among a very small proportion of Labour members. But equally there are also good reasons why Islamophobia and racist views will be relatively worse in the Tory party.

Then we come to terrorism. Corbyn is said to be too friendly towards terrorists, and therefore a unique threat to the UK as Prime Minister. I’m not going to defend Corbyn’s foreign policy views, some of which are dubious in my opinion, but are they uniquely bad? To say so is a hard position to defend when the UK participated with its closest ally in a pointless war in Iraq which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, a war which Corbyn opposed.

In terms of current threats, we recently had an act of terrorism in Salisbury committed by Russian agents. You would think, in response, that the Conservative party would be particularly keen to publish a select committee report on Russian interference in UK politics. Why Johnson has decided to delay the report we can only speculate on, but what we do know about is the links, sometimes financial, between the Tory party and Russians with close links to the Kremlin. Or maybe it is because Johnson does not want people to know about the extent of Russian interference in our elections.

Corbyn shares a left view of foreign policy which rarely gets much space in the media, but given the failures of past UK foreign policy and the very dubious situation of the Conservative party on Russia (again, just like their Republican counterparts in the US), there is no case for othering that view or a party leader who proposes it. The idea that a Corbyn minority government would somehow make the UK a less safe place is ludicrous when a former Tory Prime Minister is advocating people vote for just such an outcome.

Of course there is every reason for the Tory press to try and other Corbyn. Once you regard him as a perfectly normal and respectable politician, the arguments against voting for him are slim indeed. The Tory record on the economy is terrible. All they have to trumpet is employment growth, but that just reflects an appallingly (and unprecedentedly) bad record on productivity, and therefore living standards for workers. Labour’s policies for the next five years are mostly popular with the public, and even though it will cost a lot of money the cost is much less than the Brexit that will happen if Johnson sticks to his commitments.

On an individual level Corbyn seems far more preferable to Johnson as a Prime Minister, for the simple reason that Corbyn clearly cares about other people whereas Johnson cares only for himself. Corbyn shows real empathy for others, which we saw clearly after the Grenfell fire, whereas Johnson has the attitudes typical of the worst of his class. The way of hiding all that from people is to other Corbyn and his party, which virtually the entire mainstream media has done.

I understand why our current government and their supporters in the press would do that, and I have respect for those MPs (past and present) who have got out of that boat. I find it much more difficult to respect some of those in the centre, who normally pride themselves in taking a balanced and reasoned view, that are prepared to see the most right wing UK government in living memory continue to destroy the economy through Brexit, continue to cause misery for many decent people and threaten our constitution by proposing to give the executive complete control over parliament.

The othering of Corbyn will probably win the election for Johnson. But we should never give up hope, so please vote tactically on Thursday to keep Johnson out and allow a second referendum on Brexit.


  1. Your leftist views have clouded your judgement on the Labor leadership. Corbyn is probably not antisemitic, but he and McDonnell are a far greater threat to freedom and democracy than the Conservatives.

    There is widespread support for a social democratic government with a larger safety net, not a socialist government with huge nationalization plans. Voters are rightly rejecting the latter as a failed experiment of the 20th century.

  2. Great article. You are a little coy about the mechanics of othering. How exactly did it happen? Unspoken agreements or structured policy? What's your view?

  3. It seems that you lack the time or interest to moderate comments, but I believe this post deserves some comment. On most issues, I fully agree with your stance, but in this instance I believe you are over-egging the pudding. There is no doubt that there is a concerted effort, in particular, by the print media to "other" Jeremy Corbyn. And this othering has seeped in to the broadcast and social media. But it would have a very limited effect if it did not resonate with millions of voters.

    Jeremy Corbyn's "otherness" secured him the leadership of the Labour party with the support of the vast majority of members and supporters (which was subsequently re-validated). But that otherness was simply "Not Blair and not New Labour". Since then the cabal surrounding him that packaged his offering in 2017 and are even more influential this time around are committed to the enforcement of "democratic socialism" and the restoration of the trades unions' rights and powers that contributed so much to the break-up of the post-war consensus in the lates 70s.

    This evokes painful memories for millions of voters who lived through this period and these memories have been relayed to many of those too young to remember or who were born subsequently. And the resolve is to ensure "never again". (In passing, it is interesting to note that John McDonnell has become semi-detached from the cabal surronding Jeremy Corbyn and is at pains to emphasise the social democratic feaures of what Labour is proposing in line with much of conventional European social democracy. He knows full well that the advocacy of democratic socialism and the ascendancy of trades union power will evoke a visceral popular reaction, whereas the advocacy of moderate social democracy is broadly popular. But he also knows it requires considerable focus and effort to convert this inchoate popular support in to solid electoral support.)

    Jeremy Corbyn's previous role as the unofficial, powerless alternative "foreign secretary" for Labour and his failure of leadership to deal with anti-semitism tend to confirm the views of those who would never vote for Labour, but as we approach election day voters will focus on Jeremy Corbyn as an alternative PM and the domestic policies he will seek to implement.

    And that is where his genuine otherness in terms of the advocacy of democratic socialism and trades union power - irrespective of the efforts of the right-wing press - will prove to be his undoing. And this will be coupled with, and reinforced by, his position on Brexit. Not to mention the demonstrable lack, with a few notable exceptions, of shadow cabinet competence.

    The only hope we have, as you advocate, is that there will be sufficient tactical voting to deprive the Tories of a majority and that Labour's programme, shorn of the nonsensical or ill-thought through elements, will be reconstituted as a broadly social democratic programme of government to tackle the seriously damaging sectoral imbalances in the economy.

  4. very amusingly, this argument is the mirror image of this - far more convincing, analysis of the way that 'othering' is exactly how the Corbynite left behaves in practice:

  5. "As a result of this media othering of Corbyn..." So you are saying that Nicola Sturgeon's and Jo Swinburn's attitude to Jeremy Corbyn is entirely determined by the media? Or is it perhaps that Corbyn's economics is other world?

  6. The truth is that Corbyn is uniquely bad and his political philosophy uniquely murderous. So, othering him is no worse than othering the BNP. For some reason, history has not retained Stalin as a mass murderer in the same vein as Hitler, when he is responsible for about the same number of deaths (the same is true of Mao). There is something quite shocking in that today to be a Nazi apologist is (rightly) beyond the pale but being a Marxist / Leninist / Stalinist / Trotskyist / Maoist apologist is not. It should be. And for that Corbyn deserves to be ostracised, or "othered" as you say.

  7. It seems to me that this piece is informative and - morally, politically and empirically - sensible.

  8. It is of course very important that we get an anti-austerity govt to get us back to full employment. Only then will our political problems heal.

    Nonetheless your defence of "othering" gets us nowhere.

    The problem is who sets the standard of when someone deserves to be othered. You are also talking about Corbyn only rather than the rest of the party leadership.

    Here's John McDonnell in 2003: "The deaths of innocent civilians in IRA attacks is a real tragedy, but it was as a result of British occupation in Ireland".

    I take that to mean he thinks the murder of police and soldiers by the IRA was not a real tragedy.

    Should we "other" Labour because McDonnell we be in a cabinet deciding such things as whether to hold a united Ireland referendum? This year he told Feile an Phobail (the West Belfast festival created by the IRA) that he wants such a referendum as soon as possible.

    The IRA has millions accumulated from its past crime, and according to Jim Cusack of the Irish Independent, a broadsheet national newspaper, still makes €7 million a year from fuel smuggling -- after paying Chinese scientists €1 million to devise how to remove the isotope added to diesel to prevent it being laundered!

    In any referendum, they will cheat. Talk of "othering" the bad guys (do IRA supporters count as racists by the way, and are racists the only ones to "other"?) might be good enough for some of the English blogosphere, but really it should not be.


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