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.

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