On 15 February 2018, The Sun led with an exclusive gotcha story. On this Tory tabloid’s front page was the lurid headline: ‘CORBYN AND THE COMMIE SPY’. According to a former agent of the Czechoslovak intelligence services, the leader of the British Labour party had met with him four times in the late-1980s to discuss both domestic and international politics.
As proved by the top-secret reports reproduced on The Sun’s pages, Jeremy Corbyn had expressed a ‘positive’ attitude towards the Stalinist countries of Eastern Europe and shown his support for ‘the Soviet peace initiative’. Given the code name COB, this Labour MP had collaborated with the Cold War enemy through either naivety or, even worse, ideological conviction. Responding to The Sun’s shocking revelations, Gavin Williamson – the British Defence Minister – denounced Corbyn as someone ‘who cannot be trusted’ with the nation’s security. With the other Tory papers joining in the witch hunt, Ben Bradley – the Vice Chairman of Conservative Party for Youth – tweeted that the Labour leader had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’. Corbyn was a traitor to Queen and country. No self-respecting Briton could vote for Labour under his leadership. The Conservatives were the only credible party of government for these troubled times.
The smearing of Labour as Stalinist dupes was nothing new. Most notoriously, during the 1924 general election, the Daily Mail – the best-selling Tory paper of the period – published the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ which had been fabricated by the British secret police with the help of Tsarist exiles. According to this forgery, the Communist International had ordered its local supporters to campaign for Labour as the first stage of a Bolshevik takeover of the country. Because the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ helped to secure a Conservative victory in the 1924 election, the Tory media has repeatedly used this Red Scare scam ever since.
For the Right in Britain, fake news, vicious trolling and unsubstantiated allegations are not innovations of the digital age. Instead, these techniques were perfected in analogue times for attacking its opponents on the Left. Heavily subsidised by advertising, Tory newspapers secured a mass readership for the rabidly reactionary politics of their extremely rich owners with a seductive mix of human interest stories, celebrity gossip and sports coverage. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC was legally obliged to offer a more balanced coverage of the party contest, but its journalists all too often followed the lead of their openly partisan colleagues from the print media. Lacking alternative sources of information, the British electorate has repeatedly been persuaded by smears and lies to vote in large numbers against its own class interests. For decades, by successfully setting the political agenda, the Tory press was able to intimidate and bully those Labour politicians who threatened the established order. Timid moderation was their only option for winning British elections.
Back in 1983, Labour was humiliatingly defeated by the Tories and their media propagandists when the party did try fighting on a radical left-wing programme. According to one stalwart at the time, its manifesto was the ‘longest suicide note in history’. Learning from this debacle, Labour’s leadership over the next decade determinedly moved into the centre ground of British politics. Policies that aroused the hatred of the Tory media like nuclear disarmament and public ownership were ditched with disdain. The members of the hard left were either purged or marginalised within the party.
By the time that Tony Blair was elected prime minster in 1997, Labour was firmly committed to NATO and had embraced neoliberal economics. According to the party leadership, bitter historical experience had taught them that British voters were only interested in consensus policies and would reject anything which could be portrayed by the Tory newspapers as socialist extremism. For these advocates of the Third Way, class politics must be abandoned as an old-fashioned relic of the industrial age. In their place, New Labour now offered the benign technocratic management of the emerging information society.
One of Blair’s most successful moves before the 1997 general election was neutralising the British tabloid press. Much to the disgust of many party and trade union activists, the Labour leader paid court to Rupert Murdoch – the owner of The Sun – and persuaded him to ditch the Tories as a lost cause. Like the other media barons, he was assured that Blair’s government would be as business-friendly as its Conservative rival.
Throughout its 13 years in power, New Labour was careful to keep the mainstream media onside by rewarding good behaviour with exclusive stories and regulatory privileges. Above all, its reformist policies never disturbed the elite consensus. More welfare spending and peace in Ireland required support for neoliberal globalisation and the invasion of Iraq. The wisdom of Blair’s media strategy was confirmed by the 2010 and 2015 elections when the defection of the tabloid newspapers played a decisive role in securing two Conservative victories.
During the 2016 European referendum, the Tory press secured its greatest triumph by persuading a narrow majority of the electorate to vote for Brexit against the advice of not only Labour and the Trade Union Congress, but also the Bank of England and the Confederation of British Industry. With a loyal readership of millions, the tabloid newspapers’ toxic brew of anti-EU, anti-immigrant, anti-poor and anti-Left propaganda was hegemonic.
For Blair’s admirers, the Labour members who decided in 2015 that Corbyn should become the next leader of the party were defying the harsh realities of British politics. This veteran of hard left causes was too easy a target for the Tory trolls of the mainstream media. Corbyn was a terrorist sympathiser who had shared platforms with not only the IRA, but also Hezbollah. He was a socialist who wanted to nationalise everything, a republican who snubbed the monarchy and a pacifist who would leave the country defenceless. Worst of all, Corbyn didn’t look like a potential prime minister with his high street clothes and eccentric hobbies.
Convinced that his elevation was a temporary aberration, the old guard of the party tried everything to remove the Labour leader from office. Helped by their allies in the mainstream media, they relentlessly attacked Corbyn and his left-wing programme. Yet, despite their best efforts to rig the ballot, they still lost the 2016 rerun of the leadership contest. When the Tories decided to call an early general election in 2017, the Blairites believed that their time had finally come. As in 1983, the British electorate guided by the mainstream media would emphatically rebuff a Labour party that championed hard left policies. In the aftermath of defeat, the moderates would soon be back in control of Her Majesty’s Opposition. There was no alternative to centrist politics in Britain.
When the first exit poll was announced by the BBC and Sky News after voting finished on 8th June, the media pundits’ faces betrayed their total surprise and complete bewilderment at its findings. For the entire campaign, these Tory and Blairite journalists had been confidently predicting that the ruling Conservative party led by prime minster Teresa May would win the 2017 general election with a massive landslide. The only question was how large would be her majority of the MPs in the House of Commons. Yet, now the impossible was happening. During the 8 weeks of the campaign, Corbyn’s Labour had succeeded in turning a 21% deficit in the polls into almost level pegging with the Tories on election day. Far from being returned with a commanding majority, May’s Conservatives were going to lose overall control of the Commons. The old certainties of British politics were obsolete.
In the months after the 2017 election, psephologists explained that the Tories had lost the support of both young and middle-aged voters amongst British electorate. Unlike the over-60s with secure pensions, paid-off mortgages and money in the bank, many of their children’s or grandchildren’s generations were less fortunate with precarious jobs, unaffordable housing and growing debts. As its slogan ‘For The Many Not The Few’ promised, the 2017 Labour manifesto offered a socialist programme to tackle the multiple failures of neoliberal orthodoxy. Increased taxes on the wealthy would reverse the Tory cuts in health, education, welfare and local government.
Student fees would be immediately abolished. The railways, postal services and utilities would be brought back into public ownership. There would be no more imperialist adventures overseas. Collaboration not confrontation would be the leitmotif of relations with the EU. Contrary to the establishment wisdom, the results of the 2017 election proved that hard left policies were vote winners. The fringe was now the mainstream.
When asked, many older people were supportive of key pledges in Labour’s manifesto like rail renationalisation and increased health spending, but still refused to vote for the party itself. Reliant upon the mainstream media for their news coverage, they believed that Corbyn was ‘unelectable’ even if they personally agreed with many of his policies. In contrast, this antipathy towards Labour declined among younger voters along with their consumption of Tory newspapers and BBC programming. Thanks to digital media, they now had alternative sources of information.
During the 2017 election, the two most shared articles were not published by one of the traditional outlets, but instead by AnotherAngryVoice – a lone blogger in Yorkshire who denounced the multiple failings of the Conservative government with his winning mix of witty graphics and passionate arguments. Crucially, unlike in previous campaigns, this polemicist was part of a flourishing network of Left websites that challenged the British establishment: Novara Media, Evolve Politics, Skwawkbox, Vox Political and The Canary. Adding to their impact was an outburst of popular culture dedicated to promoting the Labour cause. Jeremy Bernard Corbyn: What Was Done – a hilarious sci-fi movie – was watched by over 1,000,000 people. Nasser Razzaq released a continual stream of topical photos with anti-Tory captions. CorbynRun – a 16-bit homage app game – obtained 2,000,000 impressions in the run-up to election day.
The Artist Taxi Driver and Jonathan Pie created video rants lambasting Tory idiocies. Stormzy, Akala and other rappers mobilised their admirers by launching Grime4Corbyn. Captain Ska released a new Teresa May mix of their underground hit Liar, Liar. From the football terraces and pubs to music festivals and election rallies, the spontaneous chanting of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ to the White Stripes‘ Seven Nation Army came to define this summer of political transformation. Above all, these cultural interventions provided the memes which were shared again and again amongst friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter. While the Tories were spending lavishly on top-down targeted advertising, Labour’s message was disseminated by bottom-up viral activism. Not surprisingly, potential voters were much more impressed by the opinions of people who they knew and trusted than annoying spam from a party publicist. For the first time in a modern British election, the enthusiasm of the Many had checked the hegemony of the Few.
In his leader’s speech to the 2017 Labour conference, Corbyn mocked the Daily Mail for printing 16 pages of smears and lies on election day. Given the rise in support for the party during the campaign, he was looking forward to this Tory tabloid printing 32 pages of ludicrous propaganda next time to ensure a resounding victory for the Left! Although it could still manipulate some voters, the old enemy could no longer terrify Labour into conformity.
The mainstream media had lost its monopoly over the flow of political information. Their tried and tested techniques of fabrications and trolling were losing their effectiveness. Labour now took pride in its socialist politics and wouldn’t be intimidated into abandoning them. Five months later, when The Sun accused him of being a Stalinist agent, Corbyn’s confidence in the new disposition was confirmed. Very rapidly, the alternative media exposed the obvious flaws in the story. The Labour leader made a video rebuttal of this fabrication for sharing on Facebook and Twitter. Within days, even the BBC was criticising Tory politicians for spreading fake news about Corbyn. Best of all, Ben Bradley was forced to apologise for his libellous tweet and donate money to a food bank in his own parliamentary constituency. As the next set of opinion polls revealed, The Sun‘s spy scandal had increased both Labour’s voting share and approval for Corbyn as the next prime minister.
Unlike the ‘Zinoviev Letter’, this Red Scare had been a flop. Most wonderfully, the Left can now prevail on the media battlefield for the first time without compromising its principles. When the next election comes, Labour will be playing to win with a truly radical programme. Class politics are the digital future.
Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Westminster, London, England and a founder member of Games For The Many
Copyright © 2018 by Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute.
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