What do Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have in common? On the face of it, two people could not be more dissimilar but I’m curious about what might be their analogous position in relation to mainstream political culture. After all, in a sense Corbyn came from outside party politics, albeit not in the way Trump did, being a life-long back bencher and consummate constituency MP who never sought power in any sense. Both reject the common sense of party politics and have in different ways benefitted from a media which is superficially hostile to them.

Perhaps we can make sense of their commonality in terms of their political brands, both of which have formed quickly in a way that floats free of the manifold pressures which shape self-presentation by those who spent years seeking power through steady ascent of within a political party. Neither learned to walk the walk and talk the talk in the way needed to gain respect and cultivate influence amongst their peers, perhaps avoiding the deformation professionelle to which these colleagues are subject to as a result. They don’t assume that political correspondents are all powerful because they haven’t spent their professional lives seeking coverage from them, as well as being judged by their peers on their success or otherwise in doing so.

This is what Naomi Klein says of Trump’s political brand on pg 33 of her new book No Is Not Enough:

It’s also why no labor scandal is ever going to stick to him. In the world he has created, he’s just acting like a “winner”; if someone gets stepped on, they are obviously a loser. And this doesn’t only apply to labor scandals—virtually every traditional political scandal bounces off Trump. That’s because Trump didn’t just enter politics as a so-called outsider, somebody who doesn’t play by the rules. He entered politics playing by a completely different set of rules—the rules of branding. According to those rules, you don’t need to be objectively good or decent; you only need to be true and consistent to the brand you have created. That’s why brand managers are so obsessed with discipline and repetition: once you have identified what your core brand is, your only job is to embody that brand, project that brand, and repeat its message. If you stay focused, very little can touch you.

This opens up the possibility that what is seen as electabilitystrong leadership and plausibility might actually be little more than weakness in the face of the media. If you’ve built your political brand on performing in a way that wins the media’s favour, you are inevitably subject to their whims. You are constitutively tied to the cluster of journalists, much as they are in turn tied to you through their need for access, leaving politics as a deformed game of intellectual twister taking place on the parliamentary estate. But to be a new brand, emerging quickly in a way external to these dynamics, involves near complete freedom from such influences if you can only ‘stay focused’. Brand Corbyn and Brand Trump couldn’t be more different but there are deep similarities in how and why the media struggle to touch them.

Much of the reaction to Labour’s election success last week has been framed in terms of their ‘rewriting the rules’. One particularly explicit example of this can be seen in an article by Jonathan Freedland, an enthusiastic critic of Corbyn, pontificating that Corbyn took “the traditional political rulebook” and “put it through the shedder”. What are these rules that had formerly seemed so influential?

  1. Young people don’t vote. Any enthusiasm you create with them will come to nothing because they won’t turn out on election day.
  2. UKIP voters are Tories. If UKIP ceases to be viable then most would switch to the Conservatives.
  3. Divided parties never win elections. Unless a party can pull together at the local and national level, it can’t achieve success.
  4. Economic credibility is crucial. If a party is not perceived as being economically competent then there is no chance voters will trust it.

There are certainly more rules like this. The conventional rulebook wouldn’t have proved so influential if it only had four points in it. But where do these rules come from? How is this conventional wisdom formed? How does it become so influential that the metaphor of the ‘rulebook’, adhered to by all ‘serious’ commentators and operators, can be taken seriously?

Part of the answer lies in the fixation on the ‘political centre ground’ which is embedded in the dominant wisdom of Labour modernisers. The first cohort fought and won against the Labour left in the 1980s. The second cohort grew up in the Labour establishment moulded by these predecessors. The internal struggles of the 1980s cast a long shadow over them all, a fight to drag the party to a political location and then keep it there. As Alex Nunns describes it on loc 4468 of The Candidate:

The political centre ground, in this view, appears as a clearing in a forest—a fixed location—and politics is a simple orienteering exercise where the parties are given a map and a compass and told to go and find it. Occasionally they inexplicably wander off into the woods and have to be scolded by journalists until they take their navigation task seriously again. The great, unpredictable social and economic forces that constantly sculpt new historical terrain are, in this Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme version of politics, merely gusts of wind that must not blow the parties off course. Nothing changes.

Despite this professed concerned for ‘what works’, adherents of the political rulebook often display a remarkable lack of empirical interest in the political world. This can produce odd juxtapositions, such as the Blairite candidate Liz Kendall being backed by supporters who saw “understanding what it takes to win an election” as the most important characteristic of being a leader while all the available data suggested her chosen tactics for winning the leadership election were heralding no success whatsoever. The invocation of ‘what works’, the celebration of oneself as pragmatist foregoing childish moral indulgence in pursuit of success, licenses a weird disregard for how the world works. This is I think because it’s not pragmatism in any meaningful sense but ideology. The political centre ground is a theory of politics. Furthermore, it’s a painfully simplistic theory of politics unable to adapt to changing circumstances. As Nunns goes on to write on loc 4484,

The trouble with such a static, ahistorical view is that it is unable to account for new phenomena, much less understand people’s motivations for acting in unexpected ways. So when hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously decided they had other priorities than hopelessly trudging around looking for a centre ground that, mysteriously, kept moving further away, these professional political pundits could only dismiss them as either insane or self-indulgent.

Such a theory of politics resists falsification. It in its original context, it reflected a degree of engagement with the world around its progenitors. In a important sense, New Labour started as a psephological analysis of a changing electorate and a tactical case about engagement with the media. Over time, it became folk wisdom, espoused by all ‘serious’ people as a way to demonstrate their seriousness, increasingly cutting it off from any meaningful analysis of the circumstances in which their serious business was being conducted. It might resist falsification but its advocates greedily seized upon confirmation. As Nunns points out, Labour’s continued rightward shift yielded little success at two elections, but the eventual victory of 1997 was taken as a sign that the moderniser’s case was correct all along. They had vanquished their foes on the left and, what is more, no ‘serious’ person could doubt they were right to do so. Perhaps there’s a risk that this hubris be repeated by the Labour left today. Everything I say below stands in my mind as a caution about what is to come, as well as an account of what has passed.

This analysis had become a folk theory, so obviously correct that repudiations of it could no longer be taken seriously. The culmination of this process was the ascendency of Cameron, the heir to Blair, who made the same case in relation to his own party, albeit primarily with regards to social issues rather than economic ones. Much like the Labour modernisers, what become an article of faith originally began as a psephological analysis, developed through the polling of Lord Ashcroft, appointed Deputy Chairman of the Conservatives under David Cameron. The intellectual case these originators assented to became a point of division and contention within the party, as people flocked to join their cause or lashed out against it. What interests me are the subtle changes that occur as groups are led to defend or attack reflective arguments and how this changes how people relate to such arguments. My contention is that a theory of politics that was already relatively immune to falsification becomes a guarded axiom unable to be seriously considered or any longer reflected upon.

This was the process by which a reflective analysis of political change transmuted into a folk theory and ossified even further into the political rule book. How was this reinforced by media commentators? After all, it’s their discursive power which is so crucial to accepted/acceptable accounts of ‘how things are’ in politics. At one level, it can be explained in terms of the patronage networks that exist between senior politicians and senior journalists. As Nunns writes of Andrew Rawnsley’s contempt for Corbny on loc 4406, “Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion—with considerable skill—the books and journalism that had won him acclaim”. But there’s a broader process at work, insightfully captured by Phil BC in this post. I’ve quoted the relevant section at length here but please do read the whole thing in full:

Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

A similar sort of process is at work with our professional Westminster watchers, but is ramped up to a higher degree. Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that’s what appears to matter – it’s where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn’t on the radar, because they don’t see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It’s all such a sideshow to Parliament’s main event.

This focus is also bounded by the media the commentators produce. Famously, the BBC take its lead for what the hot politics stories are from the front pages of the broadsheets. Likewise, hacks in other operations parasite off the BBC and each other to fill the schedules, put stuff out, and meet the insatiable appetite for hot takes. The result is little time for thinking, a scramble for a story or an original angle, and a tendency toward herding thanks to the recursive universe generated from the quantum foam of chatter. It produces a mode of thought that is based entirely on appearance without trying to understand what may lie behind what immediately presents itself. For instance, the Tories are the new party of the working class because minimum wage rises. Labour’s members have foisted the disaster onto the party because atomised members of the public tell focus groups. There is no sense of movement, little idea that parties as expressions of interest evolve and move, nor that the people who support them, actively or passively, have connections with multitudes of normal people that can pull, persuade, cajole masses of them and transform them into a collective that starts making its own history. As none of them regularly go on the doors outside of the capital, they have to rely on what the pollsters tell them and, as we saw last night, only two of the established firms come out of the election with any sort of credit.

http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/why-did-pundits-get-election-wrong.html

Thus we have the ‘political rulebook’, the framework within which political reality is interpreted, adhered to by all serious political figures and commentators. It’s empiricism of a particularly stupid sort, oblivious to its own theoretical underpinnings and all the more dangerous for it. It maps the most superficial contours of political life in order to better navigate one’s way towards the mythical centre ground and for no other purpose. In the next post of this series, I’m going to consider what it is about opinion polling that lends itself to such uses, what the consequences are for political leadership and how economic depoliticisation plays a role in propping the whole thing up.

If this is an accurate account, it’s remarkable that he seemingly remains devoid of bitterness about this treatment. From The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, loc 6251:

“You are not fit to be prime minister,” the widely unknown Bridget Phillipson tells Corbyn. “It’s time to be honest with yourself. You’re not a leader. You need to go for the sake of the party,” remarks Ivan Lewis. “You are a critical threat to the future of the Labour Party,” chimes in Jamie Reed. “You’re not uniting the party. You’ve got no vision. The only person who can break this logjam is you by resigning,” pronounces Chris Bryant. “You’re not just letting the party down, but the whole country,” declares Labour’s only Scottish representative, Ian Murray. When he claims—without evidence—that his staff in Edinburgh have been “intimidated” by members of Momentum, another MP shouts “Scumbags!” Murray tells Corbyn to “call off the dogs.”

It’s conventional wisdom that Corbyn’s leadership campaign was the target of brutal coverage by the media. I was interested to learn in The Candidate, by Alex Nunns, that this wasn’t quite how the campaign itself saw the situation. Understanding why can help elucidate the surprise that was #Election2017. From loc 4591-4556:

Ask some of Corbyn’s allies about the press coverage they received during the leadership contest and a surprising response comes back. “There are very few campaigns on the left that I’ve been involved in where we’ve had good press,” says Jon Lansman, “but this is one of them.” His definition of “good press” is unconventional, a variation on ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ Of course there was hostility, but the campaign managed to connect with its intended Labour audience in spite of it. “We always made the agenda. The others didn’t get a look in. We were the story throughout.” It was all about Corbyn. Because of the scale of interest, the campaign’s press officers found that along with the dross came greater opportunities to place their stories in the media than would normally be afforded to a left candidate. “The majority of things we tried to land landed, and in the ways we wanted them to land,” says James Mills, who was seconded to the press team from CWU. Whatever was being thrown at them, Team Corbyn pushed on with scheduled policy announcements, getting out a positive message that Mills believes cut through.

This dynamic within the print media played out in turn within the broadcast media. Not only were the campaign setting the agenda, with journalists responding in ever greater numbers to the issues they were raising, it led to increasing television coverage which highlighted the mismatch between the construction of Corbyn as a dangerous radical and the nice beardy chap who no one could really take much of a personal dislike to. From loc 4530:

Broadcast media followed a journalistic agenda that was still largely set by newspapers, despite the precipitous decline in their circulation. But broadcast had an inbuilt corrective missing from print—viewers and listeners could see and hear Corbyn for themselves. “They threw everything at Jeremy and it was so over the top that when he came on TV you expected him to be a combination of all sorts of villains,” says McDonnell. “When he came across as just a nice bloke answering questions honestly, that was it.”

This is something which the media themselves could be drawn into. As Phil BC insightfully pointed out some time ago, professional commentators are prone to confuse an absence of the presentational skills common amongst the political elite with a profound naïveté, as if Corbyn and McDonnell hadn’t spent their entire lives negotiating the political machine with some success from a position of marginality. As he asked in response to media astonishment at McDonnell’s apparent competence in his first speech at a Labour conference as Shadow Chancellor, “Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?”

An escalating media campaign against Corbyn brought him endless ‘earned’ media, while offering an opportunity for the public to make up their own mind about the hyperbolic cliches in terms of which such media warfare was inevitably fought. If he got dragged into this, perhaps punching back against the onslaught, he likely would have been torn apart as self-defence would be cast as ‘gaffes’ and replayed endlessly. But by choosing to ignore media condemnation, in a way analogous to but different from Trump, it could be exploited for the benefit of the campaign. A similar effect was at work with denunciations from within the party. After Blair’s famous speech in which he attacked members drawn towards Corbyn as needing a heart transplant, the campaign saw an immediate influx of donations and volunteers.

I’d like to understand the mechanisms at work here: when do media attacks have their desired effect and when do they simply drive welcome coverage of a candidate? How does social media work to undermine the former and bring about he latter? One clear effect is that fighting back against this media onslaught can provide a way for followers to participate. There are legitimate issues which can be raised around ‘digital activism’ but I find it plausible that this social media activity helped the campaign consolidate, amplified its message and drew people into ‘offline’ participation. Though how, if at all, these effects worked to blunt media attacks is a more complex question. From loc 4530-4545:

Perhaps the most important factor explaining why the press onslaught backfired was the existence of social media. The old press no longer enjoyed a monopoly on having a voice. Through Facebook and Twitter ordinary people could critique and rebut journalists’ output directly. “Every time the mainstream media attacked Jeremy the social media shield would go up around him, bat it off, and get to the truth of the matter,” says Marshajane Thompson. Research carried out by YouGov in August 2015 found that 57 per cent of Corbyn supporters cited social media as “a main source of news,” compared to around 40 per cent for backers of the other candidates. 78 “Part of the reason why they were spending so much time on social media was because they didn’t trust the traditional media any more,” believes Ben Sellers. One of the main functions of the Corbyn For Leader social media operation run by Sellers and Thompson was to circumvent the press, both by publicising the explosion of activity happening all around the country, and by curating the mainstream media to pick out the half-decent reports (“sometimes that was a struggle,” Sellers quips).

There was an interesting finding before the election that there were more Labour tweeters who also tended to tweet more. There is a wide network, retweeting Labour candidates, with a larger and sustained focus on Corbyn than was the case with the Conservatives. Identifying what role this played in the general election will be central to understanding the rise of Corbyn. My suggestion is that the use of social media in the earlier leadership election would be a useful place to begin this inquiry.

In the last couple of days, I’ve been reading The Candidate by Alex Nunns. It’s a detailed and insightful account of Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour party and the conditions which made this possible. After the election, it can also be read as as an analysis of broader conditions which might facilitate Corbyn’s ascendency to government. What both events share is their unsettling of political assumptions, as nascent transformations in political life made themselves felt for the first time in outcomes which professional observers of politics dismissed as impossibilities.

There’s an insightful discussion in The Candidate of this infamous dismissal of Labour members as ‘morons’ by Blairite apparatchik John McTernan. It took place in the run up to the leadership election when the first authoritative poll gave Corbyn a huge advantage over his rivals:

What fascinates Nunns about this is how the bewilderment of the presenters led them to so openly reveal their biases. The underlying assumptions which bind together establishment worlds of politics and the media stand repudiated by these events and the presenters “struggle to keep their journalistic footing for five minutes of balanced analysis, even as the political terrain falls away beneath them” (loc 4070). As he goes on to observe on loc 4086:

In such moments of political flux, when a sudden development cannot be made to fit into the standard patterns of reporting used to depict the world, underlying biases are revealed. The genuine shock evinced in the Newsnight studio was reflected across the media; the shared assumptions and sympathies echoed in the vast bulk of the reporting and commentary that followed.

We have seen a lot of political flux in recent years. It would be absurdly inaccurate to see this uncertainty as something unique to the 21st century. There have been many other periods of world history characterised by a similar degree of uncertainty, as well as the the obvious point that ‘our’ certainty has often been ‘their’ uncertainty e.g. military adventurism during a relatively stable period of British politics. So by ‘political flux’, I mean events which can’t be incorporated into the intellectual frameworks dominant within the media and politics, usually taking place within national politics but sometimes aggregating together like an outflowing of nested bubbles across the globe.

But I believe media saturation represents a turning point because it leaves events unfolding more quickly, due to the affordances of digital communications, as well as folding back bewildered commentary into those events themselves. The political terrain can fall apart much more quickly and we can many more conversations in the period of time in which it is falling apart. There has been a qualitative and quantitative change in how such moments of uncertainty are constituted, as well as how they can generate new events.

Under these circumstances, I’m increasingly convinced there are new openings for public intellectuals. Probably not for hedgehogs but rather for foxes: discursive power falters in these moments of uncertainty and there’s new opportunities for influence available to those who can quickly and plausibly offer sophisticated explanations of events & maps of ways forward while the existing arbiters of political reality are quite openly wondering what the fuck is going on. There is a place opening up for a new kind of intellectual here. Can the established conditions of critical social thought give rise to it?

I initially dismissed this suggestion by David Runciman, contained in this LRB essay, but it’s been reverberating in my mind since reading it:

The contemporary politician who is most present in these pages is Jeremy Corbyn, despite the fact that his name never comes up. Corbyn first got elected to the Commons in 1983 and for the duration of Thatcher’s second term in office was a minor player on the other side of every major domestic battle she fought, manning the barricades. Indeed, he represented her enemy within. For Thatcher, the IRA, the NUM and the hard-left Labour councils were all of a piece: each sought to supplant parliamentary government with direct action and threats of violence. At the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton she had been planning to deliver a stinging attack on Scargill and the NUM leadership, whom she regarded as ‘an organised revolutionary minority’ determined to subvert the rule of law. She intended her audience to understand that what she had to say applied to Ken Livingstone’s GLC as well. When an IRA bomb exploded in her hotel the night before she was due to give her speech, nearly killing her and succeeding in killing five others, she was determined to give it anyway. She didn’t feel any need to change it: she could simply extend what she wanted to say about the NUM and the GLC to include the IRA. She told the shellshocked delegates: ‘The nation faces what is probably the most testing crisis of our time, the battle between the extremists and the rest … This nation will meet that challenge. Democracy will prevail.’ They thought she was talking about her would-be assassins. In fact she was just reading the words that had been written before the bomb went off.

Corbyn would have agreed with her – not about what counts as democracy, of course, but about the linkages between her most militant opponents. The NUM, the GLC and the IRA had a common cause in his mind as well. Her enemies were his friends; his friends were her enemies. Corbyn was, and is, her mirror image, joining together the same dots as she did to produce the inverse of her tightly organised worldview. In the first chapter of this book, attempting to identify the consistent set of values that guided her actions, Moore calls Thatcher a liberal imperialist. Corbyn is an anti-imperialist. Thatcher sided with American power; Corbyn with those he considers the victims of American power. Thatcher befriended Saudi Arabia and its royal family, whom she viewed as useful trading partners and a force for stability in the Middle East; Corbyn used his first conference speech as leader to launch an attack on the Saudi regime for its abuses of human rights. (His friends in the region are the Iranians, whom he sees as trying to emerge from a history of colonial exploitation.) Thatcher was determined to keep hold of Trident. Corbyn will do whatever he can to get rid of it. The people who voted for Corbyn in the Labour election did so for a wide variety of reasons: taking up the fights of the mid-1980s mattered for some of them, but perhaps not many, and only those with long memories. A great deal has changed since then. But some things haven’t: the Conservative Party is still never happier than when Labour has a unilateral disarmer as its leader.

This is powerful stuff from Corbyn in his recent LSE lecture:

I am not talking here about the aspiration of the delusional Del Boys – “This time next year Rodney, we’ll be millionaires” – not the importation of the individualist American Dream. (As an aside, the US comedian George Carlin once said “They call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it”.) But real aspiration is the aspiration for a secure home, a secure job, a productive job that satisfies and enriches life, the security of knowing your loved ones will be well cared for when they get old or fall sick, the security of knowing your children, nieces or nephews will attend a good school, the aspiration to know your family, friends and neighbours are getting on OK too, and that you have the time, opportunity and the facilities to enjoy some decent leisure time.

These are the things that make the good life and democratic government has both the responsibility, and the capacity, to guarantee them. A government that runs as little as it can get away with has no industrial strategy, has privatised key parts of the economy necessary for a decent life, has abdicated its social and economic responsibilities.

People will not trust, and will not have faith in a government that abdicates its responsibilities through privatisation, deregulation and neglect. People know that to change things you need power when government appears powerless to change things. People won’t have faith in it to change things when government gives its powers away. People lose faith in it.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/jeremy-corbyn-lse-politics-of-hope/

From John Harris in the Guardian:

Whatever his suitability for the job, Corbyn is where he is for one reason above all others: the fact that Britain’s post-1979 journey into a new reality of a shrunken welfare state, marketised public services, rising inequality and an impossible job market had reached a watershed with the deepening of austerity, and there was a need for a clear moral response, without which Labour was in danger of shrinking into meaninglessness.