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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

This Is Why You Don’t Listen When They Tell You That You’ll Fail

Labour’s rebound under Jeremy Corbyn shows just how faulty conventional wisdom is…

Clichés are often clichés because they’re true, and there’s a lot of truth to that old one: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win. Since being elected to head the party nearly two years ago, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had largely been written off as a pitiful and incompetent joke. Now, he has secured the largest increase in Labour’s vote share since 1945, and destroyed the Conservatives’ hold on government overnight. Some jokes do not stay funny for long.

Tory prime minister Theresa May had called yesterday’s “snap election” because she believed there was no way she could lose. With a substantial Conservative majority already, and the Labour Party having been universally declared moribund, it seemed like the perfect moment for May to consolidate her gains in advance of the upcoming Brexit negotiations. May was so extraordinarily certain that the Conservatives were poised for victory that she didn’t even bother to attend the televised debates against the other parties. But the campaign quickly became a lesson in hubris. Conservatives began with a more than 20-point polling lead over Labour, but in the month or so before the vote, everything began to unravel. Labour released a well-received policy manifesto while Theresa May struggled to defend her party’s disastrous proposal for what was branded a “dementia tax.” And despite multiple horrific terrorist attacks, May was unable to even seize on the issue of national security. As part of the right’s ongoing effort to slash the size of government, May had overseen massive reductions in the numbers of police officers. (“Austerity means terror” is an effective message to neutralize the Conservative notion that you can simultaneously fire a bunch of public sector workers and keep the country stable and secure.) May performed badly on television, while Corbyn plunged himself into campaigning, drawing huge crowds and becoming steadily more confident and effective. The poll gap shrunk daily; one week before the election, one poll even put Labour ahead of the Conservatives.

Election night was a bloodbath for the Conservatives. They won more seats, of course; there was no way they wouldn’t. But instead of increasing their majority, they lost it entirely, falling short of the number of MPs necessary in order to actually form a government. In order to continue in power, they were forced to strike a deal with Northern Ireland’s far-right—and deeply homophobic—Democratic Unionist Party. (It’s ironic that a Conservative Party that spent the campaign trying to tie Jeremy Corbyn to Irish paramilitaries could only govern by joining with a party that has… ties to Irish paramilitaries.) Headlines the next day ranged from the comparatively mild (“MAY-HEM” in The Daily Star and “THERESA DISMAY: HER GAMBLE IS DISASTER” in The Sun) to the outright malicious (“BLOODY IDIOT” in The New European). The consensus verdict, even among members of May’s party, is that the election was a catastrophic blunder, possibly the miscalculation of the century.

Part of the story of the British election is about the implosion of the Conservative Party, and the stunning levels of arrogance, ineptitude, and obliviousness demonstrated by Theresa May. But more significant was the extraordinary degree to which Corbyn’s Labour Party shattered expectations after being told repeatedly that it was destined for decimation. Corbyn attracted a wave of support from young people (who actually showed up to the polls for once, giving credence to the theory that the reason they don’t vote is not because they’re lazy but because they’re uninspired by the usual choices on offer). He ran a positive campaign focused on the party manifesto, which actually contained concrete promises as well as plans for how to pay for them. And he laid out a clear and compassionate vision for Britain in plain-spoken and relatable terms. It turns out that if you offer people something real, and you are sincere and straightforward in your convictions, they will take a chance on your ideas. 

But these have not been the aspects of the election dwelled on by the New York Times and the Washington Post, whose coverage downplayed the importance of Corbyn in the event. To them, the election wasn’t Labour’s gain, it was a Conservative loss, and this wasn’t a tide of support for left-wing ideas, but a “confused” Britain uncertain of itself. The Times didn’t really know how Corbyn himself fit into the story, describing him as a “far-left urbanite” eccentrically obsessed with Nicaragua and jam. (And possibly a terrorist sympathizer.) Because, for the American press, it is simply a matter of dogma that a left-wing program cannot attract mass electoral support, the British election had to be viewed mostly as a referendum on Brexit, or the product of some other mysterious force such as a national identity crisis. It could not possibly be that people actually liked what Corbyn’s Labour stood for.

But what happened last night is a victory for Corbyn, and for left-wing ideas more broadly. The party’s turnaround began precisely at the moment when it released its policy manifesto; i.e. when the general public finally got a sense of what the Labour Party actually intended to do in power. The party managed almost-unprecedented gains; there has been nothing like it since Tony Blair’s famous rise in 1997. Labour even managed to gain a parliamentary seat in Canterbury that had been held by Conservatives for 176 years. As a result of Labour’s success, the UK Parliament has more women, more LGBTQ people, and more racial diversity than ever before in its history. The increase in vote share was just downright impressive:

Already on election night, certain media commentators were rushing to say that the Labour Party did so well in spite of Corbyn rather than because of him, and that a different Labour leader would have won outright rather than simply diminishing the Conservatives’ margin. Note, first, that this argument still silently concedes that all of the prophecies for Labour’s doom under Corbyn were false. But it also requires us to believe that a different Labour leader could have gone beyond an already historic set of gains. And given who Corbyn’s opponents have been in the previous leadership elections (a fungible pack of stuffed shirts whose names people barely remember), it is hard to imagine any of them doing better. Would tens of thousands of people have showed up to an Andy Burnham rally? Would Owen Smith or Yvette Cooper have enthused a generation of young voters and campaigners? Since all of them were politically indistinguishable from Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, who had already hemorrhaged Labour votes during their time in the leadership, we know full well that the answer to both of these questions is “Hell no they wouldn’t have.”

Corbyn’s steady ascent is an encouraging testament to the power of persistence. Before his surprise selection as leader in 2015, Corbyn spent over thirty years in parliament as a marginal figure. Members of his own party thought of him as a political irrelevance, to the extent that they thought about him at all. “You really don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over,” Tony Blair told an interviewer in 1996, which would certainly hold true for a while. Back in the 1980s, when the BBC ran a story about the “scruffy” Labour back-benchers who were flouting parliamentary dress codes (Corbyn, a chief offender, wore a jumper hand-knitted for him by his mum), he was misidentified by the presenter as “Robin” Corbyn. Yet, mocked and ignored, he continued to diligently and patiently engage in activism and organizing, against war and nuclear weapons, and for economic equality and environmental justice.

It was possibly fortunate that by the time he was elected leader, Corbyn had gone through those decades of learning how to focus on one’s agenda and ignore what people are saying (or not saying). The media campaign against Corbyn was, from his first day at the head of the party, savage. During the early months, he was attacked for everything from riding “a Chairman Mao-style bicycle” (A.K.A. “a bicycle”) to being “disloyal” for standing silently during the national anthem rather than belting it out with patriotic gusto. His clothes were rubbish, he had a bizarre and possibly unhealthy obsession with manhole covers, and his policies were “from the 1970s” (always treated as an automatic slur, as though everything from the 70’s must be the equivalent of floral ties and brown linoleum rather than, say, Ziggy Stardust). Oh, and what was more, he hated Jews and couldn’t decide which was his true BFF: Hamas or the IRA.

In fact, there is actual empirical research on the media coverage of Corbyn, showing just how negative it has been. A report from scholars at the London School of Economics revealed the media had been “systematically vilifying the leader of the biggest opposition party, assassinating his character, ridiculing his personality and delegitimising his ideas and politics.” A quantitative analysis from Loughborough University showed that the Labour Party was receiving an incredibly disproportionate amount of negative versus positive media coverage when compared with other parties:

By the end of the election campaign, after Corbyn had used television interviews and public appearances to convince the public he might not actually be Islington’s answer to Fidel Castro, the tabloid papers had become desperate. They began throwing everything they could at him. “APOLOGISTS FOR TERROR,” said The Daily Mail of Labour’s leaders. The Sun bleated about “JEZZA’S JIHADI COMRADES” and implied that its readership vote Tory in memory of the London bridge stabbing attack victims. One front page had a bulleted list of indictments against Corbyn, including “TERRORISTS’ FRIEND,” “NUCLEAR SURRENDER,” and “MARXIST EXTREMIST.” 

This isn’t limited to the trashiest outlets in the British press. The BBC was unduly nasty too, with Jeremy Paxman interrupting and hectoring Corbyn and Question Time staging an attempt to bully Corbyn into agreeing that he would nuke another country if he needed to. Over here, even moderately sympathetic New York Times columnists were calling Corbyn an anti-American Marxist and comparing him with Marine Le Pen. An overtly biased article in the news section carried the headline “For Britain’s Labour Party, a Mild Defeat May Be Worst of All,” and argued that the better Corbyn did, the worse off Labour would be, because “less ideological” centrists would continue to lose their influence in the party. (It did not occur to the Times that centrism is itself an ideology.)

But throughout Corbyn’s leadership, one of the most unexpectedly shameful media players has been the traditionally left-leaning Guardian, whose news department pushed misleading attack headlines (“Jeremy Corbyn accused of incompetence by MPs over antisemitic abuse”), and whose opinion pages published a long series of vicious denunciations by columnists and contributors. Jonathan Freedland wrote column after column insisting that Corbyn was “handing Britain to the Tories.” Polly Toynbee asked readers: “Was ever there a more crassly inept politician than Jeremy Corbyn, whose every impulse is to make the wrong call on everything? … Politics has rarely looked grimmer.” London mayor Sadiq Khan used the Guardian to endorse Corbyn’s opponent in the second leadership contest, saying that Corbyn “has already proved that he is unable to organise an effective team, and has failed to win the trust and respect of the British people.” Even the paper’s leftiest columnist, Owen Jones, quickly lost faith in Corbyn. Jones declared Corbyn’s leadership a failure and said that he would find it “hard to vote for [Corbyn] again.” (Jones has now apologized for the premature obituary.) The Guardian editors allowed a man named Nick Cohen to publish what must have been one of the most vicious and most vulgar (and now, most wrong) columns ever printed in a newspaper op-ed page. Addressing Corbyn supporters, he said:

Far from building a new consensus for previously unthinkable leftist ideas, Corbyn’s victory has allowed the right to run riot. I won’t insult your intelligence by asking whether you also believe the bullshit you were fed about a “genuinely radical” Labour party attracting people who did not vote to turn out for him…In my respectful opinion, your only honourable response will be to stop being a fucking fool by changing your fucking mind.

In spite of all of this, the moment Labour’s poll numbers started to climb, the Guardian suddenly reversed itself. The change was almost overnight and almost verged on the ridiculous. Instantly gone were the floods of stories implying Corbyn was an anti-Semite. Instead, Guardian readers began to hear that Corbyn’s attentive attitude toward his vegetable garden is reason to think he’d make a good Prime Minister. (It isn’t.) Columnist Suzanne Moore had spent eighteen straight months trying to undermine Corbyn (“No one thinks Corbyn can win… What vainglorious egotism, this willingness to kill a party for the thing he loves”; “a party without a point led by a rebel without a cause”; “weak and immoral” with “serial and tragic incompetence”; his politics feel like a “slow motion punch to the face”; plus a column arguing that Corbyn hates joy). But immediately after the election, Moore began lambasting the Sun and Express newspapers for having tried to undermine Corbyn! If you wanted to know whether these people are truly shameless, well, they are.

Of course, all of the commentators who spent so long heaping abuse on Corbyn will continue to pump out blog posts and columns. The mainstream media (or “capitalist hyena press” as it’s sometimes colorfully—and rightly—called) never change, and pundits effectively have life tenure no matter how many times they are wrong. Fortunately, one thing the election has revealed is that most of their efforts are in vain. When voters are angry enough, and someone appeals to them with a strong enough program, no amount of propaganda can be totally effective. Of course, it’s true that—vile as the Murdoch noise machine might be—there’s a special danger from liberal public intellectuals like Cohen, Moore, and Freedland, who portray themselves as pragmatic friends of the progressive cause while actually undermining it. But ultimately, none of it matters too much. Thankfully, pundits are shouting into the abyss, and nobody is listening. 

There are a few lessons we can learn from the British election. First, political reality can change very, very quickly, and nobody should declare that they know the limits of what is or is not possible. Predictions are a fool’s game, and instead of becoming resigned to the reality one lives in, one must strategize to build the reality one wishes to see. Pessimism is suicidal, but it’s also a lie: nobody knows what we are capable of if we don’t give up. Jeremy Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders, had to go through 40 years of political obscurity before his moment came. Now, he could be Prime Minister before the year ends. Patience, courage, and hope should always be maintained. 

The idea that a left-wing agenda makes you “unelectable” has been definitively disproven. It doesn’t. The anti-Tory vote didn’t go to the Liberal Democrats. It went to Labour. Corbyn’s Labour. 1970s, neo-Marxist, stodgy, pie-in-the-sky, can’t-win-anything Labour. The idea that you have to run to the center in order to get enough votes is simply false. What you have to do is be good at politics, which means giving people something they actually want to vote for. 

But this is key: Corbyn didn’t do well purely because he put forth left-wing policies. He did well because he campaigned well, and because he convinced people that those left-wing policies would actually be good. He also made them actually seem possible, which is crucial. People need to be able to visualize what another kind of politics would actually look like in practice; Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” has been phenomenally effective at cramping people’s imaginations and making even moderate steps toward social democracy seem fantastically unattainable. Corbyn gave them confidence that something different was possible. This means getting past people’s disillusionment; pursuing the nearly-impossible task, in an age of mass cynicism, of getting the disaffected to think that their vote might actually count, that going to the polls is not a waste of time.

The manifesto was crucial. It received widespread praise, and rightly so. That’s because it presented both a set of broad values and a number of specific plans for how these values would translate into governance. It was overflowing with ideas and ambitions, from introducing a “right to own,” making employees the buyer of first refusal when the company they work for is up for sale” to  “moving towards a 20:1 gap between the highest and lowest paid.” Importantly, the manifesto was “costed,” meaning Labour also presented a plan for how sufficient revenue would be raised to cover its various proposals. That forestalled the right’s usual criticism of the left, which is that they make big promises but have no idea how they’re going to pay for them. (The Conservative manifesto, by contrast, was a fiscal disaster and didn’t add up.) As I read the Labour plan, I sincerely wished that some benevolent multi-millionaire would have spent their fortune putting a physical copy of it in the hands of every man, woman, and child in the United Kingdom. (Regrettably, there is no such thing as a benevolent multi-millionaire, and people were far more interested in watching Britain’s Got Talent than the BBC’s televised leadership election—though, to be fair, that night’s BCT guest performers were the cast of Bat Out of Hell: The Musical doing a medley of Meat Loaf songs, so the ratings disparity is somewhat understandable.) 

The importance of the manifesto showed that you have to be pragmatic as well as principled. It’s essential not to allow centrists to be correct when they say that people on the left don’t actually know how to achieve their goals; there need to be specific plans in place. But the election also showed that character is just as important as policy. People like Corbyn because he genuinely isn’t like other politicians. He is unpolished, unshaven, and human. One problem that has plagued both American Democrats and the British Labour Party has been that so many of its candidates seem robotic and impossible to relate to. Corbyn, for whatever his eccentricities, is a person that people genuinely like. Convincing people to buy into you as a person is just as important as presenting the right ideas, and it’s important to have an authentic and honest character.

The British election also provides increasing support for the—quite obvious already—idea that Bernie would have won. (Or at least, stood a very good chance.) It’s not impossible to build national support as a left-wing candidate, if the circumstances are right, and you’re a likable person, and you are straight with people and campaign well. Of course, political conditions in the two countries are very different. But it’s notable that many centrist Labour figures were saying the same things about Corbyn that centrist Democrats have long said about Sanders. After this election, they’re not going to be saying those things anymore.

In fact, the role of centrists is worth dwelling on briefly. For nearly two years, those who opposed Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership relentlessly attempted to have him thrown out of his position. Even after he had been elected by a commanding majority, they insisted on holding another election and running a challenger against him. (Corbyn only increased his percentage of the vote.) Despite clear evidence that the membership of the Labour Party wanted Corbyn to lead it, Labour MPs issued a no-confidence vote, refused to work with himsmeared him publicly, and generally refused to acknowledge his legitimacy or attempt to work constructively with him on building the party. It’s sad and infuriating to think what could have happened if such people had accepted Corbyn right away and turned against the Tories, rather than insisting on perpetuating a doomed internal struggle within the Labour.

It’s funny: here in the U.S., I remember how fanatically centrist Democrats insisted that left-wing voters needed to suck it up and accept that Hillary Clinton was the party’s nominee, and that uniting behind her was the only way Trump could be beaten. You had to vote for the “lesser evil” rather than holding out for purity. (I happened to agree with that.) But I have a feeling this logic only applies one way: if the nominee is a centrist, then we all have to vote lesser-evil, work for the greater good, and silence our internal differences. But if the candidate is a leftist, they can be eaten alive. If Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, I wonder if centrist Democrats would have been insisting on “lesser-evilism,” or if they would actually have preferred “more” evil. I somewhat suspect that many of them would have actually jumped ship and encouraged Michael Bloomberg to run, even if this meant handing the election to Trump. (Maybe that’s why Bernie wouldn’t actually have won.)

I can’t help but be infuriated by someone like, for example, J.K. Rowling. Rowling has ten million Twitter followers. Many of them are, obviously, young people, who adore her. She insists that she is pro-equality and anti-Tory, and broadly supports Labour values. Yet she spent month after month publicly trashing Jeremy Corbyn, saying that the Labour Party was dead and that he had killed it. Even when it became clear that this was false, she didn’t reverse course and encourage people to vote for him. The turnout of young people was crucial in this election, yet Rowling decided not to use her platform even to encourage her young fans to register to vote. Labour came just a few parliamentary seats from being able to form a coalition government. According to the Independent, because of a number of close races, Corbyn “was just 2,227 votes away from the chance to be Prime Minister.” Imagine if those, like J.K. Rowling, who put so much effort into trying to get the public to fear and despise Corbyn, had lifted a finger to try to get him elected. At this moment, Labour would be preparing to implement its agenda, and the Age of Austerity would be over. The narrow Tory victory is the fault of everybody who stubbornly refused to help Corbyn, from British Labour figures like Owen Smith and Sadiq Khan who pissed on him to American Democrats like Obama campaign manager Jim Messina who actually worked to re-elect Theresa May, and Howard Dean who championed the Liberal Democrats.

The name Tony Blair should live in particular infamy. Blair used every ounce of whatever public influence he had left (“Even if you hate me,” he pleaded) to keep Corbyn down. Writing in the Guardian (where else?), he mocked those who disagreed with him:

When people like me come forward and say elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader and it will be an electoral disaster, his enthusiastic new supporters roll their eyes… Anyone listening? Nope. In fact, the opposite. It actually makes them more likely to support him. It is like a driver coming to a roadblock on a road they’ve never travelled before and three grizzled veterans say: “Don’t go any further, we have been up and down this road many times and we’re warning you there are falling rocks, mudslides, dangerous hairpin bends and then a sheer drop.” And the driver says: “Screw you, stop patronising me. I know what I’m doing.”

As it turned turned out, “Screw you, stop patronizing me, I know what I’m doing” was precisely the correct thing to say to Tony Blair.

Allocating blame to the responsible parties is actually important, because in order for Labour to win next time, we need to know why it didn’t manage to win this time. And it’s frustrating that Labour came so close to actually unseating the Conservatives. But the predominating feeling should still be one of elation rather than bitterness. This is an incredible event in global politics, one that shows that the supposedly impossible may actually be perfectly possible after all. 

But Jeremy Corbyn’s massive political upset is inspiring not just because it demonstrates the viability of left-wing ideas. It’s also encouraging on a human level: this is why you don’t listen to people who tell you that you’ll fail. It’s why, in both politics and life, when Tony Blair’s “grizzled truck drivers” tell you not to go down that road because there are falling rocks, the courageous among us respond “Well, I guess I’d better watch out for rocks, then.” This is not just a story about the repudiation of status quo politics. It’s a story about not giving in, and about doing your damndest to prove the haters wrong. You will be ignored. You will be laughed at. You will be attacked. But sooner or later, you’ll win.

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