One of the most remarkable aspects of Corbyn’s Labour is its attitude to the media
Alistair Campbell would be turning in his grave were it not for the fact that he’s not dead. Not only did the Labour supporters booing the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg at Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Thursday drive the wedge between party and media that bit further but it distracted from the main purpose of the event, which was for the Labour leader to add his weight to the Remain camp.
However, both the speech and the booing were very telling – and very related. In them, they gave us an extremely clear sign about how both leadership and party organisation view the practitioners, observers and reporters of politics.
That Corbyn added his voice to the Remain campaign is far less relevant than how he did it. All the evidence suggests that he’s generally agnostic on the issue and that his position on Europe is more about party management than anything else. With most Labour MPs and unions strongly supportive, why pick a fight you’re not bothered about?
In fact, his speech was only nominally about Europe at all. Rather than make a speech about Europe cloaked in left-wing language, he really made a speech about left-wing ideals and policy cloaked in the language of the EU referendum.
That re-emphasises his reasons for being unwilling to share a platform with Cameron, Osborne and co: not only would their presence taint him by association but it would mean that he couldn’t fight his chosen battle on his chosen ground.
The contrast with Sadiq Khan is marked. True, Khan doesn’t have Corbyn’s ambivalence towards the EU. He also has a very different electorate from which he draws his mandate. But neither of those factors forced him to share a stage with the prime minister (though there is something of an irony that Labour’s current leaders, who were happy to be in the company of IRA apologists, now criticise Khan for appearing alongside the very people who only a few weeks ago were denouncing the mayor for the people he once associated with). Presumably, both men thought that they and their cause had more to gain from co-operation than independent action.
And therein lies a crucial distinction between the likes of Cameron and Khan on one side, and Corbyn on the other. Centrists are by definition compromisers and pragmatists; people willing to trade quid pro quos to get the best deal they can. Their politics is about winning and good management first, and then, within the boundaries those priorities make possible, tilting systems towards the person’s favoured ideology.
By contrast, the outer wings of either party are happy to define themselves by their refusal to compromise. Indeed, centrists on their own side are often even more reviled than those on the opposing one, with accusations of fraternisation, selling out and treachery. When Corbyn barely acknowledged Cameron as they walked through Westminster on their way to hear the Queen’s Speech, it encapsulated his visceral reaction against working or even socialising with those outside his ideological confort zone.
That same refusal to compromise also reinforces their and their ideology’s righteousness (though it can also easily tend to produce splits over arcane, meaningless points that the rest of the world would regard as of no great importance). It is but a small step from there to the belief that those who question that ideology must be either enemies or deluded; hence the treatment of Kuenssberg, and Corbyn’s reaction to it. We didn’t need the fly-on-the-wall documentary to know that the attitude is driven from the top. He might have shushed those booing but not straight away and not with any comment that implied the workers’ reaction was wrong rather than too extended.
All of which is a good pointer to 2020: there will only be True Believers and The Rest, in the media as much as in parliament or the wider Labour movement (hence the repeated denunciation of opponents as ‘Red Tories’ or whatever colour of Tory fits the local bill). Kuenssberg is herself presumably now a ‘Tory Journo’. It’s a complete contrast with Blair and Campbell and their strategy of assert and engage. While Campbell might have bullied, he didn’t do it in public and it was from a position of strength – meaning it worked and wasn’t seen; the perfect combination for public consumption.
By contrast, we have to conclude that Labour’s current media strategy – to the extent that one exists at all – is to treat the media like the weather: as an external factor that is frequently unpleasant but which is beyond influence; as such, the likeminded can only console themselves by complaining about it to each other. It’s not likely to be a winning strategy but then winning isn’t the point, not if it comes at the price of impurity.