It’s May 2015 and I’m two pints down in a moderately salubrious pub in leafy West London. A pre-leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn is onstage and has just given his standard “we won in Wolverhampton, but we lost up the road in Telford” analysis; and now another Labour MP is eviscerating the Tory press. Apparently their partisan campaign of scare stories and personal abuse has cost Labour the election. From the moment Ed Miliband stood up to News Corp, his card was marked: Murdoch had made sure Ed would not reach Number 10.
This is going down well with the audience — it always does at Labour gatherings — but as the applause subsides, one dissenting voice pipes up: “Why did he do it, then?”
The speaker is momentarily confused; this is clearly not a question he was expecting. No matter; quickly regaining composure, he roars back: “He did it… BECAUSE IT WAS RIGHT”. The room erupts with cheers.
I was reminded of these events, and many others like them, by watching Bernie Sanders’ performances in the Democratic Party debates. His rage against the ‘billionaire class’ of the CEOs, super PACs, and Wall Street is the American left’s equivalent of our hatred for the media (though we’re admittedly pretty good at hating on big business too).
Sanders’ analysis is not at all unfounded. Everyone paying even a modicum of attention should be able to see how representatives of corporate interests use lobbying, campaign donations, and the offer of financial opportunities after a political career to effectively buy off politicians. Or indeed how money corrupts public discourse through campaign spending and media control. Even after elections, the UK’s £2 billion, barely regulated lobbying industry does much to shape Government policies in favour of those with deep pockets.
But here’s what I don’t get. The very people who best appreciate the sheer scale of entrenched power often have the most ineffective response to it. Hostility is understandable, given how these structures thwart the left’s ambitions; but expressing that hostility only reminds society’s power holders of the threat we on the left pose. To state the obvious: repeatedly attacking newspaper owners will inevitably result in negative coverage from their newspapers.
Unfortunately the Labour Party seems determined not to recognise this. Ed Miliband famously quipped “There are no hard feelings between me and News International. They want me to lose, I want them in jail.” It’s a funny line; and when he led the political backlash against News International he did appear strong, decisive, and principled. But this strategy was ultimately disastrous. Ed had effectively declared war on the media — but once the phone hacking scandal subsided, he had no weapons left to fight them with. Whereas they could, and did, destroy his image with four years of relentlessly negative headlines. The Party had performed the political equivalent of walking slowly across no man’s land while broadcasting our attack on loudspeaker, only to furiously complain when all of our troops were shot.
I canvassed all day for two weeks straight in the run-up to the last year’s General Election. From the hundreds of people I spoke to, the justification for not voting Labour cited more than any other was ‘He can’t even eat a bacon sandwich’. Leaving aside obvious objections to choosing a Prime Minister based on eating aesthetics, the fact is that literally nobody looks dignified eating a bacon sandwich. The Sun could have run a similar photo about any politician, but they chose to run one of Ed Miliband. We know why.
Maybe Bernie Sanders can raise enough money from smaller donors to counter the onslaught that will head his way from the super PACs, and from a unified Republican Party if he wins the nomination. I certainly hope so. But the UK Labour Party definitely cannot change the nature of the British press from its exile in opposition.
Instead, we must work out how to win with the hand we’ve been dealt. This is as infuriating to me as it to everyone else; but blood and thunder rhetoric will only make the problem worse. Publicly condemning the media is senseless. To return to the military analogy, we need to build a horse.
This article was first published by Consensus on 1 March 2016 (“Super Tuesday”)