Jeremy Corbyn and the Reshaping of Political Discourse

Despite 117 Conservative MPs voting against their own leader in a personal confidence vote, the government being the first to be held in contempt of Parliament, and 118 Tory MPs voting against the government’s Brexit deal – the largest ever defeat for a government in the history of our democracy – when it came to deciding whether they have confidence in the government or not they all remained loyal to Prime Minister Theresa May (with the decisive help of the DUP). Referring to May’s EU deal defeat, even the BBC admitted:

In normal times, such a crushing defeat on a key piece of government legislation would be expected to be followed by a prime ministerial resignation.

But what do they mean by ‘normal’?

Previously, May called a General Election in 2017 after triggering Article 50, confident she was going to increase her MPs to ensure a smoother Brexit process. May and the Tories learnt through their damaging election campaign that there is a popular movement that supports and backs Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour led project. This project saw the Tories 21-point lead in the opinion polls dramatically reduce, with the Tories losing 13 seats and Labour gaining 30 seats. This relates to the radical transformation of what is considered politically possible, aided by the bursting of a political bubble surrounding Westminster.

Re-reading my blog post in 2015 regarding the General Election, where I used my own experiences of voting for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 to argue that people should vote for Labour in 2015, gave me chance to reflect on how radically different the political discourse is, and related opportunities are now, because of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour party leader in 2015.

Whilst I still stand by my 2015 election argument, given the context of that election and the devastation of 5 years of Tory rule at the time, it is also clear how different political discourse is now and how it is quite easy to separate most politics into two categories: the politics of fear (e.g. Tories, the far right etc.) and the politics of hope (as shown by the rise of Corbyn’s Labour and the concept of democratic socialism across the left). This new radical politics of hope looks at tackling the root causes of social, economic and political inequality and therefore has helped us reimagine what is possible in a broader sense. My blog post in 2015 was very pessimistic, it was an argument based on reasons why someone shouldn’t vote for the Conservatives rather than reasons for why someone should vote for Labour.

Corbyn was an accidental leader, placed onto the ballot by a Parliamentary Labour Party for a laugh as they didn’t imagine Corbyn would connect with the members the way he has (they wouldn’t have allowed him on the ballot if they had thought that was the case!). In August 2018, the FT reported on how Corbyn has been central to the Labour party becoming more financially sustainable through membership-led income rather than corporate backing, with Labour raising around £10m more than the Tories in 2017 (Labour had also raised more than the Tories in 2016), with a 150% increase in Labour party members under Corbyn’s leadership, increasing subs from £6m in 2014 to £16m in 2017. Donations are mostly made up by trade unions, bringing in around £18m. This is important to compare to the Conservatives who only received £835,000 in 2017 from subs, illustrating the differences in interests that these parties represent (people who’ve died and left the Tories their money contribute more [£1.7m] than living members!). Corporate and individual donations – mainly representing capital – was around £34m, again illustrating the interests that the parties are representing.

This widespread popularity for Corbyn’s Labour Party is reflected in a recent YouGov polling analysis, as displayed in the chart above, which compares people’s opinions regarding 9 Labour policies in the UK, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and USA. YouGov summarise their findings, stating:

In none of the European countries surveyed are any of Corbyn’s policies opposed by more people than supported. In fact, most of the time they’re supported by the majority. Labour’s pledge to make university tuition free for all students garners majority support in every country listed, as does their proposal to generate 60% of electricity and heat from low carbon or renewable sources by 2030. In the UK this energy pledge is the most popular of all, being supported by 79% of people, followed by capping rents (74%) and raising taxes for the richest 5% of earners (68%).

YouGov reflect on why it is that this broad support for Labour’s policies do not translate even more in leader polling, but do not scratch under the surface of that clichéd ‘leadership’ discussion.

For instance, there are problems regarding media reporting and bias, relating to vested interests, with the Media Reform Coalition reporting that:

Just two companies, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp UK and Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail Group, control nearly 60% of national newspaper circulation. If you include online and mobile readers, the situation isn’t that much better with five companies accounting for 80% of all consumption, online and offline.

The LSE did a study into the media representations of Jeremy Corbyn, finding that:

Our systematic content analysis of a representative sample of newspaper articles published in 8 national newspapers between 1 September and 1 November 2015, however, shows that the press reacted in a highly transgressive manner to the new leader of the opposition, hence our reference to the attackdog metaphor. Our analysis shows that Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader, with a strong mandate. This process of delegitimisation occurred in several ways: 1) through lack of or distortion of voice; 2) through ridicule, scorn and personal attacks; and 3) through association, mainly with terrorism. All this raises, in our view, a number of pressing ethical questions regarding the role of the media in a democracy. Certainly, democracies need their media to challenge power and offer robust debate, but when this transgresses into an antagonism that undermines legitimate political voices that dare to contest the current status quo, then it is not democracy that is served.

Whilst not as bad as the right wing media, ‘left wing’ media such as The Guardian and The Independent were also criticised in the LSE’s research for their imbalanced negative reporting of Corbyn. Media Lens are useful for critical analysis of The Guardian and the problems created by the ‘liberal left’ newspaper’s not so popular take on Corbyn. Our own Jay Baker will be exploring these issues in his regular SilenceBreaker Media podcast that will be coming soon, so watch this space!

Furthermore, it is important to reflect back on the income streams of the two parties discussed above and how this connects with vested interests, especially where financial liberalisation, capital mobility and the market is promoted within a neoliberal system as being more important than ensuring a system of equality and fairness. For instance, our obsession with GDP is a good example of this, despite Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson demonstrating in their The Spirit Level book that it is inequality, not GDP, that has a correlation with social problems: the higher the inequality the more social problems there are.

Corbyn is a democratic socialist, which is a philosophy and political approach that has become more popular across the country and also in other countries such as the US through Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democratic socialism in summary focusses on political democracy and also advocates for social ownership of the means of production – essentially meaning that workers have a meaningful control and say in how their work place is organised and run and also in how the surplus created is utilised and distributed. People are put at the centre of a democratic socialist philosophy, and after so many years of being told that the markets and financial capital cannot be controlled, people are finding hope in a philosophy and related policies that says different.

So what is this normal the BBC referred to?

Rather than a pessimist vote for the lesser of two evils, for the first time in a very long time people are given a choice to vote for something they believe in, to vote for hope and the potential for things to be different. There is an increasingly new way of doing things, with membership – i.e. ordinary people – driving the Labour party, and independent media becoming more and more diverse (something we are hoping to increasingly contribute to here at SilenceBreaker Media), tapping into a new political paradigm linked to hope, and framed by democratic socialist ideas. The political landscape and acceptable discourse has radically transformed challenging what the construction of normal is…

Jane Watkinson (she/her) is an anti-capitalist, intersectional feminist and vegan interested in Marxism, social ecology, sociology, revolutionary humanism, and studying radical social, economic, and political theory and how this can be applied in practice. She is a freelance researcher working in the community sector. Her LinkTree is here.