Surviving the press onslaught

The new Labour leader is in for a rough ride, but he must learn to fight, says Daniel Harvey

The bourgeois response to Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was hardly unpredictable. “Bye bye, Labour,” ran the headline in the Daily Express. The Daily Mail squealed, “Red and buried”. The rightwing tabloids were already writing the obituaries, but it seemed more than a little desperate. They were, of course, just retreading the same ground as they did against Michael Foot in the 80s - except this time around they have decided to go in as hard as possible right from the off.

Then there was the marginally more circumspect TheTimes, which said Corbyn had begun a “civil war” in the Labour Party. It helpfully listed on its front page all the endorsements and congratulations he had received, starting with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, whom Corbyn famously welcomed to the House of Commons not long after the IRA Brighton bombing at the time of the Conservative Party conference in 1984. Then there was Hamas, which hailed his sincerity in supporting Palestinian rights, and, to cap it all, Cristina de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, who welcomed Corbyn’s commitment to some form of negotiation over shared sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. It was all very oblique - The Times still has to pay lip service to being a ‘quality’ broadsheet - but you were left in no doubt that the new leader of the Labour Party was a treacherous extremist.

There is no doubt about it: Corbyn’s victory has badly wrong-footed the media generally. The Guardian practically gave up on anti-Corbyn polemics toward the end of the campaign after plastering its pages with more then 30 hostile articles. It was obvious that it was starting to damage the reputation of the paper amongst the liberal left. And now veteran columnist Polly Toynbee has swung behind Corbyn, saying that Labour is committed to this leftwing strategy and we are obliged to put our doubts “in the cupboard” and try and make it work.1 It should be remembered she supported the breakaway Social Democratic Party in the 80s and swung behind the Liberal Democrats in 2010, so what she is now saying is not insignificant.

After Corbyn declined to join in singing ‘God save the queen’ at the September 15 Battle of Britain memorial service, nearly every front page was plastered with idiotic commentary. “Corbyn snubs queen and country,” bemoaned The Daily Telegraph. “What an insult,” bleated the Mail. And what about his appearance? - he had not even fastened the top button on his shirt. It was somewhat reminiscent of the attacks on Michael Foot for wearing a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday in 1981. In The Guardian Anne Perkins remarked: “The national anthem may stick in Corbyn’s craw, but it is his job to sing it”.2

At the same time, Owen Jones is imploring Corbyn to develop some kind of media strategy: “Inclusive, outward-looking, willing to engage with the unpersuaded, hopeful, positive: that is the only way the left can thrive. We can’t just want retweets and packed halls, after all, but to change the world.”3

Other things that have raised eyebrows have been Jeremy’s preference for speaking at the pro-migrants demonstration, where he joined in singing ‘The red flag’ instead of speaking to journalists; or his refusal to appear on the Andrew Marr show the following day - an interview lined up by acting leader Harriet Harman for whoever was the victor. Then there was the incident with the Sky journalist badgering him continually about his shadow cabinet as he was walking to Westminster. He refused to comment and said nothing except: “These people are bothering me.”

All in all, it looks pretty chaotic - as though the media is struggling to make sense of what is going on. Corbyn is keeping to his strategy of sticking to the issues. In fact he did quite well at his first prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on September 16. He was trying out a new non-confrontational approach by posing questions from among the 40,000 he had received to put to David Cameron, selecting subjects such as housing, tax credits and mental health provision. Cameron did his best to conform to this, not wanting to come across as an aloof and hectoring bully, which he knows would have backfired horribly. In end he did lose his rag once over a question Corbyn had received from a Scottish National Party supporter and had to apologise.

‘National security’

For their part, the Tories put out a seriously ill-advised attack video not at all unlike the kind you see in the United States that have been sponsored by shadowy ‘super-PACs’. With sinister music sounding in the background, Corbyn was shown stating he thought the killing of Osama bin Laden was a “tragedy”, referring to speakers from Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”, and talking somewhat abstractly about “abolishing” the army.4The Sun ran a front page story on that last subject.

The video featured comments by Cameron and Michael Fallon MP to the effect that “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.” But the Tories were shamed into taking it down - ostensibly because of a copyright infringement, but more likely because of the reaction it had provoked on social media.

At PMQs Cameron refused to be drawn into a direct attack on Corbyn or John McDonnell when an MP from the Democratic Unionist Party tried to goad him with a question on support for “IRA terrorism”. This was despite the fact that some Tory MPs seemed to be baying for blood - there was a real sense of reticence from the prime minister about attacking Corbyn head-on. That reflects a mood that some on the right are concerned that Corbyn, together with the movement that has been thrown up around him, is an unknown quantity and should not be underestimated. An example came in The Daily Telegraph, where political editor Peter Dominiczak remarked that “David Cameron faces a dilemma over how to deal his new Labour opponent”. He reported the comment of a cabinet minister, who had said: “We can’t just take him for granted, laugh at his extreme policies and assume we’ll win. Voters won’t like that.”5

However, there has been not a little hysteria, including across the Atlantic, over Corbyn’s foreign policy positions, especially on Nato and groups like Islamic State. The consensus that has underpinned Anglo-American relations since the war is that the west faces a threat, but if that notion becomes further delegitimised, that could create problems. Then there is Labour’s uncertain position over the EU referendum, which the Financial Times says is now tilting towards an ‘out’ vote, given Corbyn’s relative Euroscepticism, as opposed to his rivals.6 But comrade Corbyn seems to have parked his radicalism over foreign policy questions, saying, for example, that he is going to wait for the result of a party-wide consultation on the nuclear deterrent. That will get him out of trouble for now, but the problem could return with a vengeance if the rebellious mood amongst the membership holds up in the way we hope it does.

There are real risks in Corbyn’s approach so far. If he continues to bend over backwards to appear reasonable and ‘decent’, it will begin to look like timidity on his part, and that has the potential to demotivate his base. It would be much better if Corbyn stays firm and combative, so he can lay down markers as to where he stands. What the press craves is apparent weakness, and its relentless barrage of attacks is intended to discipline this upstart into ‘playing the game’. Coming out strongly in favour of a republic at this stage would be a good way of maintaining his momentum and provoking the right and the media into doing what it does best - voicing obsequious praise for privilege: a sentiment that is completely out of touch with very many people.

If the question of a republic was posed, it could get a lot more support than many realise. The same is true of ditching Trident - the idea that weapons designed to slaughter millions indiscriminately are essential for “national security” would be overwhelmingly rejected if it was seriously challenged.

It is inevitable there are going to be extremely sharp conflicts, and in order to win Corbyn will have to galvanise a fighting movement.


1. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/15/jeremy-corbyn-labour-mps.

2. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/16/jeremy-corbyn-national-anthem-labour-leader.

3. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/16/jeremy-corbyn-labour-twitter-media.

4. www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tories-release-new-jeremy-corbyn-6438604?1.

5. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/Jeremy_Corbyn/11862105/David-Cameron-faces-dilemma-over-Jeremy-Corbyn-election.html.

6. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/aafc9424-59ff-11e5-a28b-50226830d644.html#axzz3luoYCfvI.