Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Jeremy Corbyn – Accidental Hero was a book that I wrote at great speed and under great pressure in 72 days last autumn. It was published in November. Though it got no media coverage, it sold healthily and went into a reprint shortly before Christmas. I had understood that my editor wanted a second edition and hence an additional chapter, but what he wants from one day to the next is not always entirely clear. I have written an additional chapter which may or may not appear between book covers. For anyone who bought the first edition and for anyone for whom a substantial taster might confirm or otherwise any interest they may have in the book, I reproduce the extra chapter as I wrote it here:


Reaction to the first edition of this book has been very instructive. Rather I should say the lack of reaction. As far as I am aware, no national newspaper has so much as mentioned it, not even the Morning Star where Corbyn writes a column. I sent the following letter to the Saturday Review section of The Guardian – “Given that you'd be hard pressed to deny that Jeremy Corbyn is the big news story of the year in British politics, it seems curious that Helen Lewis couldn't find room in her survey of political books of the year (last week) for mine, Jeremy Corbyn – Accidental Hero, published at the beginning of November by Eyewear. Or perhaps this is just further evidence of the naked, media-wide bias against anything supportive of Corbyn's policies and character”[December 5th 2015] – but it wasn’t published.

Somebody at the paper proved to be kindly, however. I had two other letters accepted that I had signed as “W Stephen Gilbert (Author, Jeremy Corbyn – Accidental Hero)” and this designation was reproduced on the letters page. What’s more, in the on-line version, the book’s title was rendered as a hyperlink to the publisher’s website, an unlooked-for bounty.

The only print publication that reviewed the book was The Jerusalem Post, which not unexpectedly took a Zionist line and mentioned precious little in the text that did not directly concern Israel [December 10th 2015]. The notion of responding to the review seemed entirely unprofitable, so I let it go.

One might argue that original paperbacks are rarely favoured by the papers, hardbacks being taken as the only ‘proper’ books. But the suspicion must linger that it is the subject of the book, and the fact that the subject is treated sympathetically, that has denied it any coverage. Fortunately, there are other means of spreading the word these days, especially the Internet and social media. It is largely word of mouth (or word on Facebook and Twitter) that has allowed the book to reprint and now to go into a second edition, along with gratifying reviews on the book’s Amazon page.

The media’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn has been unprecedented in its vituperation, its distortion and its selectivity. The Huffington Post reported analysis by the politically independent Media Reform Coalition of newspaper coverage of Corbyn’s first week as Labour leader, a moment when in any other field (manager of the national football team, say, or chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra) there would be a reasonable expectation of judgment being held in reserve, of the benefit of any doubt being granted. The MRC collated 494 news reports, opinion columns and editorial leaders in the national press and found that 60 percent of these articles were clearly negative, 27 percent neutral and just 13 percent positive. Predictably enough, The Sun and the Daily Mail, each with 91 percent, registered the highest proportion of stories that expressed hostility, animosity or ridicule. The report declared that the British press “systematically undermined” Corbyn, and concluded: “The risk of undue influence on elected politicians is high, and it’s hard to see how democracy can flourish when the mass channels of debate are monopolised in the way that they are” [January 9th 2016].

If it were only the Tory press, one could counter it without fear of being drawn into different kinds of argument. But the way the BBC has treated Corbyn has been so consistently distorted that one must suspect an orchestrated stance required by the management in the belief that such a distortion will improve the Corporation’s chances of surviving John Whittingdale’s term as Culture Secretary (to whose office I copied my complaint, aired in a footnote to p 109 above, against the biased coverage in the BBC programme Daily Politics, to no avail).

For example: presenter Mark Mardell referred in passing to Corbyn as “hard left” on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend [November 22nd 2015]. You can be sure that no BBC journalist ever refers to David Cameron as “hard right” or even “right wing” – he is after all “the Prime Minister”, as Corbyn, you might think, is properly “the Leader of the Opposition”. This is loaded terminology, intended (subconsciously or – let’s be more realistic – consciously) to place Corbyn beyond the consensual mainstream to which the BBC subscribes.

Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, interviewed Corbyn for the 6 pm bulletin on his view of regulations concerning police use of firearms and the so-called “shoot to kill” policy. It seemed to me that what Corbyn had to say was measured, judicious and sensible, the very antithesis of the gung-ho, trigger-happy mentality that animates some of the Tory backbenches. In her subsequent to-camera piece, Kuenssberg called Corbyn’s view “extraordinary”. Perhaps someone upstairs did find this gratuitous editorialising, for she did not repeat it on the 10 pm news [November 16th 2015].

Another needless thrust at Corbyn came in June Kelly’s report on a court case: “… and it’s emerged that one of the now convicted fraudsters, Mohamed Dahir, was supported by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when he applied for and was given bail before the trial” [6:00 News BBC1 December 10th 2015]. This is malignly suggestive. The extended Dahir family are constituents of and known to Corbyn and, there being no grounds for him not to do so, he wrote in support of the bail application when Dahir was first charged. Dahir’s lawyer only revealed this to the court after conviction, presumably in an attempt to leaven his client’s sentence. Objectively, there is no justification for this titbit to be reported; that the case developed a (very tenuous) Syrian connection gave anyone wanting to smear Corbyn an innuendo with which to do so. Why the BBC should wish to do this remains unanswered. ITV’s news bulletins made no mention of the matter.

On December 3rd, less than three months into Corbyn’s leadership and the day after the debate on Syria in the Commons, there was a by-election at Oldham West and Royton, following the death of Corbyn’s great friend and ally Michael Meacher. The media expectation was that UKIP could well capture the seat. Its candidate had run Labour perilously close just over a year earlier at a by-election in the neighbouring constituency of Heywood and Middleton. The difficulty for the print media with by-elections is that the results usually come too late for the next morning’s deadline, as happened with Oldham. Guardian columnist Martin Kettle was so sure that Labour would get a bloody nose that he referred to “a lousy by-election result in Oldham” that morning [December 4th 2015].

In the event, Labour increased its vote share by a remarkable seven percent and the Tory vote dropped by nearly ten percent, only a small proportion of that change favouring UKIP. The media had been lovingly preparing their leaders and think pieces declaring that the expected “lousy result” demonstrated once again the ‘unelectability’ of a party led by Corbyn. Curiously, they demurred at any notion that the much-better-than-flagged result could indicate that any enthusiasm might attach to the leader.

The most astounding example of this double standard occurred on the BBC News report of the by-election result. So-called vox pops are used by lazy editors as news filler, purportedly to give a flavour of what ‘ordinary people’ think. There are two characteristics of the gambit that may readily be understood: first, views gathered in the street are random and unscientific and will usually demonstrate ignorance, indifference and scepticism, if not downright lunacy; second, if an editor wants to make a point, it may quickly be illustrated by finding people who are sufficiently excited at being “on the telly” to make it for him.

In the BBC News report on the by-election, there was a succession of three local people, each of whom was bitterly scornful towards Corbyn [6:00 News BBC1 December 4th 2015]. Now it cannot be argued that no one could be found in the length and breadth of Oldham who would be prepared to say a good word for Corbyn’s leadership. This is simple manipulation of the freedom of the airwaves to broadcast whatever the editor likes and call it news. And I will guarantee you this: if any research team ever looks into the BBC’s coverage of by-elections, it will find no news report before December 2015 in which all the views volunteered to the cameras rubbished the leadership of the party that had unexpectedly taken the seat.

Laura Kuenssberg was at it again in reporting Corbyn’s January 2016 reshuffle. There had been endless speculation about this in the media and a good deal of propaganda about ‘revenge’ and ‘purges’. Again, no supportive reading would be afforded to what transpired. Corbyn would have proved himself a ‘tyrant’ or a ‘Stalinist’ had he sacked and/or moved frontbenchers who did not support his policies, ‘powerless’ and ‘ineffectual’ if he did not.

Kuennsberg was one of many commentators who grumbled that the reshuffle was “so slow”. There is no regulation or even any convention about the speed of reshuffles; they take as long as they take. They are, though, boring for reporters because of the waiting around for developments. In this particular case, the amount of media speculation long before Corbyn even began made it seem a more drawn-out affair. Furthermore, the process was hampered by various shadow ministers negotiating both publicly and privately, rather than following the usual practice of accepting the leader’s prerogative and behaving in a dignified manner when they were moved or demoted (Maria Eagle was an honourable exception to this stricture).

Reporting the end of the reshuffle, Kuennsberg demonstrated a talent for superiority, belittlement, presumption and embroidery that chimed eerily harmoniously with David Cameron’s thrusts at that morning’s PMQs: “[Corbyn] is meant to be the boss … The leadership wanted [Hilary Benn] to move but he stayed put with a promise to work differently. Really? … The last 24 hours have been a damaging pantomime. While Jeremy Corbyn’s been bunkered up in his office with his close advisors, he hasn’t always seemed in charge of events and simply he didn’t have the clout to make all of the changes he wanted to” [6:00 News BBC1 January 6th 2016]. You, gentle reader, know as well as I do that Corbyn never told Kuennsberg the changes that he might have wanted to make or whether he wanted to move Benn from leading on foreign affairs, so her guess on this – it’s just a guess – is no better than yours or mine. If she cannot perceive that phrases and terms like “meant to be the boss”, “really?”, “damaging pantomime”, “bunkered up”, “close advisors” (they are clearly meant to sound sinister, or why mention them?), “in charge of events” and “the clout” are the antithesis of the scrupulous impartiality that the BBC charter obliges her to demonstrate, she may need a refresher course at the BBC academy.

Monitoring Kuenssberg on Twitter the previous day, Media Watch recorded her tweets about the issues of the week as: “Rail fares 0, Housing 0, Floods 1, EU negotiations 8, Labour reshuffle 30” [Media Watch Facebook status January 5th 2016]. Like everyone in the Westminster hothouse, her only interest is who’s up and who’s down, not what affects people’s lives.

In the reshuffle, two ministers unknown to the vast majority of the public were sacked, Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden. Both had been personally critical of Corbyn far beyond their respective ministerial briefs. At the time that Dugher was starting a tour of television studios making the most of his ‘martyrdom’, I put him into Google Search where his sacking was still only registering on its first page. Of 230 entries, just eight related to his work as Shadow Culture Secretary. That tells its own story. Dugher was immediately recruited as a columnist on The Sun, just as Simon Danczuk, another serial critic of Corbyn despite being a Labour MP, writes regularly in the Daily Mail. Why do these men gaily consort with the enemy? Do they imagine that such newspapers would be devotedly supporting Labour if Liz Kendall were the Labour leader?

A small number of junior ministers, again peaking in public attention by so doing, resigned in the wake of these sackings. Unless they pick up lucrative contracts with the Tory press, we are unlikely to hear of them again (do tell me who it was who quit at the moment of Corbyn’s election as leader, mentioned on p 101). One of the new quitters, Stephen Doughty (no, I haven’t either), resigned with a live flourish on Andrew Neil’s BBC magazine Daily Politics. Thanks to a blog by the BBC’s so-called output editor [Andrew Alexander Resignation! Making the news on the Daily Politics BBC Academy website January 7th 2016], we now know that the programme staff were in morning-long cahoots with anti-Corbyn Labour MPs and that this ‘coup’ was brokered by Laura Kuennsberg. Given that Cameron, who won’t have been watching television, mentioned the resignation in PMQs before Corbyn knew of it, it can only be imagined that the BBC gave the PM a heads-up.

Some people – those for instance who read The Daily Telegraph – imagine that the BBC is “full of pinkos”. Far from it: the editor of BBC News is James Harding, a former editor of The Times (prop: Rupert Murdoch), a strong supporter of the Israeli government (and hence on that score at least at odds with Corbyn) and a “long-term friend” of George Osborne, towards whom The Times was notably kindly during Harding’s tenure [The Independent March 25th 2012].

The executive editor of current affairs programming, including Daily Politics, is Robbie Gibb. He is brother to Tory Minister of State for Schools Nicolas Gibb, is a former chief-of-staff to Tory grandee Francis Maude, was best man at Tory businessman Mark MacGregor’s wedding and was once deputy chair (to MacGregor) of the “extreme rightwing” [The Guardian July 14th 2015] Federation of Conservative Students. So, no instinct to favour the Conservatives there, then.

The BBC might counter that they gave me a decent shake by inviting me onto the BBC News Channel programme Meet the Author. This sits in a fifteen-minute slot, though in practice its length is eight minutes tops – not exactly Mark Lawson Talks to … but still not a bad length as media interviews go. My interviewer was Nick Higham, a genial and schoolmasterly host. Before the recording began, we had a most encouraging conversation in the studio in which I rehearsed my prepared points. When recording began, though, Higham somewhat threw me by asking quite different questions, largely avoiding mention of the book (which he irritatingly called “a pamphlet”) and concentrating on Corbyn in the immediate present – we were recording at the beginning of the week that included the vote on extending air strikes into Syria.

The first of two airings of the programme was scheduled for the Thursday evening, but it was abruptly decided that, as the Oldham by-election fell on that day and the polls would still be open, it could not go out then. Strangely enough, no other programme dealing with politics was pulled that day. A replacement time-slot on the Friday was also cancelled, ostensibly because the Channel decided to take the live police press conference about the San Bernardino shootings. In reality, the live segment was over before Meet the Author had been scheduled, but what was shown in the slot was a recorded package of items that had already aired several times that day. This left the broadcast (normally the repeat) on the Sunday evening as the edition’s only chance of a screening. Higham assured me that it regularly won the higher audience. In practice, the programme was put out more than an hour earlier than billed, with no prior warning. If it weren’t for BBC iPlayer, none of those awaiting it (me included) would have seen it.

At least I got to articulate a scenario that I had been contemplating and had not heard voiced before. If this book had had any sort of public traction, my theory might have caught some attention too. It is this: a pattern seems to be developing whereby the press and the Blairite rump keep up a steady barrage of grumbling and nit-picking directed at Corbyn in the hope that he is forever in defensive mode, always doubted and questioned. It is a counsel of despair rather than a strategy. It means to damage Corbyn but it has no means to prevent collateral damage to the Labour party and to those of its adherents who like to be portrayed by the media as “the moderates” (which suggests sensible, realistic, virtuous and non-aggressive).

The tactic can only be justified if it succeeds in creating the opportunity for a coup or a challenge that has a prospect of achieving its goal and electing a vote-winning leader. But four and a half years of it without such a change of leader will make the Corbynistas dig in even more determinedly. Either way, it hardly promises a famous Labour victory in 2020. It is a grim prospect.

So I gently venture to suggest that those who support Corbyn start to prepare a Plan B. Instead of waiting for the likes of Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper and Chris Leslie to gather round a rival candidate to challenge Corbyn (Hilary Benn, say, or David Miliband), let alone break away and form a new centrist party or join the Lib Dems or even the Tories, let them think about a new party of their own centred on Corbyn. It might be called the Democratic Socialist Party. The Socialist Party is a name already taken (led by Arthur Scargill) but no one would mistake Democratic Socialists for Social Democrats.

The party’s policies would be undiluted Corbyn, so many of which are known to have a keen following in the country but are not yet embraced by any UK-wide party: getting rid of nuclear weapons, renationalising public transport and the public utilities, changing economic direction to make the rich and the speculators support expansion and infrastructure and relieve poverty, re-energising enterprise that manufactures rather than merely services. There would be no need for a DSP to trim to the demands of the Blairites.

My guess is that there are about 25 sitting Labour MPs who might be prepared to resign the party whip en masse and stand for re-election as DSP candidates. Three of the most loyal Corbynistas are past 70 and might not want to start again; on the other hand, they might be all the more ready to fight one last time for a manifesto that they wholly support. Six of the MPs who loyally support Corbyn have majorities below 4,500; some of them might feel it’s too risky to impose a by-election on their constituents.

But one of the great strengths of the Corbyn wing of the PLP is that so many have such healthy majorities – 14 of them are more than 10,000 votes ahead of their nearest rivals, including Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott. The chances of them changing allegiance and taking their electorate with them must be at least as good as were those in the last parliament for the two Tories who got back in as UKIP MPs. Some 20 simultaneous by-elections would be very difficult for Labour to defend, especially with a (doubtless fraught) leadership election in prospect in a party suddenly light on its left wing; and those by-elections would be sprung at a time of the DSP’s choosing.

In the months since the election, the membership of the Labour Party has more than doubled. The number of those joining or rejoining comfortably exceeds the entire membership of the Conservative Party. Those people were not brought in by Kendall, Cooper, Burnham or the prospect of Benn or the elder Miliband as leader. If the party countermands the democratic will of the quarter-million who voted for Corbyn, those people will have no reason to stay in the Party, and no reason to vote for it either.
The Pencourt File
Meanwhile the war of attrition grinds on. Though Corbyn may be tapping vast support in the country and the grassroots of the Party for his stances on bombing targets in Syria and opposing the renewal of Trident missiles, there is an unwavering bloc in the PLP that will not be reconciled to these positions. It was perhaps a pious hope that Corbyn could hold such a divided party together by allowing diametrically opposed views to be expressed. Party management is always a fraught issue; for a leader with no experience of managing anything and little taste for compromise, it seems an insuperable task. This may look like a disaster close up but it is of little interest outside the Westminster hothouse.

It is in the constituencies and, with luck, in the non-party-joining wider world that Corbyn’s appeal is working. At a December 2015 gathering of my own local party, it emerged that only six out of some 50 present had voted for Corbyn as leader in September, but there was now not a single member who identified as anti-Corbyn. “Give him a chance” is the very least enthusiastic endorsement that you hear, and that is enormously more generous than is granted by very many backbench Labour MPs. It is striking that it is the professional politicians who tend to take entrenched positions, their voters who are more willing to listen to contrary arguments and consider alternative strategies.

The babel of voices in the Labour movement is divided into various factions as well as, in cases like Simon Danczuk, conducting lone, self-advertising campaigns. From press coverage, you might imagine that there is just a single partisan grouping operating as an enemy within, the much-maligned Momentum. On the contrary, there are quite as many groups of supporters who used to favour Tony Blair or Gordon Brown – the members that John Prescott has dubbed Bitterites – as there are groups that would undo the work of New Labour. Progress, Labour First, Labour Together, Blue Labour and – this one known in Westminster as “the Resistance” – Labour for the Common Good are all ranged against Corbyn’s leadership. Grassroots Alliance, Campaign Group, Tribune Group and Compass all lean relatively left. Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, Labour Representation Committee and Momentum are actively pro-Corbyn. There are also more than two dozen special interest groups that take stances on party policy.

Momentum is suspected most by the Bitterites because it is new, having grown out of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, and because it is energetic and well organised. Especially during the fierce debate over extending RAF activity against Daesh into Syria, Momentum was accused of “bullying” Labour MPs who were inclined to support the government’s call to legitimate the bombing. Anyone who uses social media knows that verbal abuse and even threats are made by supporters of every conceivable political position, that disobliging posts are nothing new and not confined to any single philosophy.

Corbyn has regularly committed himself to eschewing personal attacks and called on his followers to do the same. But playing the martyr card is tempting for those who claim to have been verbally threatened, as if somehow their plight is comparable to (or even worse than) that of innocent Syrian citizens caught up in air raids. Tarring Momentum with the brush of brutality is mere propaganda, as is characterising it as the spawn of Militant Tendency, the entryist grouping that disrupted Neil Kinnock’s leadership.

In fact Momentum is as broad church in its membership as the Party itself, united solely by the common experience of supporters being energised by Corbyn’s honesty, courage and dissimilarity to the Westminster politicians fashioned from the traditional template. It is this support that gives Corbyn his power-base, rather than any significant presence in parliament. And it is a mighty power.

Consider, for instance, the Facebook grouping called Corbyn 50yrs+ Supporters Group, set up to counter the notion that the Labour leader’s constituency is dominated by callow, naïve and aggressive youngsters, an inevitability when Corbyn relies so much on the internet (because, as we know, no one over 30 knows how to work a computer). When it first launched, membership of the group grew at the astonishing rate of more than 500 per day.

At about the same time, the Bitterites announced a drive to recruit 100,000 new “moderate” members to the Labour Party over eighteen months. They’ll be lucky. Membership of the 50yrs+ group has stabilised at around 3,000, still a remarkable number. Had it been able to maintain its initial momentum, its strength would have topped 100,000 members in under seven months.

In my Meet the Author interview, I observed that I would rather muse about future developments than make categorical predictions, as the professional commentators so love to do. In suggesting that the Corbynista faction in the Commons might have no choice but to break away and stand for re-election under new colours, a rump of 20-some-odd DSP MPs (two-and-a-half times as many as the Liberal Democrats) being a solid basis for fighting a general election, I mused that there was indeed a good chance that Corbyn would become Prime Minister “but not necessarily as leader of the Labour Party”.

There is another theory to consider. That is that there is a force in the establishment both of Britain and of international capital that has no intention of ever letting Corbyn anywhere near the seat of power. That coalition of vested interests, which already wields immense global power and owes no allegiance to government, constitution, jurisprudence, regulation, democracy or military might, would stop at nothing to prevent Corbyn standing for, let alone winning, an election that could make him prime minister. It would be prepared to employ fraud, corruption, criminality, repression, suspension of rights, emergency powers, arrest, torture, ‘disappearance’ and murder of Corbyn supporters, mass imprisonment, military coup, indeed political assassination to achieve its goal. A low-level version of such a possibility was seriously raised during Harold Wilson’s time as premier; in 1974, the army even briefly occupied Heathrow Airport, later claiming without much conviction that it was merely an unofficial training exercise. Wilson himself, inevitably accused of paranoia, remained convinced that elements in MI5 intended to remove him from office [see The Pencourt File by Barrie Penrose & Roger Courtier, HarperCollins 1978].

Exactly fifty years earlier, the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald had decisively lost the general election four days after the Daily Mail published the hugely damaging ‘Zinoviev letter’ which implied collusion between the British and Soviet governments to promote Marxist-Leninism in Britain, a letter that was subsequently found to be a forgery. The history of dirty tricks, black propaganda and manipulation by MI5 would certainly generate a new chapter if it seemed at all imminent that Corbyn were to be elevated by the electorate. Given that the final solution of murder and military dictatorship could not be ruled out, it would perhaps be a kindness both to the nation and to Corbyn himself (and his supporters like me) if he were to be persuaded to step back from leading Labour or some other party into the 2020 election.