Inside Corbyn’s game changing election campaign: Steve Howell interview

Inside Corbyn’s game changing election campaign: Steve Howell interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 June 2018

Appointed the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in the Labour leadership team in February 2017, Steve Howell had an insider’s view of the most extraordinary general election of recent times.

The Cardiff-based Howell was the Chief Executive of Freshwater, a communications consultancy he founded in 1997, when he got the call from his old friend Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s Director for Communications and Strategy.

“Politics is not a spectator sport”, he recounts Milne telling him in his new book Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics.

“People have said ‘Why did you call it Game Changer?’”, Howell, 64, tells me over breakfast in a central London hotel. “It’s a fair question but I think it’s valid to call it Game Changer for several reasons. One is we denied them [the Tories] a majority, and that meant they couldn’t do most of the things that was in their manifesto”, he argues. “We have still got austerity but some of the nasty stuff like getting rid of winter fuel allowances, dementia tax, scrapping the triple lock [on state pensions] they haven’t been able to do because they haven’t got a majority.”

“I think it was a game changer in the sense it was a campaign like no other”, he continues. “We were told by people who are experienced in these things manifestos don’t change people’s minds. Well, this manifesto did – in a positive way. We were told that you don’t move opinion during election campaigns by more than two or 3%. Well, we did. Massively.”

He is right. When Theresa May called the election Labour was polling around 24 percent (YouGov) and 29 percent (Survation). On election day less than two months later Labour won 40 percent of the vote – 10 percent more than Labour’s vote share in 2015 under Ed Miliband.

Most importantly, Howell maintains the election result “marked the end of the stranglehold of neoliberalism on British politics, which has dominated politics since the Thatcher era.”

At the end of the book he lists several reasons for the Labour Party’s extraordinary performance, including Corbyn being “a great message carrier”, the size of the Labour Party, the voter registration drive and the manifesto itself.

As a dual American-British citizen, Howell saw Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination first-hand in California. With the parallels between the insurgent Sanders and Corbyn obvious, Howell says he and others were influenced by the dynamism and energy of the Vermont Senator’s campaign, such as its “hard-hitting” political messaging. “Communications is all about building a story, building a narrative”, he explains. “That was very much on my mind – how could we talk and communicate our political arguments in that very clear, direct way.”

Indeed, arguably the influence of Sanders can be seen in the broad strategy the Labour leadership team settled on for the election – the creation of a “majoritarian coalition” around a positive and “transformational” offer to the public, as Howell explains in the book.

Howell was also impressed by Sanders’s use of social media to work around the mainstream media, and the massive rallies that propelled the campaign forward.

“Rallies are much more important in US politics than they are in British politics”, he says, pointing out that though “the Blairites openly say they fell in love with Bill Clinton” they dismiss “the idea that rallies are a good thing.”

“If you listen to the Blairites they will always say rallies are just preaching to the converted – and they will say social media is an echo chamber.”

Talking of Blair, readers of Game Changer may be surprised at the sophisticated communications and public relations tools and tactics used by Corbyn’s Labour Party. Focus groups were used to road-test slogans, polling companies and communications agencies employed, and there was even a “narrative consultant” on their books.

“Communications theory is a methodology. You shouldn’t assume it has a political bias. These are tools of analysis”, he says, explaining many have erroneously and nonsensically mixed them up with their first serious advocates in the Labour Party – New Labour.

“If you are trying to mount an effective political campaign you need to understand your audience, you need to understand what they are worried about, what they are thinking, what they will be persuaded by.”

“We are talking about persuading millions of people here”, he emphasises about the enormity of the challenge – and the success Corbyn’s campaign achieved. “We’re not talking about what goes down well with the hardcore of activists. We are talking about how you move people in a short space of time to get them to see your point of view.”

He highlights how Labour used a polling agency to talk to people about how they perceived Corbyn. “There was a fair amount of negativity towards Jeremy that was simply repeating what people had read about him in the media”, he says.

“But within all of that that the polling company did, one thing interesting came through it, which was that what people particularly liked about Jeremy was that he was a politician who went against the grain.” Also, Corbyn scored well on sticking up for working people, whereas Theresa May did not.

“We were being told by people in the Labour Party ‘Don’t make this election about leadership or about Jeremy versus Theresa because you’ll lose.’ But what that [the polling] was telling us was actually it’s not as simple as that. There are lots of things people like about Jeremy and therefore it’s not whether we make leadership an issue or not it’s how we make leadership an issue that’s important.”

In the book Howell highlights one particularly difficult leadership moment on the campaign trail – Corbyn’s response to questions from the audience and presenter David Dimbleby about whether he would press the ‘nuclear button’ during BBC Question Time’s Leader’s Special.

“Jeremy had begun to look uncomfortable”, he writes, noting Milne was also worried about how the Trident issue would play out in the media.

Surely, I ask Howell, nothing has changed? The lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner Corbyn will never say he will use nuclear weapons, while maintaining Trident will continue to be Labour Party policy. And, like Howell, the Tories will have watched Corbyn’s discomfort carefully and be ready to hit him hard on this come the next election?

He suggests two lines of argument to move the debate on. First, if one believes in nuclear disarmament, unilateral or multilateral, then “ultimately Britain’s nuclear weapons have to go into that process.” Long ignored by the mainstream media, Howell, like Corbyn himself, highlights the importance of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: “What the nuclear powers were saying to the non-nuclear countries is ‘You sign up to this Non-Proliferation Treaty and in return we’ll disarm nuclear weapons.’ The second part of the deal has never happened. So it’s time the second part of the deal did happen.”

Second, Howell points to Corbyn’s Chatham House speech in May 2017, which he – Howell – was heavily involved in writing, and which deals with the question of using nuclear weapons. “That situation represents failure”, he argues. “Think about all the things that would have had to have happened for you to get yourself into that position, or for you to be forced into that position… you have failed as a prime minister in that situation… you haven’t done what you are there to do, which is to safeguard the security of the British people. So you’ve got to then roll the question back and say ‘What is it we need to do to make sure that no British prime minister ever gets into that situation where that is even a question?’”

Though he is no longer formally connected to Corbyn’s team, I ask Howell what Labour’s broad strategy should be for the next election. “An election can’t just be a rerun of the previous election”, he explains. “There will be some new things that have to be taken into consideration which are borne out of the political situation but I don’t think the core argument that we have been putting against neoliberalism and against austerity will be any different because those basic problems in society are the same.”

“And our answer to those problems is a Socialist answer and the Tory answer is a neoliberal answer”, he says. “There is a very clear political choice there.”

Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics is published by Accent Press.

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Book review: Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics by Steve Howell

Book review: Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics by Steve Howell
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2018

Achieving 40 percent of the vote – a record breaking 10 percent increase on its 2015 performanceJeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party carried off one of the biggest political upsets ever at the 2017 general election, dealing a serious blow to the Tory government and broader neoliberal ideology.

Steve Howell, the Deputy Director of Strategy and Communications in the Labour leadership team, gives a detailed and engaging insider account of this game changing campaign. Diplomatically written, there are no big reveals. However, there are many interesting nuggets of information that will be of interest to activists.

Though Corbyn’s team defines itself in opposition to New Labour, much of the political methodology of the Blair era continued to play a vital role: focus groups were used to road-test soundbites, media contacts carefully cultivated and communications agencies employed.

Social media strategy was central to Corbyn’s success, Howell argues, allowing Labour to bypass the mainstream media. They advertised on Snapchat, invested significant energy in Twitter and Facebook and purchased Google Adwords, meaning a Labour advert would appear next to Google searches of terms such as “Dementia Tax” and “Shoot-to-Kill”.

Howell also emphasises the influence of Bernie Sanders’ popular campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which he witnessed first-hand in California. Though Corbyn’s large ‘Feel the Bern’-style rallies were derided by many commentators for preaching to the converted, an LSE study found the Labour vote share rose by almost 19 percentage points in constituencies visited by the Labour leader. Imitating Sanders’s strategy, Labour even employed a “narrative consultant”, with Howell seeing the effective deployment of emotive “narrative arcs” highlighting Labour’s positive and “transformational” offer to the nation as the key to victory.

One note of caution appears during the BBC Question Time Leader’s Special, when Howell notes Corbyn looked uncomfortable answering questions about whether he would ever use the UK’s nuclear weapons (retaining Trident is Labour Party policy, even though Corbyn himself is a lifelong anti-nuclear campaigner).

With the Tories bound to focus on this potential weakness at the next election, this is an critical issue where peace activists have the knowledge and organising skills to make a positive intervention. Because while Howell’s book naturally focuses on the role of the leadership team, it is important to understand it is the mass movement/s behind Corbyn that played the decisive role in getting him elected Labour leader, protected him from attempted coups, underpinned the extraordinary 2017 election result – and will likely be the deciding factor at the next election too.

Game Changer: Eight Weeks That Transformed British Politics is published by Accent Press, priced £15.99.

How public opinion constrains Britain’s military interventions: Paul Dixon interview

How public opinion constrains Britain’s military interventions: Paul Dixon interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
1 August 2018

The idea that public opinion has little or no impact on British foreign policy is a common view, even held by some on the left.

For example, writing on the New Left Project website in 2012, University of Westminster academic John Brissenden concluded:

“The idea of public opinion … having any influence over” Afghan policy and other British military interventions is “a convenient myth.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy, a new Forces Watch report written by Professor Paul Dixon, suggests a very different reality.

The main focus of the report is the “militarisation offensive” that was launched in 2006 “by a loose and diverse group of politicians, military chiefs, newspapers and pressure groups.”

This offensive included the introduction of Armed Forces Day, a much higher profile for the charity Help For Heroes, boosting the so-called Military Covenant and the expansion of cadet programmes in state schools.

Speaking to me over coffee in central London, Dixon, an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, explains this pro-military public relations campaign was a response to the low level of support the British public had given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Part of this militarisation offensive is to try and generate support for the war in Afghanistan, partly by implying that, if you want to support our boys on the front line, you have to support the war that they are fighting,” Dixon argues.

However, while support for the military increased — polling showed “the military going from a highly popular institution in British society to a spectacularly popular one” — he notes “public opinion is able to distinguish between support for the military as an institution, and support for our boys and girls out there fighting, and support for the war,” which continued to be unpopular with the public.

He notes another aim of the militarisation offensive was “to increase the power of the military within the British state and gain greater control over Afghan policy.”

This is particularly important because, as Dixon sets out in the report, the British military “used its influence to exert pressure on prime minister Tony Blair to adopt the highest level of British military involvement in the Iraq war.”

Similarly, the report highlights how “the military also pushed for an escalation of Britain’s involvement in the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan” in 2006.

“Some people think the extent of Britain’s military deployment [in Iraq] was in order to appease the Americans,” says Dixon.

“But it wasn’t really because the Americans didn’t require the 45,000 British military personnel that were deployed and would have accepted far less.

“It was the army, in particular, looking after its own organisational interests, that wanted to be involved in the invasion and that would give it a stake in defence expenditure. But also give it the high profile that helps to empower it.”

According to Dixon, the British military played a clever game to get the British government to do what it wanted, saying: “They go to the US military and get the US military and the US president to put pressure on the British government — in the case of Iraq to increase the British military contributions to the Iraq invasion and on defence spending increased British defence expenditure.”

The report also sets out several important ways public opinion inhibited the government and military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First, public opinion probably influenced the level and location of deployments. The report cites a 2016 article in the Royal United Services Institute journal summarising the key findings of the Chilcot inquiry which noted British troop numbers in post-2003 Iraq were “driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.”

This meant “the UK had had insufficient troops to be effective,” which “forced commanders in-theatre to react to events and not to be able to shape them.”

“The nature of Britain’s deployment being sent into southern Iraq to look after Basra. That was, I think, partly the result of a perception by the Americans of the political constraints operating on Blair,” Dixon argues.

“You can’t send British troops into a heavier area where they are more likely to take greater casualties because of the domestic political constraints on Blair.”

As Dixon repeatedly explains during the interview, public opinion is particularly sensitive to British casualties, a reality the government and military are hypersensitive to.

“In the accounts of generals and soldiers on the ground [in Afghanistan] they are saying: ‘Look, if we lose a Chinook [helicopter] full of British soldiers that could undermine the whole operation’,” he says.

“They think a catastrophe like that, and its impact on British public opinion, would be a disaster and that would generate further and perhaps more active support for withdrawal.”

A November 2009 Guardian report confirms the level of risk the military were willing to take with British soldiers was influenced by concerns about public opinion.

General McChrystal, the then Nato commander in Afghanistan, was reported as saying British troops should be moved out of “harm’s way” because the Taliban would probably target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

According to the Guardian, McChrystal “holds the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including ‘capacity building’.”

Finally, the opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to have influenced the timing of the withdrawal of British troops from both campaigns. The report references Professor Hew Strachan, one of top military historians in Britain, writing about Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in 2010 that British troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2014. “He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.”

Looking to the future, Dixon believes Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, should he be elected prime minister, “would have to anticipate that he would get considerable criticism and resistance from within the military to any plans that he might have to tackle militarisation or scale back defence expenditure.”

As Corbyn “would come under attack from a lot of different directions,” Dixon suggests “he might want to be tactical about who he takes on and when he takes them on, rather than taking on simultaneously a lot of vested interests.”

And what advice would he give to peace and anti-war activists looking to have the greatest impact on British foreign policy?

“Coming from a realist perspective what I would say is we need to see the world as it is and not as we would like it to be,” Dixon replies.

“Seeing the world in that way allows us to be more tactical and strategic about how we achieve our goals.”

For example, while peace activists often focus on the effects of the British military on the local population where they are operating, Dixon notes: “One of the powerful constraints on military interventions, where you are going to deploy substantial numbers of troops … is going to be that chauvinism within British public opinion that does not want to see its boys and girls lost in those wars.”

He also highlights how the peace movement often shares similar concerns with the political right. People like former Telegraph editor Max Hastings, the Mail on Sunday’s Peter Hitchens and ex-Times Editor Simon Jenkins “understand that it’s important that the military are subordinate to politicians and the government of the day” and “have mounted quite strong critiques” of British foreign military adventures, he notes.

Dixon ends with some hopeful advice for peace activists. “Your activism really matters. If you go out on the streets and you are active, the political elite, even if they don’t admit it, will take notice of that because they are scared and they are worried.”

Don’t just take Dixon’s word for it. Here is General Sir Richard Dannatt, writing as the new head of the British army in 2006. “Losing popular support at home is the single biggest danger to our chances of success in our current operations.”

Warrior Nation: War, Militarisation and British Democracy is available to download from the Forces Watch website www.forceswatch.net.

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 July 2018

Visiting Britain last month to co-facilitate a workshop organised by Peace News, US activist Betsy Leondar-Wright read two books to prepare: Owen Jones’s Chavs and Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley.

Important books in their own right, they were especially pertinent as the workshop explored a topic that is rarely discussed: class and classism in activist groups and organisations.

An assistant professor of sociology at Lasell College, Leondar-Wright, 62, has spent her adult life exploring this contentious issue, publishing Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures with Cornell University Press in 2014.

“Class-culture differences often hamper movement-building,” she explains in the book’s introduction. These differences often play a role in common organisational problems, she argues, such as low turnout, inactive members, offensive behaviour and certain members dominating discussion.

She tells me about her own elite class background when we meet in a central London hotel. “During my childhood my Dad rose through the ranks on Wall Street… he started out selling bonds and ended up the vice-president of an investment firm,” she explains.

“And my mum was a nurse and stopped working when I was born. So we kind of rose from middle middle-class to quite upper middle-class during my childhood.”

After attending a private school, in 1977 she dropped out of Princeton and joined the radical, nonviolent activist network Movement for a New Society (MNS) and became active in the anti-nuclear movement.

Hugely influential in its time, MNS ran workshops on racism, sexism and homophobia. After some members became angry at the classism that existed in the organisation, Leondar-Wright says there was an “internal class revolution” which led to workshops being introduced to deal with classism too.

Having co-facilitated many of those workshops, today Leondar-Wright sits on the board of Boston-based Class Action, an organisation that works to end classism and extreme inequality.

Why have activist groups that have a relatively high degree of awareness of racism and sexism ignored class for so long?

“The US is worse than Britain in how few people have class identities,” she says. “The majority of people if they are asked an open-ended question: ‘What is your class?’ people will say ‘middle class’ who have blue-collar working-class jobs and [so will those] who are very wealthy.

“It’s an absurdity of our culture,” she says about the aversion to using the term “working class.”

Even politicians on the left such as US Senator Bernie Sanders will not say “working class,” she says. “It sounds vaguely Marxist, and they are always on alert to not sound condescending and demeaning towards their voters.”

However, she also believes the left shares some of the blame, with what she calls “voluntary downward mobile” people — progressives who choose not to maximise their income — often obscuring and ignoring their own class privilege.

“So in the mainstream it is something to avoid — to identify as working-class. On the left something to avoid is to identify as class privileged. So between those two we are just a pit of confusion.”

Conducting extensive research on activist groups across the US for her book, Leondar-Wright found “a surprisingly large number of attitudes and behaviours” influenced by class.

“Two that really stick in my mind are language and leadership,” she says. “So language… vocabulary differences, how long or short you speak, humour differences, ways of speaking.”

For example, she found professional middle-class groups used more words but spoke less often, while members of working-class groups talked more briefly but more often.

Fascinatingly, she discovered working-class majority groups laughed on average once every 8.75 minutes, while professional middle-class majority groups only laughed on average once every 15.71 minutes.

She also highlights how university-educated activists are often attached to potentially alienating abstract terms: “They just have to say them. So among my radical friends there are people who have to say ‘white supremacy’ every time race is mentioned… there are people who have to say ‘patriarchy,’ people who have to say ‘capitalism’ and have to say ‘socialism’. Their radical politics are wound up in some word that compacts a whole analysis.”

This is fine as it goes, she says, “but one of the things that I want to persuade people to do is do not use your meaningful abstract word when you don’t have time to unpack it. Use it but don’t start with it. Start with something that connects to the listener.”

On leadership, she found “anti-leadership attitudes strongly correlated with professional middle-class and upper middle-class backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, in “the movement traditions that were majority working-class, there was just an acceptance that, as long as leaders are accountable, as long as they are acting on the community’s behalf, then it is a good thing. The strength of your leader is a good thing. It gives you more power.”

Though it’s a popular tactic among many progressives today, Leondar-Wright is highly critical of the concept of “calling out” — the “practice of if someone says something in which you detect some sexism or racism or classism you just immediately and loudly denounce them in front of others.

“It’s based on a misunderstanding of what causes change,” she argues. “It leads to people quitting groups and falling into factions and all these things that are not moving towards social justice.”

She paraphrases her MNS colleague George Lakey: “A university education trains you to sit in judgement of others. Professional middle-class dominated movements or elite dominated movements often get this harshness towards each other,” she adds. Calling out, then, often has a nasty element of classism to it.

Instead, Leondar-Wright favours the idea of “calling in,” a concept coined by African-American activists. This involves “moving toward” the oppressive person and empathically engaging with the person and their views, rather than shunning them.

“I think that is really smart. It’s building the strength and the closeness and the solidarity of groups. To me that is a better practice.”

As she was researching her book, the Occupy movement sprang up in the US. Leondar-Wright was a keen supporter, though found it embodied many of the class-based problems she was researching.

“Some Occupy groups had gotten bogged down in group process quarrels and ideological quicksand,” she writes in the book’s conclusion.

Several of her initially enthusiastic friends dropped out of Occupy Boston, she explains, complaining of “long meetings, jargon, eccentric hand signals and a shortage of specific winnable demands.”

Observing a three-hour general assembly meeting, she observed many people of colour and with working-class accents were not fully participating.

“The much-touted horizontal participatory democracy of Occupy… seemed to make space for some process-savvy people’s voices but to shut out others, including some of those personally affected by the financial crisis that triggered the movement.”

Turning to the political upheavals in her own country, Leondar-Wright has been dismayed by the response of many liberals to the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

“We have these plutocrats and would-be fascists in power,” she says. “We’re panicked about what has happened in Washington, but also panicked and infuriated by the super, super classism among liberals and even some leftists.”

In an article published on the Class Action website earlier this year, she criticises the liberal elite’s focus on the “white working class” and use of classist language such as “stupid,” “crazy,” “deplorables” to describe those who voted for Trump.

Not only is it inaccurate — the white working class itself is politically diverse and, moreover, 54 per cent of college-educated white men voted for Trump — it’s also deeply unhelpful.

“Respectful engagement with someone offering a different worldview is the context in which people shift their frames,” she writes. “Ideologies morph over time. People change their minds. The people who horrify us, whose votes brought this catastrophe upon our land, they’re regular human beings. We demonise them at our peril.”

With liberal contempt for democracy and the general public seemingly rising after the election of Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain, her fascinating analysis of class and classism is more important than ever.

As she argues in her book: “In a country with a working-class majority, a mass movement must be built with working-class cultural strengths in its bones,” something which if successfully implemented “could be transformative for future social movements.”

For more on Class Action, visit: classism.org. If you are interested in holding a workshop exploring class and classism in a similar way to Class Action, please contact Milan Rai of Peace News editorial@peacenews.info.

The Alice in Wonderland nature of the Labour Party anti-semitism controversy

The Alice in Wonderland nature of the Labour Party anti-semitism controversy
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
12 July 2018

Over the last few months the mainstream media coverage about anti-semitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has reached Alice in Wonderland proportions.

How surreal, you ask? Here are a few examples.

Despite the Labour leader having a decades long record of anti-racist work and repeating ad nauseam that he condemns anti-semitism, in April 2018 Tory Home Secretary Sajid Javid “urged the Labour leader to ‘once and for all’ clarify his opposition to antisemitism”, the Guardian reported. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland tweeted that claiming any Jewish person or organisation is “exaggerating or ‘weaponising’ [charges of anti-semitism against Corbyn and Labour]… is itself anti-semitic”. Not to be outdone, Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, “said he would also like action to be taken against those who minimise reports of antisemitism”, including Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, according to the Guardian.

Frustratingly, some on the Left have been sucked into this ludicrous, often hysterical framing. Asked why anti-semitism was “endemic in the Labour Party” by the BBC’s Andrew Neil, the Corbyn supporting Co-Founder of Novara Media Aaron Bastani didn’t question whether it really was “endemic” but answered “I think there are a few explanations”. Similarly, on Frankie Boyle’s BBC show New World Order invited guest comedian David Baddiel mused “Who knows if Jeremy himself is anti-semitic?” Before this he quipped “He [Corbyn] does say there is no room in the Labour Party for anti-semites. And that might be because it’s full.”

Let me be crystal clear. The evidence shows there is a problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left. However, the relentless hounding of Corbyn on anti-semitism is based on a number of erroneous, evidence-free assumptions: that it is widespread in the Labour Party; that it is worse in the Labour Party and the Left than on other parts of the political spectrum; and that the problem has worsened under Corbyn.

Analysing polling data a September 2017 report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) found “the political left, captured by voting intention or actual voting for Labour, appears in these surveys as a more Jewish-friendly, or neutral, segment of the population.” Interestingly, the IJPR went on to note “the absence of clear signs of negativity towards Jews on the political left” was “particularly curious in the current context” as there were “perceptions among some Jews of growing left-wing anti-semitism.”

“Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party” a October 2016 Home Affairs Committee report on anti-semitism found “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

Analysing YouGov polling data from 2015 and 2017, in March 2018 Evolve Politics website noted “anti-semitic views amongst Labour party voters have actually reduced substantially” since Corbyn was elected leader. Moreover, the report highlights the Tories and UKIP “have a far bigger problem with their voters agreeing with anti-semitic statements.”

Though the survey evidence is for Labour voters rather than members of the Labour Party, it still provides a valuable corrective to the dominant narrative, I think.

The warped nature of the debate is evidenced by the two high profile cases of supposed anti-semitism — activist Marc Wadsworth and former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

Speaking at the June 2016 launch of the Chakrabarti Inquiry report into allegations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party, Wadsworth accused Ruth Smeeth MP of “working hand in hand” with the Daily Telegraph — something Smeeth and her supporters labelled anti-semitic. Wadsworth has said he wasn’t aware Smeeth was Jewish. But even if he was aware, how, exactly, is referring to her alleged links with a right-wing newspaper anti-semitic?

A couple of months earlier, Livingstone did a live radio interview about allegations Labour MP Naz Shah was anti-semitic. “Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism. This was before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, Livingstone noted, somewhat off topic.

After the interview Labour MP John Mann famously confronted Livingstone on television, calling him a “lying racist” and “Nazi apologist”, and accusing him of “rewriting history”.

Livingstone and Wadsworth have both been forced out of the party.

However, discussing the controversy in an Open Democracy interview, the American Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein noted “Livingstone maybe wasn’t precise enough, and lacked nuance. But he does know something about that dark chapter in history.”

The work of Francis Nicosia, the Raul Hilberg Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont, confirms Livingstone’s comments, though insensitive and unhelpful (including for Corbyn), were broadly correct. “Throughout the 1930s, as part of the regime’s determination to force Jews to leave Germany, there was almost unanimous support in German government and Nazi party circles for promoting Zionism among German Jews”, the academic noted in his book Zionism and Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, published by Cambridge University Press in 2008. Indeed, Nicosia notes a formal agreement — the Haavara Transfer Agreement — was signed between the Zionist movement and Nazi government in 1933, “facilitating Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine by allowing Jewish immigrants to Palestine to take a small portion of their assets with them.”

The Nazi government’s support for Zionism, of course, was not sincere but “temporary”, “largely superficial” and instrumental, Nicosia explains. And the relationship between Zionist organisations and the Nazis was obviously “not one of mutual respect and cooperation between equals” but something forced on the Jewish population by the most unfavourable of circumstances. With these caveats in mind, the historical fact, however inconvenient, remains: the Nazis, for their own interests, broadly supported Zionism in the 1930s.

When considering the controversy, it is important to understand two things. First, as I have already noted, there is a real problem of anti-semitism on the Left that needs to be addressed. Second, anti-semitism is being used by opponents of Corbyn inside and outside of the Labour Party to undermine his leadership. More broadly, anti-semitism is being weaponised in an attempt to neuter criticism of Israel, and to minimise the ability of a future Corbyn government to support Palestinian rights and criticise Israel. As Daniel Finn notes in his superb April 2018 Jacobin magazine article: “There is nobody in such close proximity to power in a major Western state with a comparable record for Palestinian rights.”

This contextual reading is validated by Tory-supporting Arkush’s recent assertion that Corbyn holds “anti-Semitic views”.

“He was a chairman of Stop the War, which is responsible for some of the worst anti-Israel discourse”, Arkush said, giving the game away.

The intense political pressure created by this media-driven shit-storm has put the Labour leadership in a very difficult position — made worse by Corbyn’s own stupid 2012 comments on Facebook about the removal of an anti-semitic mural. However, the leadership has arguably been too defensive, which though it might make short-term tactical sense, is likely storing up problems for the future.

Rather than capitulate, Project Corbyn needs to do three things. First, be clear there is a problem with anti-semitism in the Labour Party and on the broader Left, and deal with any accusations swiftly, effectively and, most of all, fairly. Second, follow Owen Jones’s suggestion of carrying out a wide-ranging, class conscious political education programme to combat conspiratorial thinking. And third, it needs to stand up firmly and unapologetically to any bogus claims of anti-semitism being made for nakedly political purposes.

“It’s a test of the movement’s mettle”, Finn argues. “If we can’t hold the line in defense” on this “we certainly won’t be in any condition to resist the pressure that is still to come”, he writes. “Across a whole range of issues, from the Saudi war in Yemen to the privatization of the NHS, the ability to hold up under heavy fire will be essential. Things are going to get a lot harder. If we start retreating now, sooner or later there won’t be anything left to defend.”

It was welcome, therefore, to see Corbyn’s spokesperson give such a robust response to Arkush’s shameful allegations, stating his “attempt to conflate strong criticism of Israeli state policies with antisemitism is wrong and undermines the fight both against antisemitism and for justice for the Palestinians. It should be rejected outright.”

More of this, please.

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann

The propagandistic nature of the liberal media: Interview with Florian Zollmann
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
5 June 2018

Ian Sinclair interviews Dr Florian Zollmann, a Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University and author of the recent book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention (Peter Lang, 2017). Zollmann starts by setting out the main findings of his study.

Florian Zollmann: Leading news organisations in liberal democracies employ a double-standard when reporting on human rights violations: If countries designated to be ‘enemies’ of the West (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2012) conduct human rights violations, the news media highlight these abuses and report demands for action to stop human rights breaches. Such measures may entail policies with potentially serious effects for the target countries, including sanctions and military intervention. If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ (in my study, I look at cases from the past including the US-led Coalition in Iraq in 2004 and Egypt in 2013) are the perpetrators of human rights violations that are similar or in excess of those conducted by ‘enemies’, the news media employ significantly less investigatory zeal in their reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are suggested.

My study shows, on the basis of an assessment of extensive quantitative and textual data, that the news media utilise different journalistic norms in terms of how they convey emotional sentiment, handle facts and evidence, use sources and perspective and classify events. These journalistic double standards, then, translate into a radically dichotomised news framing of problem definitions, responsibility of actors and policy options in response to what constitute relatively similar human rights violations: Official ‘enemies’ are depicted as pariah states, facing international condemnation and intervention. Western states and their ‘allies’ are depicted as benign forces, which may at best be criticised for using the wrong tactics and policy approaches. The dynamics of such dichotomised propaganda campaigns have had the effect that only some bloodbaths received visibility and scrutiny in the public sphere.

In Libya, conflict between government and opposition groups erupted on 15 February 2011. By 23 February, Western newspapers had provided generous space for quotations by US, UK and EU government spokespersons as well as partisan actors who demanded intervention in Libya in accordance with the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. The dominant news media discourse depicted the actions of the Libyan government as atrocious crimes, ordered by the highest levels of governance. The United Nations Security Council eventually authorised the 19 March 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.

Yet, whilst the International Criminal Court estimated that about 500-700 people had been killed in Libya in February, no independent investigation into the incidents had been conducted at the time of the NATO onslaught. As my study shows, the international press had acted as a facilitator for intervention in Libya. This so-called ‘humanitarian’ intervention was far deadlier than the violence that had preceded it. According to Alan J. Kuperman, ‘NATO intervention magnified the death toll in Libya by about seven to ten times’. Moreover, it turned out that Libyan security forces had not indiscriminately targeted protestors (see here). My study also shows how the pretext for intervention in Libya was discursively manufactured.

Another case study in my book looks at news media reporting of so-called US-Coalition ‘counter-insurgency’ operations during the occupation of Iraq. In October 2004, the respected medical journal The Lancet published a studysuggesting that 98,000 people had been killed during the US-Coalition invasion-occupation of Iraq between 19 March 2003 and mid-September 2004. The authors of the study wrote that the violent deaths ‘were mainly attributed to coalition forces’ and ‘most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children’. On 8 November 2004, US-Coalition forces attacked the Sunni city Fallujah, the centre of Iraqi resistance against the occupation. US-Coalition air and ground forces used an array of heavy weaponry including artillery, tanks, helicopters, jets, heavy bombs, and other devices, like explosive coils to clear minefields, in residential areas. Fallujah was treated largely as a ‘free-fire zone’. It is estimated that during this assault between 800 and 6,000Iraqi civilians were killed.

As I document in my book, the Western press hardly reported these figures. The findings of the Lancet study were largely ignored and not linked with US-Coalition warfare in Iraq. In fact, the press depicted civilian carnage as ‘casualties’ – the tragic outcomes of ‘war’. Whilst the press included indignant statements by Iraqi actors and human rights organisations, there were almost no reports of any statements conveying policy options that would have put a constraint on the US-Coalition’s use of military force such as sanctions or measures in line with ‘responsibility to protect’.

IS: Why do elite newspapers in the West report foreign affairs in the way you describe?

FZ: The Western elite press draws heavily from government officials to define, explain and accentuate events. Such performance results from institutional imperatives: newspapers have to operate cost-effectively in the market system. The institutional requirement to make profits compromises journalistic standards, such as to report accurately and in a balanced way, to search for the ‘truth’, or to monitor the powerful. Markets incentivise the use of pre-packaged information provided by governments and powerful lobby groups. Nurturing such official news beats decreases the costs of newsgathering and fact-checking. Official statements are regarded as authoritative and their publication does not lead to reprimands.

Additionally, there has been a vast increase in government and corporate propaganda activities that feed into the news media cycle. If newspapers engage in critical investigations that undermine the official narrative, they face costly repercussions: denial of access to official spokespersons, negative responses by think-tanks and actors as well as the threat of libel suits. Because small losses in revenue may threaten their economic survival, news organisations are driven towards the powerful in society.

Commercial constraints are augmented by the integration of newspapers into quasi-monopoly corporations. According to the Media Reform Coalition, ‘Britain has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world, with 3 companies in control of 71% of national newspaper circulation and 5 companies in command of 81% of local newspaper titles.’ Such levels of media concentration encourage ideological homogenisation. For example, market concentration allows media owners to synchronise the news agenda and incentivises the recycling of information across different platforms. Corporate consolidation establishes market-entry barriers and prevents the launching of alternative newspapers. Finally, the commercial press is dependent on corporations that act as major advertising sponsors. The research I discuss in my book suggests that news organisations are inclined to not undermine the interests of their sponsors. Moreover, work by James Curran highlights how advertisers act as de-facto licensers: without advertising support, commercial news organisations go out of business.

IS: Did you find any significant differences between the US, UK and German press?

FZ: On a macro-level, there are strikingly similar reporting patterns in the US, UK and German press. This means that the dichotomised reporting patterns outlined above are replicated across countries independent of a newspaper’s national or ideological affiliation. Such a performance can be explained by the fact that US, UK and German news organisations are subject to the same economic constraints. Furthermore, US, UK and German governments share a similar ideological outlook in terms of US-led Western foreign policy objectives. We have seen numerous examples in recent years when the UK and German governments have supported US foreign policies, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news media broadly reflect this alignment. Of course, there are also differences. National political interests manifest in reporting as well. For instance, the German press included tactical reservations about using military force in Libya. This appeared to reflect national elite disagreements, as German politicians preferred other policy options. There were also differences in the quantity and detail of coverage. The US press arguably provided the most comprehensive coverage in terms of the amount of published material. The ‘liberal’ UK press reported in more detail on humanitarian issues and was more critical of US-Coalition actions in Iraq – albeit not in a way that substantially challenged policy.

IS: The ongoing war in Yemen is not one of the case studies you analyse in your book. From what you have seen of the media coverage of the Yemen conflict, does it conform to your thesis?

FZ: As I have written elsewhere, the Yemen case fits well in the framework of my study. The humanitarian crisis is largely a consequence of the blockade and invasion of Yemen orchestrated by a Saudi-led military coalition. Saudi Arabia has been a close ally of the West. During the war in Yemen, the US and UK have provided substantial diplomatic and military support to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, there has been no willingness by the so-called ‘international community’ to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop its actions in Yemen and R2P and related doctrines have not been seriously evoked. This, then, has been reflected in muted news media coverage. Whilst reports and critical discussions about Saudi Arabia’s military conduct and the way civilian areas have been systematically targeted in Yemen have been published by the press, there has been no sustained campaign in the news media aimed at seriously constraining the Saudi military’s ability to use force. Comparing this with reporting on Syria, where the Western news media have been constantly featuring reports that include discussions about military and other forms of intervention, the double standards could not be more obvious.

IS: What advice would you give to interested citizens keen to get an accurate understanding of world affairs?

FZ: I am hesitant to recommend specific news outlets. It is important to draw from multiple and diverse sources of information and to question official announcements, narratives and ideologies, independent of where they come from.

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 May 2018

Looking back from today, we can now see the mid to late 2000s marked a high point in activism, media interest and government action regarding climate change in the UK.

Increasingly large and prominent Climate Camps, drawing attention to climate endangering infrastructure, were organised every year between 2006 and 2010; the direct group Plane Stupid occupied runways and the roof of parliament to highlight the danger of airport expansion; and Climate Rush, inspired by the Suffragette’s campaign for the women’s vote, carried out media-friendly actions including a picnic at Heathrow departures and dumping a pile of horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway.

With documentaries like 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth and 2009’s The Age of Stupid attracting huge audiences, David Cameron’s Tories sensed the shift in public opinion and rebranded themselves as an environmentally-friendly party. The slogan “vote blue, go green” was adopted and famously the old Etonian hugged a husky.

Ridiculous and shameless as this PR campaign was, the political arms race created by Cameron’s supposed green shift both proved the power of the green movement, and produced the political landscape it needed to win several important victories for the climate. Driven forward by a huge Friends of the Earth campaign, the 2008 Climate Change Act legally bound the UK to making 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. The Coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow after the 2010 general election, and, following actions and campaigning by a coalition of groups on coal, analysis by Imperial College London showed the dirtiest fossil fuel dropped from generating 40 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2012 to just 2 percent in the first half of 2017.

Zoom forward to today and the climate crisis that green activists devoted their lives to averting in the late noughties has only become more urgent.

For example, whilst senior climate scientists have repeatedly explained carbon admissions need to fall immediately and rapidly to avert climate catastrophe, the International Energy Agency reported that carbon emissions hit a record high last year, increasing by 1.4 percent. The New Yorker’s David Wallace-Wells provides some much need reality to the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement, which committed the 195 signatories to keeping the global temperature increase to below two degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees.  “Not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, Wallace-Wells notes, citing a November 2017 New York Times report based on data from Climate Action Tracker. “To keep the planet under two degrees of warming – a level that was, not all that long ago, defined as the threshold of climate catastrophe – all signatory nations have to match or better those commitments.”

Speaking to the Morning Star after the Paris Agreement, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said it was “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that” – by 2100, if not before. The corporate world has already come to terms with this likely future, with an internal Shell planning document predicting a 4oC increase in the short term. Similarly in 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers told businesses and governments that they “need to plan for a warming world – not just 2C, but 4C or even 6C.”

“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term”, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, recently noted in an Environmental Justice Foundation report. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.” Speaking in 2011 about the risks climate change poses to Australia, Professor John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was even more direct: “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.”

As these warnings highlight, the importance of the looming climate chaos is hard to overestimate. “Every single day, climate change is the most important thing happening on the planet—there’s nothing even remotely close”, argues US climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writing in the New Yorker magazine.

In contrast to this urgency, with a few important exceptions (e.g. the nationwide anti-fracking movement) the green movement in the UK seems to have been in a serious rut since 2009/10. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations climate summit was a massive blow to the green movement’s morale, while the Coalition Government’s austerity programme led many activists to move from climate-specific work to campaigns such as UK Uncut and housing battles. In addition, since 2015 it is clear many activists on the Left who are concerned about climate change have put their time and energy into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, many joining Momentum.

Indeed, Corbyn’s environmental policies have broadly been positive. Friends of the Earth graded Labour’s 2017 election manifesto 34 points out of 48, behind the Green Party on 46 but above the Liberal Democrats (32) and Conservatives (11). That Morning Star columnist Alan Simpson is advising Corbyn on environmental issues is welcome, as is Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent announcement that Clive Lewis MP had joined his team to “drive the climate change issue into the heart of Treasury policy making, and therefore into the centre of government policy making”. However, there are still huge problems within the Labour Party when it comes to creating and pursuing effective policies on climate change. Many Labour MPs are still wedded to the ideal of a corporate-dominated neoliberal economy. The GMB union supports fracking. And, most importantly, Labour under Corbyn is still a pro-economic growth party – the word “growth” is mentioned 15 times in the election manifesto – despite this economic dogma being exactly the thing that is driving the planet over the climate cliff.

Rather than this old, 20th century thinking we desperately need new, radical ideas and action. We need, as Sir David King notes above, a wholesale transformation of our economies, which will only be possible with a profound shift in our politics and societal values. “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?”, worries Canadian writer Naomi Klein in her essential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. She cites the historical examples of the Civil Rights Movement, the campaign against Apartheid, the abolition of slavery and the New Deal to give an idea of the scale and influence of the mass movement that is now needed to defend the climate. Others have suggested the societal mobilisation that occurred during World War Two is closer to the level of change that we need to aim for.

This, then, is why a reinvigorated green movement is needed now more than ever – to pressure the current Tory government and Corbyn’s Labour Party to take proactive and effective steps to deal directly with the threat of climate change.

And we need to act now. As McKibben notes in his New Yorker article: though “it feels as if we have time to deal with global warming… In fact, climate change is the one problem that the planet has ever faced that comes with an absolute time limit; past a certain point, it won’t be a problem anymore, because it won’t have a solution.”

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.