Tag Archives: Labour Party

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry

Book review: The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis by Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 November 2019

COMING out of the Glasgow Media Group tradition, Dr Mike Berry from the School of Journalism at Cardiff University has written a quietly devastating academic examination of the impact of the British print and broadcast media on public knowledge and understanding of the 2008 financial crisis.

Focusing on the October 2008 bank bailouts and debates about the national deficit and austerity circa 2009, Berry conducted content analysis, focus groups with the public and interviewed senior journalists producing the news.

With the public’s interest in economic and business news at unprecedented levels in 2008, he found the media “functioned to channel the very real public anger… into largely symbolic issues” while leaving the deep structural faults in Britain’s financial system “largely unexamined.” In particular he notes “City voices dominated core coverage of the [partial] bank nationalisations” on the BBC Today programme.

Similarly, he observed the media “constructed – to varying degrees – a narrative that the deficit represented a major economic threat which necessitated quick and sharp cuts to the welfare state.” Austerity was largely presented as inevitable, with his sample of BBC News at Ten’s output showing no space was given to economists, academics, unions or civil society actors “who might have advocated countercyclical or anti-austerity policies.”

Dismayingly, many of the participants in the focus groups said immigrants and asylum seekers were a primary reason for the rise in public debt caused by the recession created by the financial crisis – an outcome of decades-long misreporting of public spending, welfare and immigration by large sections of the media, Berry argues.

Contrary to the “dominant strand of thinking in both academic and lay circles that the media have relatively little influence” on public attitudes, Berry concludes the media had a “significant impact” on public opinion during the banking crisis and deficit debates. The repercussions of this manufactured ignorance have been immense, ultimately leading to a widespread acceptance of austerity that has devastated large swathes of the country, playing a key role in the 2010 and 2015 elections, the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader.

Helpfully, Berry ends with a few tips for any Labour government interested in significantly increasing public spending, which will almost certainly incur the wrath of influential sections of the media: careful monitoring of public opinion combined with “a proactive and robust system of rebuttal” and utilisation of the mass membership to present the most effective arguments to the general public.

Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand post-crash Britain.

The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £22.99.

Media Amnesia and the economic crisis: Interview with Laura Basu

Media Amnesia and the economic crisis: Interview with Laura Basu
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2018

Earlier this year Dr Laura Basu, currently a researcher with the Institute for Cultural Inquiry at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, published Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis. In the book, Basu provides a sharp critique of the British media’s coverage of the crisis, analysing 1,133 news items from the Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, Mirror and BBC between 2007 and 2015, and conducting interviews with journalists.

Ian Sinclair asked Basu about how this Media Amnesia relates to public opinion, the importance of Ed Miliband’s positioning of the Labour Party during the crisis, the role of the Guardian and how media reporting can be changed for the better.

Ian Sinclair: Regarding the economic crisis, what do you mean by Media Amnesia, and what are its primary characteristics?

Laura Basu: Media amnesia in general refers to the ways that media can forget, misremember and rewrite events over time, in ways that can serve particular interests. With the economic crisis, this amnesia happened in spectacular fashion. As the crisis morphed from a banking meltdown to recession, to public debt crises to a living standards crisis, media narratives about the problems also shifted. Blame was reallocated to the public sector. Suddenly, instead of talking about the greedy bankers and the faulty free market economic model, it was all about public sector waste, Labour overspending and benefits scroungers. This helped legitimise austerity, more privatisation and tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. So media amnesia helped legitimise an intensification of the same economic model that produced the crisis in the first place.

This amnesia happened at incredible speed, and involved the media rewriting its own very recent coverage of events. To a large extent, this was a very active, politically-motivated selective amnesia, pushed by Conservative politicians and the right-wing sections of the press. But it was also passively reproduced by the public broadcasters and more liberal media.

IS: How does this Media Amnesia relate to public opinion?

LB: The media forgot the real causes of the crisis and reallocated blame onto the public sector. This helped narrow the range of debate and make certain crisis-responses appear as common sense. The crisis was the result of the dynamics of the neoliberal form of capitalism that became dominant in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not that this analysis was splashed all over the media at the time back in 2008 – the media analysis was mostly more superficial – but there was some acknowledgement that deregulation, free-markets-gone-wild and ‘casino capitalism’ were the culprits. Even the right wing papers blamed deregulation and the culture of greed. This recognition of structural problems with the economic model could have been an opportunity to discuss a whole range of possible alternative models. But the deeper problems were quickly forgotten and this was accompanied by an extreme narrowing of the debate about solutions.

At the same time, the shifting of blame away from the banks to the public sector meant that serious financial reform fell off the media agenda while austerity began to seem like common sense – if the problems were caused by excessive public spending, it makes sense that we should be talking about reducing public spending. And, forgetting that the neoliberal model had produced the crisis meant that bringing in further neoliberal reforms in response to the crisis, like deregulation and corporation tax cuts, seemed less absurd than they may have done had the real causes been remembered.

IS: What effect did Ed Miliband’s Labour Party not fully opposing austerity have on media reporting of the economic crisis?

LB: All media agendas – regardless of which political party a media outlet supports or if they are required to be impartial like the public broadcasters – tend to be led by Westminster. Pretty much all analyses of the sources journalists rely on, including my own, show that politicians and other state officials are the ‘primary definers’ of news – they set the terms and parameters of debate. This means that if the opposition party does not strongly oppose a government policy, or doesn’t offer a real policy alternative, criticism and alternatives are unlikely to make it into media coverage at all. Ed Miliband’s soundbite about austerity was ‘too far too fast’. And that translated into the media debate – discussions revolved around how much austerity there should be and the timing of cuts, rather than whether there should be any austerity and what other kinds of policies could be pursued. Similarly, the 2015 Labour manifesto promised that Britain would continue to have the most competitive rate of corporation tax in the G7. This meant that these kinds of ‘business friendly’ policies did not receive much scrutiny.

IS: What did you find regarding the Guardian’s reporting?

LB: That was very interesting. The Guardian has a different ownership and organisational structure than other mainstream newspapers. And the Guardian journalists I spoke to do feel that they have more autonomy than their colleagues at other outlets. And that could help explain why there was more diversity in the Guardian coverage than in the other outlets. On the one hand, pieces by Seumas Milne, Zoe Williams, Aditya Chakrabortty, George Monbiot and others, were genuinely critical and tried to change the terms of the debate. On the other hand, a lot of the news reporting and comments pieces tended to reproduce narratives and assumptions coming from within the establishment. When it came to austerity, the Guardian contained a lot of highly critical coverage about the cuts the government was implementing. However, it was criticising the extent of the cuts and the way the cuts were carried out, rather than opposing austerity per se or hashing out what other kinds of policy agenda could be pursued. The implicit assumption was that some austerity was necessary.

IS: How can we, as a society, cure ourselves of this dangerous Media Amnesia?

LB: We can campaign for media reform. There is now an interesting media reform agenda in the UK, coming from the Media Reform Coalition and other groups. We need a media that is free from control both of the state and of corporations. We need a plurality framework to break up media oligopolies and give journalists more independence. We need to reform the BBC to make it more independent and more representative. And we need large-scale public investment in media that serve the public interest. This kind of reform would be done through the mechanism of the state, but should be decentralised, in such a way as to support an ecosystem of non-profit media collectives. This goes not just for content provision but also for digital infrastructure. We might think that social media provides a good alternative to the old-school media barons, but the digital giants are some of the biggest monopolies in economic history. We need public alternatives that help us understand the world in which we live and enable us to take informed political action.

Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis is published by Pluto Press, priced £24.99.

 

Book review. Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis by Laura Basu

Book review. Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis by Laura Basu
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2018-January 2019

This is an essential read for anybody – activists very much included – who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of the 2007–2008 economic crash and its subsequent political after-shocks, from the election of Donald Trump in the US to Brexit and rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

However, first and foremost, the book is a sharp critique of the media’s coverage of the economic crisis.

As well as interviewing journalists, Laura Basu, a researcher at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Utrecht University, has analysed 1,133 news items from the GuardianTelegraphSunMirror and BBC between 2007 and 2015.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model – along with other theoretical frameworks – is cited as relevant to the patterns of media coverage set out in the book.

Basu’s central, very persuasive, thesis is that a ‘phenomenon of media amnesia [concerning the history and causes of the crisis]… has been created purposely by politicians and sections of the press’. Facts and arguments go unreported, presenting audiences with a very particular ideological framework that has legitimised neoliberal ‘solutions’ to the crisis.

Basu argues there are three primary characteristics of the media coverage that have contributed to this political con trick: a lack of historical context, a narrow range of elite perspectives, and a dearth of global context.

For example, she highlights how, after the crisis was successfully framed as an outcome of overspending by previous Labour governments, the media and focus groups largely accepted that austerity should be the response.

Of course, this makes sense if the problem was Labour profligacy, though it ignores the structural and global causes of the crash, and sidelines the Keynesian responses to the crisis advocated by Nobel Prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz (who advocated policies such as ditching austerity, fundamental reforms to the financial system, and kickstarting the economy with ambitious government spending).

With the media defining the bounds of debate as the positions of the main political parties, Labour’s decision, under Ed Miliband, not to significantly oppose the Coalition government’s cuts was disastrous.

Indeed, this political weakness likely influenced the progressive media like the Guardian, which Basu notes accepted some degree of austerity.

‘The Guardian projects an image of representing a social democratic agenda, but when social democrats begin to attain positions of power the paper closes ranks’, she argues, referencing the paper’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

Detailed and academic with a wide-ranging bibliography, this is an accessible and engrossing read, concluding with a range of potential cures for the Media Amnesia that are worthy of activists’ attention, from greater media plurality to Dan Hind’s intriguing proposals for the public and democratic commissioning of investigative journalism.

Basu has also co-edited The Media and Austerity (Routledge, 2018) which, judging from her references to it here, should also be revelatory.

New report highlights the inaccurate news coverage of antisemitism controversy

New report highlights the inaccurate news coverage of antisemitism controversy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star

13 October 2018

Though it is the first in-depth, academic-level research focussing on the media coverage of the controversy surrounding antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Media Reform Coalition’s (MRC) new report has been ignored by the mainstream media.

This media blackout is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the report’s broad findings: “we identified myriad inaccuracies and distortions in online and television news including marked skews in sourcing, omission of essential context or right of reply, misquotation, and false assertions made either by journalists themselves or sources whose contentious claims were neither challenged nor countered.”

An “independent coalition of groups and individuals committed to maximising the public interest in communications”, the MRC’s current chair is Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The report is co-authored by Dr Justin Schlosberg, Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media at Birkbeck, University of London, and Laura Laker, a freelance journalist with eight years’ experience, including appearing on Sky News, BBC Breakfast and LBC radio. Schlosberg is an active member of the Labour Party and Jewish Voice for Labour, while Laker is not a member of the Labour Party, and has not voted consistently for Labour in local or national elections. For the research geeks out there, the researchers analysed their sample of 258 news items separately, “yielding a 93% agreement across the coding decisions”, which they argue “is considered near perfect agreement and indicates highly reliable findings.”

The report looks at the media coverage of the core document at the heart of the controversy – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the Labour Party has been under intense pressure to adopt.

The authors’ provide crucial context missing from most media reporting, noting that although the IHRA itself adopted the definition in 2016, only six of its member state countries have adopted it to date, and only eight countries in total. In contrast, the media has repeatedly inflated how widely the IHRA definition had been adopted. Speaking on the BBC Today Programme in September 2018, presenter John Humphrys said the definition had “been accepted by almost every country in the world”. Similarly, writing in the Guardian Jonathan Freedland referred to the “near universally accepted” IHRA definition.

The Board of Deputies (BoD), Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) and many commentators have also repeatedly referred to over 120 UK local authorities having adopted in full the IHRA definition. However, the report explains “to date, less than a third [of local authorities in the UK] have heeded the call” and that “several of those local authorities that have adopted the definition do not appear to have included any of the accompanying examples” (which are defined as being part of the full IHRA definition by its supporters). Suspicious of the “over 120 local authorities” claim, I personally contacted the BoD, JLC and LFI and asked for a list of all the local authorities that have adopted the IHRA definition. All three organisations refused to provide me with the list.

Discussing sourcing, the report notes “A number of news reports focused on the code controversy also featured no defensive sources at all. The Guardian was a particular outlier in this respect, with critical sources given an entirely unchallenged platform in nearly half of the articles within this sub-sample”.

“In sum, both quantitative and qualitative analysis of sourcing revealed marked skews which effectively gave those attacking Labour’s revised [antisemitism] code and championing the IHRA definition a virtually exclusive and unchallenged platform to air their views”, the report concludes about sourcing. “By comparison, their detractors – including a number of Jewish organisations and representatives of other affected minorities – were systematically marginalized from the coverage.”

The report ends by looking at media coverage of the alleged antisemitic remark Labour activist Marc Wadsworth made to Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth at the launch of Shami Chakrabarti’s report into antisemitism in June 2016. In actual fact the video footage shows Wadsworth simply accused Smeeth of “working hand in hand” with the Daily Telegraph newspaper. There was, the report notes, no evidence of antisemitism in Wadsworth’s remarks (Wadsworth has always maintained he didn’t know Smeeth was Jewish). However, taking its framing from Smeeth and her supporters, the media coverage repeatedly reported that Wadsworth had accused Smeeth of conspiring with the press in general (which chimes with a longstanding antisemitic trope), and even of being part of a “Jewish media conspiracy” (The Sun).

“Nearly half of the reports in the sample (15 out of 33) either quoted Smeeth directly or referred to her allegations without mentioning Wadsworth’s denial”, Schlosberg and Laker note. “This was a clear subversion of the journalistic principle of offering a right of reply to those who face reputational damage from an allegation of harm.”

With the so-called left-wing Guardian and trusted BBC coming in for lots of criticism, the report concludes “overall, our findings were consistent with a disinformation paradigm” – defined by the authors as “systematic reporting failures that broadly privileged a particular agenda and narrative.”

“This does not mean that these failures were intentional or that journalists and news institutions are inherently biased”, they caveat.

Whether the skewed, anti-Corbyn coverage was intentional or not, this vital research provides some important lessons for those wishing to see a Corbyn-led Labour Party in government powerful enough to carry out its manifesto promises. First, it is clear the media, including those organisations which are perceived to be sympathetic to the Corbyn Project, cannot be trusted to report accurately on Labour Party politics. They must be consumed carefully and actively monitored. Second, to overcome future attacks on the Corbyn Project, Labour Party members, Corbyn supporters and concerned citizens must become better organised and more powerful – and, most importantly, build up their own independent media to combat the lies and distortions.

Read the Labour, Antisemitism and the News: A Disinformation Paradigm report http://www.mediareform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Labour-antisemitism-and-the-news-FINAL-PROOFED.pdf

Antisemitism and the Labour Party: Rebecca Ruth Gould interview

Antisemitism and the Labour Party: Rebecca Ruth Gould interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 September 2018

Last month Professor Rebecca Ruth Gould from the University of Birmingham published an article titled ‘Legal Form and Legal Legitimacy: The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism as a Case Study in Censored Speech’ in the peer-reviewed academic journal Law, Culture and the Humanities – “the first extended scholarly treatment of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s new definition of antisemitism”.

Ian Sinclair: The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has referred to “Labour’s failure to adopt the full text of the near universally accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.” Does this characterisation concur with your research?

Rebecca Ruth Gould: Freedland’s claims are misleading and inaccurate. The leading American-Jewish newspaper, The Forward, offers a very different account of the IHRA’s status within the Jewish community. In its pages, the IHRA (both the organization and the definition) has been described as “worthy of outrage,” by Lev Golyakin, who also points out that over a fifth of the 31 IHRA’s member countries “are currently engaged in outright glorification of Nazi collaborators and Holocaust distortion and/or denial.” Why should anyone take guidance from an organisation that collaborates with the rightwing governments of Hungary, Lithuania, and Romania, which have recently been engaged in whitewashing their role in the Holocaust? Yair Wallach has further shown in Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, that the IHRA definition is useless for addressing antisemitism due to its failure to engage with structural racism.  Finally, Freedland’s reference to the “full text” is misleading. During the IHRA delegate meeting in 2016, the examples were determined to be advisory, and not part of the full definition itself. Yet Freedland, along with many other UK commentators, erroneously refers to the “full text” as if that included the examples. This conflicts with the IHRA’s own position. While it is true that the definition has been adopted by all IHRA member states by virtue of their membership, the “full text” of the definition from the point of view of the IHRA and its member states is precisely the two-sentence definition and not the examples, as the press release makes clear when it states “the following examples may serve as illustrations.”

The recent weaponisation of the IHRA definition is itself conducive to antisemitism. It falsely suggests that there is a consensus among Jews around this document and its uses, and that all Jews oppose criticism of Israel, when in fact the most intense and significant criticism of human rights violations by the state of Israel generally comes from Jewish scholars, NGOs, activists, and lawyers, who oppose the ways in which this nation-state presumes to speak on their behalf and in their name when it discriminates against Palestinians.

IS: What effect has the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism had on civil society and public debate in the UK?

RRG: Increased censorship, within the mainstream media and on university campuses (the focus on my article), has been the most notable effect. Antisemitism experts and scholars like Brian Klug, David Feldman, Stephen Sedley, Anthony Lerman, Rachel Shabi, Kenneth Stern, Adam Wagner, have made important contributions to the debate, but their voices are drowned out by a headline-hungry media. These individuals do not represent a consensus; they have written in various ways about the definition and about antisemitism more generally. In some cases, they support the use of the IHRA definition for specific purposes (such as the classification of hate crimes by the police), but in most cases, they oppose its adoption for the purpose of censoring speech. I don’t agree with them on all particulars, but I respect their voices. They speak from multiple sides of the debate, and their voices should be heard.

And yet their wise, intelligent, and discerning words have not been given a platform in the same way as have more narrow-minded commentators like Jonathan Arkush and Jonathan Freedland. To its shame, The Guardian (a newspaper that has led the way in exposing the injustice of the UK immigration regime) has refused to recognize non-Zionist Jewish organizations like Jewish Voice for Labour in their coverage and has contributed significantly to the false narrative of consensus around the IHRA definition. I should note in fairness that The Guardian has good coverage of human rights violations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, but its coverage of the issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party has been appallingly one-sided.

Just as non-Zionist Jews have been silenced in this debate, so too have the voices of Palestinians and their supporters. While BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) groups recently published a letter noting their concerns with the document, they have generally been denied a platform to express their views in mainstream media outlets. And yet the proposal to ban anti-Israel speech affects them too. The adoption of the IHRA examples would send a message that the “right to self-determination” of the Jewish people (as stipulated in the examples) is sacrosanct in ways that rights for Palestinians are not, and that Jewish rights matter more than the rights of other ethnic minorities. Minimally, this a double standard. Maximally, it is prejudice that seeks to be enshrined in law. Although the working definition has no legal status, my article shows how it has been interpreted in UK university contexts as if it were a law. Notably, proposals targeting Islamophobic speech have not received the same airtime in mainstream media outlets. I would oppose those too, because censoring speech is inconsistent with democracy.

IS: What advice would you give to organisations, such as the Labour Party, which are considering – or are in the process of – adopting the IHRA working definition and examples?

RRG: The first thing that must be said in any consideration about how a European political party ought to address antisemitism is that Europe’s history of antisemitism and role in the genocide of the Jewish people means that the dangers of antisemitism will always need to be given serious consideration. Just as every accusation of sexual harassment should be taken seriously, complaints of antisemitism must be treated with empathy and open-minded inquiry, even in cases of intense political disagreement. In a political context that is witnessing the ascendancy of rightwing neo-Nazism across Europe (in Sweden, Denmark, Austria, and Germany) we cannot afford to trivialise antisemitism, even as we rightly resist its weaponisation. Antisemitism is so deeply implicated in European history that it is hardly surprising if the discourse around Israel has in certain ways exacerbated antisemitism.

I don’t therefore support those who deny that there is any antisemitism in the Labour Party. Labour has nothing to gain by taking such a position. There is always room for self-education and self-critique. But we need to move beyond the idea that policing speech is an adequate solution, or that the best way to respond to politically-motivated pressure (which has less to do with Israel than with factions within the Labour Party, many of which are not Jewish) is to concede to it. If we allow one political faction to determine whether criticism of Israel is to be understood as antisemitic, where do such concessions end? Do we also allow radical Islamists to determine what criticism of Islam should be considered Islamophobic? In my view, concessions to specific groups who ask for censorship is never helpful.

Labour must recognize the internal diversity of the Jewish community, and not allow a political faction to silence other points of view, as is happening now to an unprecedented degree. Adoption of the IHRA definition will harm Palestinians and the Palestinian cause; it will also harm non-Zionist Jews, as can be seen from the attempted expulsion of Professor Moshe Machover from the Labour party on the grounds of his violation of the IHRA definition, and the strong opposition that the definition has faced from Jews whose political convictions differ from the Board of Deputies.

I think Corbyn should publicly consolidate his ties with Jewish Voice for Labour and the Jewish Socialist Group. Of course, not all of his critics will be satisfied by that, but such is the nature of politics. Corbyn should also discourage the demonization of any country or political faction, including Israel and Zionists. Above all, we must not be distracted from the struggle for global justice by this domestic political fight.

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.

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.