A panel discussion on Jeremy Corbyn’s effect on people and politics with John Harris of The Guardian, Kerry-Anne Mendoza of The Canary, Mark Perryman, author of ‘The Corbyn Effect’ and Sylvia Jones of Bath Momentum.
St Catherine’s Church Hall, Frome. Saturday, 9th December 2017
Not sure how Dave Clark does it, but we have a panel that wouldn’t look out of place on BBC Question Time (if only…!) sitting in front of us in a church hall in Frome on a Saturday afternoon. There’s jaunty bunting overhead and the offer of tea and cake from the kitchen counter. Ramsay, the CLP dog, makes a last minute saunter past the panel just to make sure all’s in order.
Mark Perryman introduces himself by telling us that in the September 2015 election 69% of voters didn’t vote Tory. Let that sink in for a moment… Earlier that year Stoke’s Copeland by-election had been accompanied by MSM trumpeting the ‘existential crisis’ within Labour and predicting huge UKIP gains and the annihilation of Corbyn’s Labour project. Then Theresa May announced a general election. Mark’s first thought he tells us, was ‘oh fuck’ – and his book was placed on hold. On the evening of 8th June Mark was in his local constituency of Kemptown, which was predicted an 800 Tory majority in an exit poll. By 3am a 12,000 Labour majority had been declared. The word ‘crisis’ was immediately deleted from the book title and ‘The Corbyn Effect’ was born. Mark explains some context, “2005 was a historic Blair victory. Blair’s take on globilisation was, ‘I hear people say we have to stop globilisation. You might as well debate whether Autumn should follow Summer.’ That was the Blair mind set. Then we had Ed Milliband. I’ll never forget watching a hustings panel with Natalie Bennet of the Greens, Nichola Sturgeon of the SNP and Welsh leader saying to him, ‘you’re different, Ed, but not different enough…’ . As Stuart Hall wrote in Marxism Today in January 1979, ‘we’re on the cusp of a new consensus.’ Thatcher’s neo-liberal project was an ‘attempt to construct an alternative logic.’ I believe that this new Corbyn consensus is as potent as Thatcherism circa. 1979.”
Kerry-Anne Mendoza edits the brilliantly successful alternative news site, The Canary, which now has a whopping 35 million readers, and rising. With falling circulation and increasing scepticism about the impartiality of the MSM and the BBC – or main stream media – The Canary has captured the lion’s share of disaffected former Guardian readers, along with Evolver, Novara Media and Swawkbox. She believes that 2015 was the ‘culmination of years and years of waiting. Between 2010 and 2015 we were hearing heartbreaking stories of ideologically driven austerity. A neo-liberal blitzkrieg. The Tories were placing the blame on doctors, nurses, teachers. I believe it was a failure of us on the left to not get that message across. The Canary watched as bankers were rewarded for tanking the economy and as local business and the welfare state struggled and crumbled under the grip of austerity. The ‘Corbyn Effect’ made this deception tangible. People began to see it for what it was…’
John Harris of the Guardian is a local resident and a self-proclaimed ‘Marxism Today fan boy’. His take on the Corbyn Effect is as follows, ‘to that extent it took a long time for the 90’s to end, we saw a rise in inequality and a marketised welfare state and at the same time (with the Clinton and Obama administrations 2004/2005) we saw executive pay skyrocketing. Then came the Crash – 2007 to 2008. Lehman Brothers went down and everything changed. Except the PLP. Owen Smith was a big mistake. It’s no longer about politics, but about ideas. I go around the country talking to miserable and angry people, but in 2015 a new conversation was emerging, ‘homelessness is wrong, feed people – why are there foodbanks? Why doesn’t our school have any books?’ And young people are fighting back against the Brexit backlash in their communities. It’s their future after all. We were in Birmingham on the night of the election at throwing out time. Everyone we spoke to had voted Labour. So we have a division now – and a stalemate – between traditional small ‘c’ conservative voters and liberal, educated voters who accept immigration.’
Sylvia Jones of Bath Momentum sees the change in the people she talks to when door knocking. ‘People are now talking about VALUES – Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are putting the NHS, austerity, education and the marketization of the welfare state their focus. This is what they stand for. We formed Momentum in Bath by getting together with the Bristol group. At the very first meeting Laura Parker, Director of Momentum, put the chairs in a circle to be more inclusive. We are first and foremost a grass roots, bottom up movement.’
The discussion, chaired by David Oakensen, then moves on to a discussion of the role of so-called MSM, or main-stream-media, in this new political arena and why alt-media is playing a such a vital role in amplifying the Corbyn effect. Kerry-Anne Mendoza speaks first, ‘John Pilger is my inspiration. That makes me a ‘journalist with intent’. In our alt-media we have found solidarity and community. We have no money and no connections. We are not Dimblebys. We are challenging, not attacking the causes of poverty. We are the ‘New Media’ and there are tens of millions of us now countering the daily assaults on Corbyn. We are firmly and deliberately outside the ‘Westminster echo chamber’, we are ethnically diverse, we are not Oxbridge/white/male. We have had other lives and other careers outside politics. We are not career journalists – we believe this makes us better communicators and give us a far greater appetite to get our message across. During the 2015 election we were able to better reflect, to make visible, the appetite for Corbyn. Make no mistake, the press are out to kill this movement. We have made it acceptable to say, ‘I am left wing’.
John Harris points to a problem with many ‘main stream’ – the ones owned by billionaires who neither live nor pay taxes in the UK – he mentions The Daily Mail, The Express, and the Murdoch press – which includes The Sun, The Times and the Sunday Times. The Guardian he claims is ‘different’. And to the extent that The Guardian was until recent times run independently by The Scott Trust that is true. (Sadly, the Scott Trust became the Scott Trust Limited some time ago and it’s possible to google the board of directors of the trust to find that most board members are members of large corporations. The one journalist on the board is the current editor, Katherine Viner. So yes, to an extent, different. But in many ways the same – run by and for corporate interests. ) John points to the expose of off shore banking scandals The Paradise Papers, leaked by the Washington Post and The Guardian, articles on Grenfell and the education system. He praises the writing of Jonathan Freedland and Nick Cohen. And John himself of course writes widely and eloquently about all manner of social and political issues. He travels around the country and engages with people and reports on the challenges of the lives that they are living. At this point John Perryman interjects. He has brought with him a selection of articles from The Guardian, many of which include headlines and articles knocking Corbyn and disparaging his politics and the supporters of his cause. Mark particularly singles out Nick Cohen for his extraordinary attacks on Corbyn in regular articles for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers. The vitriol is unprecedented. Perryman points to Varafakis, Rousseau and Hobbes. He links the rise of Corbyn to the French enlightenment. Perhaps Corbynism really is a philosophical revolution? John is on a difficult wicket, for sure. But here he is, turning up to a marginal Labour CLP on a Saturday afternoon and answering difficult questions to which he mostly has no answer. Times have changed. Main stream media no longer has the answers. Circulation at many of them is in free-fall. But by heavens – they will not go down without a fight. And John is gracious enough to acknowledge that. He’s a thoroughly likeable and decent man.
And so to the future – the panel tackle the question of whether the Corbyn effect has peaked. Sylvia Jones says not. She points to the strength of the grass roots movement, ‘We are phone banking, door knocking, we are a social movement and we need to build on this. As a linguist I am shocked at the framing of the debate around Corbyn – the language used is so damaging. We need to re-frame the narrative to counter much of the MSM coverage. Mark Perryman feels that the movement is ‘emboldened by new media’. He would like to see and end to the ‘oooh, Jeremy Corbyn’ personality thing’ as he calls it and is looking towards a Post-Brexit 2022 election. He calls for the left to embrace it’s history of radical mass participation, citing the Two Tone Movement, Rock Against Racism and would like to see that spirit re-energised within the Corbyn movement and at rallies across the country. ‘We are a grass roots movement – Corbynism comes from below – it doesn’t exist without us.’ He continues, ‘Labour is on the brink of a historic victory, you could compare this time only to 1945 and 1979. We just have to have the stamina to get there. To keep the momentum going. It’s going to be a long, hard slog for sure…’
John Harris feels that there needs to be a discussion around the subject of Universal Basic Income. He favours the Swedish model. He’s not a fan of Facebook or twitter, but acknowledges the part they are playing in current politics. He thinks that Labour need to focus on by elections by having a clear idea of the ideology of the movement, ‘not all intellectuals are academics,’ he says, ‘politics is fun, too.’
Brexit is the final topic of the afternoon. John Harris is clear, ‘Corbyn should not have embraced Article 50 the day after the Brexit result. Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster, economically. Corbyn and others were always anti-Europe.’ Mark Perryman believes that Kier Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn have a plan, ‘they are playing the waiting game. And this is the right thing to do. The Tories should be allowed to continue fucking up – but this won’t work forever… at some point Labour will have to break cover. Corbyn was prepared to say to Europe, ‘We can change it from within.’ He warns that with the next election way off in 2022 that fatigue is bound to set in, but that it must be resisted. He predicts a Post-Brexit election and wonders how much longer Theresa May can ‘stagger on – except they’ll never let her off the hook and let Corbyn in – so we’re in for the long haul.’ Kerry-Anne has the final words, she urges us to ‘say No to Milliband and embrace grass roots, re-democratised, re-energised Labour under Corbyn, ‘I have a phrase I use to describe this focus – I call it ‘urgent patience’. This may well be a lifetime commitment.’
And with that Ramsay the CLP dog calls a tea break and urges us to form an orderly queue for Mark Perryman’s book signing. We fall willingly in line and walk out into the late December afternoon, copies in hand with Mark’s words ringing in our ears, ‘Read the book, tell your friends, make a difference…’