Simply asserting something does not make it the truth, in politics or otherwise.
With the election manifestos now laid bare for scrutiny, remaining a passenger on the good ship Politics seems cowardly. So here’s an attempt to grab the rudder a little – an assessment of UK politics in the run up to the 2017 general election.
I’ve always exercised my right to vote, my compulsions driven by notions of morality, fairness, rationality and humanitarianism. But I’ve never really considered myself a political animal, so it was with some surprise that I found myself inexorably drawn into that murky world following the events of the last year.
I still feel genuinely alarmed about the implications of leaving the EU. I have been fascinated, appalled, disgusted and angered by the soap opera of the Trump o’clock news. So there seems to be more, much more, going on here than old-fashioned left-right politics.
The divisions highlighted by Brexit, the refugee crisis and subsequent rise of the far-right across Europe (nearly 11 million French people just voted for Marine Le Pen, for example), Scottish independence, Trumpmania (manic seems apt), the rise of China, what to do about Assad, what planet is Putin on, and other not insignificant narratives together tell a tale of a political paradigm shift.
So to get my head around this in time for polling day on June 8th, I need to go back to basics with what politics now looks like in 2017. I need to question the media, specifically whether I can still trust the national broadcaster for balanced information. And I need the courage to choose which party to back based on the manifesto pledges and policies. Otherwise, I might as well just say (as my kids have) that Jeremy Corbyn looks like Obi-wan Kenobi and Theresa May looks like Emperor Palpatine, and make my choice on that basis.
Trump’s inglorious ascent was thick with the promise of substance, lacquered with the veneer of style. This obviously turned out to be absolutely hollow (hmm, massive surprise there). Theresa May seems to believe that her substance does not need to be displayed, that simply turning up on June 8th will be enough. So with her, it’s still not clear whether we’re looking at a bronze statue, a hollow porcelain doll or a straw man. Either way, regurgitating the words ’strong and stable’ at every juncture does nothing to enamour her to the rational, neither should it convince anyone of its veracity. Simply asserting something does not make it the truth, in politics or otherwise. It may have worked for Trump’s election campaign, but it may not for May.
There is a fifth dimension in politics, which is probably best summarised by the word propaganda. Because whatever the various parties, personalities and manifestos espouse (and they, remember, are all open to interpretation), the reporting of this by the media affects everything about their sentiment; importance, tone, ideology, cost, cost feasibility, deliverability, and so on. The media is not apolitical, it never has been.
So these important messages, even if delivered with great clarity and sincerity, can be lost, obfuscated or misrepresented in the white noise of media partisanship and prejudice. The opposite is also true of course, so unimportant yada yada, devious bullshit and utter nonsense can be manipulated to appear consequential and worthy of credence.
Furthermore, now that we all follow the stuff we already like on social media, the propaganda effect is amplified exponentially. From within our silos, some people seem to readily give equal weight to the words of a work colleague or former schoolfriend as they do to a reputable news source. Worse still, we rarely venture beyond our social bubble, so the traditions of debate and counterargument are often bypassed completely. Even when they are indulged, an argument on Twitter or Facebook quickly descends into vulgarity and childishness. This deepens divisions and hampers proper debate.
Is the BBC politically biassed?
As for the reputable news sources, I increasingly find the word ‘reputable’ to be a little flaky, but solid journalism endures if you care to seek it out without wearing your own prejudices on your sleeve. Following murmurings on nearly all sides of the political spectrum and some slightly visceral comments on social media, I have even started to take an interest in the neutrality of my beloved BBC, with its license-fee funded and therefore regulated mandate for balanced news output and all its national-treasure nostalgic baggage. I generally buy into it now as I always have. I’m a fan. And being a rationalist, I’m not tempted by fakery, I am blessed with a hypersensitive in-built bullshit detection system and I don’t own any rose-tinted glasses. So it would take a lot to persuade me that my gut was wrong on this one.
The list of current and recent BBC correspondents and high-up influencers with Tory links is quite long compared with 20 years ago, when the boot was on the other foot. Some of them recently left the BBC to work for the Conservatives, so that still sort of counts in terms of legacy. The list includes: Andrew Neil, Nick Robinson, Thea Rogers, Robbie Gibb, Craig Oliver, Guto Harri, Kamal Ahmed, and of course Lord Patten. The list of people with Labour links is much shorter; it’s basically Andrew Marr and Paul Mason.
However, the question should really be this: are these people able to become and remain impartial after their appointment? If you seek to employ political correspondents and editors, you’d expect them to have a huge interest in politics. You would not expect them to have been androgynous political fence-sitters throughout their careers, before during or after a stint at the BBC. A political reporter claiming to be apolitical is just, frankly, weird.
In the run-up to Brexit and also afterwards, there was an obvious bias at the BBC in favour of remaining. As a remainer myself, I admit it was entertaining to hear and watch Brexiteers being pulled to pieces (or ‘destroyed’ if you’re under 25), but in retrospect it now makes me feel uncomfortable. Nick Robinson defends the BBC on the bias point here after he made some comments in the Radio Times about Brexit reporting on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. It seems clear that because Brexit wasn’t about party politics, some BBC commentators felt liberated from the shackles of balanced output. Of course the problem (and the reason for my discomfort) is that it is now clear the national broadcaster did not represent the nation on this one.
Back to the 2017 general election coverage and the Today programme is again under fire, this time because of its imposed obligation to read out the headlines from the printed press. The problem with that is explained in this New Statesman article, with figures from here, and from which I quote:
In the 2015 general election, the share of press support for the Tories (measured by circulation) was 71 per cent compared to 15 per cent for Labour and 5 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. If anything, the press has moved further to the right since then.
So by simply reading out the newspaper headlines, the BBC contravenes its own rules on balance. Awkward.
Beyond that though, I consistently hear politicians on Today being interrupted mid-sentence (especially by John Humphrys), which is annoying if you want to hear their words, but is also a rather obvious tactic to both undermine and fluster them. I usually enjoy the standard of journalism on this show and the tenacity of its presenters, but a line seems to have been crossed here.
I’ll admit the crossed line is an interestingly vague one. John Humphrys can easily be accused of liberal and intellectual elitism (which came to the fore during Brexit), but he has certainly toed the BBC impartiality line over the years. So unless you’re willing to argue that either Labour or Tory politicians are more stupid, and therefore more irksome to the aloof Mr Humphrys, it seems odd to be thinking of this as having anything to do with bias. For me, it’s an indelible impression, an aftertaste, that leads me to think he does the interrupting thing more to politicians from the left than he does to those from the right.
But maybe that’s my own bias speaking.
After all, we sometimes subconsciously hear what we want to hear, especially on subjects we feel strongly about. And that’s probably the root of much of the social media tittle-tattle on this subject. Each side seems equally certain it is they who should feel wronged.
What about BBC’s other news output; does any of it warrant accusations of bias? BBC1’s headline packages at 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock seem mostly harmless due to the scarcity of opinion and criticism. They are necessarily bland mainstream viewing, so lack the kind of bite that wins journalism awards. Some correspondents find a way around this, for example Jon Sopel’s subtle yet scathing assessments of Washington shenanigans. But all seem at pains to present the balanced view. We even get a lite version of Laura Kuenssberg, visibly straining to find simple language that neither confuses nor offends a mainstream audience.
My favourite news show is Newsnight. I can’t really fault any of the presenters (although I miss Paxman’s eyebrow) and both they and the correspondents seem to relish the opportunity to actually go a bit deeper, to talk of consequence, to look at implication, to proffer opinion. We get the erudite and unsurpassed Evan Davis, the astute Emily Maitlis, the supersub Kirsty Wark, a full-fat Laura Kuenssberg, forever happy Nick Watt, ubergeek Chris Cook and several other regulars. The ‘experts’ always seem quite expertish and if they need to have opposing views, the Newsnight production team maintain the precarious balance with their guest selection. Overall, I think Newsnight’s output is meticulous, insightful and entertaining, and I made sure I told Nick Watt that when I met him on Tuesday. Evan Davis is fast becoming as effective an interviewer as Paxman ever was, using the tactic of affability in place of Paxman’s intimidatory sneering intellect.
Question Time gives an equal platform to people with majority and minority views, which is certainly entertaining, but in aiming for an equal right to speak, it falls well short of balance here. This accusation can also be levelled at American-style leader debates, depending on how many parties are allowed to be considered sufficiently major to warrant inclusion. But I feel these shows are important for our democracy. I want to hear what all sides of the debate are before leaning this way or that. It empowers me to be the informed chooser.
Andrew Neil manages to keep a lid on most of his Toryness, and I believe he has proved his integrity over the years. I used to wish he could somehow hermetically seal his sense of humour, but even that seems to have grown on me. His sarcasm and satire are well penned, but his delivery always threatens to derail the train. The idea of having the same two political figures on the sofa though is quite a good one. Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott were probably the best ‘sofa couple’ partly because they had known each other a long time, but partly also by being forced through the regularity of their encounters to consider the picture with a little more objectivity. Portillo and Balls now have a similar, if less romantic, partnership. This is a formula that now sort of works on Robert Peston’s show too, although it’s quite hard to imagine Gove as part of any couple in any context.
I’ve spent a few days investigating whether anecdotal evidence of the BBC’s political bias that I see littering social media has any evidence to support it. Almost without exception, I found no such evidence, just more and more stories of the scrupulous lengths the corporation and individual correspondents and presenters go to in order to both be and be seen to be impartial. Honestly, looking at Fox ‘News’ and some of the other nonsense out there, I still feel great warmth and pride for the BBC, and I’m relieved that it appears my trust hasn’t been misplaced.
I’m not going to detail the content of the various party manifestos here – that information is widely available. But it’s remarkably easy to distil the Labour, LibDem and Conservative proposals for future direction: the Tories want to give us more of the same, ambiguous and uncosted to allow for the vagaries of unknowable Brexit negotiations; Labour want to change quite a lot, increasing tax for the wealthy and corporations to pay for widespread societal benefits; and the LibDems are betting the house on some of us still wanting to stay in Europe. Of course, that’s a simplification, but it’s interesting that the polls reflected an 8-point bump for Corbyn after the Labour manifesto was published, mostly at the expense of the LibDems.
So some preliminary conclusions spring to mind:
- The Tories think the general appetite for change has evaporated
- The Tories think they’ve already won based on what they propose to do to old people
- The Tories are so confident of victory that they haven’t even bothered to do their costings
- The LibDems’ gamble has failed, which will help Labour more than the Tories
- UKIP is dead, thank goodness
- Undecided moderates like Labour’s policies, but they still think they don’t like Jeremy Corbyn
- Labour people who didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn might be warming to him a bit now, but the disunity damage is already done
- Young people are registering to vote in higher numbers than usual, which will help Labour, but many still can’t be arsed
Just to make my own position clear, I have never before read a manifesto for any party that so readily aligned with my own beliefs and aspirations as this week’s Labour offering. So much so that on Tuesday, after reading the draft manifesto leaked last week, I went to Beaumont Park in Huddersfield to hear what Mr Corbyn had to say.
An enthusiastic crowd had gathered in the park, the local newspaper estimated 600 people, so probably around 500. And the microphone was knackered, so Corbyn used a megaphone instead, meaning that people were generally straining to hear his words. Not being a member of the press corps, I was unable to bag a good recording position, so here’s Kirklees Local TV’s coverage of the speech.
I was blown away by this speech. For 15 minutes, Corbyn spoke to me in my language; humanitarian empathy, common sense, considered rationality, reason, dignity, integrity, equity. He didn’t rely on meaningless soundbites or slogans. He backed up the manifesto with genuine compassion for its sentiment and its intentions. It was clear that he understood the dangerous consequences of maintaining the current status quo without pushing through reform; that simply talking about Brexit plasters over some pretty big and widening cracks in the wall. The reciprocal warmth from this admittedly partisan crowd was also heartfelt. New funding and, more importantly, better ideas and organisation for some fundamental issues: social care, education, NHS, free school meals, musical instruments, mail and rail public ownership, a million new homes, tuition fees, better pay conditions. There was literally nothing I didn’t like.
I can’t really imagine Theresa May or her policies engendering warmth from any audience. I suppose that explains why she has her crowds hand-picked for her in secretive meeting points – the Tory media wing will be desperately trying to avoid showing the reaction of everyday folk. On the two occasions she’s met real people during the campaign, it was utterly cringeworthy watching her trying to improvise or convey any genuine concern.
What I witnessed on Tuesday evening in the park genuinely inspired me. There’s definitely something different about hearing a speech live than just watching snippets of it on TV. I now feel at a loss to know why people don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is a good leader, or that he would make a good prime minister. Perhaps we have been Blaired and Camerooned into expecting a certain level of slick presentation, and a sort of ‘what Americans think British means’ Hugh Grant Etonian foppishness about our leader. But I would prefer to be represented on the global stage by someone like Corbyn, a real person, a much better fit for an average Briton, someone who doesn’t start every sentence with those false qualifiers “Look…” or “So…” or “Strong and stable…”, and someone who smiles when something is funny rather than when some think tank or focus group says it would gain traction. What was Gordon Brown doing with his face?
Put Corbyn in a room with Trump and the cacophonous orange donkey might actually tone down his crazy a little (if he hasn’t been impeached by then). I want someone representing me alongside whom Trump would feel awkward and inferior, like Merkel or Trudeau, someone who doesn’t immediately brown their nose, someone for whom Trump’s gambles, games, posturings and empty assertions are as pitiful as they are profligate. Theresa May cannot be that foil, for she bobs in his tangerine wake, hoping for handouts when Europe tells us to fuck off in 2019.
Just as I asserted that a BBC politics correspondent must have had a bias before landing a role in which presenting a balanced view to the public was required, I have no problem with Corbyn’s previous backbench rebelliousness. To me, that points to the man having principles and being unafraid to defend them. I would not expect exactly the same behaviour in a position of greater responsibility, and this is already borne out since he rose to Labour leader. So I must admit to feeling slightly bewildered by the Labour party’s infighting, which has almost certainly put this election beyond their grasp, despite a huge growth in grassroots support. I just hope that this brave manifesto is not blamed for that likely failure. These are good policies.
I’m also perplexed by my country’s collective political leaning in the face of unrelenting evidence about the incompetent and unfair way it is currently run, that Theresa May even feels able to claim she leads a ‘party for the workers’ (Polly Toynbee this week described that as ‘breathtaking fantasy-speak’). That such a majority could believe the propaganda from the predominantly right-wing press concerns me too. This Tory manifesto is an awkward grab for the vacuums in both the political centre and extreme right. The end result is a party and a leader whose real position remains unclear, somehow simultaneously Thatcherite, Blairite and Faragish, plucking things from several different camps (including some Ed Milliband policies the Tories previously labelled Marxist). But again, simply asserting ‘this is mainstream’ does not make it so.
The Tory social care reforms are stunningly Thatcherite, taking the financial burden of end-of-life care away from the state and handing it to the aged, but more specifically to their children, who would have otherwise inherited that money. The winter fuel allowance reform could mean 10 million people lose out (see here). This attack on the elderly, who vote both Tory and in large numbers, can only be the result of staggering confidence. The Tories must gauge the appetite for Corbyn as prime minister amongst this demographic is so low that even screwing them financially would not cause them to swing that far left. Either that or they’re just banking on old folk not understanding what they’re proposing.
Rupert Murdoch would have us believe that a vote for Corbyn is a vote for Communism. That is as astute as my 14-year-old son saying ‘Communists are cool because they all have AK-47s’. Corbyn’s economics are Keynesian, not Communist. Even a limited memory of A’ Level Economics can discern between the two. So a vote for Corbyn is a vote against monetary economics which have been failing us since Thatcher was in power.
Voting with conscience
By tolerating iniquity, by not challenging this new rhetoric about the benefit of isolationism, by standing idle while our education and health services implode, we surely take a measure of blame for it all. Were there a compelling economic argument for this complicity, it still wouldn’t be morally right, but there would at least be an excuse. Yet there simply isn’t such an argument. I challenge anyone to posit that a strong education system or an efficient health service is economically detrimental to our nation in the long term.
Wealth stems from investment, not austerity. It is generated from the engine room of a healthy educated populous; people who feel brave enough to be entrepreneurial, happy enough to not emigrate, secure enough to reinvest, comfortable enough to support the less fortunate (through tax, not just benevolence), proud enough to invigorate their local economy.
I’m voting Labour because of their ideas, their vision and a strong, inspiring manifesto. I’m voting Labour because I don’t feel any connection with the Tories at all; I don’t agree with their policies or their outlook, and neither their hearts nor their minds are in the right place. And I’m voting for Labour because of, not despite, Jeremy Corbyn. I think he’d make a great prime minister and I’d love to see Britain prosper with him at the helm.