Was Labour’s 2019 Election Defeat a Grave – Even Terminal – Defeat for Democracy Itself?
By Richard House
Now the dust has settled over five months on from last December’s general election defeat for Labour and all the accompanying whirlwind of emotions and tribulations, it’s perhaps an opportune moment to take sober stock of the state our country’s democratic system is in – such as it is – in the light of that fateful election.
My starting-point is that the 2019 general election campaign was an utter disgrace to democracy. In fighting perhaps the dirtiest campaign in British political history – making the 1980s Saatchi Brothers campaigns look saintly in comparison – the Conservatives have imported lies, deceit and unadulterated propaganda into our electoral system; and at worst, democracy may well never recover as a result. In my view, the times we’re in couldn’t be more grave or dangerous. Ex BBC Industrial Correspondent Nichoas Jones has written chapter and verse on this disgraceful episode in British political history;1 and Granville Williams’ new MediaNorth book on the media is also a must-read in this regard.2
First, the blatant, calculated lies. The whole strategy of Tory arch-manipulator Dominic Cummings is based on the chilling, Trumpean calculation that telling blatant lies just doesn’t matter – the beyond-cynical calculation being that the harm done when the lie is exposed will have less effect than does the ‘positive’ propaganda dividend of the lie itself. In this campaigning ‘ethics-free zone’, the Conservatives used lie after lie throughout the last election campaign, including the deliberate doctoring of videos to make it look as if Labour spokespeople were saying the opposite of what they actually said. Once the line between truth and lies becomes hopelessly blurred in this way, as a nation and as citizens, we’re in the deepest of trouble; and make no mistake, it’s the ruthless, power-obsessed Tories who have taken us there (though their template was perhaps fashioned under New Labour and Blair–Campbell’s innovation of the era of spin).
Another arm of the propaganda assault was the Tories’ carefully targeted cold-calling of swing voters. Of course the Conservatives have comparatively few actual paid-up party members – a party which is effectively a head without a body. But they always have a massive fortune in their war-chest, thrown at them by the rich and the powerful, determined to keep them in power at any price. I know voters, for example, who were repeatedly rung up in the campaign and told that if they voted Labour, the country would have a communist government – and with a litany of appalling, hate-generating smears against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, carefully concocted to generate the maximum level of hate possible towards Mr Corbyn. I campaigned non-stop on Stroud High Street for nigh-on six weeks of the election campaign , and I witnessed at first hand the impact of this choreographed propaganda assault on Jeremy. I have rarely experienced anything so distressing in over four decades of political engagement.
Next, we have the right-wing tabloid newspapers, and four-fifths of the press being owned and controlled by non-dom, non-tax-paying billionaires living overseas, and determined to do everything in their power to return a Conservative government. The relentless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn by the print media constituted the most vile, vicious character assassination campaign on anyone in British political history (see note 1). Goebbels would have just loved it. And now Corbyn has gone, and is no longer a threat to Establishment largesse, I won’t be in the least surprised if those same newspapers soon make Corbyn into the country’s favourite uncle, just as they did with Tony Benn. The stench of the hypocrisy emanating from these propaganda organs is scarcely bearable – as the late, great man would have characterised it, ‘odiousshhh hypocrishhee’.
Next, the BBC. There is copious evidence of the anti-Labour / pro-Tory bias of the BBC – as if, in the face of all of the above, the odds weren’t already stacked overwhelmingly against Labour. In coming months and years, the scale of this scandal will become apparent, as the BBC’s systematic bias is exposed by academic studies for all to see. Several online petitions tell the story, John Han’s excellent petition3 takes on the issue of BBC anti-left and anti-Corbyn bias head on. As John’s petition says,
… we just want all political views to receive a fair and proportionate hearing. Anything less, and ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense is on a slippery slope to oblivion.
The anti-Corbyn bias of the BBC is systematic and continuous. Going into a new general election the stance of the BBC is undemocratic. As the public broadcast corporation paid for by tax payers, the broadcaster should not be showing bias against a mainstream political leader or a political party in this country. The BBC’s royal charter and operating agreement set out its ‘regulatory obligation’ for impartiality. It says, ‘The BBC must do all it can to ensure that controversial subjects are treated with due accuracy and impartiality in all relevant output.’
And John concludes his petition thus:
We are unhappy with how Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are misrepresented in BBC news programmes. We request that the BBC changes its journalistic approach…. Labour should be allowed to get its message out in a full and uninterrupted way,in the same way as Conservative viewpoints are heard. There should be an equal and fair balance of reporting on political issues of the day. The BBC’s job should be to relate the news and not to shape and manipulate it.
My own post-election petition4 called for a full independent inquiry into the BBC’s biased general election coverage. In the words of the petition,
With our print media overwhelmingly dominated by right-wing conservative interests, it’s essential for democracy that our flagship public-service broadcaster provides some kind of countervailing balance. Historically, this was a role the BBC discharged reasonably well – being a significant factor in the election of a number of Labour governments since 1964. Without a relatively neutral broadcast media, Labour will always start with a massive handicap, and will have a mountain to climb just to get over the line.
And it continued,
[N]otwithstanding our shared and passionate commitment to the principle of public-service broadcasting, it’s just not good enough that, in a year or two, reputable and independent academic research reports will conclusively demonstrate the BBC’s recent anti-Labour bias. When voters’ access to unbiased information is compromised in this way, democracy itself is gravely threatened. When a government is elected to absolute power, carried over the line by bias and propaganda, its very legitimacy is in severe doubt – with grave implications for the sheer governability of a deeply disgruntled, disenfranchised citizenry.
Clearly, if and when we do get a future Labour government, the issue of media justice (a term coined by Justin Schlosberg) is going to be of central importance, as Labour takes on the commanding heights of media bias in Britain. We don’t want a media that’s biased to the left, either: we just want all political views to receive a fair and proportionate hearing. Anything less, and ‘democracy’ in any meaningful sense is on a slippery slope to oblivion.
Both John Han and I attended the excellent MediaNorth Spring conference in Leeds on the state of the media.5 It was most reassuring to witness brilliant young minds of the political left forensically taking on the issue of media reform and media justice, like Drs Tom Mills and Justin Schlosberg.6 I also had the great pleasure of meeting, and hearing speak, former BBC Industrial and Political Correspondent, Nicholas Jones.7
I had no idea Mr Jones was a man of the left. Indeed, this is actually a great compliment to his journalistic professionalism, as I vividly remember his involvement in reporting on the 1984–5 miners’ strike, and his dramatically memorable interviews with the likes of Coal Board head and Thatcher’s hit-man, Ian MacGregor, and the NUM’s Arthur Scargill. Notwithstanding his own political preferences (which we now know about) and the odd tirade from Mr Scargill about bias, Nicholas Jones’ calm neutrality and fairness were impeccable throughout that fateful period in British industrial history.
Contrast Nick Jones’ admirable journalistic professionalism with the apology for journalism we’ve been seeing at the BBC for some years now – with the likes of unctuously self-important Laura ‘I-must-just-take-this-important-call’ Kuenssberg, who, when she first started working on BBC Radio 5 Live some years back, audibly sneered every time she uttered Jeremy Corbyn’s name; and later, actively tried to get Labour shadow ministers to resign live on BBC TV. (And the list of her media outrages could be considerably extended, of course.)
However, perhaps the greatest concern of all is that this ethically barren, power-at-any-price behaviour by the Conservatives will generate a race to the ethical bottom in our polity. A parallel can be drawn with football. I often hear commentators and pundits justify diving in the penalty area (which of course is cheating, pure and simple) – because once one player or team starts doing it systematically, if their opponents don’t, they then suffer a massively unfair disadvantage – which can easily mean losing a game rather than winning it. The same logic applies in politics; and so once this toxic genie is out of the bottle, it will be very difficult for Labour not to follow suit – at which point the winner (all things being equal – which of course they aren’t) will be the party who tells the most effective lies, and who cheats more successfully.
In addition, on a fair, proportional voting system basis, we would not now have a right-wing Conservative government at all, but a Labour-led coalition government of the progressive centre-left. Yes, we all know that a centre-left government isn’t anything like what we would have had under a majority, socialist, Corbyn-led government. But a Corbyn-led centre-left coalition would surely have been a lot more preferable to people on the progressive left than a Johnson–Cummings government for five long years. In my long-held view, it was a grave ‘tribalist’ error for Labour not to have included a clear commitment to introducing a fair voting system in its 2019 election manifesto – or at the very least, promising a major constitutional convention to look into legislating for a fair voting system.
Disproportionate election results under our first-past-the-post electoral system are akin to the absurd situation in the United States, where in the popular vote, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in 2000, and Hilary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016; and yet the undemocratic system saddles the world with two nasty extreme right-wing presidents that only a minority of the electorate voted for. So the ruling class has the so-called ‘democratic’ system comprehensively stitched up across the pond, too.
My biggest fear for Britain, however, is that between now and 2025, the Conservatives will throw a fortune at still further honing their disgraceful propaganda methods under the appalling Dominic Cummings (see, as I write, just how desperate Johnson is to keep him), and will further gerrymander the voting system – with boundary changes favouring the Tories by at least another 30 seats, and compulsory voter identification procedure at polling stations, which would likely disenfranchise several million Labour-inclined voters. And all this, of course, deliberately choreographed by Cummings and Johnson determined as they are to keep the Tories and their wealthy supporters controlling and entrenching their capture of the (capitalist) state, in perpetuity.
Like many on the political left, in the coming years I will not be engaging in the broken world of conventional institutional party politics, but will be exposing at every possible opportunity the aforementioned destruction of the democratic system itself – in the hope that enough voters wake up to what is happening to our country, and choose to vote for anything but the party which is determined to steal any last semblance of democracy from us.
1 See Nicholas Jones and Richard House, The media demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn — the evidence: an interview with Nicholas Jones, Morning Star, 10 March 2020 (available at https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/media-demonisation-jeremy-corbyn-evidence-interview-nicholas-jones); and more recently, Nicholas Jones, Johnson’s media cheerleaders – how Britain’s press is letting down the nation, Morning Star, 19 May 2020 (available at https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/johnsons-media-cheerleaders-how-britains-press-letting-down-nation). See also Granville Williams, A ruthless masterclass in media control, Morning Star, 12 December 2019 (available at https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/ruthless-masterclass-media-control); and Granville Williams, Why we launched ElectionWatch, Morning Star, 29 November 2019 (available at https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/why-we-launched-electionwatch).
2 Granville Williams (ed.), It’s the Media, Stupid!, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom North, Leeds, 2020 (www.coldtype.net/MediaNorth.html). For a review, see Peter Lazenby, Here is the news: right-wing bias, cover-ups and downright lying, Morning Star, 12 May 2020 (available at https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/c/here-news-right-wing-bias-cover-ups-and-downright-lying).
3 John Han, Stop the anti-Corbyn bias on the BBC, Change.org petition, no launch date given/Autumn 2019, 26,534 signatories as of 24 May 2020 (available at https://www.change.org/p/bbc-stop-the-anti-corbyn-bias-on-the-bbc) .
4 Richard House, Demand a full independent inquiry into the BBC’s coverage of the 2019 General Election, Change.org petition, launched 7 January 2020, 7,196 signatories as of 24 May 2020; available at https://www.change.org/p/registered-voters-and-all-consumers-of-britain-s-broadcast-media-demand-a-full-independent-inquiry-into-the-bbc-s-coverage-of-the-2019-general-election.
5 MediaNorth / Campaign for Press & Broadcasting Freedom, It’s The Media, Stupid! – Post-election Politics for Media Reform, one-day conference, Leeds Arts Gallery, Leeds, Saturday 8 February 2020. For useful reviews, see Eliza Lita and Jacob Lyon, Leeds conference is big boost for media reform, MediaNorth magazine, 6, March 2020, pp. 4–6; and Peter Lazenby, It’s The Media Stupid conference slams Tory propaganda in right-wing media, Morning Star, 9 February 2020 (available at https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/its-media-stupid-conference).
6 See, for example, Tom Mills, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service, Verso, London, 2016; Justin Schlosberg, Media Ownership and Agenda Control: The Hidden Limits of the Information Age, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon, 2016; and Greg Philo & others (including Justin Schlosberg), Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief, Pluto Press, London, 2019. See also the excellent collection, Aeron Davis (ed.), The Death of Public Knowledge? How Free Markets Destroy the General Intellect, Goldsmiths Press, London.
7 For Nick Jones’ website, see www.nicholasjones.org.uk. It has chapter-and-verse on the disreputable ruling-class warfare waged by Thatcher’s Conservatives against the miners, exposing the cover-ups and secrets revealed in Thatcher’s cabinet records, from a man who was right at the heart of it all.
Richard House, Ph.D., is a former university lecturer and psychotherapist, a chartered psychologist, a writer, educational consultant, and still a Corbynista full-time left and environmental activist in Stroud, Gloucestershire. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org