Sunday 24 March 2019

Politics isn't going back into its old box now

Jeremy Corbyn didn't win but the Tories certainly lost, and the media is still claiming it has the answers, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It's hard to know who has looked more ridiculous since the results of the UK general election started coming in. There's great fun to be had watching shocked Tories circling one another, deciding which back to stab first.

The media, though - those lads, man, you have to admire the straight faces of the media experts.

For the best part of two years they ridiculed Jeremy Corbyn. They stated with grave certainty things that turned out to be untrue. And they didn't pause for a second before they began explaining what has to happen next.

It's a bit like watching all those economists explaining why the Celtic Bubble burst, after they spent so long confidently assuring us it wasn't a bubble.

All Corbyn has done is stick out his foot to hold open a closing door. But he did it when it was needed. And he did it in style. Most significantly, he did it with the support of a new generation of voters.

Politics doesn't have to be a sterile choice between two sides of the same coin - a Coveney and a Varadkar, a Clinton and a Trump, a Cameron and a Farage.

Irish politics - along with the politics of the EU, the US and other places - has been in crisis since 2008. Up to then, the right-wing establishment believed it had the economy under control - and as long as that's stable, politics will probably remain stable.

The reckless greed, the economic collapse and the years of austerity forced by various governments on their peoples seemed at first to be having no consequences. It was like we were so used to doing what we were told we just swallowed the bad medicine.

But the anger was growing. In the UK it emerged in a mixture of nationalism, racism and justified anger at the arrogance and anti-democratic behaviour of the EU.

People's anger was manipulated by ambitious chancers such as Boris Johnson, playing a Tory party game of thrones - a lying campaign financed by billionaire donors with their own political aims.

That led to the Brexit vote and the UK now faces two years of chaos, while trying to cobble together a grab bag of trade deals to replace the economic structure that took decades to develop.

In the US, huge numbers of the abandoned working class were easy meat for the forces of racism, nationalism and the rise of the Strong Man. They turned to a billionaire headbanger and elected him president.

The US establishment had nothing to offer as an alternative but a tired, corrupt liberalism, in the form of Hillary Clinton. She failed, and right-wing associates now have access to the Oval Office, with all the potential nightmares that might ensue.

In France and the Netherlands, extreme-right parties were just about kept at bay.

In Ireland, the anger took a healthier form - the Irish Water protests, so large and persistent that the right-wing parties had to back off the plan to privatise the water supply.

The anger was unfocused, and sometimes veered off into paranoia - the belief that everything is part of a conspiracy, nothing happens that isn't a deliberate distraction from something else,.

The fact that this country has a history of politically facilitated corruption plays into those obsessions.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the tired, discredited right of the Labour Party ignored all political dangers and developments - including Brexit - and focused obsessively on getting rid of Corbyn.

They wanted to continue in their comfortable role, as a kind of tribute band to Toryism.

Inevitably, the Tories saw Brexit as offering an excuse for a snap election that would destroy Labour and rule out effective opposition for a generation.

And that's when Corbyn's foot held open that closing door. Corbyn offered an alternative to trickle-down politics. His campaign produced a credible manifesto, with aims that were not just desirable but achievable. The mixture of idealism and practicality worked.

Labour was expected to implode. Instead, it survived, and made more ground than anyone hoped. The high turnout of young voters was unprecedented - the ability to translate rally enthusiasm into polling day turnout is significant.

It's an advance that can easily be reversed, given the range of forces the billionaires can muster.

The Tories lost - but the biggest losers were the media. And, in that, there are lessons for us all.

Since Theresa May ascended to the leadership, the media portrayed her as smart, focused and charismatic. She was several classes above old-fashioned, dowdy Corbyn. When she chose to smite him, she would do so with finesse, while Corbyn would wander into the wilderness, mouthing tired old lefty slogans.

The media treatment of Jeremy Corbyn was unrelenting. From early on, journalists stood outside his home and crowded him as he left.

In that situation, there's always the hope that the target will lose his temper and lash out, verbally or physically, providing a great story and destroying his credibility.

The print media made up endless reasons to hate him. Broadcast media, aware that the Tories are unforgiving of those who don't favour them, acted accordingly.

All of this did Labour a big, big favour.

May, as it happens, is a loser, a dud. Nothing in her policies, her appointments to Cabinet or her speeches suggest anything else. When she began campaigning, her robotic repetition of tired slogans gave her away. There was far less there than the media had pretended. She ran from debate - like our own Enda. And with similar consequences - no overall majority.

People had come to expect a dire performance from Corbyn. In campaigning, he turned out to be energetic, articulate, mildly amusing and very much focused on policy. He greatly exceeded the expectations the media had created.

Massive rallies simply weren't reported. But the thousands of people who were there knew they happened - and learned not to trust the media.

The mainstream media is under threat from the explosion of new media. It has one unique selling point - the credibility of reporters with time to collect information, to understand it and analyse what's happening. Media failures - in reporting political campaigns, for instance - drain credibility very fast.

The UK print media, demonstrating its bias and pointlessness over the last few weeks, has likely speeded its own demise.

It happens here. Finely detailed accounts of every step in the formation of Renua - that nobody but the media cared about - but an absence of analysis of how the Irish Water campaign came about, or what it comprises.

Impeccably reported accounts of every step in the staged contest between Coveney and Varadkar.

Such contests are fun and easy to cover; intricate transfers of wealth, staged as budget adjustments, are more difficult to unpick.

As the UK election results came in, Corbyn said: "Politics isn't going back into the box where it was before." That may be true, but it's an aspiration. Strong forces will act to regain lost ground.

Tired old politics offers us the occasional tax cut, and equates "freedom" with the rights of entrepreneurs. And it continues to prove that growing homelessness, a hospital trolley culture and an unrelenting parade of scandals is part of that deal. The Corbyn campaign says there's more to politics than that.

Sunday Independent

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