Labour must be prepared to challenge the right-wing press

by John Tipper

It was only as the march slowed on the approach to the Tate that I was able to take a good look at the crowd. To my left was the Buckinghamshire New University hockey team, who in addition to their sporting livery were wearing blue foam antlers; even then they struck me as unlikely to lead an armed insurrection, although I also concluded that if they did it would be worth sticking around for.

Directly ahead, a student had clambered onto a bin and was pleading for somebody to hand him a sign. Somebody did, apparently without noticing that it was in Welsh – cue much good-humoured speculation from the non-Celtic contingent about what it might actually say.

Amongst the forest of placards I noticed slogans bracingly direct (“Fuck Fees”) and oblique (“Would you cut a CAT? Then why cut EduCATion?”) and cursed myself again for forgetting mine.

At one point I observed a burly fellow with a beard and a Lib Dem sticker attempting a spirited if unconvincing defence of Nick Clegg – he’s got the tuition fees issue wrong but he’s a decent guy, always polite and nicely turned out etc. But not only was he pleasingly juxtaposed against a sign depicting Clegg as a weasel, I also began to suspect that his fellow Liberals Against Fees were not wholly in agreement. Some were loudly shushing, but most of them simply wore the pained expression of a pre-teen whose parents have insisted on dropping them right outside the gates on their first day of secondary school.

Then, as I was easing my way between slow moving currents of Huddersfield orange and Bangor scarlet, I was surprised to find a group of students holding aloft a “Dudley College against Cuts” banner. Dudley College provides mostly vocational courses to a poor community, and in recent years at least has not been synonymous with student radicalism (I speak with some authority as a Dudley alumnus myself); but I found out later that it had sent some 50 students. Without wishing to patronise her – and I’m scarcely more worldly myself – one 16 year old, for whom this was her first trip to London, said that being part of the demonstration had helped to make Wednesday the most exciting day of her life.

According to the popular press, however, the real story of the day was a group of self-styled anarchists breaking windows and endangering lives (including potentially my own) with a carelessly hurled fire extinguisher. It’s a real shame that the Klansmen at the Mail, the Express and the others have helped to relegate to footnote status the joyous celebration of democracy that the march really was. And it also illustrates a much broader point: that left-leaning (primarily Labour) politicians must be prepared to challenge the perverse narratives of the right-wing press.

Take, for example, the economy. A number of Labour politicians have patiently explained to me that some kind of media-driven consensus has emerged in favour of cuts, and to challenge it would be to risk oblivion. Yet it strikes me that Labour’s reluctance to argue vigorously for an alternative is likely to have contributed to this supposed consensus, with the government’s arguments simply seeping through to occupy the vacuum left by the opposition. To the Murdoch and Dacre-sponsored welfare cuts, Labour has again responded with a long suffering sigh instead of a snarl. Many Labour politicians seem tacitly to accept the characterisation of benefit claimants as feckless scroungers, rather than as many of the most vulnerable people in the country.

These are issues, of course, that have hurt us in the past, and I understand the reluctance of the bulk of the Labour party to return to the times when a less accommodating approach to the press (and its prejudices) helped ensure that Neil Kinnock was eviscerated on a daily basis.

But neither is there any evidence that the voting public finds such timidity attractive. Currently, Labour is at best in a dead heat with the Tory-Lib Dem government, although admittedly before many cuts have fully taken effect.

In the coming weeks and months, I’d like to see a more determined effort to defend left values against baseless media slurs, as well as a greater assertiveness in attacking the government. There will be a rich vein of discontent to mine.

John Tipper is a student.

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8 Responses to “Labour must be prepared to challenge the right-wing press”

  1. John, you are very right. Labour needs to oppose, but it needs to oppose intelligently, and – most important – it must be seen to be on the side of the public so that the Government are seen as being against the public.

    Let me give you an example. Last night a little known bill had its second reading. It is called “Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Bill”. Read that carefully. Public services are services that we own: the NHS, the schools, the universities, libraries, sports centres etc etc. Social enterprises are private companies, they are not-for-profit and have a “social purpose”. However, they are still privately owned (and subject to take overs and mergers), and any decision that takes a public service out of public ownership is privatisation whether the company is a FTSE company or a social enterprise.

    On the surface this bill looks benign, or even beneficial. It says that any local authority contracts out a service they must take into account the wider economic, social and environmental well-being. At the moment, the main criteria used by local authorities is price: whether the contractor can do the work for the least impact on the tax payer.

    This sounds good. Except bear in mind that if a local authority does the work itself then it is by definition not-for-profit and doing the work for a social purpose, and the council will already take into account the wider economic, social and environmental well-being. The simple answer would be for councils just to do the work “in house”. So what is the point of this bill?

    Simple. It is a precursor to the white paper next year that will say that ALL publicly owned services must become social enterprises. That does not just mean councils but it also means hospitals and schools. (And remember, since the social enterprise will have to buy their asset – school, hospital etc – the government gets a massive windfall).

    Social enterprises are the mechanism that this government will use to take all public services out of public ownership. So doesn’t it seem bizarre that the Labour party are supporting social enterprise bills like this one?

    Labour should assert itself as the party of public services, it should assert itself as being the party of the public provision of education and health. There is huge public support for this, the Big Society failed at the election, so Labour must build upon the fact that people expect public services to be *public*. If it does this then, when the Government starts taking services out of public ownership against the public’s wishes, Labour will be seen as the champion of the public.

    The fact that Labour is not doing this means that in five years time none of the NHS will be publicly owned and (after take overs and mergers) in ten years time the entire NHS will be owned by foreign corporations. At that point people will point to the Labour party and say “why did you let this happen?” The public will turn away from the Labour party as allowing this to happen, and it will be the Labour party who will be out of power for a generation rather than the Tories.

  2. Bob Piper says:

    John, well written, although I dread to think what you did to make that young woman’s day so exciting! Even our own venerable MP was moved to agree that the opposition should be more vocal in it’s… errrm, opposition. And the things he had to say about those twerps who want to end the union link were spot on.

  3. I’m all for this, but let’s not call the redtops Klansmen. If you’re going to push back against right-wing spin, you have to be able to do so on specific factual grounds across a broad front. Which means we have to be very careful with our language, which means refraining from silly slurs like that.

  4. John says:

    Edward, if you look closely into the history of the Klan you’ll find that it reconstituted itself in various guises throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. I recently read a book on the Ku Klux Klan that emerged in the 1920’s, and there are startling parralels between its language and that of the Daily Mail in particular. It was less nakedly anti-black than both its predecessor and succesor groups, and focused on stirring up panic based on a supposed decline in moral standards – the issue of prohibition, and more open expressions of female sexuality foremost. If you compare Klan literature of that period with latter day tabloids, my reference seems less like a gratuitous slur.

  5. AnneJGP says:

    John, I agree with Edward that Labour needs to be very careful with its language at the moment.

    If you look at the comments appended to Eric Joyce’s Labour-Uncut article on 15-11-10, you will see plenty of people who definitely perceive a decline in moral standards (amongst MPs that is).

    Are these commenters “stirring up panic”? Do they qualify for your “Klan” label too? Or would that only be the case if they believed that MPs are representative of the people?

  6. Johnthestudent says:

    AnneJPG, I’m afraid I’ve no idea what point you’re trying to make. However, in future I will express my opinion only in the most equivocal terms, if at all. Thank you.

  7. AnneJGP says:

    John, my apologies. I had no intention of being rude or cutting in my comment. You have written an excellent article and I omitted to say so first.

    Edward noted your use of the Klansmen meme. You added an explanatory comment, and I was responding to that explanation, rather than to the article itself.

    First, many people, like me, will be unaware of any change in KKK philosophy. It is always wise to take into account how your audience will interpret your words, even if you have more accurate knowledge yourself. That is what prompted me to “agree with Edward”.

    Second, I was responding to the “supposed decline in moral standards”. Although I did not realise it, I was defending the redtops.

    You see, I have a very clear memory from the time of the Jamie Bulger murder. After the two young murderers had been arrested, it was thought they had been acting out what they’d seen in a horror film. The mood of the country was extremely sombre and with few exceptions all the papers reflected that, asking “What sort of society have we become?” in ways appropriate to their readers.

    The only exception I was aware of was the Guardian, where the top priority was “No knee-jerk reaction” meaning no revision of censorship in response to the appalling event. (Personally, I considered it showed something lacking in the editorial team at the Guardian.)

    The papers – redtops included – weren’t stirring up anything. They were merely reflecting the concerns of their readers; yes, even the Guardian. That is the point.

    Rather than go into all that rigmarole, I offered a recent example from the pages of Labour-Uncut where many people expressed the view that moral standards have genuinely declined, even if only amongst MPs.

    I should add that I had no idea my response carried this wealth of significance for me until you forced me to consider why I had written as I did.

    Once more, my sincere apologies.


  8. Johnthestudent says:

    Thanks for your gracious words Anne. Of course I took no offence, I just thought that having done earnest in the article I’d have a go at being wry in the comments section. In any case, the murder of Jamie Bulger was so horrifying as to be entirely exceptional, and so I don’t think it really reflected a wider social or moral malaise. I’d also add that many of the assertions the tabloids made about the case were demonstrably false (many of the police officers involved doubted whether the killers had actually seen the video you allude to, for example) and did scant justice to such a complex and desperately sad case.

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