The failure of Corbynism also indicated failures in the way the left approaches media. Ann Clifford argues we should be wary of the impact of social media, and create stronger organisations with a culture of accountability.
In the early days of the Corbyn project, it was incredibly exciting to turn on the TV and hear left-wing ideas being routinely discussed. Not only was Corbyn himself regularly on primetime news opposing the latest Tory cruelties, but a new layer of left-wing ‘commentators’ were becoming a consistent feature of mainstream political discussion shows too. From the airwaves of Radio 4’s Today programme to the sofas of Good Morning Britain, it felt like left-wing commentators were smashing through the Overton window, one flagship political programme at a time.
The strategic rationale for this kind of activity would be familiar to any progressive political project: in order to win arguments within the wider population for our ideas, the Left must intervene in the spaces where our message can reach the largest possible audience. Whilst social, print and broadcast media are clearly organs owned and controlled by the ruling class, it is nonetheless possible to use these platforms to speak through the media to the people we need to convince.
In the context of Corbynism, Twitter played a key role in this media strategy. For individual commentators, building a large personal Twitter following seemed indispensible for catching the eye of newspaper opinion editors and political programme producers. Not only that, individual Twitter accounts appeared to reach thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of the people we needed to convince. Because the Parliamentary Labour Party could not be relied upon to disseminate the leadership’s political line, social media could be used to ‘control the narrative’ and popularise these ideas instead.
In the early days of Corbynism, this dynamic clearly bore fruit and provided much needed support to an embattled leadership. But in the last 18 months of the Corbyn project, this relationship broke down irreparably. On the question of Brexit and allegations of antisemitism in particular, most commentators could no longer be relied upon to support the leadership line. Where many could have acted as a vital ballast to a Corbyn leadership under siege, and provided ideological clarity to an often confused and demoralised membership, many ended up turning away from the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist positions they had once ascribed to hold.
Was this turn away from collective principled positions inevitable? Exploring this question is crucial for anyone who is serious about learning the lessons of Corbynism for the future Left projects that surely lie ahead.
Firstly, it is important to recognise that Twitter is inherently unconducive to collective political projects because it requires individuals to cultivate themselves as the archetypal neoliberal ‘brand’. To be successful, commentators must be able to consistently and immediately produce an ‘original’ 280 character hot take, the more controversially expressed the better. The cycle of outrage and mostly meaningless ‘solidarity’ that this type of political discourse creates is obviously a poor substitute for the thoughtful and serious debate which is a prerequisite of successful Left political projects.
It is also significant that individual commentators in Corbynism were a largely self-appointed group. Most were untethered from the democratic processes of any particular organisation or campaign, and were therefore largely unaccountable. Their articulation of political positions was mostly conducted in isolation from the broader movement, with the inherent ideological weaknesses such an approach breeds. That most commentators were from London only compounded this lack of representation of the movement at large.
Finally, and often most controversially, left-wing political commentary under Corbynism became a career choice. The majority of high profile commentators earn at least part of their income through column or book writing and television appearances. There’s no doubt that holding down another job simultaneously is almost impossible because of the demands of the establishment news cycle. But commentators can easily become detached from the direct experiences of workplace struggles and the political insights this brings. Furthermore, the risks of being pulled into the same ideological logic as the establishment media you set out to disrupt can become too hard for some to resist.
We clearly must not rely exclusively on the establishment media to disseminate ideas, and seek to build and grow existing Left media organizations instead. But there are a number of ways any future Left political projects could address the issues that inevitably arise from the strategy of intervening in the establishment media.
Media training should be offered to a far broader group of activists so opportunities and leadership could be distributed across the movement. To support this, funding should be allocated to allow activists to be seconded part-time from their jobs so they could stay connected to workplace struggles. Furthermore, the selection of spokespeople should be a far more democratic process, where individuals are accountable to the movements they represent.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Left needs to stop seeing interventions in the establishment media as a replacement for political struggle itself. Media strategy should support the much more important work of building powerful social movements instead. Rather than blaming any individual commentators for the failures of the Corbyn project, it is much more pressing for us to explore the weakness of the Labour Party as a vehicle for social transformation, which ultimately gave rise to this problem of leadership and ideological clarity in the first place. And all that’s going to take more than 280 characters. Time for the Left to start thinking deeply again.