The medium is the message*

Labour is being given the runaround by the Tories and their friends in the media again, and too many people in the Party are complicit. The scale of the election defeat is described in hyperbolic terms but without any real analysis. Curiously, the language is similar to that used to describe the Tories not so long ago, consigned to the dustbin of history, become a rump. I wonder what happened to them?

Some people are trying to exploit the election result to shift the party much closer to the Tories. This is exemplified by the so-called ‘existential crisis’ report from Alan Barnard and John Braggins which was hyped, to no-one’s surprise, by the Guardian. Based on a few focus groups in marginal seats (called ‘research’ by some newspapers), the main reasons given for voters abandoning Labour were that the party: were unconvincing on economic credibility; weren’t serious about welfare reform; shouldn’t have been led by Ed Miliband; had no offer to those who wanted to get on in life; were too soft on immigration; and were too influenced by trade union leaders. There really was no need to go to all the effort. I could have predicted what they would find because focus groups have the habit of confirming the hypotheses of those who conduct them. Rather more convincing academic work since the election has pointed in a different direction for the primary reason for defeat – Scotland – and to the Tories’ clever exploitation of English voters’ fears of the SNP.

But if we accept that the focus groups represent what some people thought, the deeper question that must be addressed is why. In my view none of the assertions about Labour are true, so why do people think they are? The Tories had, and still have, control of the narrative, and we won’t win it back by copying them on the deficit or welfare reform.

Real opinion research, for example the IPSOS Mori survey for the Power of Perception by the Royal Statistical Society, reviewed here on Red Brick, showed how out of kilter public opinion is with the real facts. For example, nearly one in three people think more is spent on jobseekers allowance than pensions (in fact it’s £5bn versus £74bn). The public thinks 24% of benefit money is claimed fraudulently (in reality 0.7%). People think teenage pregnancy is 25 times more common than it actually is (15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, reality 0.6%). People think 31% of the population are immigrants, in reality it’s 13%.

The public is misinformed and misled on a huge scale and inevitably some adopt the views delivered to them by the media, which falls in line with the Tories at election times. Headlines feed bigotry and prejudice and offer up people to blame for all our woes. The effect is worse if the same falsehoods, especially about people on ‘welfare’, are repeated by Labour figures. People say the Party should ‘get where the public is’ but this denies the whole concept of leadership.

The media preferred David, but they really went for Ed after Leveson. Drip, drip, drip over many years. The bacon sandwich incident was repeated ad nauseam while equally unpleasant pictures of Cameron and Farage failing to eat delicately were ignored. Miliband simply would not have survived leaving his child in the pub. And then we get on to policy.

The notion that Ed Miliband was ‘too left wing’ defies credulity. Blair in 1997 would have been denounced as left wing in today’s climate. Miliband espoused tighter regulation, a bit more tax in the mix to reduce the deficit, being less draconian on benefits. The claim that he failed to appeal to ‘aspirational’ people doesn’t hold much water either: key policies like tuition fees and first time buyers did exactly that, but gained no traction.

The media hostility is also apparent in relation to the Labour Leadership contest. Forget for a moment who we each support: the contest itself is condemned as uninspiring and the candidates deemed to be of poor calibre. The contest then becomes part of Labour’s crisis not an answer to it. We forget how weak the last Tory leadership contenders were at the time – and now Cameron seems invincible. The leadership campaign is deadened by an appalling media (just how much does Liz Kendal weigh?, are all Jeremy Corbyn’s jackets beige and bought in the 1980s?), the wild exaggeration of anything the candidates say that is original at the same as they are criticised for being bland, and the constant hustings format of having to answer everything in 30 seconds, with Andrew Neil’s questions longer than the answers. The high spot so far was Corbyn’s angry response to Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s stupid questioning on Channel 4 News – more politicians should get annoyed with more journalists. We should stand up for our good democratic process and the quality of our people. Away from the glare, the London mayoral selection is a much better and free-flowing debate about real issues.

Andrew Rawnsley’s article on Jeremy Corbyn last weekend was an appalling hatchet job, not just on Corbyn but on the Party, from a supposedly high quality journalist. The names of Trotsky and Lenin are dropped in, the inference is clear. After all these years, Rawnsley has found a red under the bed. And like Joseph McCarthy, his opinions are untroubled by the truth. Worst of all, he makes no attempt to understand why Corbyn’s arguments are attractive to many in the Party – including many people who are not at all left wing and won’t vote for him in the end.

The truth is that Jeremy Corbyn is gaining support because he articulates views that many of us in the Labour Party, and many people in the country, share. Only in a world that has swung so far to the right that Ayn Rand would be denounced as a liberal can these views be seen to be extreme. Austerity is economic illiteracy. The poor are being forced to pay for the bankers’ crisis, in the UK and in Greece. We should build many more houses that people can afford to live in, and sell less to rich foreigners. It is wise to borrow for investment and to keep current spending in balance. We shouldn’t bomb people without a political strategy and hope they will like us. You don’t resolve conflicts without talking to the enemy at some point. Trident is a huge waste of money. So is HS2. So is Boris’s bridge. The level of inequality is gross, and inefficient. Corporations should pay tax. People should have rights at work. Children should not grow up in poverty. We should celebrate the Labour Government’s many achievements but temper that by admitting there were not enough of them, and there were a few terrible errors. Far from causing the recession, Gordon Brown saved the global financial system and the British banks. The country was growing before Osborne’s stupid austerity squeezed the life out of the economy.

These views are all mainstream. Agree or not, they are all withn the bounds of reason. Yet apparently they make Labour unelectable. It’s not the policies, it’s the narrative and the medium through which information goes to the public. Like most Labour people I want rid of the Tories and would compromise on almost everything to achieve that. Whoever wins I will try to get them elected. But we mustn’t let the media run the selection process like they ran the election. Because they will keep on attacking Labour until we are no longer a threat to their interests.

*’The medium is the message’ was coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1964. He argued that the medium strongly influences how the message is perceived.

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2 Responses to The medium is the message*

  1. I could be wrong but I thought McLuhan’s point was that the medium is the massage? and I agree with everything in this post.

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