Last week parliament authorised British airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and the Labour candidate won the Oldham West and Royton by-election. It was, unsurprisingly, a week in which the omni-tentacled neoliberal establishment was especially shameless in its attempts to spin, manipulate and mind-control its way to getting what it wanted.
The Syria vote was spun as a choice between hitting back at the culprits behind the Paris attacks, or doing nothing. Opponents of military action were painted as people who “don’t want Britain to take action”, passive to the point of cowardice – or branded as “terrorist sympathisers” by David Cameron.
The media obviously failed to substantively go into any of the arguments against – let alone question the government’s laughably flimsy case for military intervention.
Meanwhile, the sector-straddling power elite wanted Oldham to be all about Corbyn, and preferably the Labour candidate doing spectacularly badly because of Corbyn.
The papers did their utmost to hype a small town by-election into some grand public judgement on the follies of leftism, filling column inches with apocalyptic predictions of crushing defeat and the imminent death of the Labour Party – and then had to embarrassingly backpedal when Oldham handed Labour a convincing win and an increased majority.
Taken together, it all amounted to another dismal low in the life of Great British post-democracy – but it at least provided an unusually juicy chance to examine establishment reality-distortion in action.
Let’s start with ISIS, Syria, and the Commons vote that authorised the RAF to fire £500,000 missiles at patches of sand.
David Cameron wants to bomb Syria to stop ISIS. He claims that airstrikes can limit the group’s ability to launch atrocities like the one it recently visited on Paris. In the longer term, he argues, they can contribute towards ending the civil war in Syria, and finishing ISIS off for good.
That’s highly dubious reasoning, and there are all sorts of reasons why that approach probably won’t work/probably will go catastrophically wrong. I was originally going to go into them here, but quickly realised that would generate at least another post’s-worth of material in of itself – so you can now read about what ISIS actually is, where it came from and why more bombings aren’t a very good way of trying to get rid of it here.
But the establishment took that extremely contentious Cameron interpretation of events and turned it into irrefutable, unquestionable truth. ISIS was bad, thus ISIS needs to be stopped, thus ISIS needs to be bombed. And that was how the whole Syria debate was framed – are you for stopping ISIS, or against it?
It’s basically coded into the DNA of the neoliberal statesman that whatever America wants to do is essentially right – and that if we want to prove our relevance, power and geopolitical virility, we need to join in with whatever Washington happens to be doing. The same goes for the neoliberal establishment as a whole.
But this time they were faced with a general population largely apathetic about the prospect of yet again wading into the Middle East. Even worse, for the first time in decades, there was a vaguely prominent senior politician in a position to give an alternative point of view – Jeremy Corbyn.
Thus we were collectively subjected to the propaganda machine in overdrive. Cameron claimed there were 70,000 moderate Syrians ready to side with us and the US – surely destined to be this conflict’s 45-minutes dodgy dossier moment.
Defence Minister Michael Fallon claimed that in a year of British air strikes on ISIS in Iraq, not a single innocent civilian had been killed – part of continued attempts to paint modern air warfare as a perfectly efficient, victimless affair, where only the bad guys get hurt.
And the news media obsessed over possible splits within the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. So powerful was the case for war, the logic ran, that Labour MPs were bound abandon their crazed hippy pacifist of a leader in droves and side with the righteous.
As it happened, most voted against the attack, and the rebels were mostly the usual ultra-Blairite suspects – Hunt, Umunna, Kendall, Creagh, Danczuk et al. But the Whitehall-Westminster-Fleet Street axis went bananas over one particular disobedient Shadow Minister – Hilary Benn.
Benn, Shadow Home Secretary and son of socialist icon Tony (as the papers repeatedly reminded us), went against the Corbyn position, voting for military action and delivering a speech to the House of Commons explaining why. By the coma-inducing standards of modern parliamentary speech-making, it wasn’t too bad as far as rhetoric went. But the content was nothing out of the ordinary – another Westminster insider telling us all that ISIS are very bad, and we have to destroy them.
That didn’t stop the pro-war establishment immediately leaping on it like it was a twenty-first century sermon on the mount. It was “spellbinding”, said the Guardian, “spine-tingling”, said the Telegraph. “One of the truly great speeches”, said the Independent. Tory MP Zac Goldsmith thought it was “magnificent”. BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg described it and Benn as “strong” and “brave” – while James Landale looked close to tears reporting afterwards in the House of Commons lobby. John McDonnell, as ever, was a rare voice of sanity: “I’m always anxious that the greatest oratory is going to lead to the greatest mistakes.”
I’m told that BBC Radio 4 went on to play Benn’s speech in its entirety. It’s hard – well, impossible – to imagine the same courtesy being extended to an equally rhetorically pleasing anti-war speech. It nicely cements Radio 4’s status as one of the foremost mouthpieces of officially sanctioned opinion – a spectrum that ranges from the rightmost Conservatism to gung-ho militaristic Blairism.
There was no coverage of the fact that Benn had completely reversed his position in the space of a few days. Whereas by December 2nd he was sounding a lot like George W Bush – “we are faced by fascists. They hold us in contempt … we now must face this evil” – he was quoted in November 15th ’s Independent as saying: “I think the focus for now is finding a peaceful solution to the civil war … [the] most useful contribution we can make is to support as a nation the peace talks that have started.”
Then again, we can’t expect the media to shine a light on that whopping U-turn when they won’t even report the fact that in early October David Cameron was arguing Russian airstrikes on Syria would “lead to further radicalisation and increase terrorism.”
Probably the most pathetic aspect of the whole dismal Syria vote shebang was MPs wetting themselves over being forcefully lobbied by anti-war members of the public. There is absolutely no doubt that some MPs were physically threatened, which isn’t very nice at all. But in a lot of other cases, they were just contacted by angry people, arguing their points with justifiable force, given that parliament was about to authorise killing people with high explosives.
Democracy is not neat, tidy, well-behaved. It’s messy and boisterous – particularly at times when our supposed representatives are willing to do something that’s a) terrible and b) that most people in the country disagree with.
Alas, the Syria vote and attendant propaganda maelstrom go to show the reason MPs are so spooked by being lobbied by the members of the public – rather than banks, arms firms, media barons etc – is because modern Britain isn’t very democratic at all.
In October, veteran left-winger and long-term Corbyn ally Michael Meacher sadly died, triggering a by-election in the constituency he represented for 45 years, Oldham West and Royton.
The corporate media turned the contest into the mother of all referendums on the performance of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – a referendum which, in their colossal arrogance, they were certain he was going to lose.
The hysterical paper headlines said it all: “Labour set for dismal result”. “Labour support could be halved”. “Corbynmania collides with reality”. “It’s lose/lose for Labour”.
It was as fascinating as it was repugnant, because it demonstrated that the establishment pundits hated Corbyn so much, so fanatically, that it was making them delusional. They’d genuinely come to believe that Labour was going to lose one of its safest seats, to UKIP, no less – allowing them to finally bring Corbyn down by blaming it entirely on him.
As it happened, Labour candidate Jim McMahon, leader of Oldham Council, won with an opposition-pulverising 62.3% of the vote – 7.5% higher than Meacher got in May. Yes, turnout was much lower – more people always bother coming out when it’s a general election. But it was a resounding win.
The establishment turned on a penny. When they thought Labour was going to lose, they were ready to blame it entirely on Corbyn – to argue his unpopularity had caused Labour to lose one of its safest seats. Look how terrible he is, and left-wing politics is, blah blah blah.
But when Labour won, the result suddenly had nothing to do with Corbyn. It was because of a popular local candidate – in fact, McMahon won in spite of Corbyn. “McMahon had to contend with Corbyn’s unpopularity among many voters”, said Helen Pidd, the Guardian’s north of England editor.
A BBC news report I saw interviewed three people from the streets of Oldham – one of those vox populi things they like to do to pretend they’re in touch with the real world. Two didn’t like Corbyn. One said he was a wimp, the other said he’d spoiled the Labour Party. The third said the result was nothing to do with Corbyn, and everything to do with the candidate. Somehow I imagine they didn’t just speak to three people, and that all the people they spoke to weren’t anti-Corbyn.
The media might’ve completely changed its story in a blink – but you could still detect the disappointment if you paid close enough attention. When it transpired it hadn’t been the disaster it’d been hoping for, the BBC sulkily chopped 45 minutes off its Oldham election special.
Like Corbyn’s own victory, Oldham was one of very few occasions where the establishment didn’t win. Which is pleasing. It’s certainly enjoyable to see the likes of Dan Hodges (supposed life-long Labour supporter earning a living attacking Labour for big checks from right-wing papers) be proved so spectacularly wrong – “of course, if Corbynites are to be believed, Labour should win Oldham with an increased majority, given all the excited new members”, he smarmed via Twitter in the run-up to the by-election.
Over the next five years, this sort of thing is only going to get worse. The establishment will become increasingly shameless in its attempts to squash the Corbyn phenomenon.
Already, they’re being so overt and extreme in their bias that even reasonably apolitical people are starting to notice – I see it all the time.
At very least, it’s possible that an intensifying anti-Corbyn propaganda campaign might actually have the opposite effect to the one intended – bringing about a critical mass of people who’ve completely disengaged from the corporate media, and the elite-policed mainstream version of events.