Following the arrival of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor, Corbyn's appointing of Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as director of strategy and communications suggests another real attempt to place genuine leftists in key posts. Despite the retention of many key figures still hostile to Corbyn, it's a bold and courageous move, illustrating just what's actually possible in constructing a serious left politics.
From Blair and Campbell to Corbyn and Milne, we now have people of real progressive mind who reject spin politics. Who, as they say, would have believed it?
As with Corbyn and McDonnell, the smearing of Milne came, of course, with immediate effect, from a virulent diatribe at the Telegraph to poisonous distortions via the New Statesman on Milne's 'terrorist sympathies'. Turned overnight into a 'crazed pro-Stalinist', rather than one of the few journalists of real integrity, the collective vitriol offers another sharp reminder of the savage establishment at work.
And, again, the Guardian have been part of the sniping assault. Note how 'colleague' Suzanne Moore poured the ugliest scorn on Milne, just as she parodied Corbyn. Chief political correspondent Nicholas Watt also rushed to headline arch-Blairite Lord Mandelson's fears that Milne is "completely unsuited" to the role.
But the Guardian are walking a tightrope here. While wholly disapproving of Corbyn and those who promote him, they can't just as easily turn on Milne, one of their own 'on leave' staff. Yet their lack of rallying support for him speaks volumes.
Nor can they be seen to be continually negative about Corbyn himself, fearing this will further alienate their core readers. Thus, from outright assault, the Guardian issued some grudging 'praise' for Corbyn following his first party conference speech. Similar qualified sentiments gushed from Jonathan Freedland. Polly Toynbee and Matthew d'Ancona also peddled reserved 'approvals' - a kind of sickly appeal to be 'allowed back in the room'. And there was Roy Greenslade's account of the wider media assault, conveniently omitting the Guardian's own ugly contribution.
As we wait in vain for Guardian editor Kath Viner to come to Milne's defence, one wonders whether Milne will now use this new position to expose his paper's appalling treatment of Corbyn, and the Guardian at large over its protecting of the powerful.
This includes, not least, Tony Blair, which the Guardian has given a homely platform to, despite his war crimes. Consider, in this vein, how the Guardian reported Blair's 'belated contrition' over Iraq as a 'qualified apology', rather than a cynical non-apology, another piece of calculating spin from Blair after the latest damning memo and in anticipation of Chilcot.
It's likely that Milne will refrain from openly attacking the Guardian. Despite his obvious divergence with much of its output and editorial line, he still has a contractual and, perhaps, more emotional tie to the paper. Yet, even more than the avowedly right-wing press, it's the Guardian that most urgently needs exposing as the organ of the moderating establishment, checking Corbynism and holding back Momentum's proto-movement politics.
Milne may also take the prudent view that neither Corbyn or himself will ever get a fair hearing from the corporate-establishment media. Corbyn has been consistently impressive, in this regard, in simply carrying on, proclaiming his own message, one that, despite the wall of media vitriol, still resonates with people on the street.
This ability not to be baited by so much ugly invective has proved remarkably effective, allowing Corbyn not only to hold the higher moral ground, but to progress his own narrative. Corbyn's appeal here lies in his genuine effort to cultivate a kinder, compassionate politics, something beyond the corporate media's obsession with consumer party politics. This says much more about the brutalising world that establishment journalists inhabit than about any of Corbyn's 'inadequacies'. That's an important 'presentational' advantage in itself.
So, while there may be a certain rebuking of such media, including the Guardian, Milne is likely to steer around it, concentrating, instead, on pushing Corbyn's positive populist message, communicating a new left programme that isn't continually playing to the power narrative, reacting to brutal copy and incessant jibes.
It's worth remembering, in this regard, that Corbyn is still here and, with Momentum, growing a left project by small, notable instalments, even in the face of mass media hostility. So, political communication can also mean something more assertive: a determination to engage citizen politics without being bogged-down in responding to Mail hate, BBC smearing and Blairite hounding. Hopefully, given the power of social media in lifting Corbyn to where he is, Milne will be pushing for more citizen-based platforms.
Communicating with the political mood
But Milne's remit here also involves reaching out and listening on key issues. And there's one huge communication problem, in particular, for Corbyn and Milne to deal with: Scotland.
The quiet political revolution that's seen the demise of Scottish Labour, the surge in left pro-independence support and the near-death experience of the UK state won't be simply turned back through a Corbyn leadership, or Milne's new media/strategic guidance. As noted in a sharp analysis from Shannon Ikebe on the stark limitations of Labour parliamentarism:
The situation is even more contradictory in Scotland, where the left is predominantly pro–independence, there exists a growing left party that emerged out of grassroots radicalism of the independence movement, and the electoral system does not punish smaller parties. The leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, is thoroughly a New Labour figure; she claimed that Corbyn's leadership would leave the party “carping on sidelines.” In Scotland, the left cannot simply organize around Corbyn in the way it can in England; promotion of any Party interests as such is Anglo-centric and harmful to solidarity with the Scottish radicals.So, even having taken the Labour No stance, why doesn't Corbyn and Momentum now openly acknowledge the case for independence, both as a legitimate progressive aspiration and as a model of support for a progressive politics in the rest of the UK?
The scale of the task here for Corbyn is not lost on Milne's Guardian colleague Owen Jones:
Labour needs to grovel before the people of Scotland, and work to win back its deeply alienated support.But this still looks like a damage assessment sheet, with Jones surveying where and how to start rebuilding the same old Labour party hegemony. Like Jones, Milne also advocated a No vote at the referendum, presumably holding on to some notion of Labour deliverance. One hopes both might learn from that mistake. For even a revitalised left Labourism won't come close to dealing with the new matrix of left-independence politics.
Corbyn confirms that he won't stand with Cameron in any second Scottish referendum, deeply aware of the calamity of Labour choosing to be part of Better Together. He also says he will abide by Scottish party leader Kezia Dugdale's view - which seems to imply a 'free vote' on independence for Labour party members.
That's a small, encouraging sign from Corbyn, even while Dugdale and her Scottish Labour coterie are now utterly redundant voices, with no actual ideological connection to Corbyn.
But Corbyn also still shows a disappointing unawareness of the core left mood and motives for independence, as in his aside on the Marr show that "flags don't build houses". This was accompanied by some poorly-informed statements on privatisation matters in Scotland.
While commending Corbyn on most key issues, Lesley Riddoch noted:
In contrast to the rest of Corbyn’s speech this was a lazy and ill-informed diatribe...This old tack is quite out of kilter with the mood of ex-Labour voters in Scotland today.The danger here is that Corbyn movement politics just get subsumed by Corbyn party politics, the same old 'win Scotland for Labour', rather than win Scotland, and the rest of these islands, for people.
Alongside 'anti-austerity' (another convenient power narrative, focused on the 'cuts issue', rather than the impoverishing hand of neoliberal capitalism itself), the obvious common point between Corbyn and the Yes left is nuclear weapons - particularly with Trident renewal now coming in at a mind-boggling £167 billion.
Yet, while commending Corbyn's progressive agenda, and hoping to work with a radical-minded Labour, the SNP's Mhairi Black remains unconvinced about Labour's ability to deliver any real progressive change. Writing at The National (September 26, 2015), she completely rejects the hysteria over the Corbyn "apocalypse":
I, like so many others in Scotland, know that this is not an attitude shared widely among a substantial number of the people in the UK, especially in Scotland. The election of a socialist leader is to be viewed by many as a sign of hope. A sign that Labour in England and Wales may actually begin to work with the SNP and take the hand of friendship that has been outstretched.Yet, for Black:
What has been questionable is the insinuation that this is evidence that Labour is returning to its roots as the party my grandpa and father used to vote for.Black praises the Corbyn campaign as something akin to the Yes movement, noting the same media-establishment hostility:
Much of Corbyn’s campaign was incredibly similar in terms of tactics and reception to that of the Yes campaign. It was carried out at a grassroots level with multiple open public meetings for people to speak their minds. It was built on the hope that things could be better if only we could hit some kind of reset button on our political establishment. Even the vilification by the media was similar to that which the Yes campaign faced. Relentless vilification and false portrayal by the media is something I am very familiar with and find as challenging as I do intolerable. It is because of this that I want to make explicitly clear my respect and admiration in the way that Corbyn handled himself, with dignity and class, and it is something that should be noted. His campaign vindicated the viewpoint of many disillusioned voters in rUK, telling them that it was indeed okay to stand up to the political consensus around austerity.But, for Black, Corbyn still faces the disabling problem of a Blairite, neoliberal party:
However, even if Corbyn stays true to his beliefs and holds strong in the face of unrelenting criticism, the fact is that he has yet to convince his own party of his beliefs and ideology. The idea that purely because of the leadership result Labour have somehow reverted to a collectivist, Nye Bevan, post-war Labour Party overnight is as ridiculous as it is naive. The shift in the political philosophy of the Labour Party to the right has been long cultivated over more than 20 years by many willing party members and elected members both in Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament. Let’s not forget that despite the current Scottish Labour leader’s convenient claim that she would be “delighted” to work with Jeremy Corbyn after his surge in support, Kezia Dugdale originally stated that Labour would be “left carping on the sidelines” if the left-wing candidate won the leadership. The Cabinet itself is filled with New Labour Blairites, whose voting records often suggest that they will be completely at odds with some of Corbyn’s flagship left-wing views.More fundamentally, for Black, a movement of people which has worked and voted for a radical independence model of change shouldn't be expected to just sacrifice that politics of self-determination:
Despite this upsurge and momentum that has become apparent through Corbyn’s campaign, the reality is that England still voted Tory. Yes, his election may give us hope that the desire for change exists to an extent in England as well, and the SNP will happily work with Corbyn on many issues to achieve many desired changes, but the point is that Scotland should not have to be reliant on a Jeremy Corbyn character to achieve those changes. Scotland has allowed itself to be totally dependent on whatever England (as the largest country in the UK) chooses to vote. We will only ever get Labour if England chooses Labour. That is not democracy. I am pleased to see a socialist in a position of influence in England just as I would anywhere else in the world, but one in five of our children still lives in poverty due to the policies of this English-elected Conservative government. For all the good causes Jeremy Corbyn appears to believe in, ultimately Scotland should not have to endure horrendous policies for 20-year interludes while we wait and hope that an English electorate may see fit to elect an occasional Corbyn-type character.Black is surely correct in her overall assessment here. Corbynism can't, and shouldn't try to, communicate itself as a valid alternative to Yes independence, or the only route to a progressive society. It's hoped that Corbyn and Milne will see the extreme folly of that line.
Yet, what a huge waste and disappointment it would be to see such radical energy lost to any kind of default Labour-SNP party positioning. There is vital common ground here, progress to be made, but only if movement ideals can prevail. In order to advance this, two new lines of accommodation would have to be cultivated:
1. Corbyn and Momentum not only recognise but encourage the case for Scottish independence as a valid and dynamic part of left movement politics.
2. Progressives for independence support Corbyn and Momentum as part of the same movement politics, all serving to break with the old dominant order.
That may seem like a very tall order for a system of deeply-entrenched party politics. One wonders whether even a good radical like Milne can re-think his No views and help communicate this much more complex terrain.
One useful step might be in looking at how voices around Podemos are seeking to advance radical politics in Spain while engaging the radical independence mood in Catalonia. This requires a new political synthesis, "a recalibration of strategy...that combines support for self-determination...with a democratic and progressive social agenda."
Only with that kind of rapprochement, that deeper understanding of common aims, can Momentum and Corbynism have any useful effect in Scotland. Corbyn and Milne must embrace the reality of the Yes left, working with it, both as a progressive friend and as a valued support base.
This is a vital opportunity for communicating a new civil-based alignment, confident in its ability to assert its own progressive message, political relationships and independent media platforms. Otherwise, we're stuck with the same sclerotic party system, the same narrow consensus, rather than the qualitative possibilities of real movement politics.