Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Word on the Streets.... of Oldham

Of all the commentary on the huge success that was Labour’s victory in the Oldham by-election, few if any commentators seem to have noticed one of the most significant factors.

The key point (I think) is how out of sync the attitudes of the media (and many members of the professional ‘political’ bubble) are with the general public. While hostile commentators (incidentally – this does not only mean right-wingers) were predicting an embarrassingly low majority or maybe even a defeat that they could place at the door of Jeremy Corbyn, the people of Oldham were delivering the best ever result for Labour in the seat with a 62.1% share of the vote!

Jim McMahon and Jeremy Corbyn after the Oldham By-election
So why this disconnect, especially in a week that was supposed to be embarrassing for Corbyn after the Syria vote? Well, there are a number of reasons, and they are not good reading for the right – either in or out of the Labour benches. Oh, and none of them are the sudden conversion of the people of Britain to revolutionary socialism!
First is the tendency of too many people inside the political bubble to only hear the comforting sounds of like-minded ‘bubbleists’ – and by these I mean journalists and commentators as well as political colleagues – rather than the word on the streets.
A Daily Telegraph image from early 2015.
For a long time politicians have tried to make sure that they all look, and sound the same. Media advisers, strategists and PR people have been telling them for so long that they need to avoid committed policy statements, need to try and gather together the ‘middle ground’, that they haven’t noticed that they have all become the same. That is, of course, they have all become the type of career, PR-slick, media-savvy, policy-lite, people that delivered us the Westminster-expenses scandal. The politicians people are thinking of when they say, “They’re all the same – just out for themselves.”
One of Jeremy Corbyn’s advantages with that electorate is precisely that he isn’t that type of politician. He does come across (as incidentally does Nigel Farage!) as someone who says what he believes, and believes what he says. It is unlikely (much as I would like it to be the case) that everyone who voted for Corbyn in the Leadership election, has been part of the huge growth in Labour membership, or who voted Labour in Oldham are revolutionary socialists. They are people who want to see a change. In Corbyn’s anti-austerity, compassionate and principled stance (UNlike Nigel Farage) they think they have found it.
That backing from ordinary people is significant in another way too, of course. It means that Corbyn is not a prisoner of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). He was (for the most part) not supported as leader by them, but was elected by the membership as a whole in the way that the right in the party said they wanted. That also means that he isn’t a ‘prisoner of the unions’ as Miliband was accused of being! This sudden strength of the ordinary member – and indeed the large increase in their number, must be a tad worrying for MPs facing selection! Maybe the urgent hostility of some in the PLP might be to do with a feeling they don’t have long? Certainly Corbyn seems to be the one playing the long game, and his perceived ‘light touch’ in response to hostile comments from supposed colleagues doesn’t seem to be doing him any harm with the public (or the membership). Maybe this is another example of ‘not just another politician’?
The second reason for the disconnect is that there are many fewer journalists with anything like the time to get out of the office or the lobby and actually go and research a story – to find out what is being said on the streets of Oldham or wherever. If all you listen to are politicians feeding you their wishes, if all you check are the tweets of the twitterati, when there is something going on out there, you’ll not spot it.
Of course if you work for a media organization with an agenda that swings only one way then you will also know what you are expected to write, but even if you are a good political journalist (and there are many), the way to get rid of the temptation to take the story fed to you, must often be to give into it, - especially if it is being punted by regular sources.
Thirdly, and maybe more controversially, am I alone in seeing a reduction in the power of the media? The reduction in sales of newspapers and the dispersal of ‘news’ around the social media sites may (and it is too early to be definite about this) herald the relaxing of the grip of the media barons. It certainly appears that there are increasing examples – not least Corbyn’c election as leader – where a media line has failed to deliver the proponent’s desired result.
On the Streets. Campaigning in Oldham
Finally – although this has been mentioned albeit briefly – the other thing that helps at election time is a good local candidate. Many of the current crop of Westminster politicians got where they were after carpet-bagging around the country to try and gain a safe seat. This reinforces the image of the ‘Slick Willie’ brand of politician. While local council leaders aren’t always the right person for selection, they usually have a local profile. Where that is a positive one – and it certainly appears to be in Oldham – a local candidate has considerable weight.
It seems clear that if Jeremy Corbyn can maintain the principled and measured approach he has so far, it will maintain his popularity in the eyes of the public. If that continues to reflect in political support it may help in dealing with recalcitrants! It also means that attacks on Corbyn for continuing to say the things he believes are unlikely to attract much support from the electorate.

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