Mark Brophy

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Inverted Snobbery

The resignation of Emily Thornberry as Shadow Attorney General in response to the storm of outrage following her tweeting a picture of a house, some flags, and a van while on the campaign trail in Rochester and Strood has been widely held up as a sign of Labour being in chaos. Labour may be split on whether she should have lost her job, but the papers are universal in their condemnation of her – and Labour’s – contempt for the working classes. Or should I say the papers and the Tories are universal in their condemnation. Thornberry is the MP for Islington which as we all know is the epicentre of metropolitan

thornberrysnobbery and the consensus of all those right-wing papers and politicians in their concern for the working class is that she was “sneering”. I reproduce an image of the offending tweet here.

 

In contrast to the reported sneering, her only caption is “Image from #Rochester”. Which it unquestionably is. In fact, there is so little information in her words it is effectively a blank canvas, which the whole nation has been able to project their own prejudices onto. The sneering hasn’t come from Thornberry but from everyone else. To accuse her of sneering is to believe there’s something there to sneer at. The flags, the van; the common subtext is that this is someone beneath contempt. Maybe the owner of that van is contemptible but it’s hard to tell just by looking at the picture and she didn’t say so.

 

 

So now Labour is in chaos apparently. This only 1 day after the Tories lost a safe seat and the Lib Dems lost their deposit. But our media know which is the story they wish to concentrate on. In today’s Telegraph David Cameron put the boot in unchallenged:

“Emily Thornberry is one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies and aides.

“Effectively what this means is that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and love their country. I think that’s completely appalling.”

Let’s just look at the logic behind this and extrapolate it to Mr Cameron’s own party. Forget for a moment that Miliband got Thornberry to resign. It would be reasonable knowing that to think sneering at people who work hard is the last thing Labour approve of. Anyway, by this logic, we could say the entirety of Mr Cameron’s Tory Party is fully behind any of their crackpot utterances which are later disowned. For instance, we could say the Tories all sneer at disabled people and don’t think they are worth paying minimum wage. Though actually, seeing as Lord Freud didn’t get sacked for his faux pas they probably do all think that.

 

Why then did Ed Miliband demand Ms Thornberry’s resignation? I can’t help thinking it’s for putting her head above the parapet. Miliband and Labour know they will be lambasted at every opportunity and the last thing they needed during a by-election was someone giving the papers some material they could use to criticise.

 

Following on from this was a sub-furore when Ed Miliband was asked what he thought when he saw something like Ms Thornberry’s tweet depicted. As part of a longer conversation in which he bemoaned that Ms Thornberry had been disrespectful, he answered in contrast that he felt respect. Pass The Sickbag! How bizarre, they cheeped. He really could not win. What did they expect him to say, “why do those vans all have Ferrari engines in them”? If you are going to trash someone no matter whether they say either of two opposing statements then you aren’t reporting or commenting any more, you’re doing the work of their opponents and by the way subverting the political process while you’re on. No one can make an informed decision if their information is skewed.

 

As if to prove my point the BBC’s Nick Robinson piped up, saying Labour had:

“given the Tory press an alternative narrative…the most extraordinary self-inflicted wound I have seen an opposition party inflict on themselves in many, many years.”

before merrily hammering away on that alternative narrative himself, and in due course inflict some extraordinarily unfair wounding.

 

It becomes clearer every day that our system, our media are rigged. How could anyone look at political events since Thursday morning and conclude that tweet is the main story? They have made it so against all logic and will continue to do Labour down at every opportunity and indeed even when there isn’t one. The political media have become an apparatus of right-wing propaganda. Or is it just that I have only now noticed?

New Political Landscape extends beyond TV debates

Plans for the pre-general Election 2015 leadership TV debates have just been made public and much has been made of the fact that Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, has been included in the proposals to take part in one of them. The traditional 3 main parties plus UKIP would be the only ones involved under the plans. With only 1 MP, and such a recent one that Douglas Carswell had not had time to be sworn in before the news broke, why was UKIP to be included ahead of the Green party who have had an MP since 2010? For that matter, it’s also worth wondering why they would be included in the debates ahead of any of the 9 parties with representation in the House of Commons who have been overlooked.

It’s fairly transparent why the broadcasters would want things the way they’ve suggested; a TV debate between 13 parties would be in danger of being unwatchable. Never let it be said that our broadcasters are looking for a fair and balanced series of debates which allow all parties to get their point across. Like all our news media they are already pursuing the particular narrative which they perceive will be the big story of the coming election, the rise of UKIP as a major political force. They’ve been doing it for some time now. They cover it because it interests them, it gives them something to talk about, to fill up the endless hours of coverage. But because they keep covering the story it becomes ever more likely to come true. Without the seemingly endless and up to now disproportionate coverage of UKIP and Nigel Farage, would they have made the inroads they have done already? The advantage they’ve gained is perhaps more clearly seen if we put it the other way round: it’s impossible for a party to have electoral success on a large scale without similarly widespread exposure on national TV. Such has the boost been to UKIP’s electoral prospects that they are being spoken of as a genuine 4th major party, and that they have broken the 3-party system which has been our political landscape since the birth of the Labour Party in the early years of the last century.

The shrinking popularity and disillusionment with Labour, Tories and Lib Dems mean that our 3-party system and in particular our First-Past-The-Post electoral voting system are appearing more and more outdated and unrepresentative and in that context representation in TV debates seems very small beer. I’d argue that rather than simply moving to a 4-party system we are now in an age of genuine multi-party politics, but that isn’t reflected by our electoral system. Again, it’s clear why traditional parties would wish to maintain the current system. It sustains them, and holds back possible competition. Because of FPTP, Labour have been able to move away from the concerns of their traditional support base without losing seats. Enough people will vote for them in their heartlands no matter what that for over a decade they’ve felt able to allow the centre of national political debate to shift to the right, to the chagrin of many who feel deserted by Labour’s refusal to oppose what has therefore become the political consensus. Despite the calls of “Red Ed” and Labour undoubtedly attempting to appeal more to their core recently, the number of Blairites still influencing the party mean it’s unlikely to go further. Most of the people left behind by this have no-one electable to the left of Labour who they can vote for as things stand; in 99% of constituencies a vote for a non-Labour party of the left will not result in them winning a seat, and that vote is effectively pointless. Indeed, for some time the Lib Dem electoral strategy has been that “Party A cannot win here; Only the Lib Dems can stop Party B in this constituency”, the identities of parties A & B of course being switchable according to the realities on the ground. The abhorrence of tactical voting seems to have been lost in all this. The idea that people feel forced to vote for someone they don’t support merely to prevent someone else winning who they think is even worse should be anathema to anyone who believes in popular representation. Why can’t my vote for a party in Newcastle be pooled with that of a fellow-supporter on the South coast, both of us safe in the knowledge that our votes will not be wasted?

The Lib Dems appear to be about to pass on their status as the national party of tactical voters to UKIP anyway. Despite their manifest failures in government, the Lib Dems at least attempt to position themselves between Labour and Conservatives and so by default are a lesser evil than the other of the 3 to supporters stranded in an unwinnable seat for their party of choice. UKIP by contrast set themselves to the right of the Tories. I just can’t see Labour supporters voting en masse for UKIP in marginals ( though some will of course), especially when they have already stated they’ll support a minority Tory government in return for concessions.

It’s a staple of political strategy that 35% or so of the vote would be sufficient for Labour to gain an overall majority, not much more than that for the Tories to do the same. Could it be that if tactical voting no longer took place, not only would the vote of the 3rd party be reduced, but that of Labour & Conservatives as well? People who were disillusioned with the traditional party of left or right would no longer feel the need to vote for them rather than risk the other winning. Minor parties could be expected to hold the major party of their side of the debate to account in  coalition government. Unlike the Lib Dems (who may be wiped from the political scene next time) they’d be sharing power with a dominant partner whose broad programme wasn’t too far from their own. It’s a vision of fragmentation, yes, but one of political engagement too, where people vote for parties they agree with and gain outcomes they approve of. It can only be achieved by ditching our electoral system. The self-interest inherent in the major parties wishing to maintain the status quo means they cannot be left to decide on what will happen. The only acceptable ongoing process would be for an independent body to decide on options for changes to the electoral system, and then put it to the nation. Maybe they can debate that on TV.

Marches & Media

In case you’re unaware, the People’s Assembly held a March against Austerity through London at the weekend. An estimated 50000 people participated and high profile speakers such as Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas MP and Russell Brand addressed the crowd.

Soon after it had begun however, complaints arose from activists and supporters that the march was being ignored by news media, specifically the BBC. There were stories in newspapers and on websites about the march, but they were mostly explaining why the ‘news blackout’ was taking place rather than reporting the event itself. Two in nominally left-leaning titles particularly stood out.

The first, in the New Statesman, claimed marches just aren’t that interesting. People on the street, even in fairly large numbers, do not make for a newsworthy event. You can almost feel the ennui of the author as he states that marches like this happen

..three or four times a year in London alone, usually with the same people carrying the same banners.

Strangely, the reasoning becomes muddled when it’s claimed that actually, there was coverage on the BBC (on the radio mostly apparently). Surely either something’s not newsworthy, or it’s on the news, not both. The piece completely misses the point in other ways too. This wasn’t just another march. It was partially about the perceived lack of coverage of anti-austerity arguments. The march itself started at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House, as if to say “here we are! you have to notice us now…” Of course it might be said that by making the march about the BBC nothing could have been more certain than that the state broadcaster would fail to adequately report criticism of itself. Maybe that’s unwise for a campaign struggling for whatever publicity and recognition it can get. Then again, it’s not like the activities of the People’s Assembly against Austerity troubled the scorers at the BBC much before so why not, when they have nothing to lose? Enshrined in the very premise of the article is that BBC editors just didn’t find the protest interesting, as if there’s nothing wrong with that. Contained within that explanation is also the complaint. It’s not that there is some kind of conspiracy in the newsroom against this campaign. The fact is that most of the people employed by the BBC – and most other news media – tend not to find this sort of thing interesting. They don’t agree politically, they don’t know anyone who thinks the protesters have a point, and just like Willard Foxton who wrote the New Statesman’s piece they are tired of people moaning about an entirely understandable and justified government economic policy. You only get a job by demonstrating you think the right way. So journalists are free to print (or say) what they like, because the people in charge already like what they think. That’s where the bias comes from, where the blackout originates, in the colonisation of the news media by the middle and upper classes, and the concomitant narrow range of political views they are prepared to represent.

The other piece, on the political website Left Foot Forward at least openly states

Media bias is one factor … less because of a deliberate decision to exclude anti-austerity protests, and more because of the class backgrounds of many journalists. …having little invested in the services this government is cutting means that many journalists slip effortlessly into narratives of the cuts being “inevitable” and austerity coming as a consequence of “runaway government spending”

It goes on to explain the other supposed factors. “Protest marches rarely achieve anything”, which is true but that’s no reason not to report on it. England rarely win the World Cup but there’s no lack of column inches on that. There’s more:

This specific argument has been lost… There is no longer a mainstream anti-austerity narrative… The Tories and the Lib Dems are making cuts, Labour are going to make cuts and no one who isn’t is going to get anywhere near power anytime soon. As far as the media is concerned the debate is over.

Again, in a way all true. There isn’t a mainstream anti-austerity narrative if by that you mean none of the three traditional main parties are against it, and the media see those who are as discredited flat-earthers. Undoubtedly this is a factor in the behaviour of the news media, but once again that doesn’t mean this state of affairs is right. The piece mentions polls quoting 42% regarding cuts as good for the economy, with 37% disagreeing. That’s very close to an even split, 37% of people disagreeing with austerity without there being any coverage at all of the arguments against it in the news media, the nation’s main opinion formers. Imagine what those figures would be if there were actually balanced coverage of the arguments.

Where the Left Foot Forward piece discredits itself is in saying the protesters answer to austerity, of taxing the rich, would result in the rich leaving

…the country, taking their businesses, tax revenue and jobs with them. You may profess not to care about such things, but whether you like it or not you still need money to pay for services and the like.

The assumption here being of course that all economic activity is reliant on the rich.

Worse still, it then lets itself down by referencing the Laffer Curve. This theory states that increasing tax rates above a particular level results in lower tax revenue, and is most often used as a justification to reduce higher-rate taxes. Laffer was a member of Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s which cut higher rate income tax to a third of its previous level, ending in US budget deficit quadrupling and government debt tripling. His theory is counter-intuitive and discredited.

It’s indisputable that what our media find interesting doesn’t necessarily result in the coverage we’d wish for. Last week BBC News aired a lengthy segment including several minutes interviewing a political correspondent about a joke – possibly hacked – tweet from Labour HQ offering free owls for everyone. Yet I’m still waiting to see any coverage at all of Labour’s pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act for instance, surely of interest to the large numbers worried about the future of the NHS.

The failure of our political parties to provide a choice for voters on austerity and any number of other potentially divisive issues make it easy for the media to claim there is no dissension on these subjects. For the BBC, so desperate to safeguard the licence fee it rebuts criticism of the government rather than risk being accused of bias against it, this is probably something approaching a godsend. Even so, I think it is safe to say that a very large section of the country are opposed to austerity. We should hear their arguments.

Sky Removed The Limits

At the Tory Party Conference this week, Michael Gove claimed one of the things Rupert Murdoch could take credit for was changing football for the better, “his investment in Sky, it’s not my first love but it is worth acknowledging, has helped to revive Premier League football in this country” Sky has certainly improved the technical quality of football coverage and they should be congratulated for that. Gove has probably been very successful in his choice of words. The Premier League has indeed had a huge influx of money thanks to Sky’s need to use football to boost its subscription base. Unhappily, the rest of football has effectively been thrown to the lions, only benefiting from the bounty through transfer fees in the kind of trickle-down effect which Gove’s party place so much trust in.

You could argue that top-level football has been revived in the Sky era, not by TV money but by a surge in interest after the 1990 World Cup, improved stadia resulting from the Taylor Report, and moves to finally rid football of the malign twin influences of violence and racism that had made them coveted recruiting grounds for the far-right. Sky jumped on a bandwagon that was already rolling and very cleverly used it to hoover up as much cash as they could, though the publicity and exposure they provided, as Gove says, certainly helped at that point. Aspects of the game which have helped the momentum continue are undoubtedly due solely to Sky and the money they provide. In particular, the ability to attract some of the very best talent from all over the world has raised the quality of the football on view. With so many clubs struggling financially though, even with the money from TV rights, it has to be said that the revival seems at the present time to be more of a boom than a sustainable improvement, a bubble that will more likely than not burst at some point. Contrary to current worries though the implications of Karen Murphy’s court case against Sky is unlikely to be the pin that bursts the bubble. It seems that all Sky need to do to prevent foreign satellite being legally shown in pubs in the UK is to put their logo on screen on all broadcasts.

It isn’t Sky’s fault, of course, what the Premier League chooses to do with its lottery win. They didn’t force those club chairmen to break away from the rest of the football league and claim the greater share of TV money for themselves. They didn’t force them to funnel the vast majority of that money down the gaping maw of associated agents, crooked or otherwise, and their grasping proteges, as a reward for a measure of physical prowess. Sky didn’t force them to pile debt upon debt until they are nearly under, leaving them gasping so precariously for air that the slightest slip could be the end of them. For once, in this case it’s not Rupert Murdoch’s fault what the money his company has provided has done to the game. Even so, it has had the effect of giving unlimited funds to an adolescent; better clothed and fancier friends, but ultimately lacking in restraint and guiding principles. For that he should not be thanked.

Even if Sky lose the ability to make their football deals pay and choose not to bid so highly or even not at all at the next set of negotiations, the roof wouldn’t fall in on football in a financial sense. There’s still money to be made from TV football, whether Sky are legally able to corner the market for themselves or not. It could take the form of a deal with a pan-European broadcaster to show games, but surely the eventual endgame will be clubs negotiating their own deals individually. The cutthroat logic the Premier League clubs have lived by since the original 90s breakaway demands it. Money will accumulate to fewer and fewer clubs, problems to more and more. The conclusion commonly made, that Sky has ruined the game, is not strictly true. Football ruined itself, and the motivations that made them do it will continue to make them act the same way in the future.

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