How the Guardian Changed Tack on Corbyn, Despite Its Readers
by Alex Nunns
8 January 2017
In an extract from new book The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, Alex Nunns examines how the Guardian newspaper reacted to Corbyn’s sudden rise in the 2015 leadership contest.
The Guardian occupied a special place in relation to the left. Although the newspaper’s daily print circulation was low, its online reach was wide and individual articles could have a huge readership when shared on social media. The Guardian’s own research into its readers demonstrated that the newspaper served a demographic that was crucial to the leadership contest. When its consumer insight team questioned a sample of its ‘core readership’ in the UK in the midst of the campaign on 30 July 2015, it found that 15% were Labour members and a further 9% were registered supporters, meaning that nearly a quarter of the Guardian’s avid readers had a vote (a proportion that probably increased before the 12 August deadline for registration). Labour elites clearly regarded the Guardian as an important medium for communicating with voters, as several of them – including David Miliband, Alan Johnson, Peter Hain and Tony Blair – chose to place anti-Corbyn opinion pieces in the newspaper.
In the Guardian these New Labour veterans found a reliable ally. While not a loyal Labour-supporting newspaper like the Daily Mirror, it was the primary mainstream venue for leftish opinion-forming in the UK. Its role was not a passive one. In its choice of what was newsworthy, in its framing of the news and in its selection of opinion writers, the Guardian wielded huge influence over the terms of debate. It helped define the political field of play, and then acted as linesman on the left-side touchline. Or, to switch metaphors, it policed the boundary of acceptable opinion. In usual times, this policing operation was low-level, almost implied. But just as the full force of the state becomes visible during an emergency, so the Guardian’s role in British political life was laid bare when an outsider MP threatened to overturn politics as usual.
In the beginning, when Corbyn was judged to pose no danger, the Guardian could afford to be generous. As his team scrambled for MPs’ nominations, the newspaper even devoted an editorial to helping him. Titled “The Guardian view on Labour’s leadership: don’t narrow down a lack-lustre contest,” the newspaper argued that Corbyn “has a right to a place” in the election, despite being a “radical leftist.” Why? Because otherwise the Tories’ battering of the welfare state “could be entirely obscured in an exchange of empty clichés about ‘reform’ if nobody does what Mr Corbyn will do, and vows to fight the cuts.” The Guardian even welcomed the prospect that Corbyn’s “opposition to Trident could spark an overdue debate about defence.” This was all OK because “few—and perhaps not even the modestly mannered Mr Corbyn himself—would imagine [him] in No 10.” His role would be strictly to “force more definition on the rest of the pack.”
Nevertheless, optimists could read in to such a supportive editorial hints of a hoped-for shift in the political stance of the newspaper. Just two weeks earlier Kath Viner had taken over as editor, the first woman to hold the post. Seen as having the backing of the paper’s more left-leaning journalists, she had been appointed by the Guardian’s owners after winning an indicative ballot among staff with 53% of the vote, well ahead of her nearest two rivals in the low twenties (a mandate only slightly shy of that which Corbyn would receive). Could she be exerting her will over the Guardian’s executive editor of opinion, Jonathan Freedland, a man whose politics were viscerally opposed to Corbyn’s?
Even Martin Kettle, the Guardian’s associate editor who would go on to be Corbyn’s coldest critic, echoed the editorial line when the deadline for nominations arrived on 15 June: “The good news is that there is a decent range of candidates to choose from… a spectrum of views from old left to Blairite.” (Burnishing his credentials as an astute reader of Labour politics, Kettle also asserted that “Jeremy Corbyn’s nomination has helped Burnham because it means he can’t be so easily cast as the leftie in the race” and Liz Kendall “has proved that there is a sizable level of support” for a Blairite analysis.)
The Guardian’s initial portrayal of Corbyn as an interesting no-hoper continued in its first long profile interview with him on 17 June. Despite treating the MP as someone who could be freely mocked – “He still has a touch of Citizen Smith about him (without the laughs)” – Corbyn nonetheless came across as warm, and was even afforded some policy credit: “The thing about Corbyn is that he is nearly always proved right – after the event.” The next day’s paper carried an unambiguously positive mention from Seumas Milne, then the most senior voice within the Guardian from the left (subsequently Labour’s executive director of strategy and communications), who had a firmer grasp of the electoral dynamics than most of his colleagues. “Given that any Labour supporter can now sign up to vote for £3,” he wrote, “the reluctant Corbyn is likely to do better than many media pundits imagine.”
But that was about as far as Corbyn’s Guardian honeymoon went. Any hopes of a Viner effect quickly faded. In the following weeks, as public excitement began to build behind Corbyn, as the applause at hustings got louder, as the local party endorsements notched up, and as unofficial surveys pointed to significant support, the Guardian’s response, save for the occasional mention, was a virtual blackout. In a later review of his paper’s coverage, the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, admitted that “in the early days of Corbyn’s charge, the readers rightly got a sniff that on occasions we weren’t taking him seriously enough.”
The newspaper’s interest picked up after revelations in mid-July that Corbyn was ahead in private polling. And then, when the YouGov poll landed, the coverage exploded – helped by an accelerant in the form of Tony Blair’s first clumsy intervention into the contest. A selection of the headlines from the Guardian website’s front page on 22 and 23 July gives a sense of the almost hysterical tone that took hold: “Blair urges Labour not to wrap itself in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket”; “Think before you vote for Jeremy Corbyn”; “Labour can come back from the brink, but it seems to lack the will to do so”; “Blair: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform.” On these two panic-stricken days alone, the Guardian website carried opinion pieces hostile to Corbyn from Anne Perkins, Suzanne Moore, Polly Toynbee, Tim Bale, Martin Kettle, Michael White, Anne Perkins (again), and Anne Perkins (yet again). There was not a single pro-Corbyn column.
In one of her three efforts, Anne Perkins dispensed with subtlety and simply pleaded:
Please, new associate members who will shape the party for the next five years, maybe forever: do a little research. Think what kind of country you want for you and your children and, even more importantly, think how you might get there. Now think, is Jeremy Corbyn in the middle of that picture? I don’t think so.
But the Guardian had a problem: its readers did think so. On 24 July the newspaper published the results of an initiative to get feedback from readers on who they were supporting. The group was self-selecting and the exercise unscientific, but the verdict was overwhelming: 78% of the 2,500 people who responded backed Corbyn. More rigorous research conducted by the Guardian’s consumer insight team at the end of July found that of the newspaper’s core UK readership, 51% said Corbyn was their choice for leader, while 7% supported Cooper. Kendall and Burnham had 6% each.
Such sentiment was often reflected on the letters page, an oasis amid the relentless negativity elsewhere. And anyone brave enough to venture ‘below the line’ into the netherworld of online comments could not mistake the strong feeling that Corbyn was being unfairly treated and his supporters patronised. Commenters showed themselves to be expert at puncturing pomposity and exposing illogic, but the most striking feature of their contributions was anger at the Guardian itself. On 3 August the paper’s readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, felt the need to respond to the backlash with a makeshift review. Of 43 pieces of journalism published between 21 and 30 July, he classed 16 as opposed to Corbyn, 17 as neutral, and ten in Corbyn’s favour. On those figures he implied that the coverage had been fair, but he refused to release which pieces he had judged to fall into which category. In any case, such a quantitative analysis obscured more than it revealed. Elliott argued that the Guardian “should not be a fanzine for any side” – but that was not the issue. The charge was that the Guardian was effectively trolling one particular candidate – one who had the support of many of its readers. As the organisation Media Lens pointed out in a response to Elliott’s review, simply focusing on the criticism or praise directed at Corbyn ignored the fact that the other candidates in the race were treated very differently: “High-profile Guardian journalists and others have been lined up to direct a flood of ‘disaster’ warnings, dismissals, derision, disbelief and mockery at Corbyn, and only Corbyn. Nothing remotely comparable has been directed at Burnham, Cooper or Kendall. This is a spectacular example of bias.”
Readers could sense this bias not only in polemical columns. It stretched across the dividing line between opinion and news and was glimpsed in the headlines chosen by sub-editors and in the framing of reports. Elliott agreed that one example had gone too far: a 28 July item headlined “Jeremy Corbyn warns ‘naughty people’ to leave Labour party alone” had “held him up to ridicule.” But consider these other news headlines: “Jeremy Corbyn caught looking gloomy on night bus”; “Jeremy Corbyn suggests he would bring back Labour’s nationalising clause IV” (in which the first line of the story read “Jeremy Corbyn has denied that he would reinstate clause IV…”); “View from Nuneaton on Corbyn: ‘I can’t imagine that he will go down well around here.’”
Another news headline from 4 August read “Anti-austerity unpopular with voters, finds inquiry into Labour’s election loss.” The sub-heading of the article by political editor Patrick Wintour – long regarded by the Labour left as a cipher for Peter Mandelson – made sure any readers who had missed the significance of the term ‘anti-austerity’ would realise this was a story directed at Corbyn: “Independent review shows abiding concern over economic deficit, and may fuel doubt about policies of Labour leadership front-runner Jeremy Corbyn.” This framing was based on a poll commissioned by Labour MP Jon Cruddas as part of his Independent Inquiry into why Labour had lost the May general election. 56% of participants had agreed with the leading statement: “We must live within our means so cutting the deficit is the top priority.” Wintour reported that the finding “shows Britain’s voters do not back an anti-austerity message.” Yet the poll had not mentioned ‘anti-austerity’; nor had Labour offered an ‘anti-austerity message’ at the election. As the Labour MP Michael Meacher wrote in a letter to the Guardian published on 12 August:
The YouGov poll in July is surprising, not that 56% (of the 3,000 electorate sample) agreed that “we must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority,” but rather that 44% did not. This is the dogma that has been pumped out relentlessly by George Osborne, all three main political parties, the City and business establishments, and the right wing 70% of the media for five years. It is extraordinary that such an orchestrated barrage, opposed not even by the Labour party, should command support from only slightly over half the population.
By so explicitly linking the poll finding to Corbyn’s programme, Wintour put a particular spin on the news that may have had political consequences at a crucial time. His own opinion of Corbyn could be inferred through phrasing and throwaway lines elsewhere in his work – remembering that, as a news reporter, he was expected to maintain a greater degree of objectivity than an opinion columnist. In an article on 31 August he described Corbyn as having had “next to no experience of making difficult political decisions, preferring instead the safety of left wing protest politics.” Corbyn was “a man who has previously run only the planning committee of Haringey council,” and was likely to find he “is entitled to receive the levels of loyalty he gave previous Labour leaders—none.” When Wintour wrote of “the left’s hermetically sealed belief that they have created a mass movement,” many of his readers would have considered themselves part of that movement. (Perhaps of note in that regard is the announcement in October 2015 that Wintour would be moving from his job as political editor to become the Guardian’s diplomatic editor.)
On 13 August the Guardian finally placed its cards on the table. The paper that was “not a fanzine for any side” endorsed Cooper for leader. In some ways it was a brave decision, as with only a month to go in the contest Cooper seemed destined to lose. The editorial that carried the endorsement was curious for being almost entirely about another candidate – no prizes. “The insurgent has breathed extraordinary life into the Labour leadership race,” it read. “The party must harness the energy he has unleashed.” But though one contender had shone, another should win. Just one paragraph was devoted to Cooper’s qualities for the job – she was a woman and good at economics – without mentioning any of her policies. In a sense the situation facing the Guardian’s editorial hierarchy mirrored that of the Labour elite. Their readers were for Corbyn, their attention was on Corbyn, and they could not find one positive, inspiring reason for Labour supporters to vote for anyone else.
The Sunday sister paper of the Guardian, the Observer, had its own editorial line and, in keeping with its generally more conservative politics, took an even harder anti-Corbyn stance. It was slightly earlier to the party, too, anticipating the first YouGov poll by a few days to launch a Blairite-themed onslaught on 19 July. That day’s paper featured a long piece by political editor Toby Helm (taster: “The prospect of Corbyn being crowned leader in September has focused minds on a crisis that could destroy the party”); a focus group of voters who had switched to the Tories (“Labour’s lost voters may never return again”); columns by Nick Cohen (Labour would become “a leftwing version of the Tea Party”) and Andrew Rawnsley (“the hard left always betrays the very people it purports to care about”); a piece from Alistair Darling endorsing the ‘realist’ Liz Kendall for leader (rather unrealistically); and a 1,800 word editorial on Labour sinking into “a warm bath of delusion.” The themes of the editorial were familiar. Labour “must locate themselves in the centre” – that was the lesson of Tony Blair. “It is impossible to conjure a winning position if you are too far from the centre” – that was the lesson of Ed Miliband.
The Observer was nothing if not consistent. Two months later, despite the extraordinary happenings in the interim, all the newspaper could say in its begrudging editorial on the morning after Corbyn’s victory was that the new leader must “reach out to voters in the centre.” The piece was so cheerless that it provoked a withering response from one of the Observer’s own journalists, Ed Vulliamy, published in the paper on 20 September. “We let down many readers and others by not embracing at least the spirit of the result, propelled as it was by moral principles of equality, peace and justice,” he wrote. “Why not embrace those principles, or at least show an interest in the fact that hundreds of thousands of people just did?”
The identity of a newspaper is not just determined by its editorial line but also by its star columnists. They are the ones with the freedom to speak out, to write in the first person, to frame an argument in the most persuasive way possible. To the public, they are the personification of a newspaper. With a few exceptions, the big names at the Guardian and Observer proved relentlessly hostile to Corbyn. The following four vignettes give a sense of the tone.
Polly Toynbee is the quintessential Guardian columnist, the biggest of the bunch. She recognised Corbyn’s appeal earlier than most – noting on 23 June 2015 that he “wins on the clapometer” by using the crafty trick of “saying what no doubt many Labour members believe.” He would never be leader— that would be one of the “three main candidates,” and Toynbee’s “hunch is Cooper is the one to beat.” But “every Corbyn vote gives ammunition to Labour’s enemies” because he is “a relic,” “a 1983 man.”
She returned to the subject a month later, at the height of the panic following YouGov’s first poll. “Suddenly the party that has been a reasonably friendly coalition through the Blair, Brown, Miliband years, begins to feel like the poisonous place it was in the early 80s,” she wrote of Labour, whose supporters had presumably taken to calling each other “relic” and other insults. (A tendency to abuse the left for being abusive became ubiquitous among journalists and found its ultimate expression in a single sentence from the Times’ Philip Collins complaining of “the stupidity and nastiness within the Corbyn campaign.”)
By 4 August it had become clear to Toynbee that Corbyn really might win. It was also apparent that – remarkably – admonishing his supporters was not working. So in a dramatic change of tack she now sought to convince them using the ‘I’m with you, but…’ method. “Free to dream,” ran the headline of her column, “I’d be left of Jeremy Corbyn. But we can’t gamble the future on him.” Yes, Toynbee (who in 1983 stood as a candidate for the Social Democratic party, the rightist splitters from Labour) was Che Guevara without the beard, Rosa Luxemburg without the limp. “I’d go further than Corbyn,” she declared. “I’d go for a windfall wealth tax to pay off the deficit, make the Queen be Elizabeth the Last, abolish faith schools, private schools and inheritance, tax millionaires at 70%.” But, she argued, it was best not to say such things out loud.
None of this had any impact. “Let me have one last try,” Toynbee begged on 13 August, willing her readers to back Cooper (whom she later described as “a tough anti-austerity economist”). The call to arms was laced with violent imagery. Cooper would “lay into,” “attack,” “take on the Corbyn arguments, gloves off.” “Could this be the knockout blow?” Apparently not. “It’s all over,” she conceded two weeks later. To her credit, Toynbee accepted the eventual result gracefully, writing in its aftermath: “A message to all those who didn’t back Jeremy Corbyn – that’s most Labour MPs, a small majority of paid-up members, the Guardian and myself: today there is only one direction of travel. No going back, no alternative, no possible re-run.” She did not follow her own advice for long.
Michael White, the Guardian’s assistant editor (and former political editor), followed a similar path during the campaign – early disbelief at Corbyn’s success turned to derision before inevitability elbowed its way in. But his signature trait throughout was snark. He was particularly exercised over the issue of footwear. Introducing Corbyn to his readers on 6 July, he told them “he’s the MP on the demo with the beard and sandals.” By the end of the month his concern has deepened considerably:
I woke this morning after a good night’s sleep to face a nagging question in my head. Did Jeremy Corbyn used to wear open-toed sandals around Westminster in hot weather? Does he still? They’re comfy (I wear them myself), but ridiculous. If memory serves, he wore them with socks, white socks even… is post-imperial Britain ready for a major party leader who wears them to work? With socks?
All very jovial, but this was no laughing matter. “Romantic beardies who wear sandals and socks to the office,” he warned, “don’t have the answers [to the world’s problems], but their failures would open the road to the forces of real darkness.” Which dark forces did he have in mind? Isis, for one – “a different version of populist fundamentalism on offer.” They probably wear sandals in Raqqa too.
The Observer’s chief political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, was genuinely angry at the “Piped [sic] Piper of Islington.” After all, he had been the “100-1 token candidate of the hard left” when he “threw his Lenin cap into the ring.” It was sheer impertinence for him to be leading. “I am tempted to argue,” Rawnsley wrote on 19 July, “that Labour should go right ahead, make David Cameron’s day, choose Jeremy Corbyn and field him as its leader at the next election, so that the thesis that Labour loses because it isn’t left wing enough is finally tested to the destruction that it so richly deserves.”
That Rawnsley should react with animosity rather than curiosity was perhaps understandable. Suddenly, the centre of gravity was moving away from the Labour elite to which he had unparalleled access, and from which he had mined the raw materials needed to fashion – with considerable skill – the books and journalism that had won him acclaim. Newbies were putting that all at risk. “Any veteran Labour MP who has the temerity to question whether Jeremy Corbyn is a viable candidate for prime minister,” he projected on 6 September, “is now vilified as a Tory, a fascist or worse by flash mobs of people who only declared their support for the party five minutes ago and might as readily find a different hobby five minutes later.” Much better that democracy be left to the professionals.
Even at the moment of Corbyn’s victory, Rawnsley was complaining about the “leftwing bubble.” He wrote on 13 September: “In the self-validating echo chamber of a leadership rally or when communing with the like-minded on social media, it is possible to trap yourself into believing that everyone thinks exactly as you do.” It was a strange line to take on the morrow of a landslide victory in a contest involving half a million people. But with just two small changes, the sentence could be made more appropriate to the moment: “In the self-validating echo chamber of a national newspaper or when communing with the like-minded in Westminster, it is possible to trap yourself into believing that everyone thinks exactly as you do.”
By far the most amusing reaction to the rise of Corbyn came from the Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones. His first, little noticed intervention in late July was an article titled “Labour should win the Turner prize – it’s a disastrous piece of performance art.” It appeared Jones was trying his hand at satire, although it was hard to tell. By the time of his second attempt in early August, obscure humour had been replaced by visceral anger. What had piqued his pique was a strike among staff at the National Gallery that was disrupting his art time. “Seriously,” he pleaded, “I’ve never voted anything but Labour in my life. Can’t you at least let me alone when I’m looking at Titian? I have to be a socialist in the museum now?” The sacrifice of the striking staff was as nothing to Jones’ suffering. And he knew who to blame – the union that was “throwing its weight about.” The evidence? It was clear: union leader Mark Serwotka “appeared this week alongside Jeremy Corbyn.” Caught red handed! Jones did not need to mention that the staff had voted overwhelmingly to strike; this was a mere technicality given his discovery of the illicit involvement of “anti-austerity ideologues in the trade union movement” engaging in a “cynical act of muscle flexing.” After all, in a dispute between workers and management, how could “the retiring National Gallery director who writes books about Raphael” have been at fault? “Whose side am I on?” Jones asked, to no one in particular. “Not Mark Serwotka’s. Go on, call me a Tory. I am crying because the hard left is probably going to turn me into one.”
What readers did not yet know was just how deep were the roots of Jones’ distress. A few days later, in an extraordinary essay that ranged across history, philosophy and ethics with the unhesitating confidence of the non-specialist, Jones revealed the traumatic personal story behind his decision to take on the Corbyn menace. It all began in Cambridge in the late 1980s – in Sainsburys, to be precise. It was there that Jones, a student at the university, was recruited into the Communist party of Great Britain. Before he knew it, he was in Soviet Russia, confronted by the “actual existing, concrete and cardboard reality [of] one of the most inhuman and murderous follies ever dreamed up in the fevered minds of zealous thinkers.” He ate “soup swimming with sausage fat in the decaying hostel of the Komsomol.” He “queued for gruel ladled out from huge tubs at Moscow airport.” This was “pure socialism,” and it left a very bad taste. (One concerned reader was prompted to write to the Guardian: “I know that art critics are famous for their heightened sensitivity and Jonathan Jones writes movingly of his bad soup moment in 1980s Russia…”)
“I am not calling Corbyn a Marxist,” Jones continued, after telling how 6m Russians were murdered by Stalin. “But Marxist ideas live again in some spectral form in Corbyn’s runaway campaign.” For a man who had seen the brutal culinary reality of Stalinism, electing Corbyn looked like the first step on the road to totalitarianism. “You – we – have to face up to what was done,” he wrote, before revealing why he was no longer a socialist: “Markets are human.” Surprising as this finding seemed, “to believe otherwise is to indulge in the same folly that killed the hapless peasants who Stalin labelled capitalist ‘kulaks’ and saw fit to starve and shoot.” Vote Corbyn, get liquidated. Jones drew his essay to a close on a portentous scene: “In Russia I came across [the magazine] Marxism Today in a news kiosk in Volgograd – that is, Stalingrad. And beside the vast silver emptiness of the Volga, the kulaks were nowhere to be found.” It was not clear what he meant.
Of course, the Guardian was also home to some writers who supported Jeremy Corbyn. Providing a space to columnists from the left is crucial to the Guardian’s identity. Without them, the newspaper would lose all credibility as the prime organ of the liberal-left. Contributing a minority of the paper’s coverage, their dissenting voices actually bolster the legitimacy of the editorial line by creating the impression that their case has been heard but set aside. And in commercial terms they attract particular subscribers and generate advertising revenue when their articles are shared on social media, where strident arguments do well.
Owen Jones was the most prolific of this group, turning in five pro-Corbyn pieces during the campaign. Seumas Milne penned two (and gave Corbyn a positive mention in a third). Zoe Williams produced two broadly supportive articles, although one was preoccupied with why Corbyn’s opponents were “coming at him with the wrong truncheon.” George Monbiot contributed one.
Scattered examples of open mindedness towards Corbyn could be found elsewhere in the newspaper, too. Interestingly, in the economics pages substantial figures Larry Elliott, Robert Skidelsky and William Keegan saw something in his anti-austerity policies. There were occasional one-off comment pieces from supporters, a few inquisitive accounts of campaign rallies, and a positive write up of Corbyn’s housing policy from Dawn Foster. Space was afforded to Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, although this came nowhere near offsetting the acres of column inches granted to New Labour grandees. And a clutch of famous names chipped in, including Brian Eno and Stewart Lee. Playwright David Edger’s unmistakably positive piece was published online as “Jeremy Corbyn’s rise is inspiring, but what if his opponents are correct?” until complaints forced its change to the diametrically opposed “We fear the public won’t back Corbyn, but he can win and here’s the proof.” It took a comedian, Frankie Boyle, to contribute perhaps the best line of all of the Guardian’s coverage: “It’s worth remembering that in the press, public opinion is often used interchangeably with media opinion, as if the public was somehow much the same as a group of radically right wing billionaire sociopaths.”
But that was it, during three months. Set against this was a prolific group of Guardian and Observer writers – as well as those already mentioned, add Jonathan Freedland, Rafael Behr and Marina Hyde. What made the newspaper feel so claustrophobic was that most of these wrote essentially the same column, repeatedly. There was almost theological agreement around a shared article of faith. As Martin Kettle put it in typically deadening words on 23 July 2015, Labour must “compete in the centre, with a modern reformist agenda that can challenge the centre right.” The political centre ground, in this view, appears as a clearing in a forest – a fixed location – and politics is a simple orienteering exercise where the parties are given a map and a compass and told to go and find it. Occasionally they inexplicably wander off into the woods and have to be scolded by journalists until they take their navigation task seriously again. The great, unpredictable social and economic forces that constantly sculpt new historical terrain are, in this Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme version of politics, merely gusts of wind that must not blow the parties off course. Nothing changes.
The trouble with such a static, ahistorical view is that it is unable to account for new phenomena, much less understand people’s motivations for acting in unexpected ways. So when hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously decided they had other priorities than hopelessly trudging around looking for a centre ground that, mysteriously, kept moving further away, these professional political pundits could only dismiss them as either insane or self-indulgent. Rafael Behr epitomised this, using his own strained metaphor: “Corbynism is a festival on the beach of opposition, which appeals to many Labour supporters more than the choppy waters that must be sailed on the way back to power.” He even evoked the compass: “If Labour sets its moral compass by the mythologised conscience of this accidental saviour, it will abandon rational politics.” For Polly Toynbee, the surge of support for Corbyn could be explained as a mental health crisis. “This is summer madness,” ran the diagnosis, the sole comfort being that she was sure it was not contagious: “I don’t think a majority of Labour members will take leave of their senses.”
The only other explanation advanced was a version of the New Statesman’s patronising notion of “virtue signalling.” On the single occasion that opinion editor Jonathan Freedland chose to wade into the debate under his own name, it was to argue that “the Corbyn tribe cares about identity, not power.” Corbynism “is about being true to yourself,” he declared, without evidence or experience. As such, it “is a form of narcissism.” Kettle expressed a similar idea when he wrote about “faith-based socialists.” “There’s nothing particularly wrong with being a faith-based socialist,” he said, generously, “but please don’t confuse it with politics.” “Corbyn,” he announced, offers nothing more than “prelapsarian socialist purity.”
It was axiomatic for these commentators that moving an inch from the fabled centre ground would mean electoral oblivion, although some of the same voices argued that Labour had no chance of winning the next general election in any case. Neither was there any evidence that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall were electable – a fact implicitly conceded by the glaring lack of columns attempting to sell any of them (Toynbee’s promotion of Cooper was an exception). Absent from journalists’ deliberations was any reflection on the role of the media itself – that the manner in which journalism is practiced makes the media a player as well as an observer. By insisting in advance that Corbyn was “unelectable,” journalists were attempting to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Consider again the metaphor of the Guardian as the linesman on the political field of play. A detailed look at the its coverage during the Labour leadership campaign – across opinion, news and editorial departments – leaves no doubt that, as an institution, it decided that Corbyn was out of bounds. The precise location of the touchline was revealed – it ran right through the parliamentary Labour party. Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham on one side of the line were supported, respected and accepted in turn, but the Labour left on the other side had to be stopped.
The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbably Path to Power by Alex Nunns (OR Books, £15)