To win in the 2020s, we have to tell our story. To do so effectively requires us to understand our opponents and the media landscape. In the final essay of this series, I’ll lay out the forces we’re up against, and suggest how we get heard.
The social and economic effects of the pandemic will be enormous: job losses, pay cuts, evictions, mental health challenges and overstretched public services. If socialists unite, organise and mobilise, we can win the 2020s. But intense crises that hurt millions of people do not automatically turn them towards the left, especially if the opposition refuses to provide a meaningful alternative.
Instead, crises are often moments for the powerful to shape reality. The British ruling class won the 2010s decisively. The wealth of the richest 1,000 rose by almost £450bn; workers lost around £400bn in pay.
This dramatic victory was secured through misdirection. The greatest single state policy implemented since the financial crisis is quantitative easing (QE), which has seen the Bank of England create almost £1tn (over £15,000 for every person in the UK) to buy financial assets. Rather than boosting bank lending to support the real economy, this unprecedented injection of cash into financial markets inflated the wealth of the richest.
QE is a handout of gigantic proportions, yet it rarely features in public debate – in part due to woeful reporting, in part because the policy is purposefully technocratic, not democratic, decided by a Bank insulated from popular scrutiny.
Austerity, not QE, was presented to the public as the policy response to the financial crisis. But austerity was not really an economic programme to reduce the deficit and shrink the state. Rather, it was a political project to prevent any political challenge to the economic system, even as people’s faith in it had been shattered. Politicians skillfully suggested it was public sector workers’ pay and disabled people’s benefits that caused the crisis, rather than the casino economy. Combined with another form of misdirection – shifting the blame from bankers to migrants – austerity became common sense.
Now the damaging idea that we need to cut pay, support and services to “pay off the national credit card” has been punctured, in large part due to its forceful opposition from Labour in recent years. In its place, the ruling class could try to construct a new political-economic settlement that would give a substantial minority reason to support the system. But it’s very hard to see how it can.
The Conservatives can’t share the anaemic rewards of economic activity without confronting capital; nor can it substantially broaden the class of asset-owning mini-capitalists, as Thatcher did, without hurting existing asset owners.
Instead, the Conservatives are evolving a strategy that both buttresses the status quo and harnesses mounting frustration with it. Rhetorically, it represents a substantial shift from Cameron and Osborne, but its goal is the same: to protect the wealth of the few from the demands of the many.
The biggest shift is in their presentation of the state. Cameron and Osborne called for a shrinking state: fewer services and lower taxes combined with some social liberalism, such as equal marriage. Johnson, Sunak and Patel argue for an active state: infrastructure projects, higher government spending, anti-refugee patrol ships in the Channel.
Johnson presents a futuristic, optimistic vision of Britain, in which both Brexit and the pandemic provide an impetus for change like that which took place after 1945, and he is both Churchill and Attlee. Rather than the collective suffering championed by Cameron, Johnson offers collective success for Britain – and unlike Theresa May, who tried a similar approach, he has the bravado to pull it off. Johnson’s Britain will be green, high-tech and levelled-up, with deindustrialised areas – many of which voted Leave and some of which flipped to the Tories in 2019 – prioritised.
To achieve this bright future, a more active state will deliver big-ticket infrastructure projects, a “Green Industrial Revolution”, more police, hospitals and military, and support for high-tech industries. Some of this spending will be directed, symbolically, outside of London, accompanied by free ports and zero-tax special enterprise zones to drive economic activity to deindustrialised areas.
It’s the gestures rather than the substance that Johnson sells so well. It’s a similar routine to the one he performed as mayor of London, bringing back the Routemaster and unleashing a wave of construction projects by relaxing planning regulations (making fortunes for developers in the process).
The policies are not sufficient to materially improve the lives of most people. But they tell a significant story, especially for Johnson’s target audience: the majority of people who don’t pay much attention to politics between elections.
To develop its narrative, the government stokes culture wars. The purpose is not just to distract from living standards or inequality, it is to secure non-material benefits for an electorally significant minority of the population. Johnson aims to present the government as the defender against an assault of wokeness.
It is a form of what David Roediger calls “the wages of whiteness”, all the more appealing as it often comes from the mouth of home secretary Priti Patel, whose Gujarati grandparents moved to Uganda before her parents moved to the UK. Her bogus claims that “certain ethnicities” are partially responsible for the UK’s high numbers of Covid deaths is designed to make those who hear “them” in her sentence feel superior, and blame someone other than the government. The faint has worked so far: 58% of the public blame themselves for the failures of the second wave.
The media’s love for culture war spectacles makes it easy for Patel to generate hysteria in response to a small number of refugees trying to cross the Channel to safety, giving the false impression that there is a huge problem and the government is taking robust action to restore order.
The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has become a favoured prop. Following the murder of Sarah Everard and the aggressive policing of the Clapham Common vigil, the police were allegedly instructed to “protect Churchill at all costs” during an action at Parliament Square. The lack of threat to the physical statue is insignificant, it created the image of officers in high vis surrounding the statue with protesters around them.
Johnson is a trickier beast than Cameron or May. His oft-derided lack of attention to detail lends itself to simple, appealing messages. The left can and must develop a counter-narrative in the same brilliant primary colours.
Yes, some of Johnson’s policies are pale imitations of Labour’s 2019 manifesto. Yes, his policies are half-baked and contradictory. But these are arguments about the detail for those following politics closely. They do not add up to a counter-narrative bold enough to challenge Johnson.
Instead, we need to expose who the government works for. It shouldn’t be hard because it really does work for the rich. They bought it; a third of the UK’s billionaires have donated to the Tories.
The simple truth is that the Tories are handing out billions to their friends but won’t protect the living standards of working people or invest in our public services. That’s why it’s £37bn for Serco-run privatised test and trace, which has not made a “measurable difference”, but just £3.50 a week more pay for nurses.
When this argument is made, the impact is clear: Labour MP Dan Carden’s “the whole thing stinks” intervention in parliament has been watched around four million times on social media. In contrast, Keir Starmer’s “constructive opposition” has failed to expose the public to the reality of the government’s failings or its causes. He has also failed to offer an alternative, sticking almost entirely to technical critiques of government management. Labour appears absent, or sniping for sniping’s sake.
The Labour leadership hasn’t understood that public discourse is not the aggregation of the public’s views. It is shaped and constructed by competing forces. That’s why Starmer’s prevaricating about corporation tax rises was so ill-advised. He played into Sunak’s desired big picture take away: the rich will pay more, people will be supported and we really are all in it together.
Instead of this failing approach, socialists should expose the Tories’ misdirection and politicise the economy. That means always revealing the winners and losers.
At the last budget, Labour should have shown how Amazon will likely pay no tax this year, as part of £12bn of tax relief giveaways lavished upon big business; or that banks will likely stop having to pay the Bank Levy, introduced in 2011 to claw back a fraction of what we paid to them in the financial crisis. Stamp duty was cut in a handout to landlords that further inflates house prices.
The party should have exposed the hardship coming down the line: public sector pay cuts, taxes for 1.3 million low-paid workers, most of them women; Universal Credit’s temporary and derisory uplift; no extension to legacy benefits; no additional support for our creaking social care system; and no increase in statutory sick pay.
Once we have our counter-narrative, we can use it to call out Johnson’s media-confected rows as cover to prop up the wealth of the rich and well connected.
We live in an attention economy. The right has a media ecosystem to create outrage. The government can do things, like fly patrol planes over the Channel, to create a spectacle.
Socialists do not have the mass media ecosystem nor the bully pulpit to grab attention. But we have movements that can. We need to think like Dominic Cummings: what will be heard by people not paying close attention and what story do we want our controversies to tell them. What’s our Churchill statue and our Channel patrol?
That could be a wave of occupations of the offices of private healthcare companies, bringing national media focus to the issue. We need to force our opponents to react to us. Hancock doesn’t want to have to openly defend profit-before-people healthcare. Let’s force him to.
Actions will need the support of any socialist with access to the media. Socialist Campaign Group MPs, trade unionists, intellectuals and social movement activists all need to make a concerted effort to disseminate our counter-narrative. The New Economy Organisers Network (NEON) does important and underappreciated work in training and promoting progressive voices in broadcast studios. It deserves support. But it is not enough on its own. Resources for media training, booking and clipping for social media are required across the left.
Independent media, like Novara, and successful digital channels, like Momentum’s, will require support to test these arguments, build the base and grow an alternative media ecosystem. These are the places where we can develop our arguments, clarify important lines on key issues and, particularly during the pandemic, cover stories that other outlets wouldn’t. It is a shocking indictment of the corporate media and a powerful argument for its independent cousin that stories of cronyism and dodgy PPE contracts have come from the dogged work of independents, like Byline Times.
Rank-and-file members of the left should support independent media and encourage the institutions they are members of to do the same. This support for independent media should be coupled with a relentless critique of the billionaire-owned media and the broadcasters who are swayed by their influence.
Relentless critique does not mean boycott – far from it. We can’t afford to walk off the pitch.
When socialists do appear in the media, they need to make clear, emotional and positive arguments to build support for our solutions, cut through government spin and disarm the culture wars.
To be effective, as much of the left as possible should adopt the same framing on the following arguments, and repeat them at every opportunity:
- The rich have made a killing in the pandemic and should pay for the crisis.
- People that do caring work – nurses, doctors, carers, teachers, delivery drivers – are the bedrock of our society and deserve proper reward. Bankers and landlords do not.
- We need a Green New Deal to create jobs that last and a planet that will, too – and the rich will pay for it.
- Homes are for people to live in, not for landlords to profit from.
- Migrants and minorities did not cause this crisis – it was the super-rich and the government that lines their pockets with our money.
These arguments, combined with movement-driven spectacle, can force our opponents to discuss what they would rather not. The more time spent on our terrain is less time on theirs.
Socialists may not feel optimistic. We suffer from an authoritarian government, a supine opposition, a decade of seemingly futile resistance, and more hardship to come. But for the underdog, winning always seems impossible until it happens.
History doesn’t move in straight lines – it zig and zags. Each progressive surge builds the capacities for the next in ways it’s often hard to fathom at the time. The defeat of the Corbyn movement hurt, but the experience has given us resources we couldn’t have dreamed of six years ago.
We cannot call into existence progressive forces that aren’t there. We can’t click our fingers and manifest the perfect vehicle for socialist advance. Instead we must strengthen what we have, support what’s emerging and bring it all together more effectively. This series, I hope, has offered a plan to do just that.
Our task is hard, but clear: build our power, weaken our opponents, and ready ourselves for the next surge.
If we can do all this, we will win the 2020s.
James Schneider is the communications director of Progressive International, co-founder of Momentum, and a former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn.