“Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea!”
This is how the classic 1960s film The Italian Job ends, on a literal cliff-hanger. After successfully stealing some gold, Michael Caine and his fellow schemers find themselves in a coach hanging off the edge of a cliff. The stolen booty is at one end of the coach, which is suspended above thin air, and the gang at the other. As Caine edges towards the gold, the coach tilts dangerously over the precipice. We never find out what the great idea is.
This is the same dilemma as the British Left faces: how far is it possible to uphold to the golden ideals of socialism without going too far and throwing the whole movement off the cliff into electoral oblivion? Jeremy Corbyn, who looks set to be the next leader of the Labour Party, is offering the party a chance to run straight at the gold.
We may be about to see a whole new Podemos or Syriza. As has been pointed out on the website Little Atoms, the Labour Party has changed completely, regardless of whether Corbyn wins or not:
“Labour now has 610,753 members, supporters and affiliates. A staggering 1 in 15 people who voted Labour at the last general election will be able to vote in Labour’s leadership campaign.
From a low of 176,891 members in 2007, membership has nearly doubled to 299,755.
Any political party is the sum of its members – they knock on doors to convince voters, they select candidates for the council and MPs, they arrange the meetings, the cake stall at the local fair and fundraise for the party. An entirely new membership will create an entirely new party.”
The tempestuous politics of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe since the Great Recession, where movements and parties rise and fall overnight, probably has many causes. But one must be the fundamental diversification of the media and cultural spheres in which we now live.
In the USA, it has long been acknowledged that the nation's polarised media is a cause of polarised politics: Fox News and CNN produce completely different realities, and their viewers see life through profoundly different lenses. Yet, through the Internet and globalised media, that effect is now far greater.
If you take the example of what music people listen to, or what films they watch, we live in a very diverse media landscape. Instead of relying on the traditional media sources, the Internet allows us to explore, for free, the most obscure corners of culture. More than that, we have the voice to collaborate, share and produce (as this website itself demonstrates) instead of being subject to tastes imposed from top-down.
Yet, just as this allows hipsters to avoid chart music or Hollywood blockbusters more easily, it allows those who don’t care for politics or serious news to switch off altogether. One of the upshots of Netflix is that there is no annoyance at having to wait through the 10 o’clock news to watch your favourite programme. Those particularly interested in one topic, whether the environment or banking or gluten-free food, can focus exclusively on that area. You can become an expert in whatever you want, and find circles of like-minded people. Similarly, if you deem right-wing politics to be distasteful, you have no need to expose yourself to it. Websites and blogs of all ideologies fill the demand for filtered news.
The algorithms used by internet companies amplify this effect: you are directed through search engines and websites to articles similar to those you have already read. The social media bubble does likewise: people’s friends and acquaintances are likely to share similar opinions and interests, and so share the same links and feel enraged by the same topics. It reduces the possibility of being challenged about what you believe.
This cosy way of engaging with media means visions are narrowed and differentiated. Society as a whole becomes as refracted and unreadable as a laser beam shone through a waterfall. With fewer common reference points, uniting everyone under one banner becomes increasingly difficult.
This is a particular problem for the Left, given the correlation between using online media and being left-wing. According to Ofcom, 60% of 16-34 year olds got their news from the Internet or apps in 2014, compared to 21% of those over 55. One left-wing Corbyn-supporting Facebook page, Another Angry Voice, has 178,000 ‘likes’: similar to the print circulation of The Guardian.
Before the 2015 general election, the fervour surrounding ‘Milifandom’ and hashtags like #CameronMustGo illustrated the young left's detachment from political reality. Social media gives movements and slogans the illusion of having a much bigger effect than they do in reality. There is also a distancing between the politically-engaged and the rest of the country. Those who use ‘Tory’ as a swear word or dismiss Conservative voters as self-serving seem to have already lost touch with the world outside the house of mirrors. Those who reacted with fury on social media after the election result, denouncing the selfish electorate, failed to realise that in our consumerist, individualist age, parties are like companies: you cannot blame the public for not buying your product.
And so, returning to Jeremy Corbyn, it is perhaps both surprising and unsurprising that so many people actually seem to think that he could be anything other than a disaster for Labour. The notion that Labour under Corbyn or an equivalent candidate can, whether in 2020 or afterwards, build a winning coalition from Labour voters, non-voters, and current Green, SNP and UKIP supporters is fanciful. This ‘Owen Jonesite’ theory proposes that the disinterested non-voter has merely been craving a bit of 80s socialism; that patriotic Kippers scared of migrants can be reconciled with the politics of international solidarity; that Scotland, which earlier this century gave the ultimate Red-Tory Tony Blair a whopping majority, is waiting for a party far to the left of the SNP; and finally (and most preposterously of all) that all this manoeuvring can be done without leaking votes to the centre.
The left has typically complained that the mainstream media is biased to the right and that, using Marx’s idea of false consciousness, the masses are fooled into voting against their interests, likes turkeys for Christmas. The bigger problem now may be that the left doesn’t even know what the masses are thinking. Unless Corbyn does have a great idea, get ready for a big fall.