The last month has seen extraordinary shifts in two areas of public opinion where it was assumed – including by those of us on the left – that the right had established domination. First, migration. It seems clear that the photo of Aylan Kurdi that appeared in the media at the end of last week has prompted a major shift in the coverage of the current crisis. As late as Thursday evening, the front page headline in the London Evening Standard focussed on the “13-hour Eurostar ordeal” of British travellers inconvenienced by refugees in Calais. This angle – British people have their summer holiday ruined by refugees – had been playing in the right-wing press through the summer. Attacks on migrants had included a Daily Mail cartoon based on the “joke” that “illegals” were even besieging heaven, and another – blatantly racist, in this case – depicting a white couple whose hotel room had been taken over by Sudanese people. When London2Calais first took clothes and food to the Calais camp in mid-August, they were one of few groups doing anything like this. Last weekend, when returning to Britain, they were harassed by the authorities.
The coverage now is completely different. On Friday the Guardian reported that people across Britain were acting in support of refugees, from a travel agency in London to a parish councillor in Yorkshire. A petition to parliament to accept more asylum seekers has gained over 400,000 signatures. Even the Daily Mail is leading on refugee human interest stories.
It’s obvious that there has been a dramatic change. While we can certainly draw inspiration from the way that thousands of people are taking action, this is not, of course, to say that everything is now wonderful. The UK parliament website also includes a petition with the simple demand “stop allowing immigrants into the UK”, which has gained almost 70,000 signatures – it’s clear that anti-immigrant racism hasn’t vanished overnight. Some of the support for the refugees is on very dubious terms. The Mail’s coverage today, for example, draws on sentimental clichés in a portrayal of the “father of tragic Aylan” that echoes the Live Aid approach to events abroad, where people in desperate situations – most often non-white people – are depicted as helpless, tragic victims who can do nothing for themselves.
Such an approach also does nothing to examine how such situations arise – for example, the fact that while the Western media has concentrated on the barbarities of ISIS because they fit an Islamophobic agenda, the Syrian government has killed far more people than ISIS has. That inconvenient fact is also ignored by those now hoping to take advantage of the refugee crisis by arguing that the West must respond by intervening against ISIS in Syria. Retired generals can usually be relied on to say something dim-witted and bellicose in such situations, and in this case it’s Lord Richards of Herstmonceaux who steps forward in the Independent to accuse Cameron of having pursued a “liberal agenda” and of having “lacked the balls” to defeat ISIS by putting “boots on the ground.”
Despite these caveats, however, the shift in public opinion is real and startling. It’s all the more so after twenty years of attacks on migrants, stretching back to the condemnations of “bogus asylum seekers” which began in the 1990s, and which, combined with the growth of Islamophobia in the context of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, has produced a truly toxic mix. If the current crisis leads to discussion of the realities of migration, and the utter failure that is British and American Middle East policy, those would be very good things.
The second shift we saw in August has, of course, been the enormous success of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become leader of the Labour Party. Central to Corbyn’s appeal seem to be two related things. The first is that Tory-imposed austerity is taking an unbearable toll on people. There’s the news from late August that over 2,000 people have died after being denied benefits because they were assessed as “fit for work”. The NHS faces a shortfall of £2 billion in the next financial year. A report from Shelter back in April found that only 1 in 25 homes in south east England is affordable for a family on an average income – and in London the figure falls to 1 in 1,000. Corbyn has provided the always unpredictable tipping point between a general feeling that “it’s all shit, but there’s nothing we can do” to a belief that change is possible. A crucial shift here, of course, occurred with the vote on welfare cuts, where Corbyn was the only candidate to do what you assumed was the job of an opposition and vote against the government.
The other reason for Corbyn’s popularity is that he isn’t a politician who speaks in soundbites, or who tailors what he says to what focus groups tell him people want to hear. His unrhetorical style gets us back to actually discussing political ideas, as opposed to Yvette Cooper’s carefully manufactured campaign video, which achieves a level of meaninglessness you don’t normally find outside Zen Buddhism, for example in its claim that “Westminster politics has got stuck in an analogue age at a time when there’s a real digital future.”
While the shifts in opinion over refugees and Corbyn have been inspiring, we don’t know what will happen in the months to come. Attempts to stigmatise migrants will no doubt continue as the right wing press seeks scapegoats for austerity. Corbyn may not win the leadership election – or it’s more likely that he will, only to face relentless attacks from the rest of the parliamentary Labour Party. We need to build pro-migrant campaigns with roots in workplaces and communities, and a vibrant left both inside and outside the Labour Party to defend Corbyn from right-wing attacks, if we’re to maintain the best of what has happened in the last month.
The death of Blairism
The truly important thing that has happened in these last weeks, I think, is that Blairism has died. This isn’t just about the wretched and despised figure of Blair himself, whose two Guardian articles attacking Corbyn seem to have had precisely no effect – though it can’t have helped that the day after the publication of the second we saw the Chilcot report return to the news agenda, reminding everyone of why they loathed Blair in the first place. It’s the whole political strategy of triangulation, of borrowing right-wing policies in order to appeal to some “middle ground” of voters, that has become redundant. The assumption behind such a strategy, all too often, has been that the only way you can win people to left-wing positions is by becoming more right-wing yourself – that it’s not actually possible to change people’s ideas. But if the last month demonstrates anything, it’s that we live in a time when people’s views can change rapidly. Millions of people clearly have no confidence in the status quo, the centre ground or the respected commentators.
That doesn’t mean they will necessarily shift to the left – despair and anger can lead them to give at least some credence to the arguments of the right and the racists. But it does mean that mainstream political commentary from the right and centre suddenly doesn’t work any more. Blair admitted as much in his second Guardian article, commenting that he really doesn’t understand the rise of Corbyn or the fact that Scotland may well vote for independence in a future referendum. There’s a similar failure of understanding in today’s Observer column by Andrew Rawnsley. Rawnsley admits that the Blairites have lost and Corbyn has likely won, but his explanations lie largely within the Westminster bubble – Blair’s failure to promote a successor, the Labour right’s inability to present its ideas in a way that appealed to people, the leadership’s failure to understand the tactical implications of the new leadership election arrangements. While these may play some part in the Blairites’ calamity, what’s completely missing here is any attempt to explain why, in city after city, thousands of people have come to Corbyn rallies, have rushed to support an anti-austerity option as soon as one appeared which they found credible. Rawnsley’s often astute analysis depends on his status as a Westminster inside, privy to off-the-record comments from political leaders. Faced with political shifts involving millions of people outside the elite, with whom he has no particular connection, he – like Blair – stands bemused.
We can’t know the future, or be sure that the welcome political trends of the summer break will continue. But if the Labour left can revive overnight, and migrants become the focus of a wave of support – if two areas where the left was weakest suddenly become sources of strength – then the situation is far more unstable than we had ever imagined. From a situation of despair after the general election, or at best of preparing for a long haul through five years of Tory government, we may suddenly have found ourselves in a situation where we have a great deal to play for.