2016 minus 44: a sorry affair or two

Posted: 18 November 2015 in 2016minus, politics
Tags: , , , ,

Very occasionally, for a variety of reasons, I’ll grab the couch at my ex-wife’s and stay the night. We’re still on very good terms and if I’m in North London for something and it’s late, or if she’s very unwell, I’ll stay at her place. One of the signs I’d stayed was – according to our son – that the television had always been switched to a news channel. It’s a fair point. I can’t think of the last time I didn’t spend some of the day watching the news, reading the BBC News wesbite, scanning the news websites. 

Because I’m a news junkie, have been for years. But even as a self-admitted addict, I’m finding the 24 hour news cyle a bit disorienting at the moment.  

During the past couple of general elections, UK political parties have responded to the ever present demand for news by acknowledging it and attempting to master it; all the main parties in the UK have had ‘response units’, ready to jump into action to respond to an attack upon their policies, or to clarify an incorrect (or, let’s face it, often a correct) interpretation that’s been placed upon a statement issued.

(It’s worth remembering at this point the Yes, Minister line that a clarification is not issued to clear things up but to put oneself in the clear.)

One might think that these response units were less busy after an election, when the urgency to manage the media image might seem lesser. But that’s far from the case. The increasing spread of information (I hesitate to call it news) via social media has made such reactions and responses ever more necessary, ever more urgent, ever more important. The ancient advice to ‘sleep on it’ before making any decisions, or ‘count to ten’ before reacting to something no longer applies.

And, as we have political parties that are in reality internal coalitions, the difficulty for party managers is to manage the party’s image and how their policies are seen, a task made infinitely more difficult when large sections of the two main parties would rather the party was led by someone else; in the case of the conservatives there are three or four alternative candidates; in the case of Labour, it’s easier to count the people in the parliamentary party that some wouldn’t prefer.

For the last few months, it’s been Labour in the spotlight for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that the Labour leader was elected by an overwhelming majority of the electorate; it’s worth reiterating that near as dammit half the membership voted for him in the first round of voting. For all the concern that the very strange system of allowing affiliate members and the like to vote would skew the voting, a shade under 50% of the full membership gave him their first round vote. However, the parliamentary party was, let us say, less enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn as a leader. 

Which brings us to the newspapers. They’ve kept Corbyn’s leadership travails in the news, and it’s silly to pretend as some do that the newspapers haven’t revelled in it and encouraged the questioning. Part of this is unquestionably due to the political slants the newspapers have. But only part of it. Some of it has been Corbyn et al’s own rank stupidity in either not identifying a weakness so compounding error after error, or identifying that it’s a possible weakness and not giving a shit about it. There’s also the argument that “they’re never going to like me, so fuck ’em.” I don’t agree with this position, but I’ll at least acknowledge it’s an arguable case.

But if Cameron, Osborne and the rest sitting around the Cabinet table think the focus will solely be on Labour for the next few years, they’re kidding themselves. The forthcoming campaign and debate (hah!) leading up to the EU referendum will shift that focus onto the Conservatives and it’ll be sheer luck if the Conservatives don’t eat themselves alive during the six months before the referendum. And the papers will enjoy every bloody moment of it.

But I was talking about the response units and their continued necessity in the news environment in which we find ourselves. I’m not sure how much Corbyn (or the Labour Party) is paying their own response unit right now, and whatever it is, I’m genuinely unsure whether they’re not paid enough or whether they’re overpaid. I can see arguments for both cases: the former because every bloody day they’re on tenterhooks waiting for the next media crisis to manage; which MP has gone off message, which ally of Corbyn has said something completely fucking stupid, who’s got to be told to apologise today. On the other hand, they themselves have screwed up the responses so often, have been tone deaf as to the seriousness of some of the things they’re supposed to be handling that one wonders what on earth they’re doing?

Gerald Kaufman let slip his mask of ‘anti-Zionism’ and indulged in full throated anti-semitism when he said Tory party foreign policy was bought by “Jewish money”. It took six days for Corbyn to respond and when he did, it was so mealy mouthed that one wonders what the time had been spent doing. Corbyn’s response, in full, was as follows:


Uh-huh. Reading it and rereading it, three things struck me. 

1. He doesn’t actually criticise Gerald Kaufman. This would be surprising had this not been Corbyn’s attitude throughout his long career when it comes to anti-semitism. He’ll criticise it in the abstract but never condemn individuals or organisations for actually making anti-semitic statements. As I said in another entry, it’s kind of like criticising lynchings but never the KKK or the BNP for making such statements. Except of course he does criticise the BNP. And for those who say “well, Jeremy never criticises individuals”, yeah, he does. He’s criticised those who vote UKIP (saying many are motivated by racism). But never when it comes to anti-semitism. How odd.

2. He doesn’t call the comments anti-semitic. It’s funny that, isn’t it? Takes you a moment to realise. Go back and look at the statement above. He doesn’t do it. He says they’re unacceptable but doesn’t say they’re anti-semitic. And again, to those who say “it’s obvious”, I remind you that it took six days for Corbyn to come out with those comments. He had plenty of opportunity within the statement, before the statement was made or afterwards, to confirm that yes, he considers the statements anti-semitic. He hasn’t. Again, how odd.

3. He says the comments “damage community relations”, not that they’re inaccurate and damage Jews. Again, it interesting that his primary concern is that they ‘damage community relations’, in other words that people might be upset at the comments, and that’s why they’re unacceptable.

A few days after Corbyn expressed his views as above, and I expressed my contempt at his statement, I was asked whether there was anything Corbyn could have said that would have satisfied or at least mollified me. I gave it a few minutes thought and drafted the following:

There, that’d do it. And of course, there’s less chance that Corbyn would actually issue such a statement than Kaufman would endorse Netanyahu in the next Israeli election.

Shortly after the meeting between the Chief Whip and Kaufman, she issued a statement that she and Corbyn “hoped” that Kaufman would apologise. “Hoped”. Uh-huh.

Not quite the apology demanded and inisisted upon – and eventually, very very grudgingly issued – from Ken Livingstone after he lived down to his reputation as an absolute piece of shit today. Long story short, yesterday, Labour’s NEC announced that they’d appointed Livingstone to co-convene Labour’s forthcoming defence review with Maria Eagle. Shadow Minister of Defence, Kevan Jones, questioned whether Livingstone was the right person for the job, saying he had little to no actual defence experience. Livingstone took umbrage at this and said “I think he [Jones] might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed … He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments.”  

I think it’s fair to say that Jones is not that well known outside westminster, but what he is known for is his brutal honesty as to his own mental health issues, and three years ago gave a well-received and praised speech in the house of commons in which he said he’d been battling depression for twenty years.

Now Livingstone has form when it comes to offensive comments, saying he didn’t know the personal circumstances of the insultee and then compounding the insult when told [supposedly for the first time] of those circumstances. He did it with a Jewish journalist (saying he was like a nazi concentration camp guard after he’d been told the journalist was Jewish) and he did it again, basically saying it was Jones’ fault for getting upset and telling him “to get over it.” Unlike with the journalist, Livingstone eventually apologised, but made it plain in his apology that he’d been told to apologise so did. Kind of like a five year old being made to say sorry. Exactly like that, in fact.

Still, at least it’s an apology – to Jones, if not to those with mental health problems to who Livingstone just added more stigma.

Weeks after his apparently “completely unacceptable” comments, Kaufman has not apologised; there have been no consequences, and Labour apparently regard the matter as closed. So, whatever else we’ve learned, we know that Corbyn and the chief whip have redefined the word “unacceptable” to mean “perfectly acceptable, but please wait a while before you say it again?”    


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