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Waterstones Exclusive: Jeremy Corbyn and the Power of “Yes”

Posted on 19th June 2017 by Naomi Klein

“Clearly young people are hungry for a different kind of politics, one that feels more authentic – and not because it is marketed that way, but because it actually is.”

Exclusive to Waterstones, the movement-defining voice of Naomi Klein delivers her analysis of June’s General Election, just as her latest title No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics is published in the UK. Like her eternal No Logo, No Is Not Enough is a whip-smart assessment of the status quo and a polemic for seismic change.

Again and again over these few months, Theresa May tried to exploit people’s fear and shock. First, it was the fear that they would get a terrible Brexit deal unless they gave her an overwhelming mandate. Then, after the horror of the Manchester and London terror attacks, it was the fear that they would never again be safe unless they gave up their privacy and human rights.

Her strategy was a text book example of what I have called “the shock doctrine”: exploit the public fear and disorientation after shocking events to consolidate power, erode civil and human rights, and use that power to push through an agenda that benefits the 1 per cent. 

The strategy has worked many times in the past, but not this time. Why not? 

At the start of this campaign, all the wise experts predicted a wipe-out for Labour and huge mandate for May. May still clings to power with fragile government, but the results are so far from those predictions that they can only be seen as a victory for Labour.

Labour responded to these fearful and uncertain times in a different way. It ran a campaign focused on the root causes – a failed “war on terror” strategy, economic inequality, democratic erosion, climate change. But the game changer was that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t just spend the campaign diagnosing problems and saying “no” to May’s fear tactics. He also put forward a transformative party manifesto that held out the promise of a better life for millions of people: free tuition, fully funded health care, bold climate action.  For the first time in decades, Labour gave British voters something hopeful and exciting to say “yes” to. 

More than anything else, Thursday’s results show the power of offering voters a bold, positive vision. They also show that leading with actual policies and ideas, rather than slick packaging, can be a winning strategy. That’s an important lesson at a time when electoral politics have been completely taken over by the tools and logic of corporate marketing. 

This was a process that began in earnest in the late nineties, when Tony Blair famously “rebranded” the Labour Party as “New Labour.” Though it seems unremarkable now, at the time, the very idea of referring to a political party as a brand was slightly shocking. Before Blair, “labour” had been a description of the party’s real-world loyalties and policy proclivities. But under “New Labour,” which continued the process of privatization and financial deregulation that began under Margaret Thatcher, the name was a logo as empty as Coke’s “The Real Thing.” As I wrote in No Logo going on 18 years ago, Blair led “not the Labour Party but a labor-scented party.”

In the intervening two decades, the treatment of politics as a hollow marketing exercise, in which the winning team is the one who best appropriates the tools honed to sell soft drinks and running shoes, has reached ever more absurd proportions. And in the United States, it has finally arrived at its logical conclusion: a president who is a fully commercialized global brand, and whose children are spin-off brands, all of them merging their profit-making enterprises with the U.S. government, in plain view of the public.  

Many U.S. liberals have concluded that the only way to beat the Trumps of this world is at their own game. They argue that the task is to find a liberal-leaning celebrity billionaire to lead progressives to the promised land. Oprah perhaps. Or Michael Bloomberg. Or Mark Zuckerberg.

But the UK election upset tells us that this may be precisely the wrong strategy.  Corbyn’s support was strongest among the people who are most steeped in marketing and branding culture: millennials, the same cohort that powered the campaign of another anti-brand candidate, Bernie Sanders. Clearly young people are hungry for a different kind of politics, one that feels more authentic — and not because it is marketed that way, but because it actually is. 

The very things that the expert class were convinced made Corbyn unelectable – his indifference to public image, his distinctly un-focus-grouped political positions, his lack of barn-burner charisma – turned out to be what made him a trusted messenger for Labour’s transformative platform. 

Corbyn’s campaign ads were filled with the faces and voices of teachers, nurses and doctors, the leader often did not appear at all. When the word “Labour” appeared at the end of those ads, it wasn’t a brand any more. It was back to being a description of the party’s mission: a genuine commitment to the interests of working people. Imagine that.

Naomi Klein’s new book, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, is published on June 13th by Allen Lane, £12.99.

Author Image: Naomi Klein © Koroush Keshiri

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