This is the first part of what was originally planned as an essay for US publication n+1 about my experiences of lockdown, the Covid-19 crisis in Britain, and our divides between city and town, young and old, mainstream and new/social media, which eventually grew into a two-part article far too long for the slot. This should account for the explanations of things already familiar to British readers, but I have mostly left them in to preserve the flow.
I have decided to publish both parts here despite them not relating directly to Suite (212), although we covered many of the themes below in our Sessions. Among other things, this piece is about the need for a new, critical, uncompromised British media, a project of which Suite (212) forms a part, and the independence of this space makes it, I think, a suitable host.
Having still been trying not to think about it on the Tuesday, it was on the Wednesday that I realised the coronavirus epidemic was going to make my life in London fall apart, again. I had taken the Overground to the picket line that chilly Tuesday morning, when I had been supposed to be teaching, knowing I shouldn’t be going because I would likely exacerbate my cold, but I needed the solidarity. My conversations were about my Monday evening, at a half-filled rally for Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left-wing candidate in a Labour leadership race that had seemingly gone on forever; by now, nobody expected Long-Bailey, who had run an unfocused and uninspiring campaign, to win. They were about my weekend at Bristol Transformed, organised by Momentum, which many people young and old had attended to discuss politics, and which had provided my first spark of optimism since that awful election defeat in December. (It helped that the Labour Party was barely mentioned.) They were also about the pay cuts, gender pay gaps, ‘unsafe’ workloads and casualisation at universities like the Royal College of Art, where I taught as a Visiting Lecturer, not even having a zero-hours contract, as well as sky-high tuition fees and student debt – all addressed in Labour’s doomed 2019 manifesto. They were about the unhinged Conservative government and the ways in which the UK’s degraded public sphere helped them win their biggest majority for thirty years, an event that was now three months past but still felt raw, and about which I’d talked, or at least thought, almost every day since.
I’d cancelled my weekly football game due to my illness, but even then, didn’t imagine that I wouldn’t play again for the foreseeable future. That Wednesday, I woke up feeling worse and, having been glued to Twitter, where everyone was talking about the virus, I knew I’d have to start self-isolating: I didn’t think my cough was a Covid-19 symptom, but other people might, and I didn’t want to alarm anyone unnecessarily. I had an appointment that afternoon that I couldn’t cancel, so I combined that journey with a trip to pick up some work from my studio, figuring I wouldn’t return any time soon. There, I noted an email from the Media Reform Coalition, telling me the Media Democracy festival I was due to speak at on Saturday, where I’d hoped to finally meet the keynote speaker, Jeremy Corbyn, might not go ahead – the organisers would confirm the next day, but I suspected this meant it was off. Then I got the Tube: it was a long journey, and I couldn’t hold back my cough all the way to Hendon. When it escaped, the woman next to me jumped out of her seat with a loud gasp, and pinned herself to the carriage wall, staring at me with wild, wide eyes. Even if I wasn’t carrying it – and I felt quite sure I wasn’t – I knew the plague had hit London.
My flatmate, Helen, who’d canvassed with me in the last two elections, and cried with me after the most recent, told me that rumours were flying around that London would be locked down, like Lombardy in northern Italy, with an announcement likely on Friday afternoon. In the end, the government neither affirmed nor denied it, but Helen suggested that if I could get out of the city then I probably should, and we all knew that having three adults shut inside our little house for months would be best avoided if possible. Shops were already out of toilet roll, soap, and hand sanitiser, with massive queues and food shortages in the supermarkets. The only place I had to go was to my parents’ house in a small suburban town – Horley, twenty miles south of London, one train stop before Gatwick Airport, which I’d left twenty years ago.
I had anxieties about the idea of this flight. Though we’d talked about the virus when we’d last met in January, in Brighton at my PhD graduation ceremony with plenty of Chinese students, it didn’t seem like my parents were too concerned about an epidemic. They hadn’t stopped eating out or going to the pub, although to be fair, the government had given them no such advice, and big events such as the Cheltenham Festival were still going ahead even if the Media Democracy one wasn’t, while the Premier League and Football League had suspended all fixtures with immediate effect. Their primary concern was that I would get bored, given the lack of activity in the town that had led me to leave as a teenager, but said I was welcome to return if I wanted. After thinking it over in self-isolation and realising as everything closed that there was little value in staying in London, I packed my clothes, my laptop, a box of books and DVDs and asked my father to drive me back to Horley.
The last time I’d been back was Christmas, twelve days after what had felt to me like an epoch-defining disaster. All my family had voted Conservative: my parents because they always have and always will; my brother and his wife, who had moved from Horley to a similar town in Essex where they both worked for the NHS, because they’d voted Leave and wanted the Tories to ‘get Brexit done’, and had been told for years by The Sun that Corbyn’s Labour would recruit their daughter for the Taliban, or something equally preposterous. My mother told me that “the people of this country were never going to vote for a communist,” and I didn’t have the heart to ask if more than ten million people who desperately needed a government that would tackle inequality counted for nothing, nor explain that despite what the Daily Mail had told them, Labour’s manifesto would merely have put the UK’s spending plans in line with Scandinavian social democracy, with the corporation tax rate remaining lower than it was under Thatcher. Instead, I just broke down in tears.
Reading Twitter, I saw that other friends who’d gone home for the holiday had found that their families – even those who had voted Labour – hadn’t seen the election as a life-or-death matter like we had in London. Rather, they hadn’t particularly liked Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson and hadn’t taken in as much about the seismic differences in their parties’ visions of Britain, instead voting with their instincts. Our strategy of sending people around the country to knock on doors, hoping people would answer and then give us enough time to cut through years’ worth of media lines about Labour crashing the economy, apparent institutional anti-Semitism and Corbyn supporting (or even, by the end, being involved in) terrorism looked doomed, even absurd. Even if we’d been perfectly trained in persuasive techniques, which we hadn’t, or if Labour’s media strategy and messaging had been ruthlessly coordinated, which they weren’t, it wouldn’t have worked: the odds, and the system, were stacked against us.
I had canvassed throughout the campaign, focusing on Kensington for several reasons. Firstly, I had a personal connection: my family lived there a hundred years earlier, gradually moving south through Surrey during the 20th century until they got to Horley in 1986, when I was four. Secondly, I could go after work, as the Royal College of Art was nearby. Thirdly, I liked the incumbent, Emma Dent Coad, a former local councillor who became the MP in 2017 as dedicated canvassers helped her beat the Conservative candidate by twenty votes. This was the biggest shock of a snap election where Labour wildly exceeded expectations, winning thirty seats, and improving their 2015 vote share by 9.6% – their biggest increase since 1945 – with leader Jeremy Corbyn having the sharpest rise in personal popularity ever recorded. Dent Coad's victory was especially impressive given that Labour had never won Kensington, the UK’s richest constituency, with an average income of £100,000 per year and an average property price of £2m, home to ex-Prime Minister and multi-millionaire David Cameron among others.
I’d felt euphoric: we may not quite have won, but the Conservatives had lost their majority and surely Labour would get over the line when the government inevitably collapsed. After all, we had youth on our side – especially urban renters in precarious work, like me and everyone I knew, who had ignored the Labour right’s sneers about Corbyn’s “electability” that formed the campaign’s background noise with endless smears about his foreign policy positions. Two days after the election, I spoke at a festival, speaking to a Guardian staffer who told me the paper had been won over by Labour’s manifesto commitments to making the country more equal and more democratic, before getting a cheer as I welcomed the crowd to the People’s Republic of Kensington. Even given the ravages of austerity since the financial crash ten years earlier, we couldn’t help but ask: Why had it voted for Dent Coad, a left-wing housing activist?
That Tuesday, we found out: Grenfell Tower, a social housing block built in the 1960s, burned down, killing 72 people and making scores of others homeless. It had been clad, most likely to make it less unattractive to wealthy residents within eyeshot, but otherwise neglected – the Grenfell Action Group had tried to force the arms-length management company to improve its safety standards, saying that only a “catastrophic event” would persuade them to address the fire risk that they had identified in 2013. The management company first ignored them; the residents could not take them to court because the government had removed state funding for such legal challenges. At 1am on 14 June 2017, a fire that began in a fourth-floor flat spread to the cladding and shot up the building, making the fire safety advice that people should stay in their homes lethal. The people who died were mostly working class and from ethnic minorities; the survivors were furious that the national media, despite being overwhelmingly based in London, hadn’t noticed their existence, only talking to them about their living conditions once it was too late.
That morning, I was glued to the BBC’s live coverage. A teenager in a face mask insisted that “this was not an accident”. The reporter tried to shut him down, thinking, or pretending to think, that he was making accusations of arson. He pointed at the debris visibly falling off the building and said, “they put this shoddy plastic stuff on it to make it look nicer for the rich people”, stopped and angrily concluded, “I’m not fucking with the government right now.” The reporter told him not to swear. The BBC didn’t show the interview again, but it was all over Twitter.
That monument to inequality still loomed over Kensington two and a half years later, when I went out with masses of people: social workers, teachers, students, artists, journalists, members of Jewish Voice for Labour and scores of others who wanted to help Dent Coad keep the seat in what was one of the most unpredictable battles of the campaign. Going door-to-door, we asked people to vote for those who’d died, and to stop such tragedies ever happening again. I wasn’t optimistic: the Conservative council were re-elected in March 2018 despite presiding over the disaster, and being roundly criticised for their callous response to it. But who knew? The 2017 election had confounded expectations, especially about the ability of the media to produce the result they wanted: Rupert Murdoch had reportedly stormed out of the Times party when he’d seen the exit poll that night. By December 2019, it had seemed that the situation was even more volatile – but this time, we narrowly lost Kensington and badly lost the country.
I thought back to the desperate doorstep conversations I’d had in Hastings on polling day – the only time I’d left London to canvass – and felt that perhaps I had lost myself in the metropolitan bubble, as so many authentocratic centrist commentators had accused Corbyn’s supporters of doing. I decided to reconnect with my home town, and walked into the centre, quiet as always: it had been Britain’s largest village until 1974, four decades after Gatwick Airport had opened to its south, bringing new service industries, expanding the suburbs of what had long been a commuter dormitory as its population grew fourfold, to around 20,000. Hilariously, since the airport was rebranded ‘London Gatwick’, Horley has been incorporated into the city’s Oyster (travel) zone, and if I were a tourist expecting the capital only to find myself here, I would be thoroughly nonplussed. Even with my local knowledge, I was shocked at how run-down it was: two high street banks had closed, with their premises left unused for over a year, and while there was a spacious new public library, the large building that housed the old one was similarly abandoned. Now as when I was growing up, there were more charity shops than anything else, but the independent shops that had given it just a little character in the Nineties – including Pulse Records, the only thing in the town I’d ever loved – were almost entirely gone. In their place were chain stores, bookmakers, and supermarkets.
Despite this, the East Surrey constituency in which Horley sits has returned a Conservative MP in every General Election since its creation in 1918, always with a vote share over fifty percent. In 2010, David Cameron’s Conservatives somehow failed to secure an overall majority despite overwhelming media support, against a New Labour government dead on its feet after the Iraq war, the financial crisis, and a scandal in which MPs of all parties had been claiming exorbitant expenses on taxpayers’ money. (These included paying to employ family members or buying second homes; one Conservative MP had his moat cleaned, whilst another built a duck house on his grounds.) The Liberal Democrats propped them up and voted through many austerity measures, including the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that introduced far more competition for NHS contracts. The coalition’s cuts to unemployment and disability benefits, as well as the health service, were later estimated to have caused 120,000 excess deaths in a study published by the British Medical Journal. This was much discussed on social media and often mentioned by Jeremy Corbyn, but little explored on TV news or current affairs programmes, let alone the right-wing press, and ultimately hurt the Liberal Democrats more than the Tories.
East Surrey’s new MP, former investment banker Sam Gyimah, worked his way up the cabinet, becoming Cameron’s Parliamentary Private Secretary in 2012, making headlines three years later for filibustering a bill that would have pardoned men convicted under the historical Sexual Offences Act. As Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, presiding over an academic sector gutted by funding cuts, coupled with steep rises in tuition fees and student debt, Gyimah focused on importing US campus culture wars, trumping up apparent threats to freedom of speech that came with no-platforming; the Department of Education had to confirm that several of the examples Gyimah fed to the press, including a safe-space policy that “took twenty minutes to read”, had never happened.
Gyimah – a walking avatar of how, contrary to centrist orthodoxy, being pro-EU does not necessarily mean one has good politics – resigned from Theresa May’s cabinet over Brexit. He then became one of 21 Conservative MP to lose the whip after voting against Boris Johnson’s “no deal” plan in September 2019, an event that looked chaotic at the time, but which was calculated to stir angry Leavers into seeing Eton-educated Johnson as an anti-establishment figure. Soon after, Johnson shut down parliament entirely. To me, on a demonstration at Westminster, this felt like a matter of urgent importance. To a disengaged populace outside London, it probably just looked like a display of ineptitude rather than an assault on democracy, and perhaps they felt that parliament, and especially the Labour Party, deserved punishment for blocking “the will of the people”.
In December 2019, they voted to ‘Get Brexit Done’, as the Tories’ slogan had repeatedly put it – our strategy of hand-to-hand ground combat was no match for their air war, conducted through a blizzard of misinformation distributed through the BBC, talk radio stations and right-wing newspapers, and bombardment of targeted anti-Labour Facebook adverts. In the end, as Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings predicted on his blog, the tens of thousands of young people registering to vote, the numerous cultural and celebrity endorsements and huge queues outside polling stations in London and a few other cities meant nothing. The Tories’ targeting of individual towns where the turnout fell markedly on 2017 gained fifty Leave-voting seats from Labour, meaning – as conservative and centrist commentators took delight in pointing out – the party’s worst election result since the 1930s, and the end of Corbyn’s leadership.
With Corbyn remaining in post until April, the Conservatives and the Labour right made moves to crush opposition to their left. The Labour right filled the airwaves, and broadsheet opinion pages, with the narrative that they had given the left a chance to present its ideas in a fair contest and that the electorate had organically, overwhelmingly rejected them. Now, the only way for the party to rebuild was to emulate the policies and media strategies used by Tony Blair in the 1990s. The fact that Labour’s vote share fell from 43% in 1997 to 28% in 2010, during which time they haemorrhaged five million votes, was rarely noted. That Corbyn had recovered more than four of that five million in 2017, and became only the fifth Labour leader ever to achieve a 40% vote share, was discussed as one of two defeats, with the differences between that and the elections either side of it given no serious analysis. The fact that Corbyn had energised huge numbers of young, urban voters who turned Labour into Europe’s largest party was presented as self-indulgent folly, from which organisation had to move away as soon as possible.
The Conservatives treated Labour as an irrelevance and went straight for the media – especially the BBC, immediately threatening to privatise it if it didn’t provide more favourable coverage of the government, and the UK’s imminent departure from the European Union. This wasn’t a surprise, given that privatising the BBC (along with the UK’s other most popular and famous public institution, the NHS) has been a Conservative goal for decades, but still surprising given just how compliant the BBC had been during the campaign, and the four years when Corbyn’s Labour attempted to challenge neoliberal orthodoxies. I had long been cynical about the British media, given my engagement with Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, and English filmmaker and media critic Peter Watkins, before my failed attempt to change the conversation about trans issues through my freelance contributions to ostensibly liberal publications. But I’d naively thought that come the next election, the purdah laws that require broadcast networks to give fair and equal coverage to all major parties would allow Labour to inspire people with their messaging, as they undoubtedly had in 2017. I had deluded myself: then, the BBC in particular had not done so out of a good-faith commitment to impartiality, but because they had forgotten, nearly thirty years after the end of the Cold War, that if you allow socialist ideas a fair hearing then people will want them. Rather they’d thought they were giving Corbyn enough rope with which to hang himself, and would seem blameless for his defeat.
This time, they made no such mistake, aware that if they secured a Conservative victory, they would face no punishment for breaking the rules. (And that if Corbyn won, every paper would report any investigation into the BBC’s behaviour as some sort of Stalinist-Trumpian assault on democracy, which the BBC would endlessly amplify on their paper review programmes.) Even I was shocked by it, even after four years in which Corbyn had been accused of being a Czech spy and IRA agent, supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, Holocaust denier and just about everything else, with his campaigners cast as a bunch of red hordes who couldn’t wait to send dear old Liz the same way as Nicholas II. It started with trivial things, such as sharing inept Instagram stories aimed at young people on the day that voter registrations closed, saying things like ‘Politics can be a bit ... meh’, or editing footage of a dishevelled Boris Johnson putting a flower arrangement the wrong way up at the Cenotaph.
By the end, Laura Kuenssberg – BBC News’ Political Editor, and a relative of the last British Governor-General of Nigeria – was telling viewers that she had “seen the postal votes and they look bad for Labour”. This was either a lie or an admission that she had broken electoral rules, both by seeing the votes and using her platform to sway the electorate. She was tweeting fake news about the Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, being attacked outside Leeds Hospital by a band of Momentum thugs – a story swiftly denied traction as people shared phone footage proving that no such thing happened. The Sun’s Political Editor, Tom Newton-Dunn, was invited onto BBC Radio Four’s paper review programme alongside columnist (and advisor to Labour leader Ed Miliband when he lost the 2015 election) Ayesha Hazarika, the day after he published a diagram of ‘hard-left extremist network’ at Labour’s heart, taken off the paper’s website after it was pointed out it had been produced by a conspiracy-minded right-winger whose list of references included a link to a group called ‘Aryan Unity’. (The BBC made no mention of this on the programme, nor on any of Newton-Dunn’s subsequent appearances.)
In between came no end of jaw-dropping moments. Right-wing Labour MPs who quit the party after realising that two overwhelming leadership election victories in two years, followed by such a strong showing in 2017, meant Corbyn wouldn’t resign, were all over the airwaves to tell us all how a Labour victory would mean communist-fascist brutes bankrupting the country amidst waves of violence, especially against the Jews. Critical MPs who’d stayed were far less vocal than in 2017: perhaps they thought Corbyn might win and wanted a place in his Cabinet, or perhaps they’d known what was coming and thought they’d look better in its wake if they let the media do their dirty work for them. In the event, only the Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth, angered the members when a “Tory friend” leaked a recording of him, two days before the election, saying the party’s chances were “dire” and that the civil service would “pretty quickly move to safeguard security” if Corbyn became Prime Minister; he immediately apologised. After the exit poll was broadcast, others were less contrite. Birmingham Yardley’s Jess Phillips, who told the Guardian in 2015 that she would “knife Corbyn in the front” if he lost an election, was caught laughing on camera before realising she was live on Channel 4 and demonstrating her deadly seriousness about the “totally devastating” result.
The lowest point of the election came when the Chief Rabbi of England, Ephraim Mirvis, made a public statement attacking Jeremy Corbyn, for failing to root out anti-Semitism within the party, heavily implying but not quite saying that this was because Corbyn was personally anti-Semitic. Given that nothing new had happened regarding this since summer 2018, this was a carefully timed conclusion to months of headlines about Labour members who made anti-Semitic comments, mainly on Facebook, for whom Corbyn was endlessly demanded to account and apologise, and act against without interfering with Labour’s internal disciplinary processes. (The fact that many of these members were themselves Jewish, and often critics of Israel, was seldom mentioned; that Corbyn had a lifelong record of anti-Nazi activism, and standing up for more British and international Jewish causes than any other current MP, received a nuanced piece by British Jewish historian Geoffrey Alderman in the right-wing Spectator but little else. That Mirvis was a friend of Boris Johnson and Theresa May barely passed comment either.) That night, Corbyn was due to be interviewed on the BBC by their most notoriously aggressive presenter: former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, who repeatedly pressed him on it. Having done so many times before, Corbyn refused to apologise: an error, unforced and uncomfortable, but by now, it was obvious the issue was being orchestrated in the worst possible faith, undoing decades of anti-racist activism, and I wondered what else Corbyn knew that we didn’t.
To shift the focus back to Labour’s manifesto, Corbyn brought forward an event that I guessed had been scheduled for the final week: unveiling a dossier he said proved that Johnson’s denials that he planned to sell large chunks of the NHS to American healthcare firms after Brexit were not true. Watching it live on the BBC, it seemed a brilliant media moment: doctors and nurses handed copies of the 451-page document to the press before Corbyn spoke about how it covered six rounds of talks between the Conservatives and Donald Trump, with the US demanding ‘total market access’ as ‘the baseline assumption of the trade negotiations’. On Twitter, I watched in real time as political journalists scrambled for their line on what seemed like the bombshell of the campaign. First they said it wasn’t a “scoop” as the dossier was already in the public domain. People pointed out that it wasn’t Corbyn’s job to investigate such things, but theirs: why hadn’t they done so with something so clearly in the public interest? Eventually, they pivoted to suggesting that the leaked document was part of a Russian disinformation campaign, before the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, dismissed Corbyn as a conspiracy theorist.
That evening, the BBC put out a clip of Boris Johnson talking about how he eats his scones – all I could say on seeing it was this if this had happened in Ceauşescu’s Romania, people would still be ridiculing it now. Soon, Daily Mail and New Statesman journalist Simon Heffer was on LBC radio, telling listeners that Corbyn “wants to re-open Auschwitz”; the Sun was giving away papers with locally tailored anti-Labour headlines in marginal constituencies. On election day, posters went up outside polling stations with Corbyn’s face and the caption: ‘Would you trust this man with your children?’ Who put them there? Who paid for them?
I suspect we’ll never know, given the plausible deniability, but by then it was clear that for the ruling party, the trashing of the public sphere was an acceptable price to pay to keep Corbyn from power, as they told plenty of lies about Labour themselves. In 2017, Corbyn wrong-footed accusations that his spending plans would ruin Britain with a fully costed manifesto. Labour did it again: numerous Tory MPs and journalists, including the Chancellor, went on TV and Twitter to say it would cost £1.2tn. I doubt if many believed this, but I doubt many believed Labour’s rebuttals either. Even more dubiously, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that a Labour government would result in ‘52 more murders a week and a violent crime wave’, playing into trumped-up narratives about London being an epicentre of stabbings and muggings. Johnson waited until Corbyn and other party leaders (Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats and Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party) had spoken to Neil, then declined to turn up. He also refused to attend a Channel 4 debate on climate change, arranged after a wave of Extinction Rebellion activity in London. In his place went Johnson’s father, environmental writer and ex-Guardian columnist Stanley, and TV comedian turned Cabinet member Michael Gove, with a camera crew. Channel 4 turned them away: Gove and Johnson accused the broadcaster of anti-Tory bias, making veiled threats about its post-election funding.
For me, the biggest joy of 2017 had been that none of these tactics – Theresa May trying to make it solely about Brexit, her moronic slogan (‘Strong and Stable’), her refusing to go on TV debates and repeating ever more intense media slurs on Corbyn – had worked. The second I saw the exit poll, I knew that this time, they had, and it felt unbearable. The result was so bad that I couldn’t stop watching, on ITV as we all refused to countenance the BBC: I was furious as Cameron’s Chancellor, George Osborne, and Labour’s former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls rounded on Jon Lansmann as a key member of Blair’s Cabinet, Alan Johnson, demanded that Lansmann’s organisation, Momentum, be expelled from Labour. I watched in horror as two of my friends and comrades in journalism, the young Corbyn supporters Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar, were berated by the presenter, who insisted they accept responsibility for the result.
Worst of all was the result from Kensington. It had been billed as a three-way contest between Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, with the Observer recommending that anyone who wanted to vote tactically to stop Brexit should opt for the Lib Dems, even though Dent Coad, a Remainer, held the seat. The Lib Dems had sucked up anti-Brexit Conservative and Labour MPs who left their parties but not been obliged to hold by-elections, as the British constitution says the electorate vote for representatives and not parties – something believed by the MPs themselves, but practically no-one else. One such MP was Sam Gyimah. Soon after being expelled by Johnson, he joined the Lib Dems (who tried to downplay his filibustering of the bill to pardon gay men). He knew that was no point running under the Lib Dem banner in East Surrey – so he stood in Kensington, starting his campaign by accusing Dent Coad of complicity in the council’s neglect of the Grenfell residents; Dent Coad considered legal action. With the Observer’s backing, Gyimah doubled the Lib Dem vote, enabling the Conservative – a former financier who raised money for the Bank of America and JP Morgan – to win by 150 votes. The shit-eating grin that covered Gyimah’s face as the Grenfell Action Group chanted “Shame!” was the defining image of the night: Gyimah lost his culture war, and his place in parliament, but I doubt he’ll have any problem finding another job in the City.
Soon after, the Guardian’s John Crace reported that lobby journalists were told: ‘cheerleaders would be rewarded, and critics would be frozen out’. It also emerged Cummings had branded the BBC the “mortal enemy” of the Conservatives back in 2004, and called for it to “end ... in its current form” as senior Tories called for the license fee to be abolished, knowing that few on the left would defend it after December’s events, and that most of the BBC’s senior staff wouldn’t care if it were privatised as they’d be fine either way. I wondered how many of them attended the party on the night after the election, hosted by Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent, at their £6m mansion opposite Regent’s Park. Guests included Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne, and Peter Mandelson, Labour’s ex-Director of Communications, and Blair’s former advisor and Minister Without Portfolio, who told the Jewish Chronicle and the Guardian in February 2017 that he worked “every single day to ... bring forward the end of [Corbyn’s] tenure”. Corbyn declined his invitation, so they hired an impersonator, and one can only imagine the depths of hilarity plumbed.
Corbyn himself was defiant, being pictured in a T-shirt with a Pablo Neruda quote: ‘They can cut all the flowers, but they cannot stop the coming of spring.’ The flower-cutting instantly began with attacks on Corbyn for not talking to Johnson as they entered the Commons together (I thought he showed incredible restraint), with the new, more left-wing intake of Labour MPs who’d replaced those who’d quit singled out for punishment. Journalists dug for dirt on the 26-year-old Muslim woman, Zarah Sultana, who’d narrowly won Coventry South and soon spoken of the ills of “forty years of Thatcherism” in parliament. They demanded that the new Labour MP for Warrington North, 28-year-old Jewish woman Charlotte Nichols, atone for tweeting that football fans ‘should be kicked in the head’ – declining to mention that these fans were Lazio supporters doing Nazi salutes before a match against Celtic in Glasgow, which somewhat undermined the insistence, repeated across the media before and during the election campaign, that there must be zero tolerance for anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, there were so many new Conservative MPs that I couldn’t compute them, and none stood out – especially not the new one for East Surrey, Claire Coutinho, who, it turned out, followed a similar path to Sam Gyimah, working for Merrill Lynch and KPMG before moving into politics.
Neither the Conservatives nor the Labour right seemed to enjoy their victory much: perhaps they knew, deep down, what a stitch-up it had been, and that everyone could see what a stitch-up it had been. With a stronger presence on social media and new institutions and publications, the left wasn’t going away – the large crowds and lively panels at Bristol Transformed were a nice reminder of that – and the pre-conditions for its rise after 2008 had only intensified during the Corbyn period. Nonetheless, the government and the media ramped up their culture war as the UK’s departure from the European Union finally became inevitable. Johnson asked the public to ‘bung a bob for a Big Ben Brexit bong’: this depressingly moronic phrase essentially attempted to crowd-fund repairs to Big Ben, which, as it was, wouldn’t ring at the Westminster party for Brexit at 11pm on Friday 31 January. Worse still was their points-based immigration policy – something the tabloids had demanded for years. This ended EU freedom of moment, demanded that migrants speak English ‘at required level’, and prioritised people offered jobs with salaries over £25,600 per year – more than most NHS staff earn – and PhD studies in STEM subjects above all others. Any last ember of hope I’d had after the 2017 General Election that we might build a better Britain had finally been extinguished.
Gradually, I began to recover. I started to have days when I didn’t cry thinking of the election, then days where I didn’t talk about it, and finally days when I barely thought about it. I tried to work out what Labour might look like under a new leader, who – it soon became clear – was unlikely to be Rebecca Long-Bailey. I became involved in political movements and projects that were less dependent on the party, whether that was demonstrations against war with Iran, the University College Union strike or Media Democracy, writing extensively about how the British media had treated transgender people over the last decade. Above all, I focused on my own precarious housing and work situations, and started to enjoy teaching at the RCA. Then, seven weeks after my parents and I had first discussed the pandemic, my life in London ground to an abrupt halt.