Skip to main content

The Guardian never gets a political result right. On Corbyn, they got it really wrong

After spending two years trashing the possibility that Corbyn could win elections, The Guardian's coverage must be judged harshly. An apology is due

My former colleagues on The Guardian hold an enviable record in the annals of political journalism. They have succeeded in getting the result of every major political event in the country wrong. 

Even if you tried consistently to be wrong, fate would decree that occasionally you would get one result right. Their consistency in getting things so wrong, for so long, challenges the theory of random number generation. The infinite monkey theorem holds that a monkey hitting keys of keyboards at random ad infinitum would eventually type the works of Shakespeare. This is not true. The Guardian never gets a political result right.

The infinite monkey theorem holds that a monkey hitting keys of keyboards at random would eventually type the works of Shakespeare. The Guardian proves it wrong

They called time on the prime ministership of Gordon Brown, in an infamous editorial dictated by an embittered Charles Clarke, only to discover that Brown remained. Then there was the equally devastating “Liberal Moment” - an editorial written urging a Liberal vote in an election in 2010 only to find it produced a Tory coalition government. The leader became known in Kings Place - The Guardian's all too expensive shrine-cum-head office - as the “Liberal nano-second”.

They even tried to influence elections abroad. There was the infamous "Operation Clark County", The Guardian's 2004 campaign, in which readers were encouraged to write letters to Americans in swing states not to vote for George W Bush.

Kings Place, The Guardian's headquarters in London (Nigel Mykura)
But it backfired. Clark County went to Bush - and voters from across the pond had some choice words for the paper. "Have you not noticed," wrote one, "that Americans don't give two shits what Europeans think of us? Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why to NOT vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow-toothed pansies."

'Each email someone gets from some arrogant Brit telling us why to NOT vote for George Bush is going to backfire, you stupid, yellow-toothed pansies'

-American reacting to The Guardian's Operation Clark County

The Guardian proved up to the task of miscalling the Labour leadership contest five years later by trashing the possibility that Jeremy Corbyn would get elected. Surveying the four candidates, Polly Toynbee alighted on Corbyn as "the free spirit, the outsider not playing by the usual political rules". This for her was exactly what would doom him: "Unfettered by what a majority of voters beyond Islington might support in a real election, he’s a romantic, saying what no doubt many Labour members believe."

Toynbee wrote that Corbyn was a 1983 man, a relic. Who was the most promising candidate of the four? Why, Yvette Cooper. The Guardian-anointed Cooper got 17 percent and the 1983 relic got 59 percent. 

The most savage judge of all

Undeterred, The Guardian ploughed on, planting the knife in Corbyn's back so many times and in so many ways, that Caesar's murder looked like the work of a lone wolf. Martin Kettle applied himself to the claim that the centre ground of politics still mattered:

"The problem for Labour is that the centre ground hasn't gone away. When offered a choice of left, centre-left, centre, centre-right or right, 45% of all British voters in an Opinium survey still regard themselves as being in the very centre of the political spectrum. A huge 77% of the British public see themselves either as centrists or centre-left or centre-right. Only 19% see Corbyn as being in the same territory, compared with 46% for Balls and 49% for Tony Blair.

History remains a savage judge and, collectively, The Guardian's coverage does not emerge kindly from it

"By contrast, May is seen as on or close to the centre ground by 44% of all voters. This is one reason why it might be unwise to fall into the fashionable trap of claiming that the centre-focused politics that stretched from the John Major era to that of Cameron is either phoney or finished."

Alan Travis, the home affairs editor, applied himself to the theory that Labour had lost the key C2 vote, that of the white working class. In a piece entitled "Will Theresa May really kill off Labour in this election?", Travis wrote: "The latest opinion polls show that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour is facing a general election defeat on the scale of Michael Foot's 1983 loss to Margaret Thatcher when Labour was reduced to just 209 MPs – its lowest total in the second half of the 20th century."

Owen Jones, one of the few on the paper to have supported him, dumped Corbyn after the Copeland by-election. 

"Since the byelection rout, he has made it clear he isn't going anywhere without even offering the vaguest outlines about how to turn it around. That isn't good enough: again, consider the stakes. Both he and his team have to think hard. If Corbyn decides he is unable to confront the multiple existential crises enveloping Labour, then an agreement should be struck where he can stand down in exchange for the guarantee of an MP from the new generation on the ballot paper who is committed to the policies that inspired Corbyn's supporters in the first place. It is up to both Corbyn and the parliamentary Labour party. They should both be aware that history is a savage judge."

To be fair to Jones, he has rowed back today, offering Corbyn, John McDonnell, Seumas Milne and others "an unreserved and heartfelt apology," acknowledging he was not "a bit wrong, or slightly wrong, or mostly wrong, but totally wrong" and calling on "the mainstream commentariat" including his colleagues, to confess their wrongdoings as well. 

Yet history remains a savage judge, and collectively The Guardian's coverage does not emerge kindly from it.

Two faces of Labour

Why was The Guardian so intent on burying a man who delivered exactly what he promised? Corbyn promised to bring new voters to the party. He did exactly that in large numbers. When he delivered the youth, that too was dismissed because it was said at the time that they wouldn't vote.

Why would a paper that considered itself on the left, not get behind policies which it itself evidently supports?

Corbyn promised to change the tone and the content of political debate. He did that too. Why would these not be good things? Why would a paper that considered itself on the left, not get behind policies which it evidently supports?

The answer is complicated. Its about territory and identity. As projects, New Labour and The Guardian have a lot in common. Ever since I worked there, The Guardian has been on the move, not just physically but mentally. It moved from Manchester to London. The M25 became the boundaries of its new metropolitan world and it lost interest in Scotland and for much of my time there did not even have a correspondent based there.

Then it discovered America and seriously thought it could capture part of Google's digital advertising. The Guardian is like that. It only has two gears - arrogance and blind panic. Hundreds of millions of pounds later, The Guardian found itself stranded off the coast of New Jersey. Now the ship is plodding its way back to Manchester, the pilgrim that never got to the New World.

New Labour harboured the same ambitions to leave a constituency behind in search of a new world and never quite made it. Corbyn dispossessed New Labour  of its last vestiges of power.

New Labour was not merely about policy. It was an attempt to permanently change the landscape of the left, hence its concentration on power and leadership. It had a devastating effect on both the party and its concept of leadership. This was why its only response to Corbyn was to go for the man, obsessing about his lack of qualities as a leader - as if the Iraq War, the Libya intervention and the banking crash were examples of sound leadership. 

British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivers a speech on the 'Next Steps For New Labour' at the London School Of Economics in March 2002 (AFP)
Throughout Corbyn's tenure,  two quite different parties were fighting over the same turf, and now one side in that conflict has definitively lost. That's hard to admit, but it accounts for the feeling of existential loss that the right on the party feel. 

Real - and radical - change

The other answer is that this process is about radical change - a word favoured by the entire political spectrum but hated and strenuously resisted when it actually happens.

This was a bitter turf war for the heart and the soul of the party. Corbyn won it, in what proved to be his third attempt, by re-anchoring the party to real political forces and real people, not corporations, bankrupting PFI contracts, and foreign service providers.

Corbyn's voters were junior doctors, ditched in their struggle by the British Medical Association, students who will spend a lifetime repaying their university fees, workers on zero-hour contracts, users of an increasingly privatised NHS or local authorities, people who can not afford the rents in London and, yes indeed, the Muslim voter.

A protest in central London in February 2016 against the British governments' plans to change contracts for junior doctors (AFP)
In 39 key constituencies, Muslim communities may have had an impact, the Muslim Council of Britain claimed.

Corbyn was the only politician brave enough to say out loud after the horrendous events of the Manchester attack that there was a link between these outrages and Britain's foreign policy.

If voting ever changed anything, they would abolish it. But this time that is not true. This vote has altered the political landscape, and Britain, not just the Labour Party, is healthier for it. 1983 man has become 2017 man. What a surprise. Polly, you owe Corbyn a big sorry. 

David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Britain's opposition Labour party Leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a thumbs up as he arrives at Labour Party headquarters in central London on 9 June 2017 after results in a snap general election showing a hung parliament with Labour gains and the Conservatives losing its majority. (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.