Corbyn & Co seen from across the Channel... and through social media

5 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

Seen from across the Channel and through the lens of social media, Corbyn's 'surprising electoral success' was not surprising at all, it fits a trend.

When I worked in London about a decade ago, my British colleagues would talk about Europe in the third person. Europe was what's on the other side of the Channel, and the UK is ... well, different. So different, in fact, that it could opt out of almost anything that would make the EU a more egalitarian political and socio-economic system. So different that, while being one of the world's most powerful economies, Britain managed to be a net benefactor in the EU. And so different, of course, that Britain could vote for a Brexit and, next, put the Tory Brexit government in dire straits by giving about 12 million votes to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour in the General Elections of June 8. So different, then, that the BBC election reporting team declared themselves absolutely gobsmacked by that outcome of GE2017.

It was clear that Corbyn had risen to an exceptional and enviable level of political credibility since the Brexit referendum.

The truth is: Britain is quite predictable. Seen from the other side of the Channel, and using mainly social media as the channels of information, it was quite clear that Corbyn's party was going to do very well, and that Corbyn himself had risen to an exceptional and enviable level of political credibility since the Brexit referendum. So while almost all political and media insiders expressed a complete surprise, for us in the Diggit team there was no surprise whatsoever. How come? Let me explain how it is that we actually looked at the events in the UK.

First, we contextualized and maintained a consistent comparative perspective. This is mandatory when you live in a small country such as The Netherlands or Belgium: most other countries are bigger and more influential than ours, and elections in, say, France, Germany, the US or Britain do have an effect on our domestic politics too. And we've had no shortage of elections lately (including one in The Netherlands), so there has been quite a bit of comparative material. Let me list some items.

When Corbyn assumed the leadership of Labour, he was derided by many for being a boring old backbencher, a protester and activist really, lacking leadership, in a position constantly booby-trapped by his own MPs, and embodying a near-defunct, nostalgic, pre-Blairite, left-wing Labour fraction. But this profile, remarkably, fitted very well with that other electoral surprise of the past couple of years: Bernie Sanders - the American who called himself socialist during presidential primaries. Corbyn and Sanders did not fit the 'type' of politician believed to be born for stardom: both are not young men anymore, not sexy, no celebrities, no party darlings, and no one-liner kings. The camera would never love them. 

Indeed, the camera - at least that of what is now known as the Mainstream Media - did not love them. Sanders and Corbyn ran a campaign largely unsupported by the mass media, underrated by the pollsters and against the occasional grave warnings of 'the markets' who might react badly to possible victories from their sides.

Corbyn's success happened outside of the mass media's frames of reference - the kinds of politicians they believe are winners, the kinds of political issues they believe are central, the kinds of campaign moves they believe are decisive.

But here is the second thing we do. We monitor social media and have seen that, increasingly, 'the noise' required in political campaigns, the 'buzz', the 'vibe' is made there, and not just in the mass media. Bernie Sanders was the champion of social media during the US primaries, equalled only by Donald Trump. The same went for Jeremy Corbyn, whose messages dominated the social media debates in what is known as his 'bubble': a gradually expanding left-wing social media audience. There has been a shift in political discourse regimes in recent years, in which the candidates themselves are no longer the only ones who produce the political speeches: millions of people do that for them on social media. What we saw over the past few weeks on social media was quite reassuring for Corbyn: his campaign ran an effective media offensive detached from the mass media and maintained by intensely active supporters in the social media 'bubble'. 

Corbyn and Labour combined this intense social media work with equally intense 'offline' activities: hundreds of old-fashioned mass rallies and thousands of even more old-fashioned door-to-door walkabouts across Britain. These old-fashioned formats of political campaigning were barely reported in the mass media, for cheering crowds are familiar sports and entertainment tropes, not political ones anymore. But images of them went viral on social media.

Facebook post Jeremy Corbyn - 9/6/2017

Which is why the mass media were so astonished by Corbyn's success: it happened outside of their customary frames of reference - the kinds of politicians they believe are winners, the kinds of political issues they believe are central, the kinds of campaign moves they believe are decisive. And the 'bubble' they tend to observe and get involved in - clearly not Corbyn's 'bubble'.

Corbyn operated within an alternative network of information, using alternative modes of political interaction than those that are currently seen as mainstream. In this alternative network of information entirely different frames of reference appear to prevail. Which brings me to a final point: Corbyn's nostalgic pre-Blairite left-wing line.

Cheering crowds are sports and entertainment tropes, not political ones, but images of them went viral on social media

This line - a restoration, one can say, of traditional social-democracy after two decades of Third Way socialism - has been remarkably successful in recent years. Sanders scored game-winning points with that recipe, and Mélenchon came very close to the French Presidential playoffs on a very similar platform. Even more outspokenly left-wing movements have done well too: Greece's Syriza, at least prior to its surrender to the Euro-accountants, and Spain's Podemos. 

In all of these cases (even, be it less manifestly, in the case of Mélenchon) successes were achieved without the support of the mass media, against the intuitions of the pollsters, and against the mood of 'the markets'. It is a political line that only looks near-defunct, but which is, in effect, very much alive again. In fact, traditional social-democratic parties not switching towards this line but maintaining their Third Way course, have been punished by the electorate in Greece, Spain, France and The Netherlands, to name just those.

This is what we can call a trend, and Jeremy Corbyn fits that trend; so do the results of Labour in the GE2017.

This is what we can call a trend; and this trend appears to be hard to observe through the channels that we used to rely on for political trend-watching. Jeremy Corbyn fits that trend, and so do the results of Labour in the GE2017: they confirm and amplify what we have witnessed elsewhere. At least, when we look for information where it appears nowadays: outside of the box of established political observation. And perhaps from across the Channel, from within a small country forced to think hard about what elections elsewhere might mean for us here. 

Angela Merkel is of course Germany's most important politician; but she is also one of the most important politicians in The Netherlands, Belgium, and many other smaller EU member states, even if we cannot vote for or against her. The same goes for Corbyn, and we shall continue to monitor him and his British political biotope very closely, because it is part of our own political biotope.