In September 1997, Tony Blair’s approval peaked at an extraordinary 93% and, for a time, “Teflon Tony” was able to emerge from most crises with his reputation intact.
While poles apart politically, Jeremy Corbyn and his predecessor do share one trait yearned for by all political leaders: the ability to withstand whatever the media throws at you.
This week’s allegations that Corbyn was a person of interest to Czechoslovakian officials during the Cold War included claims by one former spy that the Labour leader was an informant. While Corbyn has rejected this, they are nevertheless the type of accusations that would normally bring an end to most political careers. Instead, he has gone on the offensive against the press barons warning them that “change is coming.” In an instant, he has changed the narrative of the debate to put the British media on the defensive.
This isn’t the first time that the right wing press have called Corbyn’s past into question. Within a month of being elected Labour leader, The Telegraph published the findings of an investigation into his alleged close links with the IRA, and he has faced a similar barrage of criticism for referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends.” The list goes on and on, yet as the 2017 General Election result shows, the electorate, for the moment, are not interested in things that most people already know.
It is difficult to recall many supportive press headlines in the national newspapers during last year’s election campaign. Yet Corbyn was able to unite his party and create a siege mentality, pitting the “establishment” media against the ordinary working people on whose behalf he claims to speak.
In doing so, Labour trounced the Conservatives in the online battle for votes through the use of Facebook, Twitter and videos to motivate its base with a positive message – instead of just attacking the Conservatives. Aided by the Conservative campaign capitulation, Corbyn was able to sail through national media attacks and emerge as an anti-establishment leader, with his appeal largely attributed to his perceived authenticity.
Despite having most of the mainstream media onside since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the Conservatives may have bloodied his nose, but they have failed to land any memorable blows. CCHQ was completely unprepared for last June’s election and despite the best, but brief efforts of Activate, there isn’t a Tory version of Momentum – which has proved so crucial to cementing Corbyn’s position in the party and to spreading his message across the country.
Slowly but surely, the Conservatives are beginning to get their online act together. For example, newly appointed Party Chairman, Brandon Lewis MP, has promised to galvanise “shy Tories” to “go out there and argue” on social media and defend party policy. In reality though, it’s going to need more than a few tweets to turn the tide.
Unlike Labour leaders of the past, Corbyn has portrayed himself as a political insurgent, challenging an establishment that, he claims, has done little to improve the lives of the ordinary working people Corbyn believes he is fighting for. He will feel that the flurry of media attacks against him only strengthens his brand as – in his own mind – a visionary and radical taking a stand against the “tax-avoiding” press barons. If the 2017 General Election is anything to go by, if the media and the Conservatives are truly to hurt ‘Jeremy’, they should focus on the threat they believe he poses to the country in the future, rather than his questionable associations and statements dating back to the 1970s.