Priest or Parrot? NRK’s foreign coverage of the Labour leadership election

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It is often amusing to see your home country discussed in foreign news. My all-time favourite example includes when Fox News’ “terrorism expert” declared Birmingham had become a “no go zone” for non-Muslims. Norway suffered a much less amusing case, when at the hands of international ignorance when the British press linked FrP’s assent into government to Anders Breivik.

Written by Paul Beaumont

Norwegian “Storbritannia-ekspert og statsviter”, Øivind Bratberg from Blindern, continued this tradition of lazy analysis of the foreign. Commenting to NRK.no about the upcoming British Labour leadership contest, he claimed the leftist candidate Jeremy Corybn stands “no real chance” of winning because he was “too extreme”. Upon inspection, this assertion appears to be a function of Bratberg’s politics and assumptions rather than analysis of the evidence.

In Bratberg’s defence, the contest has confounded conventional wisdom. Against all expectations, Corbyn is polling way ahead of the three centrist candidates vying for leadership. This has inspired shock, fear, and a predicable backlash against Corbyn from across the establishment. Backed up by the press, Corbyn’s opponents have mounted a campaign to discredit him as an unelectable, Marxist hippy determined to take Britain back to the 1980s (Note: the 1980s are a byword for electoral apocalypse in British political discourse).

Thus, when Bratberg, claims that Corbyn has “no real chance” of winning because he is “too extreme”, he is guilty of uncritically parroting the rhetoric of the British Press, and the Labour Party establishment. This would be less problematic if Bratberg was writing in 2011, but he fails to account how the new election rules have changed the game, nor offer anything to suggest why Corbyn’s policies are too extreme for Labour Party members.

Indeed, Bratberg claims Corbyn’s politics are too extreme for him to be elected, yet its his policies that constitute mainstream politics in much of Norway, Europe and are actually quite popular within the UK: free higher education, 50% top tax rate for the richest, opposing nuclear weapons, and investing in social housing. Never mind that in the UK as whole these policies generate considerable approval, within the Labour party membership most of Corbyn’s individual policies are backed by solid majorities.

Why would the membership reject as “extreme” a man who offers policies that align with their own? Bratberg’s political science training probably leads him to assume that pragmatism will triumph, it probably also led him to ignore the contextual factors that suggest otherwise. While Bratberg is correct to note that trusting the polls entirely would be foolish, when he tips Yvette Cooper –a distant 3rd according to the latest bookmakers’ odds – to win because she represents “a form of renewal” (Because Woman), he confuses what he believes would be best for the Labour party with what is most likely to happen.

Indeed, Bratberg’s opinion hinges on an out of date understanding of the new Labour leadership election process. Bratberg’s faith that the process will lead to the election of the candidate who the party leadership believe would make them most appealing in a general election. He seems oblivious to the gulf that has opened between Labour rank and file and its leadership, and how the new election process may make historical presidents moot.

The Labour party establishment lack the power they once had to influence the contest. Under the old Electoral College system the system was weighted so that, Parliamentary MPs had one third, the Unions had one third, and members had one third. However, the new One Member One Vote system, introduced in 2014, leaves nomination mostly up to members: in short, the 250,000 existing members together with whoever is willing to pay the £3 (35kr) to become a member and vote. The upshot is that electoral power in the process has shifted dramatically away from the party leadership. The new open process, combined with the widespread antipathy and apathy of Labour’s grass roots towards the “pragmatic” “centricism”, epitomised by Tony Blair and espoused by the other three candidates, offers Corbyn considerably more than “no real chance”.

With the latest polls reporting a 20% lead for Corbyn over the nearest contender in first preferences of members, and with Corbyn joint favourite overall according to William Hill, I hope for Bratberg’s sake he never turns his hand to professional bookmaking. But ultimately, Bratberg’s shallow analysis provides more evidence for why we must always remain sceptical to “experts” narrating foreign news unchecked.

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Paul is the Features Editor at Hja! He is also a part-time academic writing teacher, sometime quizmaster, occasional journalist, and full time IR masters student. Available for hire, but never in the morning. His collected scribblings can be found at loveinthetimeoffacebookyeah.wordpress.com and his tweets @BeaumontPaul.