The Labour Party Conference is decadent and depraved: Political hacks’ bozo journalism says goodbye to reality

Fear, loathing and the Lobby.

Most British political hacks treat politics like a parlour game while simultaneously expecting to be regarded with deadly seriousness. The Malice In Blunderland tales emerging from the Labour Party conference in Brighton are a great example of this tendency. What big-name political reporters like Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg, as well as lower league correspondents, feverishly claim is happening during Starmer’s seaside farce often bears little relation to what an unaddled observer can see with their own eyes.

Hunter S. Thompson developed Gonzo journalism as a means of grasping for the essential truth through what he called “a mixture of humour and high stomping style,” uncovering the essence of events through a kind of hyperreality. The worst British political hacks write bozo journalism, defined here as a style that pushes reality through the fairground mirrors of their ideology, resulting in a version of the world where mediocre figures are heroes, failure is success, cruelty is kindness, and amorality is principled if you squint hard enough.

Andy McDonald resigned yesterday from the role of Shadow Secretary for Employment Rights and Protections (he’d previously served as Shadow Transport Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn) saying that Keir Starmer’s office had “instructed [him] to go into a meeting to argue against a national minimum wage of £15 an hour and against statutory sick pay at the living wage.”

Laura Kuenssberg tweeted:

McDonald resignation sets up a big row with the left on conference floor tomorrow, when there is a vote on a £15 minimum wage.

And as if by magic, photo and video has emerged of Starmer backing a 15 pound wage for McDonalds workers not so long ago — will suggest to Starmer backers this was a deliberate plan hatched — McDonald's firmly denied he was trying to deliberately cause trouble.

Yes, the magic of people who do not have the tactical amnesia/guppy-like memories of senior political correspondents remembering things Starmer has done and said in the past and posting the receipts. The top spin on Kuenssberg’s thinking is apparent here. It cannot simply be that ordinary people on Twitter1, responding to McDonald’s resignation, remembered Starmer’s previous statements in support of a £15-a-hour minimum wage.

When opponents of the previous Labour leader — “Jeremy Corbyn, remember him?” as Nick Robinson ‘cutely’ put it on the Today programme yesterday — dug through 40 years of talks, debates, and appearances before key moments, it wasn’t framed as “a deliberate plan” by Kuenssberg et al. But tweeting footage of Keir Starmer from last year is the product of Machiavellian manoeuvering.

In an article for the BBC News website — headlined with the impeccable impartial line Andy McDonald's resignation shows the left won't go quietly2 Kuenssberg expanded on the theme of her tweets, writing:

[McDonald] told me that he wasn't trying to cause trouble, that he had to make a stand on a point of principle. But some suspect sabotage from an old comrade of Jeremy Corbyn.

A classic piece of political journalist framing there — “some suspect” — which allows the introduction of a line you’ve been briefed without having to name the people who’ve been whispering or WhatsApping it.

The piece continues:

Indeed some of Sir Keir's allies believe this resignation, dramatically timed during conference must be deliberately designed to distract from what the leader is trying to achieve. It certainly is a distraction, and it certainly is divisive - but some close to the leader counter that it's a good thing that he's gone, despite the turmoil of the day.

Where’s the fabled BBC balance that comes into play when it wants to explain putting climate deniers up against actual scientists? While Kuenssberg spoke to McDonald and indirectly quotes him saying he wasn’t “trying to cause trouble”, there’s not even a glancing suggestion that he might have resigned on principle.

In a similar piece for the ITV News website — Sir Keir Starmer gives Labour MPs their party back — Robert Peston assured readers:

Hello from a sunny, blustery Brighton, where there has been an important historical shift at the Labour Party’s conference, a counter-revolution no less.

In the political parlour game played by most hacks, the Right is allowed to resign on principle but the Left can only resign out of spite. And Kuenssberg was far from alone in sharing uncritically the line from Starmer’s office that they were actually quite glad to see McDonald gone: “Yes, I meant to fall over.”

Today’s Red Box newsletter from The Times — whose editor Patrick Maguire is a newsletter reader (Hi, Patrick!) — claimed that:

Even those who knew who the now-former shadow employment rights secretary Andy McDonald was this time 14 hours ago were not expecting him to quit Sir Keir Starmer's shadow cabinet. But so he has, in an act of insubordination without recent precedent.

That depends on how you choose to define the phrase “recent precedent”; Marsha de Cordova resigned as Shadow Equalities Minister earlier this month, with an article in The Voice suggesting — via “well-placed sources” — that she did so after “[growing] increasingly frustrated with senior advisers to the party leader… [who] sidelined her efforts to develop plans for a new law to tackle racial injustice.” That article goes on claim that…

… that efforts to set up a task force of experts to design progressive race equality policy were held back over concerns this might upset Red Wall voters, and that Starmer had resisted pleas to make a speech setting out his vision to black communities.

And if you look a little further back into the mists of time for precedent (*Nick Robinson voice* “Jeremy Corbyn, remember him?”) — and as Jack from Reel Politik reminded me earlier — members of Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet who had stayed on under Harriet Harman’s interim leadership announced in turn that they were resigning during Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader.

The headline for the web version of Maguire’s newsletter is interesting too (Goodbye to Andy McDonald, the shadow minister we’d never heard of) given that the Westminster press pack treated every resignation under Corbyn as a seismic event, elevating even the greyest of Labour non-entities into “key figures” whose decision to leave was a principled stand and certainly had not even a whiff of factionalism about them.

The Times news pages bring together criticism from the unions and Labour mayors including London’s Sadiq Khan and Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham (who is being furiously briefed against by Starmer’s supporters: “He swanned off to run Manchester and left the shit work to others… he won’t get a safe seat.”) in a piece headlined Corbyn ally Andy McDonald quits as mayors pile pressure on Keir Starmer while the breaking news of McDonald’s resignation yesterday was illustrated on The Times website with a picture of him literally sitting behind Corbyn. Subtle!

The least-liked Hobbit in Hobbiton, Quentin Letts, (even the Sackville-Baggins’ can’t stand him) contributes a typically finger-on-the-corpse’s-pulse sketch that opens with a reference to Bernard Bresslaw, the Carry On comic who died in 1993, and features lashings and lashings of his trademark misogyny:

Bernard Bresslaw in a Claudia Winkleman haircut, Rachel Reeves did a lot of blinking at the end of her Labour conference speech. Were the activists clapping? They were. A first!

The hall had even cheered with ululating bloodlust when she vowed to rip charitable status away from public schools. “Private schools are not charities,” she foghorned, to a forest of fists and brandished impala giblets. Angela Rayner was not the only one who could do class war, thank you.

After 15 seconds of that slow blinking, accompanied by an uncertain smile, Reeves clod-hopped across the stage towards Sir Keir Starmer. She has the gait of a panto dame in a new pair of size 11 heels and she walked without swinging her arms. Once Starmer was within reach she leapt for him, lassoing the Great Essayist in a long, tight embrace. He disappeared, quite smothered by his shadow chancellor, his nose pushed deep towards one of her armpits.

No doubt Stig Abell will be on Times Radio later this week clapping like a seal at Letts’ bite-sized bigotry as if he’s the edgiest guest at the world’s worst dinner party. Letts suggests that he sees Reeves as a strong candidate to be the next Labour leader, joining the unnamed Tories who gulled The Daily Mirror’s Rachel Wearmouth into believing Reeves is “the person in Starmer’s shadow cabinet they fear most.”

Assessing the hen house, the foxes assure me that the boring, slow-moving hen that flaps at the merest hint of danger is the one that really worries them.

Elsewhere in The Times, Nick Thomas Symonds, the Shadow Home Secretary, announces himself as a necrophile by cheerily fucking the corpse of Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the cause of crime slogan”. Under the headline, Labour revives Blair’s policy on crime, Matt Dathan, the paper’s Home Affairs Editor, takes a break from parroting Priti Patel’s lines to transcribe one from the man who absolutely definitely will not be her successor:

Labour will be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, the shadow home secretary has said as he announced the party is readopting Tony Blair’s slogan as part of efforts to restore Labour’s reputation on law and order.

In an interview with The Times, Nick Thomas-Symonds also said that Labour would continue deportation flights if it entered government and would never bring back freedom of movement.

He will use his speech to the Labour party conference to announce a new policy to “bring back neighbourhood policing” by installing “police hubs” in every community.

They will work with “next-generation neighbourhood watch” teams to use technology including video doorbells and WhatsApp groups to share information to crack down on antisocial behaviour.

Labour: We promise you the same dystopia the Tories are building but delivered with a thin vaguely apologetic smile and technocratic jargon in place of 70s TV references and inappropriate schoolboy Latin.3

Over at The Telegraph, Britain’s best-selling newspaper to the Covid-denying-racists-who-prefer-pubs-with-horse-brasses-to-ones-with-flat-roofs demographic, the cartoon vultures who make up the comment section are having a lovely time.

Sherelle Jacobs — the starey woman of Whitehall — writes that Keir Starmer is blowing his big chance to take the fight to Boris at last in a column that comes from the box marked “saying the right things for all the wrong reasons”. After a lede that’s hard to dispute (“Here in Brighton, a dearth of passion and ideas across the party betrays the emptiness of his vision…”) her piece descends into a classic Telegraph grab bag of stuff about “the Hard Left” and “wokeness”.

Madeline Grant (29) is seemingly ruled by the same sketch writing rules as Quentin Letts (58) with all of her references coming at the latest from the 70s and stretching back as far as Shakespeare:

Like the storm scene in King Lear, the meteorological phenomena raging outside the Brighton Centre - crashing waves and roaring wind - mirrored the elemental drama, sound and fury of the party conference within.

Labour’s Young Pretender was on manoeuvres. Bonnie Prince Andy (Burnham) wooed one packed fringe event after another, as if flirtatiously enlisting Flora McDonald to transport him from the Manchester mayoralty to Number 10.

Across the road, in The World Transformed breakaway tent, the journalist Paul Mason was lecturing a panel on “How Labour can win”. In politics terms, this was a bit like asking Lord Cardigan to advise on the proper moment to launch a Crimean cavalry charge. But so far, so Labour conference.

Her piece, so overwritten it’s practically a palimpsest (see, we can all do incredibly retro references), takes the route one line “look! Labour is arguing with itself again” as if the Tories and Lib Dems never row. The former are simply good at keeping a lid on it when elections roll around and, when the latter row, there are so few MPs that they can do it in a telephone box, unnoticed.

Gordon Rayner writes about Angela Rayner (no relation) under a headline that nods to incredible current TV character Lauren from The Catherine Tate Show (which last aired in 2007): The making of 'am I bovvered' Angela Rayner. Inevitably The Telegraph will attempt to squeeze every drop of outrage that it can out of what it’s now calling “scumgate”4 but two days in and it’s already pretty weak sauce.

Specifically on the McDonald resignation, The Telegraph goes with How frontbencher’s resignation put Sir Keir Starmer on the back foot (“…allies of Sir Keir quickly suspected that the Middlesbrough MP's statement had been carefully planned and drawn up with the help of his colleagues on the hard Left.”) and Shadow cabinet minister quits in 'hard Left attempt to undermine Sir Keir Starmer' (“Within minutes, broadcast journalists had been invited to conduct interviews with Mr McDonald, suggesting the resignation had been carefully planned.”) Curious that these details don’t turn up in stories about resignations planned by the Right, isn’t it?

The Daily Mail delights in bringing the details of every quote from the Left at the conference (Labour at WAR: John McDonnell calls party conference a 's***show'5 after Corbynite Andy McDonald quits Keir Starmer's shadow cabinet in row over minimum wage) while pretending to be appalled by each and every one. It also has a smorgasbord of other pieces on the conference, from the threat of a snap election to some more praise for Rachel Reeves (almost as if she’d be the ideal candidate to another decade of Tory rule).

The Mail’s sketchwriter, hereditary journalist Henry Deedes (grandson of Bill Deedes, cousin of Sophia Money-Coutts) also focuses on Reeves, writing:

… that shuddering bassline of a voice had deliberately been hitched a few octaves higher. Gravity always wins though. Before long she was hollering away like an out-of-tune tuba.

… having clearly cribbed some notes from former Mail man Quentin Lett’s little book of sketchwriting sexism. Meanwhile Craig Brown, Fleet Street’s funniest writer according to your weird uncle who snort laughs at bawdy postcards, contributes some truly clodhopping satire about a taxi driver (spoiler: the driver is Keir Starmer and ‘hilarity’ ensues):

I was starting to feel dizzy. At this point, Mr Starmer signalled to the path which led to the fork which led to the crossroads which led to the roundabout which led back to the fork.

But, sadly, there was still no sign of the road ahead.

A 7.16 am this morning on Today, Nick Robinson interviewed Diane Abbott about Andy McDonald’s resignation. And he took the same lines as Laura Kuenssberg established in her tweets and article:

Some of Keir Starmer’s close aides claim this is a deliberate plotted sabotage… and hey presto! There’s all sorts of photo tweets that come out the second he resigns: This is a campaign to sabotage Keir Starmer’s conference.

That phrase “Keir Starmer’s conference” says a lot about how political journalists see modern politics. It is not Labour’s conference — a coming together of the supporters and activists with its parliamentary party — but Keir Starmer’s conference — a showpiece for an individual. It is this mindset that treats MPs, not as the representatives of political movements but professionals inconvenienced by the little people who knock doors for them.

Abbott handled the ‘conspiracy’ claim well by gently pointing out that:

It is a fact that Keir Starmer did support £15-an-hour until recently and has been on protests demanding it, so it’s quite strange that he was so insistent that Andy McDonald argue with conference delegates for just £10-an-hour.

Robinson then turned to an article by Jeremy Corbyn for the i Paper:

Is Keir Starmer part of a group of people who want to “prop up the wealthy and powerful?”… the words of Jeremy Corbyn in an article for the i Paper.

Abbott replied by returning the interview to the subject of Keir Starmer, rather than Jeremy Corbyn, who Robinson was desperate to talk about…

On the question of Keir Starmer, I think we need to look at some of his top advisors. It now seems that Peter Mandelson is a top advisor for Keir Starmer…

And this is where the tactical amnesia really took hold with Robinson asking whether Peter Mandelson — who famously said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”, had to resign from the cabinet twice for scandals involving the rich and powerful, frequently holidays on the yachts of billionaires and oligarchs, turned up in Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book, and was pictured trying on belts with him — “wants to prop up the wealthy and the powerful?”

It seemed as though that was the interview’s biggest parody-defying moment but there was more to come. Delivering, as Abbott noted, a line straight from Starmer’s advisors, Robinson said:

Isn’t the true story of this conference, Diane Abbott, your faction lost two general elections, you then lost the leadership of the Labour Party. Keir Starmer has decided to roll that back — successfully — and, as they once said in Dad’s Army, “You don’t like it up you?”

This was the tactical amnesia and ignorance intensifying as Robinson pretended not to have conducted many interviews with MPs who plotted against the previous Labour leadership and ignored the ample proof that staff at Labour HQ worked against Labour during election campaigns.

Robinson’s choice of Dad’s Army quote — a line usually used by Corporal Jones when he was talking about “fuzzie wuzzies” — was particularly maladroit when talking to one of parliament’s most prominent black MPs, but I’m assured by many angry eggs and people with dogs for profile pics on Twitter that I’m just a member of the “woke brigade” and in thrall to PC nonsense (my favourite kid’s TV character) for thinking so.

In the bozo journalism heavy world of British political reporting, it’s absolutely normal to have Matt Chorley make a running joke on his show about having papped Keir Starmer eating breakfast (perhaps hoping for a new Ed’s bacon roll moment) and for allegedly serious reporters to pretend that the Labour Right is terribly principled while the Left are only ever opportunists.

Near the end of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved, the piece which was first tagged as “gonzo” by his friend Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso, he recounts a conversation with the illustrator of the piece, Ralph Steadman:

"Shit," I said. "We both look worse than anything you've drawn here." He smiled. "You know--I've been thinking about that," he said. "We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomitting on themselves and all that...and now, you know what? It's us..."

If you could live a thousand years, you’d still never witness a British political journalist exhibiting that kind of self-awareness.

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1

Particularly the wizard-like @jrc1921 who was first to pull out the pictures and footage of Starmer protesting for £15-per-hour for McDonald’s workers.

2

God forbid there should be any left-wingers in the Labour Party.

3

Of course, The Daily Telegraph has also been briefed on this red meat for the hang 'em and flog ‘em crew.

4

Is a major scandal about gates (Gategate?) what’s needed to finally kill off the -gate libfix for scandals that we’ve been stuck with since 1974?

5

A spitshow? A skitshow? A spotshow? Impossible to decode those ******* asterisks.