Liam Young and Guileless Political Optimism

This is a guest post by James Snell

Something is happening to opinion journalism. Never an entirely reputable business in any case, the format has witnessed a severe degradation in recent years. Doubtless the proliferation of new media and social media – where everyone can and must have an opinion on everything, with the most extreme and partisan voices often emerging as the most popular – has something to do with this. It has made household names of a few nobodies, but it has done more than that: it has given hope of similar advancement to a whole crowd of mediocre would-be writers.

This is both fascinating and dispiriting in equal measure, and it is in many ways an important indicator of how bad things will get in the near future. By this I mean the ways in which journalism has become not an activity engaged in the seeking out of truth but an exercise in expressing pre-existing ideological stances and satisfying every interested party that their opinion, no matter how tedious or valueless, is being respected and represented on the national stage.

In particular this trend concerns the existence of certain people – most of them very young and on the political Left – who write about politics with a guileless enthusiasm and tribal loyalty, normally defending figures like Ed Miliband and latterly Jeremy Corbyn from any and all criticism. And the tactics they employ in pursuit of the aforementioned are almost painful in their naïveté.

A pertinent example of this trend is Liam Young, whose remarkably upbeat and optimistic (and notably idiotic) assessments of Corbyn’s troubled time in office have made an appearance – and have been seen by many incredulous readers – in the Independent and New Statesman. Every development – be it a disappointing set of local election results, or a rocky first hundred days as leader of the party – is given a positive gloss. Every setback is a triumph, every action a decisive step forwards, every piece a rave.

Young’s case is both interesting and infuriating because of his apparent lack of any nuance or subtlety. He does not seem to be terribly bright. (Indeed, that appears to be his primary trait as a writer.) The inherent goodness and heroism of a figure like Corbyn has already been proven to young men of this frame of mind; the job therefore remains to convince everyone else of the guy’s nobility – and to do so in the most hyperbolic and reactive way possible.

It cannot be avoided that Young and those like him are so partisan in their outlook, so distorted in their perspective, that for them the whole political landscape becomes definable in light of how others react to their chosen political figure, who assumes a strangely and uniquely virtuous character in their eyes. There’s no getting away from it, and in many ways this love-in (for this is what it resembles) degenerates to a frankly embarrassing extent; the thing becomes an exercise in personal veneration. By some way of illustration, Young’s pieces notably – and in my view childishly – refer to Corbyn as ‘Jeremy’ throughout.

More humorously, it could be argued that Liam Young and others of the same type could only be either true believers or have a genius for self-promotion. The latter, though it is galling, would at least explain the utter devotion with which they ingratiate themself with what is clearly a losing side. I would raise the stakes even further: he is either a brilliant, cynical opportunist or an idiot. There are no other options.

This analysis could, of course, also apply to other Left-wingers in a similar mould, such as the ‘Milifans’ who sought to protect Ed Miliband from what they saw as unduly unpleasant criticism from the media. (That anyone who seeks to categorise ‘media’ opinion in general or allege some bias against a chosen political figure is usually either a crank or an emotional child ought to be borne in mind.) This group of people – whose sole frame of reference appeared to come from music and celebrity ‘fandoms’ – thought it was just so unfair that poor old Ed was being criticised for his awkward manner and unpopularity with voters that they decided to do something about it: they resolved to start an ineffectual campaign on Twitter, where all the best political minds and most important people habitually hang out. Aside from some lame coverage – most of which, it should be noted, found the whole thing utterly hilarious – the net result of this parading of affection for a mediocre Leader of the Opposition was annoying your humble servant and giving a few largely talentless teens a brief career writing sub-par op-eds for The Guardian.

Like Young these people had no guile; like him, they were little more than spectators to events of importance; like him they were both pitifully ineffective and righteously angry about it. What both groups seem to lack – even taking into account some of the unfunny efforts at photo manipulation, which pictured Miliband as an unlikely and unappealing romantic hero – is a sense of irony, and a belief that somehow the political figures they venerate could be wrong.

It is the utter lack of critical engagement with the stuff of politics on a day to day level which makes this form of advocacy so tedious. Only one side – only one man – has principles; the others must not care about the disabled, or the poor, or the ordinary voters. Practicality and compromise are unimportant; the fact, for example, that Corbyn and his allies are fundamentally and essentially inept – and that Miliband lacked the substance to win, as well as the character – is immaterial to these people. Not only is the perfect the enemy of the good, but Corbyn and his like are always perfect, always right, and always noble.

This sort of political perspective is fundamentally unserious; it is also an act of self-denigration. To become nothing more than a guileless spokesman of an unsuccessful politician – and a useful if untalented advocate of an unpopular position, who can be patronised in aid of balance – is not heroic; it is not brave. One hopes such people will eventually grow up and realise this particular truth.