I wrote on Wednesday about why it was probably a good idea for Jeremy Corbyn to have sung the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service. I got a lot of grief on social media, of the sort I could have predicted beforehand, about how it was his personal choice, etc. The whole thing reminded me of what scares me most about the age we live in, post-GE 2015.
The most basic thing about political strategy, from wherever you are coming from, is don’t let your opponents choose the field of battle. If you do that, you’ve lost from the start. For instance, if you’re going to debate Nigel Farage on the European Union, don’t kick off with something about immigration. That’s where he wants to go, so that will suit him. Instead, ask about what a post-EU Britain looks like. Do Britons really want to be like Switzerland? Isn’t Britain a world leader, not a nation that remains neutral on everything?
So the problem is mostly about picking your battles. You hear a lot from the Left now about how many of the things that Corbyn advocates for are popular with the public at large. Re-nationalisation of railways, for instance. Yes, I think that if you could show the public that re-nationalising the trains was both cost effective and would result in a better service, they would go along with it fully. But that wouldn’t be because they like nationalisation per se, just that given the railways are natural monopolies anyhow (only one train can run on the track at any given time), many would be open to this idea, again if it was in their interests. If it seems like Part One of a plan to mass re-nationalise industry, then they will recoil in horror. So again, the terms of the debate are crucial.
Many of the things Corbyn is in favour of happen to not be popular with the public and are in fact, very toxic. Like withdrawing from NATO, having more pro-immigration policies and the abolition of the monarchy. That’s why Corbyn not singing the anthem was such a bad idea: he was placing the battle on the Tories terms there for no gain whatsoever.
The support for the Tories is soft – even in England. A huge number I think vote Conservative by default, mostly because they are scared of what the alternative is. So this is isn’t what the Tories faced in the first decade of the 21st century, when moving Labour out of office was just impossible for a whole list of both positive and negative reasons. I think a lot of people would like an alternative to the Conservatives – but it would have to be something that wasn’t personally threatening. Something that was inspiring yet sensible sounding.
So I think there is a whole agenda waiting to be enacted that could challenge Tory hegemony in a serious way. But where the Left are pitching things presently has no hope of succeding. For a start, one of the things I think will kill Corbyn isn’t policy so much as his whole basic approach to politics. He has the natural outlook of the outsider: someone who sees politics as a constant confrontation with the status quo. But that isn’t how oppositions become governments; they do so by imposing the idea that they know how to do things better than the current government onto the public consciousness. That they are a sort of government in exile, waiting to take over from the lot who are running things into the ground. Labour will never win again unless they can turn this trick – at the moment, they are not even trying to.
So yes, the press was focusing on something silly and insignificant in regards to the subject of whether or not Jeremy sung the national anthem on Tuesday. But they will continue to focus on that stuff – on terms not of Corbyn’s choosing in other words – so long as he lets them do so. Thus far, I’m afraid he doesn’t show any signs that he understands this basic principle. And that the British public will not allow you into government if you see yourselves as the outsiders.