Alex King formerly worked in Parliament for the Policy Research Unit, and is now a public affairs consultant.
One of the most frustrating things about the 2017 General Election campaign was watching as Jeremy Corbyn seemingly became impervious to attacks on his shameful record.
As the campaign progressed (or, more appropriately, regressed), attacks on Corbyn’s previous positions began to lose impact, and almost looked churlish. It felt as though such attacks had already got the backing of as many voters as would be persuaded by them, while the swing voters the Tories desperately needed to win had tuned out such relentless negative coverage.
Besides, who could believe that a man who was appalled by the London Bridge terror attack and promised an extra 10,000 new police officers to help keep us safe was the same man who described members of terrorist organisations as his “friends”?
Readers do not need yet another recap of Corbyn’s past behaviour and comments, and any regular visitor to this site will presumably have their own favourite Corbyn anecdote. Much as there is always a Trump tweet bemoaning or criticising a problem that he himself now faces, there always seems to be a Corbyn comment which reveals the disparity between what he says now and what he ‘previously’ thought.
Nonetheless, I had still hoped that come polling day most voters would not have been able to stomach putting a man in Number 10 with such a dodgy history of tacit sympathy with those who wished and still wish Britain harm. Yet while more voters resisted than did not, not enough did so to win an outright majority.
Perhaps it was naiveté and wishful thinking to hope that Corbyn would be hoist by his own IRA and Hezbollah petard. A highly effective narrative was spun by the Labour Party machine that Corbyn was just a man who only ever wanted peace on earth and mercy mild. Complex issues that have developed over centuries couldn’t be properly distilled into damaging body blows.
Enough dust was kicked up to obfuscate the truth. Suddenly, previous calls to shut down NATO became a desire to reduce tensions on the Russia/NATO border and “support dialogue to reduce the risk of international conflict”. Sympathy with the IRA throughout the Troubles was nimbly compared with Sir Michael Fallon going on a fact-finding mission to Syria once in 2007. Secret meetings by the Government with the Sinn Fein leadership to bring an end to bloodshed and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland were suddenly morally equivalent to meeting with convicted IRA terrorists mere weeks after the Brighton bombing killed five people.
Swing voters ignored the political noise and too many chose to believe the more sympathetic version presented, of a man who consistently associated with sinners because he felt it necessary to further the cause of peace, rather than because he didn’t think they were sinning. Even now, with Corbyn’s direct involvement in Labour’s ongoing anti-Semitism row, the Party’s polling numbers remain fairly consistent. Admittedly Corbyn’s personal approval ratings are low, but this is not having the knock-on effect on Labour’s wider position in the polls that might be desired.
For any Conservative, the above is of course utterly infuriating. The initial reaction is one of righteous indignation, and a disbelief that he continues to get away with it all. But this must be resisted at all costs. Voters were not – and will not be – persuaded by blind outrage. However, neither should attacks on Corbyn’s record be abandoned altogether.
What is needed going into the next General Election campaign, whenever that may be, is the realisation that purely negative campaigning doesn’t win elections. Attacks on Corbyn’s past, just like Labour’s attacks on the Conservatives’ record on the NHS, work only to motivate the base rather than lure in new voters.
Previous Conservative attempts to scare voters into backing them at past elections haven’t worked well. Churchill’s predictions in 1945 that Labour’s socialism would introduce “some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance” was treated with disdain by the voters, just as the demonic eyes and profession of a ‘new danger’ didn’t damage Tony Blair in 1997. Voters ignored such assertions, and instead took them as indications of weakness on the part of those who suggested them.
Blair, in his autobiography, talking about how he defined politically each Tory leader he faced, wrote:
‘It’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle ground voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims. They don’t chime. They’re too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it’s more accurate and precisely because it’s more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that’s that. Because in each case, it means they’re not a good leader. So game over.’
Negativity doesn’t sell. People still want to vote for something, rather than simply against someone. However, as Blair highlights, if you can frame your opponent as something less sinister, but more undermining, that is where you can strike electoral gold.
This is why Corbyn’s past should not be disregarded as useful political fodder. Instead, Conservatives must resist painting him as a bogeyman and treat him as an absurdity. Rather than calling him an anti-semite, he should be painted as too weak to challenge the prejudice to which he has clearly been party. His past associations with ‘friends’ and ‘brothers’ in Hamas and Hezbollah should not be used as evidence of support for terrorists, but rather held up as stunning naiveté which makes him unfit to lead the country. Accusing Corbyn of spying for the enemy during the Cold War, as some wrongly attempted to do, is absurd, but finding him guilty of consistently exercising poor judgement in his associates and causes is far less so.
At the turn of the 19th Century, George Canning founded the Anti-Jacobin Magazine and Review to, among other things, pour scorn on political opponents who seemed to care more for the interests of foreign powers than for Britain. His verse The New Morality perfectly encapsulates how the Conservative Party should now be tackling their own Jacobin problem:
– No – through the extended globe his feelings run
As broad and general as the unbounded sun!
No narrow bigot he;—his reason’d view
Thy interests, England, rank with thine, Peru!
France at our doors, he sees no danger nigh,
But heaves for Turkey’s woes the impartial sigh;
A steady Patriot of the World alone,
The Friend of every Country—but his own.