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In the early days of Corbynism, Labour was routinely struck by the inconvenience of being challenged over things its leaders said and believed. The stock response – denouncing any negative coverage as a “smear”, even when it was based on on-the-record comments and confirmed facts – worked among the Absolute Boy’s core support, but had only limited power among the rest of the electorate.
In time, the Opposition developed a new approach to difficult issues on which the views of Corbyn, McDonnell et al might prove to be an electoral problem: try to avoid them. Corbyn’s general reputation as an alternative of some sort was more appealing than the specifics of what he was actually proposing on security, economics, international relations and so on. Indeed, if the Labour Party simply avoided telling people what it believed, some people would even be willing to project their assumptions of what they hoped it stood for onto the proffered blank canvas. So deliberate ambiguity was born.
The most famous example of the strategy, of course, is on Brexit. Corbyn spent decades as an ardent Eurosceptic in the Bennite tradition, to the extent that some still suspect he might have voted Leave in the privacy of the polling booth (something he denies). When the referendum came, he officially supported Remain, although Tim Shipman’s account of the campaign reveals that the Labour Party – and Seamus Milne in particular – were deeply uncooperative and unhelpful to their supposed allies at Stronger In. Since the Leave victory, Labour has tried to cultivate an impression among both supporters and opponents of Brexit that it is on their side.
This strategy is a dishonest one, of course, but it might be effective in some quarters. Rather than try to answer the question of how a deliberately extreme Labour Party can build a winning coalition, it simply circumvents the issue, in the hope that by the time people find out the Party they voted for is actually going to do the opposite of what they were allowed to assume, they will be in power anyway.
I tend to the view that trying to trick people normally ends in failure, for the good reason that voters are sensible and the truth will out in a democracy with a free press (coincidentally, guess which party is attempting to restrict media freedom).
In the meantime, the approach brings with it some other problems. How can Labour develop and communicate new policies if its electoral strategy is to avoid telling people the full detail of what it wants to do? The mood-music of Corbynism might carry them so far, for a while, but over the longer haul in Opposition people understandably have questions about how they are responding to events, moving the debate about the future of the country on, and so on. May’s snap election was a boon to Labour in that sense, allowing them to fight an election before the mantras had lost their shine, but a longer Parliament this time round could well stretch that material extremely thin.
I’ve written before on ConservativeHome about the challenges facing the Conservative Party in building a culture in which we can debate and develop new policies while in government. That issue remains, but it’s worth remembering Labour have issues of their own on this front. They are trying to develop a response – for example, Richard Burgon’s “ARISE” event, scheduled for July, which bills itself as “A Festival of Labour’s Left ideas”. That sounds rather like George Freeman’s “Big Tent”, but I do wonder if they will succeed in finding room for proper discussion amid a strategy of remaining tight-lipped and a culture of obedience to the leader.