• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Jeremy Corbyn. Photo/Getty Images

Jeremy Corbyn's strategy of delusion

As plot twists go, the retreat by Labour loyalists into Tory arms is worthy of Star Wars.

Most forecasters predicted that the Conservatives, under Boris Johnson, would win the general election. No one anticipated the size of the victory.

Perhaps the reason for that was because pundits, observers, commentators and the whole media class tend to live in London. And London, it turns out, is another country that has little to do with the rest of the UK, and even less to do with the rest of England. London voted Labour.

What happened on December 12 was seismic. It wasn’t just that Johnson, repeatedly exposed for his tenuous relationship with the truth, managed to pull off a historic victory. It’s also that the Labour Party – up against an unpopular Conservative government seeking a fourth term after a decade of austerity – was utterly routed. This was its worst performance since the 1930s.

Labour had presented the country with a radical manifesto, which promised widespread nationalisation and lots of government-supported free things, and the party believed the public couldn’t get enough. When asked if they would like free broadband, many people did indeed answer in the affirmative.

But who doesn’t want free broadband? The question is, do you believe that the government will be able to pay for it? The answer was a resounding no. Yet Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn drew a different conclusion. “We won the argument,” he said afterwards, “but I regret we didn’t convert that into a majority for change.”

As a friend of mine put it, “Back in the 1990s, I won the argument that Salma Hayek should be my girlfriend. I regret that I wasn’t able to convert this into any actual dates.”

Delusion has become a political strategy.

Labour preferred to blame the defeat on Brexit – where its policy was weak and confusing – rather than on its leader, who was also weak and confusing. As a consequence of both factors, a huge chunk of the Labour heartland in the north of the country, a region that has voted Labour since World War II, turned to the dreaded Conservatives. Imagine if the rebels in Star Wars suddenly favoured the Empire, and you might get some idea of what’s happened in the north of England.

The Labour Party is no longer the party of the working class. The Conservatives are. At least that’s what the numbers say. The party that once prided itself on representing miners, steel workers and the like is now the party of young metropolitans.

If government was about stirring up support on social media and getting the crowd to shout your name at the Glastonbury Festival, Corbyn would now be sitting in Downing Street, and no doubt busying himself with a new foreign policy on 

Venezuelan solidarity. But, alas, politics is about capturing the imagination of people from all classes and walks of life.

For all his faults, and for all his untrustworthiness, Johnson was able to do that. Now, of course, he’s got to put his promises into action.

Never a stickler for detail, he will now have to negotiate the UK out of the European Union and negotiate new trade deals with the rest of the world. It’s a massive undertaking, fraught with traps and setbacks.

The most difficult task of all will be reuniting this divided nation. Scotland may want to secede from the Union and Northern Ireland isn’t far behind. The North, meanwhile, feels neglected and resents the wealth and influence of London.

However, Johnson has the great advantage of leading a government. Labour will learn nothing if it tells itself that it won a moral victory. Without power, policies are just so much discarded paper.

This article was first published in the January 4, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.