Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Enemy of the People

One of the conceits of pundits - journalists, broadcast commentators and bloggers such as me - is that what they say about Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn (or any other subject) makes a groat's worth of difference to public opinion.

In the course of the current General Election campaign the words and actions of the two main protagonists have probably made more difference than anything said about them by self-styled opinion formers.

Conservative Party strategists, who have made a dog's breakfast of things so far, probably won't reconsider attacking Jeremy Corbyn as the friend of anti-western terrorism after his speech on Friday night in which he urged a re-think of British foreign policy. I expect him to be portrayed as the devil incarnate, the enemy of the people, hell bent on selling out this country to those who want to destroy it (unlike Ted Heath and the European Communities Act in 1972, say)

The weakness of Mr Corbyn's otherwise reasonable argument is that British foreign policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan did not cause the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States: they preceded George W Bush's War on Terror and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, the US aided and abetted the military retreat from Afghanistan by the Soviet Union's Red Army by supplying Islamic Mujahedeen fighters such as Osama Bin Laden with tank-busting rocket-bombs and ground-to-air missiles. Bin Laden showed his gratitude by directing his holy warriors against what the Islamic Republic of Iran used to call 'The Great Satan'. The bearded one's excuse was he didn't like American-led Coalition forces camping out in Saudi Arabia, location of Islam's holiest places, prior to Operation Desert Storm.

Probably the person least surprised by the outrage expressed in the media is Jeremy Corbyn. "Everybody knows my views about nuclear weapons," he said somewhat wearily to Andrew Neil during last Friday's TV badgering interrorgation. Indeed. The general public knows that while he doesn't condone acts of terrorism he doesn't go in for the demonisation of those designated as terrorists.

This aspect of Corbynism troubles some Labour MPs and undecided voters. Even though governments usually end up doing deals with those they have called terrorists - Nelson Mandela, Martin McGuiness, Archbishop Makarios, George Washington - do we want a prime minister who has shared public platforms with Hamas and the IRA?

Demonising Corbyn, much as the hapless Michael Foot was demonised and ridiculed during the 1983 General Election campaign, is not guaranteed to shore up Tory election fortunes in general and the crumbling public esteem of Theresa May in particular. Not in the age of social media where people talk to one another instead of being talked at by pundits and politicians. Short of accusing Corbyn of treason, what else can the opposition throw at him as he goes on meeting, greeting and disarming people round the country, much as he did when campaigning for the leadership of the Labour Party?

Were I a Tory strategist I would counsel a different course. Concentrate on putting more hope and faith in our own strategy, I would say; don't risk making our chances worse by smearing the opposition. But then I would also feel obliged to advise Wonder Woman to stop bigging herself up at the expense of the party and her colleagues. Andrew Rawnsley shrewdly observed that her 'I, me, myself' approach, based on pre-election poll ratings against Jeremy Corbyn, has back-fired and Mrs 'Strong and Stable' is now regarded as Mrs 'Weak and Wobbly'.  

In years gone by the media believed that it shaped public opinion and determined the outcome of general elections. After the 1992 General Election - lost by Labour rather than won by the Conservatives - The Sun published a front-page banner headline: 'It was the Sun Wot Won it'.

Actually that claim is disputable. My view at the time was that Labour's then-leader Neil Kinnock inadvertently lost the General Election by sounding prematurely triumphalist and presdidential at a pre-election rally in Sheffield. "We're all right! We're all right! We're all right!" he announced to whooping Labour Party members. There was something of Welsh chapel conviction in Mr Kinnock's delight; but I'm sure that to the public at large he sounded presumptuous, too full of himself. A little more self-deprecation was called for.

"Well, who'd have thought it?" a surprised John Major self-deprecatingly told Conservative colleagues after the result. Like Jeremy Corbyn, the self-effacing Major had gone around the country with a soapbox and a little megaphone to address ordinary people, a strategy that appeared to be pedestrian and out-of-date at the time. But Mr Major was right. He relied on Mr Kinnock being overly impressed by favourable opinion polls and putting his foot in it.  

What is said is usually less important than how it is heard. Intentions count for nothing.

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