On the night of 6 January, I was sitting on a train back from London to my constituency; an appropriate day, perhaps, for me to have an epiphany. Reading an article on the excellent fivethirtyeight blog, Nate Silver cut through to the core of why mainstream right-wingers in America have proved unable to find a means of attacking Donald Trump that resonates: “Trump is such a target-rich environment that it’s a bit like an airplane spewing out chaff. Becomes hard to know what you’re really aiming for.”
That’s it! Exchange the word ‘Trump’ for ‘Corbyn’ in the above quote, and you’ll see what I’ve been battling with on a daily basis since Corbyn became leader. Everywhere we look, there’s a target. Do I attack Corbyn for his failure to control the Labour Parliamentary party? For his personal conduct over national anthems and suchlike? For his links to unsavoury organizations? For his utter naïveté as summed up by reading aloud the directions on the autocue? Nothing wrong with naïveté so long as you’re not auditioning for the job of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Do I attack him for such an appalling choice of shadow cabinet: a farming minister who wants to make eating meat socially unacceptable, a unilateralist and deeply unpatriotic defence secretary, a shadow chancellor whose opportunity to put Cameron under the grill turned into opprobrium for himself as he quoted Mao’s Little Red Book? Maybe I should look at his past views on IRA terrorism, or the views of his closest advisers? Or closer to home, the apparent sacking of a shadow minister who said that terrorists are responsible for their actions? This paragraph is getting longer and longer, spiralling out of control as one unmissable point after another springs to mind.
The convicted arsonist appointed to the top team in the Lords…and there I go again. I can’t help myself. Corbyn is SO bad that selecting material to attack him isn’t easy. A scattergun approach doesn’t work. The best political approach is usually to focus on one thing, almost to the exclusion of all else. But with Corbyn it is the totality that is the problem. How can you convey all of the above in a soundbite? A fog descends; uncertainty creeps in. Which of the many problems with Corbyn do I highlight? Others will take a different view to me; there’s so much to go at that it’s uncoordinated and patchy. If Corbyn had only done half as much wrong he might perversely be even more vulnerable.
There it is again; now I have the urge, for the sake of completeness, to add Corbyn’s ‘newer, kinder form of the politics’ to the list – which has been drowned in a torrent of abuse. From McDonnell’s deeply unpleasant remarks about my party, to Labour MPs blocking each other on Twitter. Whilst writing this article, I’ve noticed his denigrating remarks about teachers, suggesting that they just ‘have to stay one chapter ahead of the class in the textbook’. An abundance of ill-conceived quotes should make Trump easy to attack too. But how do you convey that message to the general public, if you’re an establishment right-winger stuck in the Washington DC clique? Just as they’re gearing up to attack Trump over his comments about women, allegations about his personal life arise. Then there’s comments about Mexican immigrants and rape, an appalling attitude to Ebola, comments about Muslims and so on. The target keeps moving.
Both Corbyn and Trump deservedly generate negative headlines. Die-hard supporters elevate ‘their man’ simultaneously to the level of a saint, and the role of a martyr being crucified by the evil media. Yet the media is merely doing its job. Neither has had a career in frontline politics. A strange thing to say perhaps about Corbyn, who’s been a politician for decades. But Corbyn hasn’t engaged with the establishment of the Labour Party in that time. He has been a campaigner for various niche causes, railing against the establishment on matters of his own conscience.
It’s commendable enough in a way, but it doesn’t train you for the pitfalls of leadership. Corbyn and Trump are both feeling their way through the intricate maze of high-level politics for the first time. They both make rookie mistakes; they both inevitably generate more negative headlines than they would even for their somewhat eccentric views. The negative headlines they attract aren’t some kind of media conspiracy, but a byproduct of them not fully understanding the level of politics they’re operating at.
Put a striker who’s played his whole career at Conference level into the Premier League, and he’ll be found out. Maybe not on natural ability but on fitness, on tactical understanding, positioning and all the things that make one league far more professional than the other. It takes time and dedicated training for the aspiring footballer to avoid such errors.
Likewise, Corbyn and Trump need to surround themselves with wiser heads, steeped in experience of the mechanics of government. But they don’t; Corbyn appointed Seumas Milne. And yet, once in a blue moon, a Conference side will spring a major upset in the FA Cup, knocking out a Premier League side along the way. That doesn’t mean they’re going to win. Likewise, Corbyn and Trump will have the occasional success. Corbyn won the Labour leadership. Trump might get the Republican nomination. Neither though is capable of winning a General Election. The final parallel? Corbyn fans and Trump fans will both hate this article. Each consider the other’s man to be an incoherent buffoon.
This column was originally published on EU Reporter and you can read it here.