In an Age of Frenzy, Jeremy Corbyn Is the Master of Slow Politics

He's placed himself in the best possible situation just by keeping his powder dry.

by Tom Whyman
12 December 2018, 5:15pm

Corbyn photo: official Westminster portrait; tortoise: Pixabay; Commons: Wikimedia Commons

There's a solid argument that the most perceptive thing written about politics in the age of 24-hour news boils down to dril's cry: "Politic's is back baby. It's good again. Awoouu (wolf Howl)." There are days, these days, when Politics happens – days of blistering turmoil and uncertainty, when you can't look away from social media for even half an hour for fear of missing what's going on.

With breaking news communicated on live blogs, every scrap of useful or relevant information is immediately buried under an avalanche of gossip and speculation; investing the time necessary to follow the news means being too exhausted to understand it at all. The world becomes a magic eye puzzle: if you can see what's going on, you're already cross-eyed. These problems are compounded by algorithmic social media feeds, which mean that around half the news will only be seen later, as an echo, in posts marked as having been made 21 hours ago. By this time, they are often no longer relevant at all.

On Monday, Theresa May announced that the vote on her Brexit deal would be scrapped at the last minute, ushering in a day of Politics so fevered that it ended with someone grabbing the parliamentary mace. Today, we woke up to the news that she would be facing a no confidence vote in her leadership – and so the Politics begins again.

I hate Politics days. There is something so grindingly sickening about them, like being forced to remain at a party you never wanted to be at in the first place. I can't read live blogs without hearing in the background a sort of horrible, thumping noise, like I'm trapped in the corner of a club.

What's especially bad about the Politics days is that, at the end of them, nothing ever seems to have changed. Every Politics day recently has seen an embattled Theresa May clinging on to her leadership; by the end, we are promised, she could be gone. And is she? Is she fuck. Theresa May is beginning to look like proof that the coyote in Road Runner really could have kept running off all those cliff edges forever, if only he had never looked down.

She should have gone after her party de facto lost the 2017 general election. I'm beginning to suspect that maybe her time did come then after all, but whichever bureaucrat of the afterlife was responsible for taking her soul didn't want it (I mean, who would?), rendering her effectively immortal by mistake. Maybe this evening she'll lose the no confidence vote and go. But if the pattern holds, she'll be standing there outside Downing Street, assuring us, after another day of posturing and chaos, that nothing has changed. And even if she does lose the vote, well... will that get us any closer to a better world? One form of chaotic inertia will simply be replaced with another.

Amid this pandemonium, Labour are emerging as masters of Slow Politics.

What should Labour's stance on Brexit be? Either that they run the negotiations and secure a Brexit deal that won’t ruin their plans to democratise large parts of the economy. Failing that, they should use May's failures as an excuse to scrap the thing entirely, and avoid the economic hardship of a Tory Brexit. To do either, Labour need to secure a general election.

Under the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a general election could be triggered by a vote of no confidence in the government. Given how incompetent the Tories are currently proving, that doesn't seem like a totally unrealistic goal.

If May wins today's vote, she will have another 12 months grace in which she can continue to fuck everything up, while making increasingly unconvincing announcements saying she's doing an amazing job. Even to certain Tories, that might seem unpalatable.

Given the mathematics of the current parliament, this could be the only way that Labour is able to get the support it needs to topple May's government with a vote of no confidence, because they're going to need some disgruntled Conservatives on board. It feels counterintuitive, but Corbyn probably needs May to win the vote among her fellow Tories today. That way, he could have a shot at winning a vote of no confidence in her government, voted for by the whole of Parliament.

Sit back, wait for the Politics to happen. Let the Tories screw themselves over once again and strike at the right time.

But what are Corbyn's critics doing? Urging him to throw himself into The Politics wholeheartedly, of course. Yesterday, there were repeated calls for Labour to force a confidence vote in May's government – from the Labour right, the SNP, even Tory Remainer Anna Soubry. At times, these calls were baffled in their incomprehension: why won't Jeremy Corbyn do it? Well, maybe because he doesn't want to accidentally unite the Tories behind a Prime Minister when they're just about to open up a yawning internal schism? Just something to think about, lads.

Early on in Corbyn's leadership, I remember his alleged "slowness" to respond to news events was considered by journalists as a sign of weakness: that because his office couldn't dash out statements at the same frantic pace everyone in the media was used to, that must be a sign he wasn't up to the job. But of course, there was always an element in this of enthusiasts sneering at an outsider for not sharing the same nerdish interest in their hobby. Most people are not waiting on tenterhooks on Twitter feeds, hanging on for slip-ups at Prime Minister's Questions; quite frankly, unless you do this for a living, you probably don't have time. The general public are unlikely to consider it an essential quality of any brilliant leader to be able to respond to every little thing in real time.

And now, amid the chaos, Corbyn's slowness, his caution, is proving perhaps his greatest strength.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, there was a case for saying his position looked as impossible as May's does now – perhaps even worse, so divided was his party. But somehow, Corbyn has manoeuvred himself into a position where he could now be the man to save the country from the Brexit mess the Tories have devised. If he pulls this off, Corbyn – naïve old duffer, pottering around his allotment with his marrows – has to go down as one of the most brilliant Machiavellian political minds of his time. And all because he chilled out and refused to get sucked into the frenzy.