Labour’s task for 2020: don’t get mad, get even | Gaby Hinsliff

Boris Johnson is ringing in the new year tonight in the Caribbean, and not just any old bit of the Caribbean either.

The man who ordered ministers not to go to Davos for fear that they might look elitist hanging out with tycoons on the ski slopes is reportedly holed up with his girlfriend on the privately held island of Mustique. It must have been hard to tear himself away the pool long enough to tweet once again about wanting to “level up and unite our country” in 2020, but somehow our prime minister managed it.

Angry yet? Well, don’t be. Because this whole episode illustrates something important about how to fight Boris Johnson, and it’s knowing when not to waste your breath.

Yes, all this smacks of hypocrisy from a man who boasts of leading a people’s government. And clearly gestures like honouring Iain Duncan Smith add insult to injury for many (although it remains remarkable, in some ways, that Duncan Smith, who ultimately resigned from government over planned cuts to disability benefits, still takes more heat for it than George Osborne did for insisting on those cuts). But put bluntly, that is what winning an election with a majority of 80 means.

It is what Johnson bought himself the freedom to do, when he went shamelessly all out for victory, and it’s the perfect illustration of why prizing sterile ideological purity over actually winning elections is ultimately self-defeating. If you don’t like what Johnson is doing with the power he has accumulated for himself then the answer is working out what it takes to win that power back, not raging against every provocative decision while refusing to engage with the root cause of them, which is Labour’s inability lately to win elections.

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For this is what it feels like to lose, and the left needs to absorb the enormity of it; to stand still just long enough to understand that it doesn’t ever want to feel like this again, and to use that knowledge to regenerate with humility and insight. Jeremy Corbyn’s own new year message, pitching himself as leader of the resistance, may well be comforting to supporters feeling desperate about the prospect of another five (or maybe 10, at this rate) years of Tory government. But it’s winning Labour should be aiming for, not protesting, and in that context there seems something faintly surreal about insisting that “we are by the many, for the many” so soon after the many voted Conservative in rather greater numbers. This message was aimed at encouraging the faithful to dig in and fight, rather than reaching out to the unconverted, yet the one thing we know now about the faithful is that there weren’t enough of them to win.

Of course defeat doesn’t mean the opposition somehow should refrain from opposing, or defending that which needs to be defended. But this is going to be a long march back to power during which Labour will need to preserve energy, form alliances and pick its battles. Arguments which slid off Johnson during the election are if anything even less likely to stick when he’s at the height of his powers, which means this time can be better used thinking hard about why they didn’t work first time round.

A new prime minister’s honeymoon doesn’t last for ever, and that presumably is one reason he’s getting the exotic holidays in now. If the Brexit negotiations go as badly as some fear they will, then by the middle of this parliament Johnson might be lucky to get away with a wet weekend in Norfolk. But for now he has a free pass on visibly enjoying himself partly because he doesn’t attempt to apologise for what he is – no skulking around Cornwall pretending he wouldn’t rather be abroad, unlike his predecessors – but chiefly because he’s reaping the rewards of success. He identified what target voters wanted, promised it to them, and crucially has not yet had time to fail to deliver; until one of those three things changes, then shaking a fist at the sky might make everyone feel better but isn’t likely to achieve much.

And while anger can be a great motivator it can also slide all too easily into becoming displacement activity, a means of avoiding the hard truths lining the road back to power. Labour’s task now is not to get mad. It is, instead, to get even.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist


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