A Publicly Private Word: Labour, Marshal Foch on Football, and The Tidal Force of Polls and Poker

I have a pen-pal in the Shadow Cabinet, a bond having been forged during the upheavals of the PLP’s failed rising against Jeremy Corbyn. Ever since, on a irregular basis I have shared observations drawn from the experience of years spent fighting elections as a Liberal Party apparatchik in Canada. Please do not try playing ‘guess the pol.’ I am calling my friend Jane, but that is neither a hint as to name or gender. The following began as an email until it started to grow to the point that first, it is too long to deal with for any politician working the phones, doorsteps and all those church teas; and also that these thoughts might actually deserve a wider audience. If music be the food of love, play on; if politics be the drink of dreams, read on.

Dear Jane

Well now, the battle is surely well engaged and I find that the rather serene calm I’ve felt since Elizabeth May broke her six times spoken promise to not plunge Britain into a snap election was and is well-founded. As I read this morning (Sunday, May 21) that the polls indicate the Tories’ lead is down to single digits over Labour, I smiled. Nine points down with less than three weeks to go?

Two quotes come to mind. The first is rather well-known, a battle order of Marshal Ferdinand Foch regarding the First Battle of the Marne: ‘Mon centre cède, ma droite recule, situation excellente, j’attaque,’ or, ‘My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation is excellent, I am attacking.’ Hold onto that thought for a moment, as we shall turn back to it in a moment.

That second quote comes from football, that interpretive dance of two sides replicating both war and politics with a ball and nets. ‘A two-nil lead is the most dangerous score.’ As a matter of trivia, that observation was popularized by the Czech football coach and pundit Josef Csaplár, to the point that the ominous threat of the 2-0 score is known around Prague as Csaplár’s trap.

Regarding the latter, like many a commonly held idea it is utter nonsense when faced with facts. Football teams holding 2-0 leads at halftime only lose about two per cent of the time. And yet, like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, some people persist in believing in it. I suppose that is quite a good thing for stadium operators as if the assembled thousands all agreed that the outcome was determined after forty-five minutes the sales of pies and Bovril would dry up to nothing and the television cameras would have nothing to show in the stands but empty chairs and the occasional discarded program fluttering through the deserted aisles. But enough about Sunderland.

TLE The London Economic

Foch’s boastful confidence is more on the mark for this election. The center has given way and the right is in retreat. As you know Jane, I’ve felt from the start that if Jeremy and John (McDonnell) could somehow voice a clear message to the electorate, state Labour’s policies in calm, decisive terms that there were votes to be won out there. Calm people’s fears (which admittedly in turn reminds them of their fears – oh we do practice a dark magic here) and address their needs, make the possible dream have a path to probability; such has been the path to electoral success ever since Pericles nodded thoughtfully at a pensioner describing his recent hip operation.

What I did not anticipate was the Lib-Dems gaining absolutely no traction at all. UKIP vanishing (‘the right is in retreat’) is no surprise as UKIP was never really there to begin with. It was a figment of David Cameron’s nightmares, like a bad kebab swallowed down after midnight, Nigel Farage as the dragon formed of shadows cast by waving branches between the moonlight and bedroom wall. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly.

As to the Lib-Dems though, I truly did think that there was profit to be found amongst the Remainers. One half or even one-third of that famous 48 per cent could or even should, if concentrated, result in thirty-ish elected MPs. And yet, there they are at eight or nine percent which given the margin of error means that Tim Farron’s party has neither gained nor lost an inch of ground since the writ was called. The center has given way.

In hindsight we all have 20-20 vision (I’m just full of the nostrums today, eh? Just call me Nostrumdamus.) however if I had thought it through to a deeper level my initial advice to you and the Labour team should have foreseen this. If you recall, I suggested that Labour should not so much address Brexit as a whole but rather a sum of many parts. The British people are not fools, no matter how often the Tories assume them to be just that. Even the Leavers knew deep down inside that the UK was not going to just sail off into the future on a sort of economic cruise liner with hors d’oeuvres and complimentary champagne served nightly on the Lido Deck. Rather, there would be much pulling at the ropes, mending of the sails, and for Chrissake can someone keep watch for whales and icebergs?!? Easy voyage? Not on your nelly.

Still, the voyage is underway and what people want to know is, after all the sunburns and sore muscles are treated and soothed, just where is this ship landing? To retreat now would be like Columbus spotting the Bahamas then ordering his crew to turn the ship around because he’s left something burning on the stove. Between us Jane, Farron’s suggestion of a ‘second opinion referendum’ is governmentally wise, yet electorally exhausting. The effect is like someone sitting in a gym dressing room, exhausted and sweating after a rigorous work-out, only to have his doctor walk in the room and tell him he could really do with losing some weight. You can imagine the earthy, heartfelt, colourful response.

And so, the Labour manifesto exists as a guide to what the future can truly be. It doesn’t avoid Brexit – how could it? – but it phrases the future in terms of what the UK can actually control, can actually accomplish. Fix the transportation system, fund the NHS, give the children proper schools, and of course the devolution scheme is one I have personally advocated since I arrived here on ‘the good side of the Atlantic’ some five years ago.

The best of it is that now that Elizabeth May and the Tories seem not quite so inevitable in victory, there will be a rush by media and pub stool pundits to be first in explaining how they blew the election, even though we are still weeks away from the first votes cast. That is the true tidal force of polls. Once they turn, they bring the sharks with them.

I’m not much of a gambler, Jane. (thinking, remembering long nights at backgammon boards and poker tables) Well, maybe take that back. I am much of a gambler. Were I to lay the situation out like a Texas Hold ‘Em hand after the flop, I’d give Labour a Q-10 off suit in hole cards. That’s where the Party started, in a weak yet not impossible situation. The next three cards give us A-Q-J. A pair of Queens one would have to assume is second pair to the opponent’s Aces. Still, a third Queen, a King or a Jack out of the two remaining cards to be shown will make for a powerful three (or even four!) of a kind, or a straight. There are ten potentially winning cards out of forty-seven, a 21 per cent chance, roughly one-in-five.

How should Labour play the hand? Definitely raise, show strength, unnerve the opponent. As we now have evidence that people like our Manifesto, now we have to show them that Jeremy is capable of taking it to the finish line. One thing we have definitely seen proven over the last two years and two leadership battles is that Jeremy Corbyn knows how to protect a lead when he has one. Nine points behind the Tories is not a lead, but it needs to be portrayed as though it is a lead. The word ‘if’ must not be spoken unless one is really in the mood to quote Kipling’s poem. Rather, the message is all about ‘when.’

We’ll know the outcome when the next set of polls drop next weekend. If the Tory lead narrows by even one more point – ideally two, or in a miracle worthy of a great religion, three – to use an American sports phrase, ‘We got this.’ That will be the equivalent of one of those ten possible winning cards turning up on the Turn. Turn of cards, turn of polls, turn of fortune, turn of the wheel of this great ship of state.

One last quote for you my good friend. Some twenty-five years ago I heard a piece of brilliant political prognostication. Mario Cuomo was perhaps the best President the United States never had. He was the Governor or New York, definitely on the left wing of the Democratic Party, urbane, educated, eloquent … and an Italian Catholic so he never stood a chance and so never stood for the nomination as President. That did not make him any less observant.

At the time, President George H.W. Bush was riding high in the polls, near a 90 per cent approval rating, having led a more-or-less sensible war against Saddam Hussein in that he knew when and where to end it. Heading into the 1992 election, Bush the Elder and the Republican Party seemed as unassailable as, well, Elizabeth May and the Tories. In July of 1991, Cuomo went on a national television interview and was asked his opinion of the forthcoming campaign and I have never ever forgotten his response.

“What will the President’s slogan be when he runs?” Mr. Cuomo asked on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” “You know what it’s going to have to come out to? I won the war; the other guy’s a bum.”

Sixteen months later, Bill Clinton was elected President, making Bush along with Jimmy Carter the only incumbent Presidents to be defeated since the Great Depression.

The Tories’ record is paper-thin and the paper is damp and tearing. School lunches out, fox hunting in; a hidden estate tax in, fair funding for the NHS out. What is the May manifesto? ‘I will win Brexit, the other guy’s a bum.’

Jane? We got this. Keep fighting the good fight. We shall overcome.



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