I keep seeing people – usually on the twitter – who believe or behave as if they believe the following two things:
- Media bias is the dominating fact of British politics
- The Labour party should always seek confrontation with the media
Well, there’s a strong case for the first point, but if you believe that, there are only two situations where you can also believe the second. The first is if you think we can, as a matter of routine, win the confrontations. In this case, logically enough, the expected value of each confrontation is positive and there’s every reason to take every opportunity to score off them. The second is if you think that even if the expected value of each fight is negative, we can afford to initiate them and lose, because the costs are worse for the opposition.
The first is a strategy of seeking decisive battle because you know you’re the stronger party, the second is a strategy of attrition. Even if the individual battles are horrible, the other lot are going to be worn down until they crack through exhaustion, so it’s worth it. They’re valid arguments, provided you’re either capable of winning the individual fights as a matter of course, or that you can afford to suffer until you outlast the opposition.
I would draw a distinction here between just confrontation-seeking for its own sake and the kind of thing Bob Crow used to do so well. The whole point of the Crow strategy was to get the man himself interviewed and heard, unfiltered, as often as possible, and also to use media outrage as a means of communicating to the people he most needed to convince, potential RMT members who needed to hear that he would defend their personal interests. Other channels were available to either rile up, or calm down, the existing membership. And in any case the press couldn’t stop him closing the tube until the management gave him what he wanted.
In 1943, the Royal Navy stopped trying to route convoys of ships around the German wolfpacks in favour of deliberately seeking confrontation. The strategy worked; although the loss rate spiked in the short term, we could afford it, and the attrition of the German submarine force was savage. Their effectiveness collapsed and never recovered. The reason why this decision was taken was that the escort force had become much stronger in numbers, had developed much better technology, and had refined its tactics, while the Allied side could afford to lose ships. It was worth making every convoy into a battle, but only for these reasons. A year earlier would have been a disastrous massacre.
If you think it’s worthwhile seeking confrontation in general, you need to look to either how you’re going to win the confrontations – to maximise the impact on the opposition – or else, how you’re going to a) limit the damage to your own side and b) create a big enough reserve of whatever resource you’re spending to win the campaign by attrition. There are a lot of options. Picking your battles is one; retaining heavy lawyers and seeking an opportunity to suebomb somebody is another. (In fact those aren’t even mutually exclusive.) So is a Crow strategy, an emphasis on building alternative channels, or something else I’ve not thought of.
I can see why people might think this. There were several occasions in the Corbyn years when plunging head-on into them seemed to work astonishingly well (the aftermath of the terrorist attack during the 2017 campaign being the classic case), but the problem here is whether it’s possible to generate the same circumstances on demand, or rather, whether plunging ahead in the hope of the same thing happening is worth the negative impact. Rather than Frederic Walker leading the way into the wolfpacks, we might be General Melchett trying to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.
As a rule if someone is talking attrition it’s probably a good idea to know if you’re likely to become the attrition, and one thing I would be very careful about is exposing individual activists or indeed office-holders to our horrible press.