There’s a saying, echoed throughout seedy backroom card games on the silver screen: ‘play the man, not the cards.’ In essence, it’s a commentary on the inherent weaknesses of the human psyche, delivered under the guise of gambling advice. The idea is that, no matter the game situation, it is a player’s character that will ultimately guide his actions. Therefore one should always use ‘the man’ as a catalyst for action, as opposed to ‘the cards.’ It is a principle that is all too easily transposed into the political sphere. American elections inevitably find themselves mired in a litany of ‘attack ads,’ with candidates telling the electorate why they shouldn't vote for the opposition, as opposed to championing their own qualities. It’s the most negative form of politicking there is, designed to scare voters into casting their ballot in your direction. It is also, unfortunately, all too often successful.
The Conservatives should do everything they can to avoid being dragged into the muck of negative politics. I say that, not in aid of some rosy vision of Tory government, but because negativity brings with it the genuine risk of ceding the centre ground to Labour. With Jeremy Corbyn all but confirmed as the MiliSuccessor, the Conservatives are no doubt licking their lips at the prospect of such an easy target. Nary a week passes without another Corbyn gaffe coming to light, be it his ‘friends’ of spurious allegiances or his proclamation that the manner of Bin Laden’s death was a ‘tragedy.’ Let’s face it, the man is a cross between a BBC3 satire on Leftism and a spin doctor’s worst nightmare. Easy pickings, then, for an ascendant Tory Party eager to give their old rivals a good kicking while they’re down.
Unfortunately, although thoroughly entertaining, that would be an error. The Corbyn leadership will go one of two ways. Either Labour will unite behind him, or their more sensible, Centrist MPs will engage in some degree of rebellion. In the first scenario, party unity will come at the cost of including the likes of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt in the shadow cabinet. That will require policy concessions from Corbyn and his cohorts, leading to a Labour party that can - gradually - regain political credibility. It also would give them some front-benchers with gravitas; heavy-hitters who are able to land body blows on the Conservatives. In that situation, for the government to go down the route of mockery and dismissiveness that a Corbyn leadership invites would be disastrous. By focusing on the shortcomings of the Leader of the Opposition, they would take their eye off the multitude of political balls they have in the air (EU, immigration, Calais, welfare etc), allowing Labour to score cheap points against them and affording them a way back into the hearts of Centrist voters.
The same rings true for a Labour Party torn asunder by civil war: attacking Corbyn for his fantastical policies and inability to keep his house in order would validate the efforts of the Blairite breakaways. With no shortage of media coverage (hacks must already be salivating over the prospect of covert rebel luncheons) as the internal battle heats up, the Tories would only be aiding a Labour return to the Centre by twisting the knife into Corbyn’s leadership. Destroying the Left of Labour would only strengthen the dissidents’ position, and they would be far more of a threat to win back the lost Centrist voters.
It’s going to require the willpower of a benedictine monk to abstain from Labour-mocking, but the Conservatives need to focus on running the country and leave the opposition to splash around in the mess they've made of their party. Play the cards and let the man do whatever he pleases, and there’s little chance that Labour can recover by 2020. Play the man, and Labour might just sneak back into contention.