England captain Alastair Cook (R) and teammate James Anderson walk off the pitch after defeating India in the fourth Test match between England and India, 9 August. Photo: Getty
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The true meaning of success – and why we should never listen to the impatient mob

After England’s defeat by India in the second Test at Lord’s, almost every leading voice in English cricket called for Alastair Cook to be sacked as captain. 

It takes bravery, in a crisis, not to make a decision. In How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman thanks his mentor for the memorable advice: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

After England’s defeat by India in the second Test at Lord’s, almost every leading voice in English cricket called for Alastair Cook to be sacked as captain. This quorum included the former England captains Mike Atherton, Michael Vaughan and Geoffrey Boycott. The combined wisdom of English cricket’s top table was reinforced by a shouty strand of public opinion, still smarting from the departure of its hero Kevin Pietersen (who also called for Cook to resign).

So the selectors and the England and Wales Cricket Board deserve special praise for the constancy they showed in sticking with Cook. They had to be resolute against two different constituencies: the tribal elders, chanting for change with the gloom and authority of a Greek chorus, and the electronic mob of social media.

There are several wider lessons to be learned from the captaincy furore (now happily subsided after a splendid England victory in the subsequent match in Southampton). First, if all options for change are unsatisfactory, take none of them. Many pundits called for Cook to be sacked but were unable to propose an alternative who would strengthen the team. Who should captain England instead? “Anybody!” came the reply. It did not sound like a good trade.

Second, we forget that many successful performers took a long time to become established, nearly getting sacked en route. Observing success plays tricks with our memories; once it has happened, it seems inevitable. The locus classicus is Alex Ferguson and Manchester United’s fateful FA Cup tie at Nottingham in January 1990 that saved his managerial skin – but the phenomenon is not unknown in cricket. Allan Border, the captain who built the great Australian dynasty of the 1990s, had a disappointing string of early results, including a heavy Test series defeat to England in 1985.

Artistic success can also rely on the faith of employers in the context of troubling results. Hilary Mantel, now feted as a double winner of the Man Booker Prize and whose books are making a tidy profit for HarperCollins, first published several books that lost money. They were encouragingly reviewed and admired by her fans. From a narrow business perspective, however, Mantel only became a major “success” with the publication of Wolf Hall. If Mantel, her agent or her publisher had been guided by sales evidence alone, her later triumphs would have remained locked in her private imaginative world, or unread in a desk drawer. “Track record” – whether Cook’s seven defeats in nine Test matches, or Mantel’s sequence of books that stayed in the red – may be evidence of something. But it does not predict the future.

Finally, the true nature of public opinion is easy to misunderstand. It is a serious mistake to think that we can measure the views of the majority whose opinions seldom register on social media. Early this summer, this column drew attention to how 20 per cent of the comments on the Guardian’s website come from just 0.0037 per cent of its declared monthly audience. In tracking the views of “the public”, we overestimate the representativeness of a tiny minority.

That point was underlined during the victorious third Test in Southampton, in which Cook made 165 runs (only once out) and captained a perfect England performance. The crowd took the opposite view to the newspapers that claim to represent England fans. Cook was cheered all the way to the middle at the toss, then greeted by a standing ovation when he returned to the pavilion 48 not out at lunch on the first day. The England coach, Peter Moores, conceded that he had never seen Cook more moved than after that spontaneous act of collective support. Another standing ovation followed when he walked off, having made 95. The atmosphere of the post-match victory ceremony was driven by deep respect for the England captain.

All of this warmth and considered hope (crowds do not encourage players whom they have given up on) stand in marked contrast to the anger that sustains easy headlines and Twitter storms. Yet who better represents the entire community of English cricket: a social media poll or the fans who lifted the England captain with their hearts and their applause?

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers, under a fern, make the field ring with their importunate clink,” Edmund Burke pointed out, “while thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”

We should contrast the mob’s approach with how real success is achieved. The mob ignores the structures and culture that underpin lasting success, focusing only on the cult of a redemptive leader, the man who – it is supposed – will cure everything just by clapping his hands with conviction.

The mob listens to people whom other people listen to, ignoring whether the speaker has sound judgement, let alone a history of being right. The mob forgets that it first railed against the same leaders it now romanticises.

The mob gives voice and authority to those it once dispossessed, so long as the target is today’s status quo: its enemy’s enemy is its friend. The mob is not concerned with improvement, only with change, as though the two were the same thing.

If Alastair Cook becomes a great England captain, we should remember what the mob said – and credit the people who resisted it. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.