In Defence of Swivel Eyed Lunacy

Obsessive, narrowly-focused activists are exactly the kind of people you want in your party's grassroots, argues Alan Martin.

 

Did a senior Conservative aide call grassroots Tory campaigners “swivel eyed loons?”  Number 10 says no, the newspapers that broke the story continue to say yes, but at this point it doesn't really matter: the damage has been done. But is swivel eyed lunacy really a bad thing? Obviously the phrasing is deliberately insulting, but the qualities hidden inside are pretty much inevitable in your grassroots activists. In fact I'll go one step further and suggest they're actively desirable.

Let's start with the “loon” part. To a politically apathetic country that only really takes notice of party politics at election time, grass roots activists are clearly lunatics. People who actively take time out of their daily lives to volunteer, canvas and operate phone banks on behalf of their political party of choice may as well be another species. Their enthusiasm has gone a step beyond normality: not only are they deeply passionate about their politics of choice (in this case aspects the Tory frontbench would very much like to go away: gay marriage and Europe), they want everyone they come into contact with to share their weird enthusiasm, and will happily give up their free time to make that happen.

“Loon” in this context means “obsessive”. And who would you want arguing your position more than someone who is obsessively passionate about the issues? The loons themselves are also relatively free of vested interests, which is more than can be said for the candidates they represent. Without salary or commission, these activists are the best people to get the message out in days when trust in politicians is at absolute zero.

“Swivel eyed” is slightly harder to defend. Depending on the definition, it can either be interchangeable with “loon”, doubling down on the original insult, or mean “untrustworthy”, “devious” or “Machiavellian”. Sure, you don't want to distrust your activists, but there are two parts to that:

  1. They're fuelled by passion about your party. If they're scheming, it's because they want what's best for the party they represent, not personal gain.
  2. Would you rather have a bunch of volunteers scheming against you, or the people who want to take your place?

And that's the thing about Machiavellian intent: it's only really dangerous in people with the power to use it, like the swarms of suitors surrounding Mr Cameron for the Conservative Party leadership. Grassroots activists are exceptionally loyal: they will grumble and moan about purity of policy and ideology, but their attachment is so great that they'll rarely turn their back on the party completely, no matter how overlooked they feel by its pronouncements.

Just look at Labour's trade union base for evidence of that. Over the New Labour years, Blair and Brown spent a great deal of time distancing themselves from their traditional activists, amongst other things no longer speaking at the Durham Miner's Gala (a trend that Ed Miliband has bucked), but for the most part Labour's activist base has stayed strong. Loyalty and resilience is as much a part of the activist's DNA as obsessiveness, no matter what their party colours.

Which is just as well, because there's an inevitable disconnect between grassroots support and parliamentary democracy. The former is based on idealism and genuine belief, while the latter is based on the more grubby realities of pragmatism and compromise. The MPs are protecting their position as well as their constituents, and so have to appeal as widely as possible, polluting the ideological purity demanded by the grassroots. In crude, broad strokes: Tory grassroots aren't enthusiastic about gay marriage, but the public at large is broadly in favour, so the party has to ignore its biggest fans. Generally, these fans grumble and moan privately, but keep knocking on doors and spreading the word publicly.

The one thing they won't take lying down is being insulted by their party, which is why this is such a spectacular own-goal. Grassroots activists don't ask for much, and they deliver a lot – including the undecided swing voters who you need in order to win elections.

These normal voters – with static eyes and a comparatively sane air – will come and go, but the loons are the foundations of your support. They may sometimes be embarrassing, they may be obsessive to the point of lunacy, but they're a loyal and resilient asset. David Cameron needs to sweeten the "loons", before they join the "fruitcakes" – and a little bit more tact at the top of the party wouldn't go amiss either. He's already getting a reputation for riding roughshod over his party's wishes in his hunt for more voters than he managed in 2010, the last thing he wants to do is lose the loyal footsoldiers that got him the keys to Downing Street in the first place.

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.