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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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