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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser