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
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.