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29 August 2017updated 27 Jul 2021 10:47am

If the right wants to emulate Jeremy Corbyn, it needs to understand why he’s successful

People didn't vote for Labour because of memes, but because of policies. 

By Stephen Bush

A new attempt to mimic the success of Momentum, a Conservative group called “Activate”, has been launched to a less than flattering response.

I’m not going to talk about what the group gets wrong as far as social media etiquette or its use of memes go, as my colleagues have already done a good job of that, and the creator of the Twitter account is reportedly just 17.

The more striking thing about Activate is not what sets it apart from other Tory attempts to imitate the success of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn at the last election but what unites it. What Activate, the “Tory Glastonbury” proposed by George Freeman, and many other similar efforts all have in common is that they have put the cart before the horse.

What many seem to have forgotten is that Corbyn came before Momentum – in fact one of the reasons for the organisation’s creation was to get some use out of the vast store of data that Corbyn’s first campaign had collected on members and registered supporters during his first triumphant leadership bid. Momentum didn’t create a series of memes and Facebook videos and then an inspiring politician from the radical left turned up – it happened quite the other way round.

You might, possibly, in the absence of a candidate, be able to have a Conservative answer to “Corbynism” but again, Corbynism is a set of values and political demands which have been expressed through yes, memes, videos and other shareable graphics but the politics came first.

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That’s part of the problem in large parts – by no means all, but large parts – of the Conservative Party at present. The established wisdom is that the party had a near-death experience on 8 June but in five years’ time, with a new leader, things will be different. “Something” will turn up. Unsuprisingly, this inspires a series of bad meme pages, exclusive festivals and the like, all of which imitate the form of Corbynism and Corbynmania but lack the content.

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This holds true of Activate, too. Their description of the kind of people who they want to join it is a case in point: they “welcome all conservatives whether they are One Nation, New Right, traditional or liberal”. But the crucial thing about Momentum is that they don’t welcome all of Labour. They aren’t an organisation that is intended to attract every third way social democrat, every disaffected liberal, every Fabian and god knows what other strain of Labour thought. They’re an organisation intended to advance one particular strand of thought and (less so but still a little bit) one particular politician in the country and the Labour party, and they’ve enjoyed qualified success at the former and immense success at the latter.

Say what you like about the Adam Smith Institute’s recent “Millennial Manifesto” – and it didn’t help that parts of it appeared to be written by an alien visitor to planet Earth, while the sums didn’t quite add up – what it got right was that if the right wants to win back young voters it has to start by offering something concrete to those voters, i.e., actual policies to improve their lives and to achieve their dreams. Not: memes, shareable graphics or a festival.