Don’t demonise the rabble: why everything you think about crowds is wrong

We are programmed to fear crowds, but a new style of policing shows that we shouldn’t be so worried.

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If it wasn’t a new approach to politics, it was at least a return to an old one. Jeremy Corbyn, in his 2015 and 2016 campaigns for the leadership of the Labour Party, held political rallies all over the UK. In many ways, they were remarkable events, attended by tens of thousands. Many were held in the open, with Corbyn speaking from a fire engine.

We are no longer accustomed to seeing political crowds. Indeed, we are programmed to be wary of them. Certainly the right-wing press has been effective at portraying Corbyn’s rallies as mass gatherings of dangerous fanatics. The Corbynite movement is seen as the politics of the rabble.

From inside the crowd, it all seems a bit different. When I attended a Corbyn rally in Stoke in September, there was a carnival atmosphere, with music playing and balloons all around. It was more of a cheery crowd than a mad mob. Those attending the rallies didn’t consider themselves a homogeneous unit. They identified as left wing, but otherwise they were diverse: black and white, poor and middle class, young and old. In their diversity, they wanted to stress that they mirrored the country.

The mood was far less benign on the outskirts of the crowd, however: a group was trying to persuade people to sign a petition calling for the deselection of Blairite MPs, the treacherous out group.

The fear of crowds is long-standing. Probably no one has done more to shape our attitudes to the crowd than the French polymath Gustav Le Bon. In 1895, he published The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind. As the crowd psychologist Steve Reicher explains, Le Bon “both reflects and creates a culture”.Writing at a time of increasing urbanisation, when workers were organising to improve their lot, he pathologised the crowd as nightmarish and irrational. In the crowd we lose ourselves and our civilised veneer is stripped away as the barbarian within us bubbles to the surface. “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation,” Le Bon wrote.

Yet most crowds are peaceful, and they can feel like wonderful places to be. At the rally in Stoke, one woman tells me that she came to the rally to convince herself that she wasn’t alone in her political outlook. The rally was an affirmation of her world-view. Several other people tell me that the crowd has energised them to campaign for their party. In other contexts, too, we love being in crowds. A football match without a crowd would be like an opera without an orchestra.

Yet Le Bon’s conception of the crowd as barbaric still grips the imagination. This is unfortunate. Psychologists of crowd behaviour believe that this prevalent image can create the aggression that so terrifies us. Crowds are indeed capable of ferocity, volatility and irrationality, at football matches or at political demonstrations. Yet when they erupt, the problem is not the crowd per se.

For the police to deal with a crowd as though it were uniform and inevitably violent is counterproductive. In the UK, away fans at a football match have typically been handled as though each were a potential thug. They have been herded around by officers in full riot gear, wielding truncheons. The fans are scum, and the police objective is to minimise the damage.

There are “fans” intent on causing trouble. However, treating the crowd in an undifferentiated way has two effects. It reinforces a common identity for fans and makes it seem that the vicious few are right: the police are the enemy.

A few police forces have begun to take the social psychology of crowds seriously. Inspired by the research of the psychologist Clifford Stott, police “liaison officers” are being introduced. Their job is not to arrest anyone: instead, they are there to talk to fans, before and after the game, to facilitate their legal requests. At a game that I attended on 17 September between West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United, the West Ham away fans turned ugly when someone was ejected by the stewards. A liaison officer went to discuss the incident with fans at half-time and diffused the tension.

Sometimes the use of police force is inevitable. Yet the evidence so far suggests that a less confrontational approach works. When the police regard the objectives of the crowd as legitimate, the crowd generally polices itself. This has several welcome effects. It reduces violence and drags fewer people through the criminal justice system.

It also saves money. The British Journal of Criminology reported in September 2011 that the methods Stott recommended at Cardiff City Football Club have cut policing costs by 50 per cent. The financial incentive is clear: currently, over the course of a season, the cost of policing football games runs into the tens of millions.

In Sweden, police have built on the research by introducing the role of “dialogue” officer, dedicated to one club. These officers spend their time getting to know the fans, working out what they want and heading off potential trouble. Once again, the evidence is that this has been highly effective in curbing unrest.

Football is not the most progressive of worlds. There is still considerable resistance to changing police methods. Some view the introduction of liaison officers as soft and namby-pamby. In the end, however, hard-headed financial considerations will persuade police forces across the country to change. And then we will see that crowds are mostly only scary when we treat them as such. 

This article appears in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind