Sunday, 14 August 2016

Jeremy Corbyn and Rallies

Provided I'm not knocked down by a bus or get buried by work, I should be attending a Jeremy Corbyn event this Tuesday lunch time in Derby. When the photos showing the crowd start circulating, knowing wags will put down their pipes, shake their heads and lecture the children about the difference between the people turning up to a rally and the wider electorate. Our Jackanorys might pepper their yarn with a choice Uncle John Golding quote about 50,000 fans thinking Michael Foot sounded wonderful on a speaker's platform, but at home there were millions who thought he was crackers.

The latest to spin a variation on the theme is Abby Tomlinson of Milifandom fame (remember that?). In her piece, Abby talks about her electrifying experience sharing a platform with Jez and Owen Jones in Manchester. Typifying Jeremy's political life, she argues this acts as a closed circuit. Jez says something at a rally, the crowd lap it up, and he comes away thinking he can win a general election. The problem, and one of the reasons why she's not supporting his leadership, is an apparent unwillingness to reach beyond the "safety" of the rallies where he preaches to the converted. As she acerbically observes, "do you know who have literally zero rallies? The Tories. Do you know who keep winning elections? Also the Tories ... there is no real correlation between rally attendance and being electable to the general public."

Abby is right. Then again, there is no evidence anyone but the rawest, freshest recruit believes Labour can win an election by having mass rallies here and there. But that isn't to say they don't have a place. They do.

Rallies are useful because the consolidate support and firm it up. When I was in the Socialist Party, Herculean efforts were made every year to turn out a few hundred members and guests for the annual Socialism rally at Friends Meeting House. This had the effect of sharing (drunken) experiences and the horrors of the youth hostel. All good bonding fodder. The Corbyn rallies have been and are necessary because the people his leadership has drawn into politics are mostly atomised and new. A rally is a way of sharing an experience that can be talked about with like-minded others in real life and on social media. They are also places where local party and Momentum activists speak to people, give them literature, let them know about meetings, and so on. They are moments that offer an opportunity to become familiar with the movement and, hopefully, get drawn further into it.

Secondly, to borrow a horrible phrase from spin-spaddery, it makes good optics. Traditionally, labour movements have mobilised large numbers and marched with the express purpose of demonstrating the strength of feeling about particular issues/policies, and pressuring Parliament into doing something about it. We've understood this for about 200 years and, as with any kind of extra-parliamentary activity, it has a mixed record. 250,000 in London followed by a riot brought Thatcher down in 1990. A dignified march of two million against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 wasn't able to dissuade Blair from the course that subsequently damned him.

A similar logic applies to rallies. You're walking about Liverpool city centre when, bugger, you bump into 5,000 people gathered to listen to the Labour leader. Impressive. You're at home despairing about the state of politics, and then a report comes up that sees Jeremy addressing huge crowds. Isn't he supposed to be really unpopular? Again, the optics appear to counter the established narrative, and it will have a modest but real impact on some voters.

More importantly, they can act as weapons of psychological warfare. As Abby notes, the Tories get by without rallies. That's because as a party of elites whose sole purpose is to win elections to defend entrenched interests, it doesn't need them. They don't even really need a mass membership, seeing as they are the party of the few and have the cash to make up the numbers. Whereas Labour, of course, is the party of the many and a mass membership is its lifeblood. So the sight of lots of people turning up can leave some people rattled. One of these is Jake Berry MP of Rossendale and Darwen. Writing last month, he frets that the massive, ravenous Labour beast could savage the Tory lambs, and that the Tories have to also pile up the members to counter this fiend. Wouldn't it be a shame if the Jeremy bandwagon was to roll into his constituency and add to his discombobulation and strengthen party organisation in that part of the world? If that was to happen in all of our target seats over the next couple of years, it would certainly make a number of their MPs sweaty.

Now, of course, Abby, John Golding, and the social media wiseheads are right up about rallies. They don't win elections in and of themselves, but they can make a useful contribution, and should be part of our electoral strategy. And while Jeremy needs to up his game when it comes to other aspects of his leadership, doing fewer rallies is something he shouldn't worry about.

22 comments:

jim mclean said...

One thing, the buzz of a left wing movement among the working class is not there. No mass joining of the Unions, a movement that is little more than an in house employees association for state and local authority professional employees. As for the Oligarchs that control the unions, a waste of space. Of the working class that are engaging with capital as a source of income 86% reject union membership. Of the 14% that are in unions the majority are women. Nothing like the seventies when shop stewards were hiring cinemas and bingo halls for mass meetings, when non union firms were organised within a week. IT IS NOT HAPPENING. Sorry, but it isn't in the air.

pewartstoat said...

Excellent points. I'd like to add a couple more:

1. It's a bit of a straw man argument isn't it? Corbyn's opponents make the claim on Corbyn's behalf. I don't see any in his team claiming that mass rallies win elections.
2. Mass rallies may not win general elections but they do have the potential to deliver victory in leadership elections. And if I'm not mistaken, Corbyn is engaged in a leadership election at present. So one can see why Owen Smith's supporters don't like said rallies.
3. If they're so ineffective, why is Owen Smith so very desperate to address them? Oh.....

Phil said...

You are right Jim, up to a point. When I originally thought about Corbynism as a social movement last year, I made exactly the same observation and was initially the reason why I wrote it off. However, I do think this is a movement of the so-called new working class, and it's something I hope to talk about in more depth this week (who knows, if I'm disciplined enough I might start penning a piece on this tonight).

pewartstoat said...

It is nothing like the 1970s, Jim, and that's no bad thing. Conjunctural politics and all that.......

Igor Belanov said...

Abby Tomlinson really needs to think about why the Tory Party 'doesn't need' rallies. Could it be that they are somewhat superfluous for a party that has deep roots in the political, social and economic establishment, the support of the vast majority of the print media and a very good hearing from the broadcast media, as well as indirect control over the levers of the economy?

Unless it wants to capitulate to the politico-media establishment (as many of the right of the party are only too willing to do) then Labour needs to do something to rally support. A rally for example.

It might also be that different methods work with different audiences...

jim mclean said...

I though the 70's were bloody brilliant. Give us a rise. OK. The whole point about it was it was a bottom up thing. Not so much a "shop stewards movement" but a punters movement. Callaghan buggered it up when he signed off to the IMF. Down hill ever since

Controversial Christian said...

Have a look at this: http://www.whataboutclassism.org/new-blog/2016/8/12/the-death-of-grassroots-democracy

BCFG said...

Igor stole my thunder, the media have acted as Theresa May's PR saince she became leader. The other side of this is that while they fawn over the Tories and the centre left they absolutely tear any form of mild social democracy to shreds. So with Corbyn it is failed policies of the past but when May proposes Grammar schools, that poster child of failed policies of the past, we get a favourable media coverage. Since the EU exit May's givernment have done nothing to address the coming economic storm, despite some worrying indicators. If Corbyn had acted in this was the media would have said Corbyn the Clown is mute and fails to act, but with May she is portrayed as a towering stateswoman with a master plan.

What else can explain May's staggering popularity other than media bias and an uncritical population willing to be pawns in the game?

People who turn up to Corbyn rallies have managed to break free of the brainwashing one way or another.

The left cannot be cheerleaders for brainwashing and cannot pander to a population which is comatose. We have to be critical while delivering solutions to peoples every day problems. If indeed we know what those problems are. We are told the NHS is high up on peoples agenda, yet while the Tories destroy the NHS they gain in popularity. So maybe destroying the NHS is the correct policy to win elections. Maybe that is the road for the centre left to go down when hopefully they have their own party and split from labour.

The Labour party should be prepared to be defeated and should have the courage to accept being a critical opposition until the wind blows the other way.

The stakes could not be higher, real political choice under Corbyn or the end of history under the centre left.



pewartstoat said...

I've a lot of time for the 1970s too. Thankfully the era is being revisited after years of being reviled and ridiculed for ideological purposes. Nonetheless, the 70's it ain't: we must fight today's battles on today's terrain, whilst also reclaiming memories of the period from the condescension of rabid historians.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we Scots are just bloody sick of them, same people, same flags, same brain dead chants all over a pile of rocks than are owned by 60 or so people and the right wing corporate Statists in power just cement themselves into perpetual rule. The only one who had the guts to take them on was Wendy Alexander and the Westminster deadwood stabbed her in the back, that was Scottish Labours last chance. So maybe I should welcome the rallies in England as they might save Labour from what happened in Scotland. I would like to see a Federal Labour. If we took a city approach it could diminish nationalism and centrism. If Glasgow had been democratic and locally liable and controlled would we have had the situation where Special Branch advise the head of Labour to change his drug pusher as they think he is being set up for blackmail, actually not that Scottish Labour is dead in the water are the SNP open to entryism from certain sections of the local "business community".

Ztt said...

My instinct is they rallys and marches in support of Corbyn do gather new support.
A march I attended in Birmingham attracted much attention and many curious smiles from passers by. I spoke to three people who joined the crowd as they were marching/chanting through the street. They ALL stated that they would look into Corbyn and his policies when they got home. Two were teenagers. One was a man pushing a pram.
Therw is a genuine euphoric friendly atmosphere imo when the chanting is in full flow.
I suspect rallys have the same impact.
They are anything but an echo chamber.

Gary Elsby said...

'if I don't get knocked over by a bus in Derby'
Yeah, whatever, Phil.
Biggest open secret EVER!

Speedy said...

Seventies. In his history of Britain, 1974-79 Dominic Sandbrook contests the assumption Thatcher ushered in individualism. Instead he identifies the phenomenon as already deeply established in the unions, and as the source of the Winter of Discontent etc - namely solidarity was a myth and every Union was competing with every other to secure better wages etc for their demanding membership. This made it impossible for Lucky Jim to hold a deal together - the TUC simply couldn't do it - even if it meant the downfall of the workers party.

So don't be so starry eyed about the Seventies - the first Thatcherites were actually the unions.

Igor Belanov said...

Of course, Sandbrook's argument ignores the fact that successful union action depends on mass participation and solidarity rather than individualised behaviour, recycles all the usual right-wing arguments about union greed, suggests that unions were competing with one another which is somewhat dubious, ignores government policy and business behaviour, and assumes that all inflation was created by rising wages.

Apart from that, he's obviously right....

BCFG said...

The comment above from speedy at least reveals that speedy has never been an active union person, if ever we doubted that!

One aspect of union activities is no doubt agitation for better pay, though even this is nuanced. For example, the AEU during the 1970's did campaign for better pay but within this they also tried to ensure that the skilled workers were not paid too many multiples of what an unskilled worker got. So they tried to keep such discrepancies to a minimum, which required negotiation not just with the bosses but the workers too. Speedy's simplified version of things shows his ignorance.

The other aspects of union activity, to ensure proper health and safety procedures, to commission research into for example, toxicity of chemicals etc etc is conveniently ignored by the right wing, including the anti immigrant right to which speedy aligns himself to.

On inflation and wages, the actual opposite was true, it was rising inflation that caused wage increases or certainly informed what the union would ask for! This is why Thatcher introduced new inflation measures because she knew the lower was inflation the less unions would ask for! Blair carried this on, New labour disciplined workers to accept very low wage increases year in year out. In this environment it is easier to cheat workers when inflation is very low year on year, which is a reason why real wages have taken such an hammering. This is part of the neo-liberal trend, which Clinton and Blar developed to its most developed form. We are dealing with the fallout of this right now, just as New labour had to deal with the fallout of Thatchers policies.

No one can deny that under capitalism workers have to be disciplined, held in line and told what to do on every level. Many leftists fail to recognise this. Austerity and union bashing are perfectly consistent and to be expected under a capitalist system. And at times very much required for the system to function. This is why workers should overthrow the capitalist system.

The flip side of course is there are other times when unions need to be empowered to stabilize the whole system. But because the workers are in a subservient role under capitalism it is much easier to weaken the unions than to empower them. The ruling class would never take that course even if there life depended on it. But because Thatcherism and Blairism neutered the unions and disciplined the workers so much the much needed empowerment of the unions isn't going to happen. This is somewhat uncharted territory.

Speedy said...

I recommend you actually read the book Igor - naturally, I have summarised. The history - statements by the TUC at the time, etc (the book goes into the politics in a fair amount of depth) - appears to justify this assertion. I'm sorry to BCFG, but them's the facts - my opinion cannot change the past, although if life is entirely subjective, as some philosophers believe, perhaps his can.

We all tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world - and naturally no history is objective (history shall be kind to me, said Churchill, because I will write it) - but I just wanted to point out there was no bloody golden age, and when the lights went out at six, as I well remember, it wasn't for high principals, but for filthy lucre. And the voters at the time knew it, no matter how the past might look through rose tinted glasses.

Igor Belanov said...

I am rather familiar with 1970s history and the work of Sandbrook, who is very clearly and explicitly a right-wing revisionist historian, and not the oracle on all aspects of the era.

Igor Belanov said...

In addition, at a time when the right of the Labour Party have criticised Labour's image as one that is unattractive to 'aspirational' voters, it seems strange that Speedy should be attacking 'aspirational' workers in the 1970s as proto-Thatcherites.

Given that this 'aspiration' in the 1970s was channelled into the mass Labour movement and the politics of solidarity (including between different types of worker), as opposed to the sale of council houses, encouragement of scabbing or cash-in-hand casual working, maybe it wasn't Thatcherite at all?

After all, Speedy is the one that usually denounces the left as muesli-eating out-of-touch hippies, so surely he should be celebrating the clich├ęs about 1970s workers?

Speedy said...

Igor, I wasn't denouncing, I was describing.

David Parry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Parry said...

Speedy

'when the lights went out at six, as I well remember, it wasn't for high principals, but for filthy lucre.'

Sure, if your conception of 'filthy lucre' extends to workers whose living standards are under pressure because of rampant, mostly oil price-driven inflation trying to secure wages that keep pace with prices. Such a conception of filthy lucre is a very idiosyncratic one, however.

Anonymous said...

Speedy, if you want to rely on the Daily Mail's house historian for your opinions of 70s Britain, that's up to you, but I wouldn't recommend it. Sandbrook is a lazy, derivative pop-historian who churns out books by lifting whole chunks from the work of other, more serious scholars without crediting them properly. The Wall Street Journal (no leftist bastion there) carried a scathing review of one of his books baldly accusing him of plagiarism; whether you accept that term or not, he's certainly a second-rate writer with dire Mail-ish politics (not just a right-winger, but a shrill and rather dim-witted right-winger).