Some numbers are more important than others

The imbalances between buying into Labour vs. buying into the Conservatives must be addressed to advance a successful ‘Corbynmania’.

Julian Sayarer
11 October 2015

Demotix/ Emma Durnford. All rights reserved.Friday 11 September: Sadiq Khan elected Labour candidate for London Mayor with 32,926 votes. Friday 2 October: Zac Goldsmith elected Tory London candidate with around 7,000 votes. Monday 5 October: Jeremy Corbyn attends Manchester demonstration in support of a public post office, a day after 80,000 take to Manchester against the Conservative Party Conference. Meanwhile 50,000 is the growth in Labour membership since Corbyn’s election by 250,000 Labour supporters, itself a figure nearly double total Tory party membership.

On overall numbers, so we keep hearing, Labour wins – right up until the day at the ballot box where people cast their votes and all of the other numbers suddenly become irrelevant. Boris Johnson was nominated Tory party candidate for London Mayor, in 2008, with 15,661 votes.  In 2011, 68 per cent of a Labour Party electoral college numbering 435,000 gave Ken Livingstone the nod to attempt retaking office, only for him to lose the election by tens of thousands of votes.

It is hard to find figures that correlate directly with one another; an incumbent Mayor is unlikely to have to be nominated (and wasn’t), and so we can’t compare data on internal support for Livingstone in the year that Johnson won the nomination, nor vice-versa.  Similarly, data on the precise turnout of Labour’s old, London electoral college is hard to find, but even if we assume the very low 10 per cent turnout from Labour affiliates, that is still three times more than voted when the Tories made Johnson their candidate for 2008.

If we (a little crudely) assume those who vote in party elections – red or blue – have a deep degree of buy-in, and overall voters to be supporters with a shallow buy-in; taking the roughly 1 million votes that makes a London Mayor, the Tory party converted deep votes to shallow votes at a rate of 66:1, while Labour’s rate (at even the conservative assumption of 10% turnout) was only 23:1. Writing in, Adam Bienkov gives a good look at Khan vs. Goldsmith, and why the different turnout in the election of each (not only a story of Labour’s superior numbers in London).

At national level, approximately 375,000 members and affiliates voted in Labour’s 2010 leadership election, with 9,347,304 regular voters then voting Labour in the 2015 general election. 199,000 members voted for a new Tory leader in 2005, with 10,726,614 voting for the party at the 2010 election. The Labour conversion rate is 1:25 and the Tories’ 1:54. Writing in the New Statesman, Stephen Bush talks of the Tories’ membership gloom in terms of a zombie party that still keeps winning.

In campaigning, those with deep buy-in can be called ‘acorns’; the assumption being that they are cells capable of growing and, in so doing, producing more cells. To put it optimistically, the Labour movement (which now draws on affiliations from across social movements) boasts many more acorns with a deeper buy-in than the Tories; they have an active engagement with politics on behalf of which they will campaign, stand on streets, and vote in party elections. To put it pessimistically, however, even with passionate supporters numbering into the hundreds of thousands, the Labour movement currently has many chiefs and needs more Indians.

What the differing conversion rates say about individual psychology is perhaps not revelatory. A number of straightforward, albeit glib, cultural and psychological assumptions suggest that people would rather be led than be leaders. These people plump for politicians whose calling in life seems to be more leadership, which is a reliable concept, than social change, which is, almost by definition, unpredictable. Many would rather lend their allegiance to the pure, uncomplicated leadership figures the Tories are good at churning out, rather than associate with a movement for change.

It is hard to say precisely why this is so. Something in the steep and deferential UK class system arguably lends itself to beliefs that being asked to participate in one’s own governance is some sort of admission on the behalf of power-holders that they themselves are unfit to govern alone, rather than as an invocation to help them govern better. Whatever the rousing appeal of demonstrations, and the direct evidence against apathy that they offer, for those not already convinced that public demonstrations are virtuous, they have about them a whiff of DIY politicians being unruly against professionals of the trade. Polling is, of course, nothing if not contradictory but the electorate loathe the institution of the career politician as much as – come election time – they obviously look to them for their MPs.

There may well be more people with a deeper degree of buy-in to Labour, a trend that has likely only increased since Corbyn’s election. There are, however, currently a larger number of people with a shallow degree of buy-in to the Conservatives. Democracy favours the latter over the former, and in order to make-good Corbynmania, the imbalance must be addressed. Spitting at journalists, egging delegates, generally vituperating and making jibes about bestiality will show that some activists – judging by the Conservative Party Conference – have failed to grasp that they must conduct themselves with a dignity beyond reproach if they are to inspire an trenchantly (small-c) conservative middle England as ably as they are their own ranks.

How this is achieved will not be straightforward and will require different things for different people. The large, loud and publicly visible form of campaigning will be essential for the expansion of the electorate on which it is hoped Corbynmania will make good its heady promise. At the same time, however, this same approach to campaigns – of people on streets – will likely have about it popular and idealistic tones with which – handled incorrectly – many in middle England will feel uncomfortable. Politicians of all colours arguably have a moral obligation to try and engage non-voters, but whatever the noxious ways of retail politics, it is unwise to do so at the direct expense of those already voting.

The need for a positive, new politics is already well-understood and articulated within the Corbyn movement. It is against the negative politics of the Tory government, and it is proud to be against austerity, but this campaigning in relief, where you define yourself in opposition to that which already exists – as has been widely acknowledged – can only be achieved if it also offers something substantive. This substantive factor cannot only be positive or new; these are value judgments of their own, which will duke it out – successfully or otherwise – with what Tory voters and their associated swingers see as the positive politics of Cameron and Osborne; the return to growth, strong employment, low inflation and a ‘safe pair of hands’ on the economy. The ‘talking down’ the economy that Eds Miliband and Balls were accused of across the despatch box, when raising legitimate concerns about deep cuts made to restore small growth, indeed deftly painted Tories as positive and Labour gloomy.

It may be that there is less use to be had in a government being an able, positive spokesperson for the country (as the Tories are) than actually creating sound fundamentals for genuine, equitable growth in the country - but this is the distinction that Corbyn and Labour must now stress succinctly. The political territory must be reordered so that if you are saying ‘change’, people feel (and not just publicly say it, shy Tory-style) self-conscious for asking ‘same’. The internalised feeling of the anti-Labour camp must not be that Labour supporters are stupid for believing better things are possible for this country, but that they themselves are a little cowardly, and not only right-thinking pragmatists, for not sharing some small sense of optimism.

In many ways, this problem has already been played-out. Corbyn won the Labour leadership campaign from opponents desperate to convince voters that they had hearts (in which none disputed Corbyn lacked) to go with their heads (which the public felt were too compulsively calculating). The problem for Labour under Corbyn is now the opposite; to convince people that he has a head to go with his heart, and that people – as stressed in vain by Burnham, Cooper, and Kendall – do not have to choose.

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