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The Foolishness of Crowds

This is a guest post by James Snell

There’s a popular fallacy doing the rounds which is particularly insidious. It states that, as long as insurgent types such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders (and any other radicals with sufficient detachment from ‘the Establishment’) keep travelling the country and attracting sufficient numbers of people to gatherings of supporters, they will win. Not only will they win internal party squabbles; they will win power when those parties go to the country, too. In the case of Sanders, this adage has already been discredited. But it persists in other countries, most notably this one, where yet more extreme politicians (of the extreme Left and of the extreme Right) think power is achievable by replicating this method.

They’re not correct. Drawing large numbers of people to meetings is not enough to change history, certainly not in this age. Crowds cannot win elections. They cannot even have much of an effect on government policy with regard to single issues (and that’s probably a good thing, too).

It’s a truism, it’s obvious, it’s undeniable – but still the myth persists.

Jeremy Corbyn is currently in the middle of a campaign to secure re-election as leader of the Labour party. He will probably win. In a way, that doesn’t really matter.

Much has been said about how, in the course of this campaign, Corbyn has spoken to crowds of faithful adherents, acolytes of whatever passes for his particular sort of politics. In many ways, this is the pattern of his political life, not just his time as leader, and it is not only seen when he needs to win internal elections.

He is a man whose main strength lies in preaching to the converted. Solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela, the evils of American and British foreign policy, the absurdity of nuclear weapons, the unpleasantness of austerity (which was effectively endorsed, no matter how indirectly, by 11 million voters in May 2015) – these comprise his stock-in-trade. One does not land a long-running Morning Star column without them. And one can also be sure, no matter how extreme these positions may appear to the general public, of enough support to fill a few meeting halls to the rafters. Gerry Downing, the man whose organisation, Socialist Fight, argued for solidarity with ISIS and the Taliban against the United States of America, found a certain constituency who went along to meetings with the guy, after all (though he won’t be expecting to fill Conway Hall any time soon).

People who agree on everything, regardless of what it is, can be expected to seek each other out. They can find places and situations where other people share their hobbies. They tend to congregate together, and no one would begrudge them that. The pleasures of association are not to be denied. But it would take a certain arrogance (not to mention a distorted view of reality) for someone at a Dungeons and Dragons meet-up or a furry convention to think that they represent anything other than a minority, and possibly a despised one (let alone that their interest or perspective would soon take the world by storm). In a way, Corbyn’s fans are a little like these people; they’re no doubt perfectly pleasant personally, but are also a little weird – even though they don’t dress in such outlandish costumes.

The same can also be said for protests and demonstrations, another activity which is certifiably out of the ordinary.

By addressing a protest march, a politician does less good than harm to their image. They identify themselves with the oppressed, perhaps, or the downtrodden, but they do so at a cost. It effectively rules them out as a serious person, a person who can represent the nation – and perhaps especially as a person of government. The politics of protest is not just intellectually insubstantial and fundamentally facile; it’s also almost entirely unsuccessful, and for good reason: it seems empty, almost pointless.

The case of Top Gear is, perhaps strangely, instructive here. Jeremy Clarkson, the show’s presenter, was sacked for hitting a producer; the other two left the programme in sympathy. And people went mad. A petition was organised; millions signed it; and it came to nothing. Nothing changed and nothing was achieved; quite a few people ended up looking rather foolish, but that was about it.

That people can somehow rouse themselves to march through London in support of reinstating a trio of TV presenters was seen as strange. It was met with understandable derision.

A similar reaction is due, and it is probably warranted, for anyone who can stir themselves to march through London against tuition fees, or Trident, or the existence of the G20. (This is why, when Andrea Leadsom’s supporters marched on Parliament in support of her candidature, they were laughed at. And that was before she dropped out – when, in other words, there was some point to the activity, no matter how strange it seemed.)

Ed Miliband, now seen through rather rose-tinted hindsight as a good little moderate, a remnant of the ‘old politics’, addressed a fair few protests, too. Like Corbyn’s fans, his admirers moaned about how the media bullied their man. He lost an election – and he lost it by a massive margin.

Let us not forget that protest marches, even the biggest, even the ones with the most popular support, are minority pursuits. They are the arena of the overly interested and the obsessive. People who go, like those who actively canvass in election campaigns, are weird; they’re strange; they’re different from the rest of us.

In this way political activists are always a little odd; there’s something separating them and the outside world.

The era of mass rallies and large public speeches is over; they have been replaced by inauthentic gatherings, where party leaders speak to apparatchiks clutching placards. This sort of stuff has to be done during election campaigns; it’s perpetuated by the notion that, if one side stopped, the other side would benefit, despite the silliness of the practice. But votes are never won this way, and rightly so. The same can be said for mass meetings and cheering rallies.

This stuff is made worse by social media. But it remains fundamentally unhelpful, regardless of whether it is digital or analogue. It never wins elections; it never attains power; it never changes anything. And, for those who flock to meetings of this sort, perhaps that’s no bad thing.