An easy way to dismiss the success of a staunch leftwing candidate (like Jeremy Corbyn, who is evidently providing all the inspiration for my posts this week) is to write off their internal supporters as “just” party diehards – not real people.
The local “centre-left commentator” peddling this line will not surprise anyone.
The basic tenet of centrist politics is the centre is fixed; we must move to occupy it. The left disagrees: we think the centre can be moved; the question is how.
That’s where the base comes in.
We’ve all heard the eye-rolling dismissal of bloggers and Twitterati and “social media echo chambers”. And it’s correct, to a small extent. There’s a certain type of person who has the resources, time and inclination to gabble on about politics online. They aren’t legion. They don’t represent ~the average voter~.
But for Labour, they’re the base. They’re the people who talk politics away from their keyboards, with friends and family and coworkers. They’re the people who give up evenings running phonebanks or weekends door-knocking or putting up hoardings or waving signs at the side of the road.
The National Party provides an interesting comparison. We’ve only recently started to see the rumblings from their base (at least, the Auckland chapter of it). But they can’t be happy. Key’s popularity is built on slick media management, invisible dirty politics, and swallowing plenty of dead rats. He hasn’t been benevolent, by any means, but despite our worst fears, he hasn’t gone all-out on the privatisation/extinction of the public service/strip-mining the economy for foreign interests front either.
That’s got to be pissing off the kind of Tory who after nine long years of Clark’s rampant socialism longed for some union-smashing poor-bashing environment-obliterating vengeance. Instead, classic National policies like Jami-Lee Ross’ strike-breaking bill have been shut down out of sheer pragmatism: it threatened the reasonable, even-handed facade they used to push through unfair employment law reforms.
Why doesn’t National worry about annoying their base? What they have, and Labour doesn’t, is money.
National can buy every billboard in the country. They can run super-slick ads all over the place (even if they don’t apparently pay musicians for the use of their intellectual property.) They can hire as many local halls and drive as many branded buses around the streets of their electorates as they like. They can pay off stale old MPs to ensure lots of fresh faces are coming up through the ranks.
Visibility isn’t the only thing that matters in an election, but it does matter. And where National can get its message across with money, Labour has traditionally done it through sheer, well, labour.
It’s basically a metaphor for the whole left/right worker/bourgeois struggle, innit?
Let’s accept the idea that Labour activists don’t reflect the views of enough voters to form a government. Let’s even accept the idea that we can magically convince those voters that we agree with them on everything without compromising our basic principles. The point is that Labour can’t reach those voters without its base. No point agreeing with them on everything if they never hear about it.
But why would Labour’s base, those silly lefties with their silly principles, keep grinding on trying to sell a moderate/unfrightening/uninspiring message which has only led to increasingly terrible election results?
Here’s another thought: more and more Kiwi voters aren’t showing up on election day. Maybe they skew left, maybe they align with the voting population as a whole. But they need a reason to turn out, and turn out for Labour. Unless someone dies and leaves a whopping bequest, the people giving voters that reason will be Labour’s base. They’re going to work a lot harder for a leader they believe in, who gives them a reason to be proud of their party and hopeful for the future of their country.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has seen 15,000 new members join the UK Labour Party in a single day. Maybe he will have a big job ahead convincing ~average voters~ that he’s not a dangerous threat to national security. I doubt it, but if so, it’ll be a hell of a lot easier with that many people to help him.
And now, a song that got unaccountably stuck in my head while writing this post.