Jeremy Corbyn can learn from David Cameron - on standing up to his activists
David Cameron is facing a blue rinse revolt. In a letter to today’s Telegraph, 130 Tory councillors warn he risks “destroying” his party if opts to lead the campaign to keep Britain in the EU.
Their undiplomatic correspondence represents part of a growing grassroots backlash against the prime minister’s Euro policy in general, and in particular his recent statement to the House of Commons in which he said: “If you passionately believe in your heart that Britain is better off out, you should vote that way. If you think Britain is, on balance, better off in, go with what you think. Don’t take a view because of what your association may say, or a boundary review.”
It was a reckless and foolish comment from the Tory leader. Directly challenging and offending your constituency foot-soldiers is bad manners and bad politics. And it invariably comes back to bite you.
So let’s hear it for Cameron. He broke one of the unwritten laws of politics – “thou shalt never speak ill of your own party workers”. But he was right to break it. And if the Labour party ever wants to govern Britain again, some of its own politicians are going to have to have the courage to utter a similar heresy.
Cameron has secured political success by going against, not with, the grain of his party. We know this because before the general election we were being consistently told by his critics this would be the reason for his impending failure.
He was taking traditional Tory supporters for granted. He had lost touch with his base. He existed in a bubble, surrounded by an inner circle who saw the world only through his own elite, metropolitan eyes. But out in the real world - down amongst “The Associations” – everyone could see what was really happening. Fancy ideas like gay marriage and the overseas aid pledge were causing a hemorrhaging of support. Ukip were hoovering up Tory defectors. Disaster beckoned.
We know how that one played out. Now let’s contrast it with Labour. There has not been a leader in the party’s history who has been more “in touch” with his members. Indeed, so symbiotic is the relationship between Jeremy Corbyn and his activists, new recruits have been flooding in their thousands – like the children of Hamelin – to join Labour’s ranks.
And it has been a catastrophe. A complete, unmitigated disaster. The seamless choreography between Corbyn and his own grass-roots has produced a dance of the dead.
Those who commit themselves to the service of a political party deserve respect. They are actively engaging in the democratic process. They are giving a significant commitment of time and energy, for relatively little personal recognition or reward. And whatever their personal ideology, they generally do some from a position of altruism. Rightly or wrongly, they want to make their country a better place.
But there is a difference between respect and deference. And whether he meant to or not, David Cameron was right to highlight it.
Political activists like to think their activism gives them a unique insight into the mindset of the electorate. Tales from “the doorsteps” are treated like the tablets of Mount Sinai. It represents false consciousness. Political activism, by its very nature, sets those who engage in it apart from the rest of society. That is especially true in an age dominated by the echo chamber of social media. Doorstep anecdotes are just that – anecdotes.
Activists like to think of themselves as the link between the people and the politicians. And because they favour a quiet life, most politicians let them carry on thinking that. But as we have seen graphically illustrated over the past few months, political activism can just as easily construct a wall between the voter and the politician as a bridge. The roars of approval from the Labour grass-roots for Corbyn’s stances on Trident, shoot-to-kill and the national anthem are drowning out the mocking laughter of the wider electorate.
There is another truth, which the party faithful don’t like to hear, but need to hear anyway. We elect politicians, not activists. They are the ones with the mandate. They are also the ones who take the risk, and make the sacrifice, and put themselves at the mercy of the voters. No matter how committed or diligent a party worker is, at the end of the day they are a political back seat driver. It’s not their life or reputation on the line - the buck stops with the politician. And if an activist doesn’t like that, then have to stop being an activist and become a politician themselves.
Cameron obviously wouldn’t lay things out quite as bluntly as that. No politician would. They need those calls made and leaflets delivered. But the reality is that the politicians who make it to the top invariably do so by leading, not following, their party members.
The leader of the Conservative party understands that. Until the leader of the Labour party does, Labour will remain in the political wilderness.