YOU may have heard the joke doing the rounds: How do you get thousands of people to turn up to an Owen Smith rally? Tell them Jeremy Corbyn is going to be there. The response from Corbyn’s opponents is usually a 1980s picture of Michael Foot in front of a crowd with a sarcastic comment about the packed out assembly halls which lined his path to government. This has been one of the milder exchanges between two sides of the same party over these last few weeks.
But what of these large rallies like the one at the old Gaumont State Cinema on the Kilburn High Road on Sunday evening, where local Labour councillors Thomas Gardiner and Maryam Eslamdoust were among the speakers? From the news reports of this event, you’d have thought that the only thing that happened over the two hours was that Sadiq Khan’s name was boo’d in response to the London Mayor’s unsurprising support for Smith’s challenge, and what’s more that all 3,000 there were booing in unison. Video clips show that, yes, affirmative, there was some heckling, if you required proof. It’s pretty mindless, inviting criticism when the booers’ candidate has called for cool debate. But the reaction to it from people who weren’t there perhaps provides more clues about the nature of Smith’s campaign than it does Corbyn’s, and hints at a need for the challenger’s supporters to change tactics as the Labour leadership voting begins.
It played out like this: Tweets from Kilburn reported the booing, and were met almost immediately with the backs of hands slapping across foreheads, woe us, as if a dagger had pierced the flesh, with the outrage for Sadiq’s treatment relayed over again for the rest of the night. We heard how disgusted everybody is about what kinder, gentler politics has turned out to be, and it was quickly the easiest of angles for journalists fatigued by two summers of Labour leadership contests. A fuzzy video went semi-viral.
There was a touch of this at the Holborn and St Pancras Constituency Labour Party’s nomination meeting last week where one of Ed Miliband’s former advisers, Ayesha Hazarika, now a stand-up comic, and others tweeted to the effect that speakers vouching for Mr Smith were getting a hell of a time with heckles. In an awkward contrast, Keir Starmer, the MP, himself a Smith supporter too, later tweeted that there had been no abuse at all at the meeting. Maybe he realises that at these passionate times, where people on both sides feel a little desperate for different reasons, meetings will be boisterous, emotions will run high, and some rough and tumble will be par for the course. His description: “Huge meeting, passionate, respectful but no abuse.”
At this stage, a Smith supporter may provide us all with some of the worst tweets from apparent Corbyn backers and ask well, is the par for the course too? Of course, it shouldn’t be. There are some disgusting posts out there, for sure, but the problem with blessed point-scoring like this is that the bulk of Corbyn supporters do not recognise the internet devils and heckling prats as being part of their ‘movement’ or in fact anything to do with them. When they do, they often compare it to the way hooligans attach themselves to a football team and refuse to stop causing trouble no matter how many times the club condemns them. So in turn, they feel unfairly tarred by an association they don’t recognise, rightly or wrongly, and by people who they actually need to one day be in alliance with, if Labour is not to split.
What’s more, the main engine of Corbyn’s campaign may not even be the ones who turn out at these rallies, as is often assumed by a media looking for a quick explanation of how the Islington North MP could inexplicably upset the odds by winning one leadership contest and then being competitive in another. There are people who don’t go to meetings, don’t go to rallies, whose heads Smith needs to turn without telling them that they’ve stupidly shacked up with political extremists.
So, after Sunday, there can be an obsession about who boo’d who, but perhaps Smith’s supporters would be better scrutinising what Thomas said, what Islington councillor Claudia Webbe said, what Corbyn said. Newspapers, if they really want to cover the rally, could do too. As voting begins, more meaningful blows would surely be landed through policy debates, as we saw with the lead balloon response to Corbyn’s views on helping NATO allies last week, rather than wasting energy trying to expose bogeymen attached to the fringes of Corbyn’s campaign, and somehow cleaning up Twitter’s global troll problem in the process.
Of course the aggrieved shouldn’t be told to simply suck it up, but what’s surprising is the loyalty with which some of Smith’s supporters stick to the strategy memo – for one must surely exist – of endlessly and publicly judging all of Corbyn’s campaign by its worst behaved supporters, against much evidence that it actually helps their cause. Everybody who you would expect to tweet floridly about their upset on Sadiq’s behalf did so, and yet if Sadiq himself is in any way worried by a group of hecklers at the back of the State, his skin may prove too thin for his greater political ambitions. I think he’s probably worried about the potential for Corbyn winning again, with the contest close, but not about this. He won’t have weeped, for if he’s a good as people say he is, he’ll be confident that his time running the city will be convincing enough to turn a catcall into congratulations. He may even find himself campaigning with some of them again sooner than everyone thinks.
In truth, Smith’s task looks less mountainous if you group together all of the votes from people who collectively supported Burnham, Cooper and Kendall last summer and see a narrowing target score for him to win amid the Brexit fallout. But the more his supporters poke away at trying to cast Corbyn as a belligerent old duffer in an awful shell suit supported by little more than a mob of boo boys, the more a tough-to-beat siege mentality is likely to continue among those who feel they are ordinary members being lectured about their electoral chances by people who have either just lost an election, or, at Westminster, by MPs who wouldn’t put themselves up for leader on the basis themselves that they didn’t feel they could win in 2020 either. Could be wrong, but the tactic of trying to convince them they’ve naively bedded down with uncompromising, factional and awfully rude hoodlums hasn’t so far seemed overly successful.
There’s no gain getting up MAOmentum spoof social media accounts. It seems to have the reverse effect. Every parody seems to be met with deeper dug heels. There’s no gain for Smith either in a bottomless serve of mock surprise over a bit of booing, either, especially if it comes laced with the underhand suggestion that the same noise wouldn’t have happened if Sadiq had been white and a knight’s son from an eloquent school in Hampstead, rather than a bus driver’s son from a council estate and the first Muslim to be Mayor. What Smith’s campaigners really need to do is to take Corbyn on, policy for policy.
[pic: Twitter @Imajsaclaimant]