Activist’s paradox

When asked about Jeremy Corbyn’s prospects of winning on June 8th, Unite boss Len McCluskey told Politico that it was unlikely but not impossible. ‘You never know’ said Len. ‘The truth is there are massive, massive crowds that turn out for him’.

Len is repeating the great fallacy that crowd size might be some kind of rough approximation of overall support. The opposite is probably more accurate. The larger and more fervent the crowd, the smaller the proportion of the vote.

In my new book Radicals I call this the ‘activist’s paradox’: the way a self-selecting groups of similar people create a powerful shared subculture — ideas, language, received wisdoms, behaviours — that help them bond and commit to the cause, but in so doing create a subculture that makes non-members feel like it’s not really for them. The more vocal and excited the supporters, the more they alienate outsiders.

I coined this phrase to refer to the problem environmental activists face (you’ve probably heard it as this: “I’m all for saving the environment, but those guys are weird”) but the same thing is happening to Corbynites. I witnessed it at last year’s shadow Labour Conference run by Momentum. Because he’s both an activist and a political leader, Corbyn’s supporters treated him with an unusual mix of familiarity and reverence. He’s ‘Jez’, he’s one of us, he’s a normal honest guy. Yet simultaneously his face was festooned across t-shirts, and his name was the subject of adoring poems. It’s a movement of the devout and the believers. In a similar way to the environmentalists, Corbyn and his supporters have created a powerful subculture, and the more they are attacked by the media or other parts of the Labour Party, the more fervent they becomes, which makes them more attacked, which makes them more fervent…

If his support dropped below about 20 per cent I would expect whirling dervishes and self-immolation. It would galvanize everyone there, and alienate everyone else.

The online Momentum supporters might be in for a shock on June 9th. Surrounded by an online eulogy which they mistake for a general groundswell, some will find themselves tweeting: ‘how is it possible the Tories won when everyone I follow hates them?’

It’s very easy to fall into this trap, since the problem is the human condition. We all have the faulty tendency to base our view of the world on what we see in front of us: whether it’s Twitter pages, Facebook feeds, or packed-to-the-rafters rallies. Even when we know rationally we’re being misled we still fall for it. If you’ve been to several raucous Corbyn events, it’s difficult to believe, to really believe, the lagging polls. Everyone seems to love him though! Have you seen the size of his crowds?

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