It was the moment a rather dreary debate caught fire. Owen Smith had looked like a man questioning his decision to cancel his summer holiday, but his eyes lit up with anger during the Labour leadership hustings in Glasgow this week when the supposedly Labour-supporting crowd laughed at the mention of Kezia Dugdale’s name.
“I am really worried that I am hearing a Labour audience laughing and jeering at the leader of Scottish Labour,” he roared. He had a point. Booing your own leader, purging your own members, banning your own security contractors and putting your annual conference at risk – they’re not the actions of a party gearing up for victory.
The curious thing about Labour right now isn’t the myriad ways it has come up with to tie its own shoelaces together. It’s how little some of its own supporters seem to care.
Most polls put Labour under Jeremy Corbyn at less than 30 per cent of the vote, heading for a drubbing that would take the party back to levels last seen when Clement Attlee was leader – before the war. Some of his supporters claim the polls are wrong, and the crowds that flock to hear him speak are a sign of a deeper truth hidden from the rest of us.
But trawl the posts by diehard Corbynistas on the Facebook page of his booster campaign Momentum and elsewhere, and you’ll find a healthy dose of realism. They know he can’t convince a plurality of the electorate, and in their more reflective moments would probably also admit that Labour could be out of power for a generation. But as long as Corbyn remains in charge, they’re content.
To the exclusion of almost all else, Smith’s campaign has been about reminding party supporters the purpose of any political party is wielding power, or at least exerting it on the people who do – and Labour isn’t even managing the latter at the moment, by the way. He has repeated it with the forbearance of a maths teacher insisting that no, 2 + 2 really does equal 4.
So who are the Corbyn supporters who are so impervious to this message – and why isn’t it getting through?
Labour watchers contemplating the party’s decline through parted fingers often hark back to the Thatcher years, the last time the left was as divided and far from power as it is now. Entryism, purges and counter-purges, a platform and leader alien to the middle of the electorate – all are familiar to anyone who remembers the 1980s.
But Trotsky enthusiasts and members of the socialist vanguard formerly known as Militant are only part of the coalition that sustains Corbyn. He comes from their tradition, but it wasn’t veteran trade unionists who organised Facebook groups to swap sums of £25 online, thinly disguising the fact that the money was intended to pay the fee for registered supporter status – a fee that says a lot about how working class the recent surge in backing for Labour really is.
Young people have always been to the left of their elders, but the generational gap in voting intention has never been wider.
Half of 18 to 34 year-olds say they would vote Labour in a general election, compared with just 34 per cent of 35 to 54 year-olds, and 29 per cent of those aged 55 and over. The gap is unprecedented in the years since 1974, when Ipsos MORI began collecting data on voting intentions. Jeremy Corbyn is as popular with young voters as Tony Blair, but as likely to win the next election as Michael Foot.
That demographic contains a political generation defined by crushing disappointment with traditional politics. The oldest of them marched in 2003 against the war in Iraq, only to see the will of millions (but not, at the time, the majority) ignored. Most of those that gave up on Labour in disgust at Tony Blair’s foreign policy voted Liberal Democrat in 2010, only for the party to abandon its pledge on tuition fees in exchange for political power.
After an economic collapse and two Tory election victories, now the EU referendum result is conclusive evidence, in their eyes, that the game is rigged.
People of roughly my age (and social background) got the vote around the same time Facebook arrived in the UK. Politics from then, and increasingly for everyone that comes after, has been as much about exerting influence on social media, raising awareness through viral campaigns, and winning victories on single issues as it has been about winning elections.
Through social and technological change coupled with bitter experience, a growing proportion of younger people have become disengaged from traditional politics. It has nothing to do with apathy, but more to do with the perceived distance between traditional political power and their lives.
Margaret Beckett complained recently that the influx of new Labour backers acted as if they were part of a ‘Jeremy Corbyn fanclub’. She couldn’t have been more right. They see a leader who, for the first time in living memory, fits their image, and they aren’t likely to change their minds because he isn’t polling well.
This doesn’t offer much long-term hope for Labour – it is the same demographic that craved EU membership by a factor of three to one, but allowed themselves to be stripped of the right to study and work in Europe by their grandparents because only two in three turned out to vote.
In Scotland, the independence referendum offered an outlet. The question for Labour, and for Corbyn supporters, is where they go when his leadership reaches its inevitable conclusion: another defeat for their political standard bearer. Other parties, like the Greens, may pick up the pieces. It will take a Labour leader of unprecedented charisma to keep them on side.