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Why rallies work

I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. Rallies in politics matter, and you needn’t take my word for it any more as Alia Middleton at the LSE has crunched the numbers. She found that where Theresa May set down during the election campaign, her visits had little appreciable effect on the outcome in those seats. When Jeremy Corbyn rolled into town for one of his rallies, the party vote share change went up almost double versus constituencies he didn’t visit. Amaze.

If you cast your mind back to any point before this year’s general election campaign, some wise old wise old could be found lecturing the world about how rallies do not win elections. Indeed, some might have said they’re a complete waste of time. Why bother listening to someone tell you things you already know when you could be posting leaflets and knocking on doors? And, of course, in Jez’s case it was just another case of him being in his comfort zone talking to folks who agree with him. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Rallies are important for several reasons. They bring large numbers of people together, just like demonstrations. When big numbers of like mind turn out for something, it not only builds up a collective feeling of solidarity, it enables people to meet, talk, get involved. Why do you think Momentum, Labour and sundry Trot groups have stalls at these sorts of events? Because they know new people will be drawn there out of curiosity and interest, a fair chunk of whom would be looking to get involved further. Second, rallies – especially Jez rallies – are a spectacle. They’re something we haven’t seen with any degree of regularity since the mid-1980s, particularly outside London, and for large numbers of younger people it is entirely novel. If you happen to just be passing by and a thousand or so people are gathered, chances are you’re going to hang around and see what the fuss is about. And think of what the spads and wonks call the optics. During the election people saw Theresa May shuttled from one staged event to another, whereas Jez was meeting and addressing real people. When the media barrage is this man is weak/dangerous/unpopular and yet the same is showing him in front of crowds, that message ain’t going to wash.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the impact this has on the Labour Party’s enemies. Rallies are supposed to show your opposition the kind of strength you can muster. When Jeremy Corbyn can pop up in any part of the country and draw a crowd, that’s going to make the Tories nervous. They are finally waking up to we saw in Derby North. A rally also ensured coverage in the local rags (every local newspaper reader is very likely to be a voter), which would have percolated out into the nearby marginals. Their geographic spread is therefore unlikely to have made much of a difference. Meanwhile, May’s strategy didn’t help her – the more the public saw, the more stilted, awkward, robotic she and “her team” appeared.

This week Jez embarked on his summer tour of marginal constituencies. There will still be grumblers and naysayers grumbling and naysaying, but now the electoral impact of this strategy cannot be denied.


  1. Tony says:

    There were big rallies too in 1983. However, they probably did not help much on that occasion because Labour’s campaign was such a total shambles.

    The reason Theresa May’s rallies had little obvious effect is because she hardly spoke to anyone.

    Good article!

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      In 1983, Labour had two enormous negatives compared to 2017.

      1. Michael Foot: A party leader who, whatever “great orator” he might once have been, was by 1983 clearly approaching senility – he could not string a coherent sentence together. The more people saw him, the less they liked him and a collective “you cannot be serious” feeling settled among the electorate.

      2. Unilateralism: A position which is utterly intellectually unsustainable. Electoral suicide – particularly just 12 months after the Falklands War.

      1. Tony says:

        1. Some truth in this.

        2. Complete nonsense. Labour’s position on nuclear weapons was completely muddled and so convinced nobody. The idea that people will not vote for a party that opposes nuclear weapons is a lazy assumption.

        1. Karl Stewart says:

          The idea that people will not vote for a party that is committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament is not an assumption, it’s historical fact.

          Labour had a unilateral position in 1983 and again in 1987 and they were landslide both times.

          Opposing nuclear weapons is not the same as committing to a unilateral disarmament position Tony.

          Labour’s position in this year’s election was one of seeking to take the lead in encouraging multilateral nuclear reductions – but not committing to disarmament without reaching agreement on similar measures in other nuclear-armed countries.

          This position was not a “pro-nuclear weapons” position, but it was a sensible, responsible and well-considered policy and won strong support from the electorate.

          1. Tony says:

            “The idea that people will not vote for a party that is committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament is not an assumption, it’s historical fact.”

            The electoral success of the SNP clearly disproves this statement.

            At the last election, the Labour Party policy was to replace Trident. That is clearly a pro-nuclear weapons policy. The part of the manifesto that dealt with this issue could just as easily have been written by Theresa May.

            I hope that Labour’s policy will change by the time of the next general election.

  2. Sue says:

    I went to the Corbyn rally in Southampton. It really made me feel like I am a member of a mass movement. It made me feel that the little I can do re leafleting, talking to people and so on can make a huge difference. It made me feel that together we can change the govt and change society. It was hugely motivational for me. Was very pleased I went.

  3. Peter Rowlands says:

    PBC doesn’t point out that rallies were given a bad name:
    a) in 1983, when despite much passion at large rallies Labour did abysmally, and:
    b) In 1992, when the disastrous Sheffield rally, with Kinnock shouting ‘We’re alright’, helped to lose us the election.
    Yes, of course rallies are a good thing, and can have some positive electoral effect, although their main purpose is to raise the morale and enthusiasm of activists.

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