Blog: Big ideas, small change - RSA

Blog: Big ideas, small change

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  • Leadership

‘He could charm the birds right out of the trees. Now he says 'What do I do with these?' ... Elvis Costello

One of the bigger surprises I have had in my life occurred when I turned up to the weekly meeting of the Leamington Spa anti-apartheid group back in 1987. Instead of the usual ten earnest activists, the community centre was packed to the rafters.  Our decision to leaflet people exiting the film Cry Freedom, about the life and death of Steve Biko, has been much more successful than we had expected. But what were we do with all these enthusiastic converts to the cause?

The Labour leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, facilitated by the scope to buy a vote for £3, has led to a similar explosion of activism. The Labour Party reports local membership more than doubling - and constituency meetings that might have attracted 20 diehards drawing in three times as many.

The Corbyn phenomenon is unquestionably fascinating. We are seeing political strategy being developed in real time, spontaneous, engaging but also chaotic to the point of amateurism and all, as yet, without much sign it is attracting support from anyone who was not already firmly on the left of centre.

Yet, is it possible that the man at the centre of this phenomenon might soon start to regret his rise?  I don’t know what is going on around Mr Corbyn (apart from what we are all reading in the press) but I have seen close up what is involved in leading a Party. It requires almost continuous judgement calls, many of which are made under intense pressure. This in turn demands levels of self-confidence, resilience and intuition beyond many people who have been preparing for leadership all their adult lives. And even the best leaders in the best of times rely heavily on a team around them with similar skills.

My sense is Mr Corbyn and his inner circle may lack the capacity to deal with this intensity. So far they have muddled through by a mixture of pragmatic adjustment and deferring decisions until they can be subject to Party democracy. (These strategies can conflict – policy on the European Union seems to have changed three times this week without much reference to the views of the rank and file.)

But while we don’t know the durability of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, politicians and commentators across the political spectrum are recognising one impact of his rise: big bold ideas are back on the agenda. As my colleague Tony Greenham has written today, the value of Corbynomics (if there I such a thing) is less about the individual ideas and more about widening what was previously a very narrow economic debate.

If Mr Corbyn does not stay to fight the next election then surely it is a safe bet that the next lot of Labour leadership candidates will want to demonstrate that they too can think big, even if thinking big doesn’t mean thinking hard left. 

This is all well and good but there is a problem. Ideas about social and economic reform are only as useful as the model of change that goes with them. More specifically many important forms of change will not be achieved unless citizens themselves agree to be part of the process.

As I wrote in an RSA Journal article a while ago ‘reformers have tended to see citizen engagement as an optional extra for the transformational act of policy making, instead policy making should be seen as an optional extra to the transformational task of citizen mobilisation’.

Here at the RSA we recognise that to have lasting impact new ideas should be accompanied by a cogent analysis of the barriers to change and by wide ranging and nuanced strategies to lower those barriers. This is why our best projects combine our unique capacity to spread big ideas, undertake desk-based research and on-the-ground innovation and engage and mobilise our Fellows. You’ll see this quite soon in a fantastic project we have put together on local heritage, identity and shaping a place.

The conventional view is that the problem of policy and politics – the reason it doesn’t engage people - is the lack of big ideas but the absence of mobilising models of change is just as important. Which brings me back to Leamington Spa in 1987. The film had filled people with conviction and a desire for change but, sadly, apart from signing a petition and making a donation we had no idea of what to do with our new ranks of enthusiasts.

Whatever any of us think of him and his policies, Jeremy Corbyn has made radical thinking de rigueur. But unless bold ideas can quickly be allied to ways of enabling change to happen on the ground – not through mere protest but by citizens developing local solutions to what ails them - then the energy the Corbyn project has released will soon dissipate.

Three weeks after that night in 1987 the Leamington Spa anti- apartheid group was back to the hard core. And – to be honest - I think that we were all rather relieved.  

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  • There is a large big monster of disappointment that met me the first time I attended local Labour Party and Green Party meetings. They were anything but radical and felt very cliquey to me. That's a research sample of one and I'm happy to be told that that's just me and all of the others are just a hive of upbeat action.....

    I have thought that Mr Corbyn seems to be at least trying to keep the Labour party together. The meeting of his (packed to the gills and 'buzzing') that I attended in the leadership contest had a few "Blairites out" shouts from amongst the crowd. That way leads to a splintering similar to the sad demise of the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front...

    Great article Matthew

  • Local solutions are happening....Corbyn has achieved a major step forward by changing the way in which everyone can frame their narratives.  It means, for example, that movements like 'Incredible Edible' are no longer perceived as on the edges of the debate - but very much part of central issues in our lives...I also think the major change to our politics should be given more than 3 weeks.... 

  • Disappointed by dismissal of (what you call) 'Corbynomics' as thinking hard left! Makes RSA look alike just another arm of the mainstream media - and makes me wonder if it is actually the wide church I thought it was when I became a Fellow.

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