Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Leadership Box Office

Just how much has the Labour leadership contest enthused the public at large? To put its popularity in perspective, let's compare the contest to something a little more colourful: The cinema.

Lights, camera, action!
Image source: WYPR Maryland

The Labour leadership electorate numbered 422,664 voters: 245,520 party members; 105,598 trade union affiliates; 71,546 registered supporters. (Anyone on the electoral roll could join the latter group, for a fee of £3.) They respectively made up 58%, 25%, and 17% of the total.

For comparison, the 61st highest grossing film in the UK in 2014 was Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. (It placed just ahead of the Cameron Diaz comedy Sex Tape, and behind sci-fi thriller The Purge.) This earnest biopic of Nelson Mandela had a lukewarm critical reception, and a correspondingly mediocre performance at the box office and film awards. It grossed $7,190,817 (US) in UK cinemas.

About 500,000 people went to see Mandela, assuming a ticket price of $14 (roughly £9). They numbered almost the same as the Labour leadership electorate; but each one invested significantly more time and money than was required to vote for Labour leader.

Corbyn received 251,417 votes, many of them new supporters who paid their £3 specifically to vote for him. Compared to his rivals, that's a remarkable achievement; but he had only half the drawing power of an unremarkable political biopic. In box office terms, Corbyn was on a par with Johnny Depp's critically mauled sci-fi film Transcendence ($3.5M gross, 97th place).

If we compare the contest to truly popular films, the gap is intimidating. The Imitation Game sold about 1.7 million tickets ($24M gross, 21st place), and The Lego Movie about 4 million ($56M gross, 3rd place).

Corbyn's following is not a mass movement. At most, it is the nucleus of what may become one, if the more optimistic predictions of his followers are borne out. Corbyn may or may not have the ability to attract a personal following in the millions; all we know for sure is, he hasn't done it yet.

While Corbyn won the contest, his rivals also lost it. I've poured cold water on the scale of Corbyn's achievement, but he did a lot better than any of the others. Andy Burnham came second, and his 80,462 votes equate roughly to ticket sales of one-man drama Locke ($1.4M gross, 142nd place).

Burnham had the popular appeal of Tom Hardy sitting in a car and talking on the telephone for 85 minutes. (That really is an accurate description of Locke, it's a tribute to Hardy as an actor that he pulls it off.) In fact I liked Locke very much, and so did the critics, but it wasn't trying for mass popularity. Burnham should have been, but in hindsight I have to wonder if he saw the contest in those terms.

The innovation of this Labour contest was that it was wide open to newcomers. There are 45 million people on the electoral roll in the UK, and 9 million of those voted Labour in the general election. Any of them could, in principle, be enticed to join in. Corbyn appears to be the only candidate who grasped the nature of the challenge, and made an effort to widen the electorate.

The not-Corbyn candidates had different strategies: Burnham wavered between centrist and Corbyn-lite, Kendall berated the party for its failures, and Cooper said as little as possible. All of them were solely addressing the Labour tribe; none made any serious attempt to reach beyond it. They were too used to working the levers of the party machine, and failed to notice the rules had changed.

The Labour establishment really has only itself to blame for Corbyn's victory: First for adopting this peculiar electoral system; then for nominating "mainstream" candidates too dull to attract outside support, and too oblivious even to try.

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