The Labour Party and the Curse of Mr Splashy Pants

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So then. The Labour leadership election. It's a pretty damn exciting one, relatively speaking. Or at least it is if you believe the pronouncements coming from the many and varied big beasts of the party. Apparently Labour is "doomed", "driving itself over a cliff" and "sending a resignation letter to the British people" if it elects veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as its new figurehead. The thing is, if they don't want him to win these people would all be wise to learn the lessons of a certain celebrity cetacean and keep their mouths firmly shut.

The irony which Labour finds itself in is well-documented but so funny to be worth a recap: Corbyn is only on the ballot paper in the first place thanks to the sympathy votes of Commons colleagues who had no intention of supporting him but who wanted to "widen the debate". Well they've certainly done that. This is after the party election rules were supposedly improved by Ed Miliband, who has unwittingly allowed thousands of non-Labour supporters to sign up and vote for the candidate they think will most fatally damage the party. (Whether they're right to calculate that this is Jeremy Corbyn is another issue). And now the entire political class has become royally spooked by opinion polls claiming that Corbyn's lead is stretching into Astronomical Units, even though the very same polling organisations predicted only 3 months ago that by now Prime Minister Miliband would have the keys to Number 10. For anyone who enjoys a spot of satire it's reassuring to know that British politics can still fizz with such wondrous idiocy.

Behind closed doors Labour grandees are tearing their hair out, confused and maddened by the fact that the louder they scream their warnings not to support Jezza, the more his support grows. How can it be happening? This brings us to the aforementioned Mr Pants, and to Labour politicians' complete misunderstanding of modern communication. Back in 2009, co-creator of Reddit Alexis Ohanian delivered a short talk for TED.com in which he revealed the secrets of social media via a cautionary tale about Greenpeace taking on the Internet and losing. The environmental charity had been combatting the plight of Japanese whaling, and in an effort to raise awareness decided to put a tracking chip on one hump-back whale. What's more, in order to help people connect with the animal they asked website users to name it. A list of 30 names was offered, including such high-flown options as the Farsi word for "immortal" (Anahi) and "Kaimana", which means "divine power of the ocean" in Hawaiian. As a throwaway joke, at the end of the list they also offered Mr Splashy Pants. This came to the attention of Reddit, and in the spirit of harmless mischief-making their community decided en masse to vote for this name. More sites followed suit and pretty soon Splashy jumped from 5% to 70% of all votes cast. This really annoyed Greenpeace, who wanted one of their carefully chosen, thoughtful names to win, so they changed the rules and allowed an extra week of voting. (Note the echoes here of the Labour politicians who've been shouting "not fair" and calling for a pause in the leadership election as Corbyn's lead continues to stretch). Well, now the internet got really mad and the meme spread even further.  Splashy's final share of the vote? 78%. (The next highest entry scored 3% ...Burnham, Cooper and Kendall take heed).

The lesson is that in the age of social media you can't possibly hope to control the message in the top-down way that organisations and political parties used to manage so effectively. If you tell people not to do something, they're very likely to damn well do it, with even more gusto than they would have done otherwise. Greenpeace belatedly realised that the Splashy affair was actually great publicity for them and their cause and they ended up embracing the situation, even leading to merchandising lines (get your Mr Splashy Pants mug here). Far more importantly they made headway in their campaign, with at least a temporary ban on the whaling missions, although the controversial issue has sadly not gone away. On the other hand New Labour Blairites, who for years prided themselves on being masters of the art of spin, are floundering around pursuing a scorched earth policy and attacking one of their own, instead of realising that Corbynmania is a rare asset for the party, no matter who they want to win. It's telling that the massed ranks of the Tory party and all (or rather both) remaining Liberal Democrat supporters are barely saying a word about the contest. They don't have to. Tony Blair is doing it for them. Despite being the self-styled political giant of his generation, he seems to be spectacularly naive: hysterically telling the press pack that Corbyn supporters need either a) "a heart transplant" or b) to be "rugby tackled" is pouring petrol on a left-wing fire that would gladly engulf him and his controversial business portfolio.

Labour could have embraced this surge of social democratic feeling, a strategy in which north of the border the SNP is way ahead of the game. Perhaps they still can. But the vitriol and scorn that so many party stalwarts have poured on a clearly decent and principled man will surely do no good for their popularity or party unity in the years ahead. The more they fight the moral of Mr Splashy Pants, the more they'll just beat themselves up, and the more chance they'll end up in 2020 with the electoral equivalent of a harpoon up the bottom. 

Jon HarveyComment