The Fight of Our Lives

Why thousands who had never taken part in political activism before are campaigning for Labour.

Since the influx of new members beginning in the lead-up to the 2015 leadership election, there has been much discussion on the left about the potential of grassroots activism in the Labour Party. During what Joe Kennedy dubbed the “euphoro-Corbynism” period following the vote in 2017, talk was of a million-member party, democratised and transformed through its activist base into a diverse and formidable social movement. This is yet to materialise. However, since the calling of a general election due to take place on the 12th of December, Labour members have engaged in party political activism to a degree hitherto unmatched in Britain this millennium.

Labour has always had a loyal core of members prepared to go out and gauge public opinion through conversations with local residents, but in the weeks preceding both the local elections in the spring of 2017 and the general election on June the 8th of that year, the discourse was dominated by reports from candidates about how unpopular Jeremy Corbyn was. This was part of the reason the result of that general election came as such a shock to so many commentators. Corbynphobia is real, but, as James Smith has remarked, it remains ‘broad but shallow’; many long-time Labour voters overcame their hostility to the Labour leader to vote for the party in 2017, and many Corbyn-sceptic voters forget their antipathy when they hear about Labour policies. This happened thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of indefatigable members from the Labour left being prepared to give up their free time, unpaid, to make the case for the manifesto.

At that point though, the best that many on the left were hoping for was for Labour to avoid the kind of electoral thrashing that would have forced Jeremy Corbyn to stand down as party leader. This time there is the fear- exacerbated by comments from John McDonnell that even another narrow defeat might necessitate Corbyn’s resignation, which would, given party rules around who can stand to be leader, leave Corbynism at the mercy of a largely hostile Parliamentary Labour Party. This, allied to existential fear over climate breakdown and, for some, the likelihood that this election is the last chance to stop Brexit, has all contributed to a steely resolution to put every effort into what party activists and the few left voices in mainstream media have referred to as “the fight of our lives”. For many first-time activists, inaction is no longer an option:

“It feels like we are running out of time,” says Ian Simpson, a graphic designer based in South London. “And if we are not careful we will wake up on Friday 13th to the nightmare of Boris, Farage and Trump carving up the pie for themselves, and ‘the many’ ever reliant on food banks, a failing NHS and a climate catastrophe. I just wouldn’t have been able to look my girls in the eye if I just did nothing.”

Tom Woodbury, a chartered surveyor from Southampton, who has been campaigning in Southampton Itchen, echoes this: “I’m canvassing for the first time because I know that this is probably the only chance we’ve got left to elect a government that values humanity over capital. I’m not only fighting for the Labour Party, but also my children. I want to look them in the eye in ten years and say “I fought for the Green New Deal. I fought for your right to education, I fought for the NHS, I fought for fair wages and I fought your right to have a roof over your head”.

Yvonne Osman is campaigning for the first time at the age of 76. “This is the most important election of my lifetime,” she says. “It’s not just Brexit. It’s not even just austerity… I’m doing this for a safe future for my children and grandchildren.”

Yet as well as grim, Camusian determination, there is hope, excitement even. Along with the memory of 2017 there is the knowledge that the surprise result was achieved in spite of a Labour bureaucratic machine that defunded marginal seats and insisted on fighting a defensive campaign. The appointment of a much more supportive General Secretary in Jennie Formby, the news of over a million young people registering to vote, polling that is bad but nowhere near as bad as at the same stage in the lead up to the last general election… all of this allows us to believe that it might be possible to eclipse that showing and actually form a government. As Vik Chechi-Ribeiro explains, “after how close 2017 was, I regretted not campaigning… as a lead union rep and organizer in my school I felt it was my responsibility to help people believe they can be agents of transformational power. We can win.”

And what a transformative government it would be. Party activists were buoyed back in September by the motions passed at the party conference, and although not all of the radicalism of that week in Brighton has survived Labour’s Clause V meeting (at which Labour Party and affiliated trade union figures agree on what the election pledges should be), the 2019 manifesto is likely the most progressive offer made by a mainstream political party in years. With it comes an opportunity to reimagine what is possible.

After four decades of politicians officiously managing our expectations and narrowing our horizons, finally we have a leader who is promising to “rewrite the rules of the economy so that it works for everyone”. This is crucial, but the promise is not limited to macroeconomics. For so long we have lived under a glum, pseudo-sympathetic hegemonic class formation that has attempted to indoctrinate us to believe that better things are not possible.

This election could be a reckoning for the legacy of Blairism. Tony Blair, as Stuart Hall argued, presented the economy as “beyond the control of nation states and probably regional and international agencies as well”, and claimed “with weary finality” that this was simply a fact of life 1. Sometimes we hear or feel this when a Labour MP or councillor implements austerity ‘with a heavy heart’, or when we encounter the kind of bureaucratic colleague Mark Fisher wrote about in Capitalist Realism who “in terms of his inner subjective attitude… is hostile, even contemptuous, towards the bureaucratic principles he supervises; but in terms of his outward behavior… is perfectly compliant.”3 In the midst of what Corbyn has called “the biggest people-powered campaign in history”, it is possible to at least imagine the reversal of what Fredric Jameson wrote of in Postmodernism- Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

The surrender to the various forms of market ideology- on the left, I mean, not to mention everybody else, has been imperceptible but alarmingly universal. Everyone is now willing to mumble, as though it were an inconsequential concession in passing to public opinion and current received wisdom (or shared communicational presuppositions) that no society can function efficiently without the market.3

The very act of being part of a mass canvass- inherently a collective endeavour- feels like a challenge to neoliberal subjectivity. When we are joined on dark, wet, windy streets by strangers, we are- as well as hopefully increasing the chances of a Labour government- also increasing our collective potential. When we persuade someone to vote with us, it’s not just their vote that makes us happy- it’s the experience of finding common ground with someone. After a door-knocking session was cut short due to torrential rain, Woodbury told me “I was gutted as I was buzzing. I think I turned one undecided voter, and another who’d never voted.” This is galvanising, solidarity-building and consciousness-raising. It feels good. JJ, a data analyst in Bristol, explains that “the experience of being on the doorstep has been really powerful. Not only is it great to chat to normal people, outside the depressing media bubble, but also being out with other campaigners is a really uplifting feeling”.

What we are experiencing is the opposite of capitalist realist consciousness deflation- through collective endeavours, we feel our consciousness being raised. As Keir Milburn states, this means

identifying the structural causes of the social constraints that are placed on your life. It includes the increased confidence and capacity that comes with seeing yourself as part of a powerful collective actor rather than an isolated individual. And it also includes that expansion of social and political possibility that comes when what is presented as necessary and inevitable is revealed as merely contingent and therefore, in principle, changeable.4

This might go some way to explaining why some high earners are campaigning for Labour even though it would result in them paying more tax. Consultant Matthew Pike, when asked why he deems a Labour government more important than protecting his income, explains “because I put a price on my sanity, and living in a country which is bitterly divided down so many different lines, and where those less fortunate are trampled on, makes me fucking depressed. In the whole of this season of Brexit, ONLY Corbyn has spoken about healing the rifts. It is only him that it has even occurred to, to talk about it. All the others want to deepen the divide.”

The most marked shift in the ideological atmosphere has come through young people, although what is meant by this is people under the age of 40. Some of them were radicalised during the student movement of 2010-11. Some- now perhaps in their late 30s- became political actors during mass protests at the Iraq War in 2003. Regardless, these are people whose horizons have been dominated by neoliberalism. Yet here they are, finally beginning to coalesce around an ideology that offering an alternative to late capitalism. The cultural, social and political inertia is being challenged by every mass canvass, although in reality what we are doing is much more than canvassing. Canvassing has typically meant voter idenitification, - literally asking people whether they planned to vote for you then walking away, whereas activists are now actively trying to persuade undecided and even opposed voters to vote Labour, often using personal, perhaps even intimate stories about why we are voting Labour. We are listening, we are empathising, we are sharing our experiences and attempting to find common values. In the context of an epidemic of loneliness that is the result of decades of sustained attacks on communities and on collectivism itself, what we are doing surely represents incredibly important, counter-hegemonic praxis. “I’ve always been reluctant to get involved with canvassing,” says Gia Armstrong, a healthcare assistant. “I was scared of confrontation and didn’t feel confident in my ability to communicate Labour’s message effectively. But this year I didn’t feel like I had a choice. There is simply too much at stake. To my surprise, it’s been an incredibly joyful experience. Veteran activists have been so welcoming to us newcomers, and even on the coldest, wettest nights there is a genuine feeling of optimism on the door step.”

It seems incongruous in the context of postmodern, post-community, post-political media. Young or old, we can tangibly feel our radical potentialities reasserting themselves; politics itself is being reborn. Sincerity is being reborn. Genuinely caring about something is being reborn. There are still those who see us as quaint, who let out sighs of resignation and say things like ‘I agree with you in principle, but we need to be realistic’. This glum resignation- the attitude of those who would express support for radical democratic actions even while acting in opposition to them, be it by crossing picket lines, failing to observe boycotts or, again, attacking the vulnerable ‘with a heavy heart’- will no longer do. Neither will the postmodern idea that our deeds don’t matter, and that we can convince ourselves we are decent people by defining ourselves not through praxis but through some internalised, ‘deep down’ value system.

When we encounter this kind of capitulation to capitalist realism we must remind ourselves of what Raymond Williams- prescient as ever- wrote in 1961, when he noted that even “some sections of the Labour movement have gone over, almost completely, to ways of thinking which they still formally oppose”5 and that “any such development is generally damaging, for the society is unlikely to be able significantly if it has no real alternative patterns as the ground of choice”6. By advocating unambiguously for socialism we have already changed the Labour Party. By continuing to do so on the doorsteps and in the streets, across garden fences and pub tables, we may be able to change the state. We needn’t couch our ambitions in the language of amelioration- we are speaking now of profound change. And so we must. After all, as Williams also warns us, “It has been the gravest error of socialism, in revolt against class societies, to limit itself, so often, to the terms of its opponents.”7

It seems that everything is buckling under the weight of austerity, the climate crisis and the Little England-ism of the moment. Yet this sense that the status quo is simply unsustainable is- in harness with an audacious vision that we ourselves pushed the party to adopt- allowing us to visualise the end of the static period of limbo we’ve lived through since the global financial crisis proved to us that capitalism doesn’t work. And finally- finally- we have a propositional project- we are saying what we are for, instead of just what we are against.

There is a sense that something around us is dying, and it is joyous that it is dying. A sense that a whole new range of possibilities- possibilities around how we live, how we work, how we love each other- are finally within our reach, and that all we have to do now is persuade people in our communities that it doesn’t have to be like this. We are being born. And what we, in turn, may give birth to is so worth fighting for.

To get involved in campaigning for Labour, take a look at the Party website for events near you and if you want to campaign in Southampton Itchen, or for where you might be most useful, Momentum’s My Campaign Map.

If there’s enough interest, New Socialist will be organising a campaigning trip from London to Southampton Itchen on Saturday December 7th to try to help overturn a Conservative majority of 31(!). DM us on twitter or email [email protected] if you’re interested in coming along.

  1. Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings- The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, Duke University Press, 2017, pp. 288-289  

  2. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, 2009, p.55 

  3. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1989, p.263 

  4. Keir Milburn, Generation Left, Polity Press, 2019, p.44 

  5. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, Penguin, 1961, p. 328 

  6. Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 328 

  7. Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 131