by Daniel Frost
They will never extinguish the flame of solidarity that we have lit within our movement and within our society.
John McDonnell, Croydon, 6 June 2017
On the day that the election was formally called, Jeremy Corbyn chose to deliver one of his first speeches in Croydon. It was a statement of intent: Croydon Central was held by the Tory housing minister Gavin Barwell with a paper-thin majority of 165. As you would expect, he drew quite a crowd; Labour councillors mingling with activists who had rushed from work and passers-by eager for selfies with the man himself.
It was an event which set the tone for the rest of the campaign, not only in Croydon but across the country. Dreaming big and ambitiously, fighting to take seats and not just retain them; people from across the labour movement coming together with those who’ve never previously been politically active, and taking the campaign into the streets.
In the weeks that followed we were alternately drenched and sunburnt, heckled by fascists and forced to shelter from thunderstorms. We knocked on doors, visited colleges and stations, spoke to people on the phone and delivered leaflets. We were joined by veteran Labour canvassers, feminist activists, housing campaigners, Sixth Formers and students, children, people from every line of work and those who are retired. We even had Greens and Communist Party members lending a hand: a ‘progressive alliance’ born out of struggle and not psephology.
Labour didn’t just win in Croydon Central. With a majority of 5,652 we have won by more than any MP in Croydon Central since 1992- and on the highest turnout (71.3%) since the same year. Gavin Barwell was utterly humiliated. In some wards, including those in which the Tories will be hoping to make gains in council elections in 2018, as many as 80% of people voted.
But we haven’t only gained an excellent Labour MP in Sarah Jones. This election has been a transformative experience for many of us, and the Labour Party itself will have been shaped differently in the process. The future of the Left in Croydon is perhaps brighter now than it has ever been, in a number of respects.
First and foremost, there can be no doubt whatsoever who is responsible for this win. Sarah Jones worked incredibly hard for her victory, but she was understandably humble enough to acknowledge that people were voting for Jeremy Corbyn and for our manifesto- and that it was Momentum activists who propelled her over the line.
From the beginning of the campaign, it was abundantly obvious that Progress were not going to send their activists here; their focus was purely defensive, sending activists in south London to Tooting (!) and not Croydon. Momentum, on the other hand, flooded the constituency with supporters from as far afield as Tottenham. Local activists, including myself, played a major role in running boards- especially on the election day itself. Without Momentum, DPAC and associated groups, voter registration drives would have been virtually non-existent given the tight timeframe.
Just as important as this boon to our credibility, though, has been what we have learnt from the campaign. Above all, we have learnt just how much more we are capable of. Nobody will be able to quite keep up the level of commitment we have maintained over the last six weeks, but everyone will feel able to do more than they did before. We have also gained a better sense of Croydon as a place, canvassing everywhere from Woodside to Forestdale (areas which, I can assure you, are more different than their names would suggest). Perhaps crucially, we have also gained the confidence to do things differently next time- for example demanding greater democratic accountability around the shape of the campaign.
But the significance of the election for those of us already involved pales in comparison to the scores of new comrades (and friends) who have taken part in this campaign. Momentum and Corbyn-supporters have taken a lot of flak in the past for not pulling our fair share of weight on the doorstep. However, just as Momentum’s organisation in Croydon was given a new lease of life by the second leadership election, this campaign has got more people involved than ever before.
Our new comrades are already committing to staying part of the movement. The various WhatsApp groups set up during the campaign, which helped enormously with mobilisation (and were so popular that alternative groups had to be set up for political discussion), will not be closed; the spectre of an autumn election looms over us, probably fortuitously. Canvassing has fostered the formation of affinity groups, connections between activists which straddle the social and the political.
Even supporters not formally affiliated to the Left will have been impressed by our efforts (not just our work ethic but, I hope, our positivity and generosity), and membership will climb in both Momentum and the Labour Party.
As well as the new involvement of local supporters, a promising phenomenon from the campaign in Croydon has been the immense contribution by activists from outside the constituency. Already, before the election, Momentum activists helped to organise Take Back Control, the first in a series of national events, which brought many people to our borough. We have been successful in combatting the chauvinism which has previously seen some people sneer at venturing into Zone 5. Visiting Ruskin House, the centre of the labour movement in Croydon, has opened many people’s eyes to the facilities which we are very lucky to have (and which we must protect). The election campaign also coincided with a major demonstration against the South East Alliance, which brought many anti-fascists to Croydon and permitted a crossover between canvassing and direct action.
I am hopeful that these activists will not only return to help defend Croydon Central in the next election, but begin to view Croydon (and Ruskin House in particular) as a major centre for the Left in south London.
Whilst a number of these comrades heralded from Labour safe-seats to our north, there was also a sizeable contingent from Tory strongholds- especially Beckenham, East Surrey and Croydon South. If these activists stay in contact with each other, and with the ‘hub’ of Croydon Central, there is a real possibility of building (or growing) proper Labour Party organisations in these constituencies. Already, even without these constituencies being treated as a priority (and with many of their activists campaigning elsewhere), Labour is the second-largest party in these seats and has just benefited from massive swings. To this end, it may be worth exploring how Momentum in Croydon can build upon its relationships with sister groups in Bromley and Surrey.
Labour’s victory in Croydon Central has been remarkable, and the plaudits are owed to Corbyn’s supporters in the borough and across the country: long vilified, now vindicated. But we cannot rest on our laurels, because this moment offers an unprecedented opportunity.
We will only seize upon it, and turn a successful election into a meaningful advance for the Left in Croydon, if we find ways to maintain the incredible energy which this campaign has been powered by.
Croydon Momentum will be meeting and celebrating in Cedar Hall (Ruskin House) at 7.30pm on Thursday 15th June.
Photo: Chris McKenna
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