Lessons from 2019: democratic disillusionment and community organising

Christine Berry

The battle for the narrative about Labour’s catastrophic defeat is already in full swing, and it is predictably proving to be a bloodbath. On both sides of Labour’s political divide, people are advancing explanations that conveniently confirm everything they already thought. Most of these hot takes are profoundly unhelpful; rather than jumping back to our pre-existing conclusions about the state of the Labour party and what we need to do to win, all sides in the debate should be asking questions that trouble our worldview – neither blaming Brexit nor blaming the leadership will suffice to explain the result on 12 December. We must step back and look at longer-term shifts that make politics hard terrain for the left. In this blog I look at one of these shifts – the erosion of trust in politics and democracy itself – and the ways in which community organising and ‘movement politics’ could help to counter this, if done right.

The hollowing out of democracy

The loss of trust in democracy is key to understanding our political moment, but under-discussed (perhaps because it does not serve inter-factional agendas). Many people simply do not believe that politicians will deliver on their promises. With hindsight, Labour’s campaign strategy of splashing around big spending pledges leaned into this tendency in a disastrous way – but it did not create it.

Johnson’s shameless lying, rather than damaging him in relation to Corbyn as many might have expected, actually seemed to have a sort of reverse halo effect whereby voters became less likely to trust anything that any politician said. Knowing they could not win on policy, the Tories’ entire election strategy focused on kicking up enough dust that people either did not see Labour’s policies or did not believe them – an insidious and sinister form of voter suppression. 50,000 nurses! 2 billion trees! The NHS will be sold off! No it won’t! Yes it will! The campaign descended into a bewildering storm of lies and half-truths, with the parties not simply arguing about values and policies but offering different versions of reality. As Adam Ramsay has argued, the relentless campaign of misinformation waged by the Tories has contributed to a hollowing out of democracy, where anyone can say anything and nobody knows what to believe.

Of course, Johnson did not create these conditions single-handedly. He was tapping into a deep pre-existing cynicism about politicians and the political process, one that stretches back at least as far as the expenses scandal and which the recent parliamentary deadlock over Brexit only seems to have heightened. Indeed, as Aditya Chakrabortty has argued, the roots of this disaffection can be traced back even further, to the failure of successive governments to empower or improve the lives of people outside London.

In 2017, Corbyn still had a sort of outsider status that seemingly allowed him to transcend some of these issues. He was widely seen as a person of conviction, different from the usual career politicians who would say anything to get into power. This appeared to give him a certain degree of protection from the relentless media onslaught on his character. And the policies themselves, after decades of suffocating neoliberal consensus, were such a breath of fresh air that they generated a buzz and energy that seemed to cut through the apathy. Two years of Brexit stasis seems to have torpedoed this, tainting Corbyn with the same associations people have with the rest of the political class.

On the doorstep, those who didn’t actively dislike Corbyn would often lump him in with Johnson and other politicians with the familiar mantra “they’re all the same”. I remember a conversation with our builder, who doesn’t vote, in which this came up and I tried to persuade him that Corbyn and Johnson were in fact pretty different. I asked what it was about Corbyn that he didn’t like, and he couldn’t pinpoint anything specific: instead he said, “He just chats shit, doesn’t he? Like all of them, they all just chat a lot of shit.” Although he hadn’t voted in the 2016 referendum, he was tired of what he saw as endless parliamentary bickering and delay: “We voted to leave, so I think we should have left.”

This last comment, I think, points to something incredibly important which the People’s Vote crowd must own and take responsibility for. From day one, it was obvious that certain sections of the political establishment did not accept the referendum result and were bent on overturning it. My personal experience of interacting with some of these people was that they didn’t even bother to try and understand the result before jumping to this knee jerk reaction. The resulting impression was that they thought people who had voted leave were credulous, ignorant and ultimately wrong – that they knew better and deserved to be back in charge.

Not coincidentally, it is the same arrogance that characterised this faction’s ill-fated attempts to unseat Corbyn from the Labour leadership, and from the same people. Given that many of these people are now urging Corbynites to reflect and take responsibility for their mistakes, I would gently suggest that perhaps they might feel moved to do the same. If Brexit was in part a reaction to feeling disempowered and ignored, a gigantic “fuck you” to the political establishment, then the People’s Vote campaign could scarcely have been better calculated to rub salt into these wounds. The Lib Dems’ irresponsible ‘revoke article 50’ stance, a move transparently intended to outflank Labour’s second referendum policy rather than to offer a serious route out of the UK’s deep political crisis, was the logical conclusion of this tendency.

On the other side of the debate, Corbynites who simply put the result down to Brexit and say that we don’t need to learn lessons from a situation that will not be repeated (a response I have had almost verbatim on Twitter), are missing the point in exactly the same way. Brexit is not only about Brexit: it is the latest in a long series of blows to people’s trust in the political system. It has allowed a power-grabbing Tory demagogue to pose as a defender of democracy while other elected parliamentarians are seen as an unaccountable elite. It has contributed to a pervading cynicism that has made it almost impossible for bold and radical policies to cut through and be believed. I suspect that we will be living with the consequences of this for a long time, and that the left will not win unless and until we find a way to restore people’s faith in politics itself.

Organising – wide but not deep

How we do this, of course, is a big question. But it surely has to start with rebuilding the Labour Party as a party that is present on the ground in communities, offering practical solidarity and real solutions, and combining this with political education that encourages people to see their individual problems as part of bigger systemic forces that we can tackle together. Of course, this is easy to say and hard to do. One lesson for me from this election result is that we need to get much more rigorous and honest with ourselves about whether we are doing it well enough. We might have convinced ourselves that Labour’s organised grassroots were its secret weapon, that person-to-person conversations would allow us to cut through the media lies and Tory spin. We were catastrophically wrong.

The work of Momentum in Manchester, where I live, is a perfect case in point both of the vibrancy and potential of the grassroots movement and of its current limitations. In this election, volunteer-led efforts mobilised hundreds of people every weekend to go doorknocking in marginal seats in the north west. It was unprecedented. As Isaac Rose and Beth Redmond wrote for Tribune, it was possible because of years of groundwork building up a presence in Manchester through cultural activities and popular education programmes. From inside this movement, it felt exciting, hopeful, maybe even unstoppable. It’s hardly surprising that many people involved distrusted polls predicting a Labour wipeout.

And yet. Every one of Manchester Momentum’s six target marginals was lost – albeit in some cases with smaller swings to the Tories than the national average. We could tell ourselves that our efforts were simply overwhelmed by the national picture, but we also need some honest reflection about the limits of this organising model. As it turns out, doorstep conversations are not a magic bullet. My impression (and that of many friends who went door knocking) was that many voters had made up their minds about Corbyn’s Labour long ago, and a five minute chat with a stranger was never going to change that. In hindsight, perhaps this should have been obvious. The problem is compounded when the conversation is with somebody who has been bussed in from Manchester and does not live locally. For me, the experience that epitomised this was phone banking for Bolton North East with a first-time canvasser armed with nothing but a brief set of talking points. “Your local MP is really popular, he’s done a lot for your area”, he offered vaguely. I winced.

And the distrust of polls also led to a misallocation of resources. The memory of 2017 loomed large, when activists were poured into Labour-held seats that ended up with huge majorities while many Tory-held seats were retained by just a few hundred votes. There was a definite sense that activists on the ground were determined to pursue a more offensive strategy, and reluctant to adjust this as the campaign went on. On polling day, we were sent to get the vote out in Bolton West, which my gut told me Labour did not have a cat in hell’s chance of winning. The sitting Tory MP increased his majority by almost 8,000 votes. Meanwhile, neighbouring Bolton North East went Tory by 378 votes. Of course, it’s easy to be wise after the event, and perhaps the old cliché is inevitable that we are always fighting the previous battle. But with hindsight, perhaps a more sober assessment of Labour’s prospects and a willingness to adjust the strategy in the course of the campaign could have made a difference to this result.

None of this is to point the finger at the organisers of Momentum Manchester, who I have huge respect for and who have built something remarkable here. It is offered in a spirit of helping each other to reflect and improve: if we are serious about creating change from the ground up, we need to be ruthless with ourselves about where we must do better. And part of that is rigorously questioning the comfortable stories we might be tempted to tell ourselves. From the top to the bottom of the party, 2017’s unexpected result bred a certain hubris, swagger and willingness to ignore bad polling that didn’t always serve us well.

The challenge, then, is for Labour to find ways to move beyond an activist base concentrated in Labour-held cities like Manchester, and to be more present in places like Bolton all year round – not just at election time. Maybe those of us in Manchester who are casting around for ways to feel useful could work with local parties to organise a listening campaign in these areas, where doorknocking is not just about persuading people to vote Labour but about identifying what the local area needs and how we can help build it. Maybe we should be organising participatory local assemblies and acting on the priorities they identify, setting up food banks, advice clinics or co-operative childcare solutions, training up tenants, debtors and precarious workers to organise and win on things they care about. Of course, these ideas are not new: Labour’s Community Organising Unit was set up precisely to spearhead this kind of activity; people like Ash Sarkar have been arguing for it for years. But it is clearly not happening on anything like the scale needed to make a decisive difference. We need to change that. This work should in turn be the foundation stone for further developing Labour’s radical policy agenda – which evidence suggests was not the key reason it lost this election – in a bottom-up, participatory way. People need to feel that they own this politics, not that it is something being offered to them by just another distant set of politicians.

Finally, I think this result has to mark the end of ‘Labourism’: the belief that Labour is the only and the sufficient vehicle for progressive change in this country. It’s easy to forget that Labour’s 2017 victory was driven in part by a rising tide of enthusiasm for progressive forces working together. Many of those who turned up to door knock were members of other political parties. Labour’s high vote share was in part made possible by the champions of progressive alliances, by supporters of other parties who were willing to put aside tribal allegiances to fight a common battle. I wrote at the time that this continued support could not be taken for granted if Labour failed to acknowledge it or respond in kind. 2019’s result may have proved this to be at least partly correct.

Certainly, 2019’s Remain Alliance appears to have been a counter-productive shower. But there was real anger from progressive individuals in the parties involved about Labour’s perceived arrogance in refusing to engage in any such discussions, or to countenance electoral reform. And in many constituencies, the Greens and Lib Dems’ combined increase in votes was more than the margin Labour lost by. Disillusionment and reluctance to vote tactically may have contributed to some of these losses. Surely, we now finally need to face up to a bunch of hard facts. The path to a Labour majority is very difficult to see. Our electoral system systematically screws the left and this will only get worse as Johnson gerrymanders the system. Hegemony is never achieved by a single political party but only by building a new political consensus that transcends party allegiances. What this means in practice I’m not yet sure. But it’s a deep-rooted cast of mind that needs to change within Labour before we can even start talking about the practical implications.

As Joe Guinan and I argued in People Get Ready!, transformative change on the scale Labour wants to achieve demands a lot of groundwork. As I’ve argued for Tribune, in some ways we have made remarkable progress in a short space of time, and we mustn’t lose sight of that in this December gloom. But at this election, we hadn’t done nearly enough to create the conditions in which Labour’s politics could win. That is the task we now face.