This election result is devastating for the left in the UK. We need to grieve and take care of each other. But we can find a way forward…
I wanted to write something to help me make sense of what has happened and to help others on the left find a way forward. There is actually still much to celebrate, lots to learn and to do, and room for hope. In this blog I wanted to share my thoughts on the dirty politics, community and joy in campaigning, the potential to build on organising and the need to re-imagine UK civil society. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. Please continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Polarised parties in a polarised country
In so many ways this election result has come as a terrible blow. I’ve never felt more hopeful about the possibility of genuine change; an incredible Labour manifesto and a genuinely good, principled person with a chance of becoming prime minister. I worked as a lobbyist many years ago and Corbyn was one MP that would support every campaign I asked him to, fight tirelessly for justice, and always vote for what he believed in (often against his party). We were so hopeful that countless thousands of us got out organising, phone banking and knocking on doors for change. I can honestly say that I’ve never voted before with some hope in my heart that the Government might be one that represents my values, hopes and dreams of a better future.
At the same time, on the other side of the fence sat a Conservative party so far to the right that Tory grandees like John Major and Michael Heseltine disowned them, while Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage endorsed them. The Tory campaign was appalling – with Johnson ducking out of debates and literally hiding in a fridge to avoid being interviewed. They ran on the platform of ‘Get Brexit Done’, smoke, mirrors, smears and many, many lies. And yet here we are with a big Tory majority. It’s a victory for the right, for Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and the rest. We are indeed entering dark times. But I can see hope in the dark.
Mutual aid and cooperation
First things first. We need to take care of ourselves and each other in the coming days and weeks, as we come to terms with the grim reality of a Tory majority. We can’t expect the state to take care of us, so we’re going to have to take care of each other ourselves and start to live the principle of solidarity. The NHS crisis will deepen, foodbank use will go up, racists and Islamophobes are likely to become bolder. But we can resist this ourselves. Those of us with privilege need to stand with those most affected by whatever is to come, however we can.
So this is a call to support community projects wherever we are. We might be able to give money or volunteer even a few hours a month. There’s a UK mutual aid Facebook group people can join, to help those affected by benefits cuts and sanctions. People can make donations to help people in trouble directly. Lists of local community projects that people can get involved in have already started popping up – foodbanks, migrant support centres, and shelters for rough sleepers will all need help.
As well as practical solidarity, we need to keep organising to build power together. I’ve been one of thousands of people across the country inspired to get out and organise by groups like Campaign Together and the Momentum/Labour organising machines. This was a heart lifting joy. It was wonderful to bump into friends and to make new ones. There was such a sense of collaboration, collectivity and common purpose. People gave huge amounts of free time, often going out in driving wind and rain, propelled by hope for a kinder politics. This organising gives us a serious foundation to build on.
A new organising project at scale?
I’m not proposing to jump into any new projects right away. We need some time to rest, reflect and regroup. But I think a big organising approach to conduct a massive listening exercise right across the country (reaching far from metropolitan city bubbles) is something that could be an immensely useful place to start. We need to understand where people are at, and what they care about as a basis for finding a way forwards. We can use the skills, networks, relationships and learning from all the organising we’ve done so far to build this.
I recently facilitated a climate justice strategy retreat at Ulex where I learned about a pilot project run by Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth in the Netherlands). Milieudefensie is coordinating a network of volunteers using a snowflake organising model to go out knocking on doors and ask people’s opinions about climate change. Their only agenda has been to gather mass data on what people think on this topic, but in doing so many people have signed up to their mailing list and joined their volunteer teams. The project is still at an early stage (I’ll probably write a full blog on it when I hear solid findings), but from what I know so far it sounds like a very inspiring and fresh approach to engaging people, building relationships, and building an activist network. I think this approach could help inspire some fresh progressive UK organising at scale.
Media spin, fake news and lies
One of the things I’ve found so disheartening about this election campaign is the dirty, dirty politics of it. The Conservatives have lied and lied and lied – 88% of their political adverts were found to be misleading compared to 0% of Labour’s. The popular press (well, all of the media really) have done a thorough smear job on Corbyn. On the doorstep, many people I spoke to didn’t trust Boris but they trusted Corbyn less – saying he’s a terrorist sympathiser, an anti-semite and an evil Marxist. The press have really gone to town on assassinating the character of a fundamentally good man and people believed it. It’s galling that truth and honesty have lost out to cheating, smears and lies.
The money and the billionaire press were always going to be against a genuine leftist project, but we need to acknowledge that the sway they hold is insidiously powerful and re-think what to do about it. Given that it would be very hard to fight them at their own game, the left’s solutions will probably have to be creative. In an increasingly atomised world, people get so much news and input from social media via their phones, the struggle here may be a big one. Perhaps relational organising on an unprecedented scale is the only thing that will work? I don’t know the answer but it feels an important question.
Bigger picture thinking
I know there will be many ‘hot takes’ on why Labour lost so badly; pointing the blame all over the place. But the answer isn’t simple. Change is very complicated and not really linear, it’s a dance of many factors. We’ll need to make time to step back and reflect before we can evaluate. I hope there will be space for this in the coming months.
As I’ve argued in my previous blog post, the power relationships and ‘common sense’ that defined neoliberalism are crumbling, and the fight is on for what takes its place. The struggle is between two poles – one a progressive vision of social, racial and climate justice, and the other an authoritarian far right. With Johnson’s UK victory endorsed by Trump, the latter is looming. But even now things are far from settled – movements are growing in power around the world demanding action on climate change, racial justice, inequality, land rights and more.
We need to continue to build the power of these movements, when we have rested and re-grouped, channeling our anger into solidarity and action. The road ahead will be tough, but we should not focus only on the hard work. Building power collectively, building strong relationships, re-imagining the future we want – all this can be done with joy.
We spend a lot of time talking about self care and collective care. While of course these are important, we often miss talking about (or building) collective joy. Although much is being destroyed, our world is still beautiful. We can make music and art, tell stories, laugh, play and care for each other. In the hard times it is more important to do this than ever.
It’s so easy to get drawn into the story that we’re only valuable when we’re productive, and that engaging in social change means we need to expend every scrap of energy on ‘the work’. We forget we can build fragments of the world we want wherever we stand, in our relationships and our creativity. I’m as guilty of this as anyone and I’m doing a lot of reflecting right now on my need for collective joy and creative play.
Campaigning is political
I want to finish with a plea to civil society in the UK right now. The campaigning we do for change is political. The more just and equitable world charities claim to be fighting for just isn’t going to happen with the right wing government we have now in power. Incremental change and playing the inside game are strategies we need to shelve for another day. They have little relevance in this context.
When charities sign on to a letter call for the net zero climate change targets to be bought forwards from 2050 to 2045 (presumably because they think this is an achievable ask) in the current climate, we need to question their fitness for purpose (given the urgency of climate change and the absolute incompatibility of this demand with what is needed to halt it – not to mention the fact that the government is far from on track for the 2050 goal). There are many fantastically talented people in huge numbers of change focused organisations with so much money. But we’re not making the progress we need.
This call for change isn’t just directed at the traditional NGO’s either. Extinction Rebellion missed a huge opportunity to really hold the political parties to account over promises to take action on climate change. With the Labour manifesto being so close to XR’s demands, I found it maddening when I saw that activists glued themselves to Labour’s campaign bus dressed as bees, saying they were ‘beyond politics’.
I’ve worked as a professional campaigner for well over a decade. I began just before the global financial crisis, and in that time seen many flavours of Conservative government come and go – this is the worst yet for all the many causes I worked on. We are so far from winning. To tackle the challenges ahead I believe we need to totally re-imagine what civil society campaigning looks like. I know many NGOs have already been asking deep searching questions and trying to change their approach. But much more of a radical shake up is needed. If funders or NGOs are interested in beginning conversations about how to do this and what it would look like, please get in touch. We need to do better.
Hope is political
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Angela Davis
We’re still here – our movements are still here – the people we love are still here. And we have to keep going. The system we live in wants us to imagine things can’t be otherwise, but that is the first step to making them possible.
“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
Ursula Le Guin
Thank you to everyone who put their heart and energy into campaigning for Labour (or other parties in tactical marginals) in this election. And thank you to Jeremy Corbyn, from the bottom of my heart, for all you have done. Despite the outcome, you have given me hope.