The first Friday night of the election campaign and about 100 Labor people hungriest for the fight are packing out a bar in east London. They are here to sound off, to network, to plot. But since the night is hosted by young activists inMomentum– the cheeky ground troops of Jeremy Corbyn’s grassroots movement – they are also here to have a laugh.
The bar is small and rough and ready, with bottles of pale ale sold from a hatch and a fog of condensation settling over the windows and newcomers ’glasses. Mince pies and songbooks are handed out, as the crowd is taught some “incredible socialist bangers” for those long, cold nights out on the doorstep.
To the tune of an old favorite, they sing:
I’m dreaming of a red Christmas
Just like the ones I door-knocked for,
Where our comrades strengthen,
Our leftist manifesto
The repertoire stretches to more contemporary material, such as 2 Unlimited’s No Limit, the lyrics of which now go: “Corbyn, Corbyn, Corbyn, Corbyn, Corbyn, He’s our Corbyn.” The songsheet advises repeating this “until the revolution comes ”.
So they giggle through tune after post-capitalist tune, until a woman clutching a pint glass clambers up on her seat. Hope Worsdale says she only began working at Momentum this week but the 24 – year -old knows the importance of this election: “We face a choice, lads, between socialism and barbarism.”
She appeals for“Labor legends ”: volunteers who will take a week off work or university to campaign unpaid. London-based activists can go to “the beautiful countryside”, Worsdale says, which conjures a holiday out of trudging icy roads for blister-inducing hours.
Most of all, she describes an utterly skewed six-week war, with “the Tories, their millionaires and their press” bearing down on Labor’s “people-powered campaign”.
Two days after Worsdale’s speech, three of the largest-selling Sunday papers splash across their front pages the shock revelation that, if let into No 10, Corbyn plans a £ 1tn splurge. It is an unbelievably large number that turns out to be just that: unbelievable.
One culprit is the Sunday Times. Culled from a Conservative press release, it groups together a bunch of motions passed at Labor’s autumn conference. As the newspaper’s economics editoracknowledges, it “cost [s] policies as if they would apply from day one, when they might take years to implement, or not be implemented at all ”. But the front-page headlines are all over the politics shows and radio phone-ins before readers reach this killer caveat.
If Boris Johnson has already won the professional air war, who will fight Corbyn’s corner? The men and women clustered in this Dalston bar and beyond, for one; the “lads” saluted by Worsdale. Call them the lads’ army: theLaborreservists who produce campaign videos, knock up anti -Johnson memes to share on Facebook and descend on marginals mob-handed.
They command neither printing presses nor TV studios, but offer elbow grease and shoe leather. Propping up a wall of this bar is Fred Pritchard, who spent the 2017 election regularly commuting south after work in London to the marginal seat of Croydon Central, canvassing away sunny spring evenings. He devoted up to 15 hours a week, the equivalent of a part-time job for which he did not receive so much as a train fare. His sole reward was helping depose Tory MP Gavin Barwell.
Whatever stereotypes you have read about a generation of millennials mesmerised by a “magic grandpa”, they don’t apply here. Pritchard judges Corbyn as having “lots of flaws, but he’s honest and he cares. Put him against that charlatan Johnson and is there even a choice? ”
He is neither unswerving Corbynista nor Labor die-hard, and the same goes for the other 20 – somethings I meet here. Their politics go beyond compositing conference motions in some seaside hotel. Pritchard spent last year trying to preserve a community hub in Bristol. Someone else here is organizing security guards for an upcoming strike, while another isfighting to save north London’s Latin Village from developers’ bulldozers. They spend as much time combating Labor bigwigs in town halls and union offices as they do battling to get the party into Downing Street.
Children of the banking crash, their adult experience of capitalism has been of insecure jobs, low wages, high rent, slummy flatshares and debt that will take decades to repay. Not unreasonably, they hate the British way of doing capitalism. This lot want worker co-ops, a four-day working week and the Green New Deal, radical themes now developed by the Labor leadership. The lads ’army has already provided advisers and candidates for Corbyn’s party; if he becomes prime minister next month many more stand to become key figures of his regime.
Which brings us to a defining problem of perhaps the most fateful election in a generation. If leftwing politics in Britain is now largely propelled by the energy and inventiveness of activists outside Labor tradition, how does the party talk to voters in traditional Labor areas?
To put a finer point on it, how does Corbyn win in North East Derbyshire? This is the patchwork of mining towns and villages whose politics have long run as red as blood – until 2017, when it elected its first Tory since the 1930 s. Lee Rowley’s aunt used to be Arthur Scargill’s secretary, yet the MP for North East Derbyshire now co-chairs a Conservative thinktank funded, housed and operated by the Institute of Economic Affairs, those old favorites of Margaret Thatcher. Try that on for historical irony. ********
If Corbyn is to stand any chance of forming a government, it is key marginals like this one he needs to regain. Labor’s’s candidate here is Chris Peace, a former teacher and legal-aid lawyer, who has already spent months tootling around the patch in her red Peugeot hatchback, its boot crammed with campaign literature. “Something has gone profoundly wrong in the relationship between our voters and us,” she says. So she listens first and canvasses later.
One crisp Wednesday morning, I follow her around a council estate in Clay Cross, the town that gave the world Dennis Skinner. Its leftwing heritage speaks even in the street names: Bevan Road, Pankhurst Place, Marx Court. For generations, this was a brick in the “red wall” of seats that Labor politicians took almost for granted. “They barely bothered to campaign,” says one local Labor member. All the while, the mines and manufacturing shut, to be part-replaced by warehouses and care work.
“It’s a Sports Direct economy,” says Dave Etherington of Staffordshire University, referring to the giant distribution center in neighbor Bolsover. “Crap pay, minimal rights, and barely enough for workers to live on.”
Kill a local economy and its civic institutions die soon after. Here, pubs have closed and buses barely run. Clay Cross lost its jobcentre a couple of years ago and the community hospital faces big cuts. The town has a food bank but its last high street bank shut in 2017.
North East Derbyshire is one of the staunchest leave seats in the UK, voting 63% in 2016 forBrexit(against 52% nationally ). At each door on this estate, voters give almost the same response: they want out of the EU and they can’t abide “weak” Corbyn. Each time, Peace has to tiptoe around those two hurdles before she can even start talking about what Labor offers. That “fool” Johnson cuts no ice, either. Peace worries less about Labor voters crossing to the Tory party than that they’ll vote for no party. “If they stay at home, we’re done for.”
One of the unacknowledged truths about Britain today is that it is the people who have had done most to them by politics who want least to do with politics. Until the 1990 s, the working classes were staunch voters, and they normally backed Labor. The Oxford University political scientists James Tilley and Geoffrey Evans argue that that changed with Tony Blair. “This decline of class-based voting was driven by Laborour shift to the political center-ground.”
For decades, the MP for North East Derbyshire was Harry Barnes, the son of a Durham miner, who had an early career as a rail clerk before becoming, in his own words, “a little bald-headed man with glasses and false teeth and whose trousers do not match his jacket ”. His successor in 2005 was Natascha Engel: privately- schooled in Kent and a New Labor parachute drop into the Midlands. After losing her seat in 2017, she worked first for shale- gas firm Ineos (which plans to drill in the area) then became Theresa May’s fracking tsar.
Tilley and Evansshow that the working-class electorate across the UK has since been staying at home in ever-larger numbers. Corbyn has not reversed the trend: in 2017, 83% of professionals voted compared with only 52% from working-class jobs.
It is not that the working classes have nothing to say about politics; it is that there are no parties to listen to them. For all Corbyn’s rhetoric, this has changed less under his leadership than one might imagine. The first thing he did on becoming leader in 2015 was call for the nationalization of the railways; by contrast, it took until 2019 to promise to scrap universal credit.
The difference in emphasis is striking given how many working-age households are being driven to the wall by the Tories ’cuts to welfare. In North East Derbyshire I meet a couple who last year endured so many errors on their disability benefits and suffered such hardship that the wife contemplated killing herself.
Privately, Labor people admit the issue. Enthusiasts know Corbyn’s longstanding policies on increasing wages and trade union rights; casual viewers will spot only free broadband and the four-day week.
Peace knocks at one bungalow to be greeted by Karen, who claims to have “always been Labor until blimmin’ Brexit ”. All other points are drowned out by her husband from inside the bedroom, yelling at us to get lost. She gives up: “You might as well speak to him yourselves.”
We squeeze past John’s mobility scooter in the narrow hallway and see him lying on the double bed, shouting away while glaring at his smartphone.
“I never vote,” he declares, jabbing at the screen. For all the radioactive hostility, he seems to welcome a bit of company.
“What about your NHS?” Asks Peace.
“I couldn’t care less if Boris sells it off.”
“Don’t say that!” Cries Karen. “They keep you alive.” She ducks under a mobile of butterflies to cuddle her sick husband.
What one thing could politicians do to improve her life? Rubbing her eyes, Karen talks about looking after John around the clock, sleeping little and worrying a lot. “I don’t see hardly anyone apart from him,” she says. “I just feel so isolated.” This is a crisis in social care that politicians have let fester for decades. It’s also a crisis behind closed doors, where someone has disappeared from the view of both her society and her political representatives.
On this estate, Labor is an identity that no longer fits so well; in that bar in London, it is a vehicle to be steered towards bigger dreams. “The party is now a coalition of starkly different tribes, who live in different places and have completely opposed values,” says Paula Surridge, political sociologist at the University of Bristol. “They talk almost no common language apart from the one Corbyn uses: economics.”
The weekend after visiting Clay Cross, I see perhaps the most entertaining campaign of all, on the outer suburbs of London. An open-top double-decker is parked outside a Tesco Metro blaring reggae at shoppers, while draped over its side is a hot-pink banner reading “Fck Govt, Fck Boris”.
In the prime minister’s own seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, about 150 campaigners have gathered to urge young people to vote and, as the posters say, #KickBorisOut. As the bus trundles off towards Brunel University, an MC on the top deck shouts, “When I say fuck, you say Boris.” The leafleters down below duly comply. Out of a Chinese takeaway tumbles a chef in his whites to take a selfie.
The organizers are all young women, slogging away in evenings and over weekends. “Traditional politics is old men making long speeches,” says one, who wishes to be called Rosa. “We wanted to do something fun, that might interest the young people and women and ethnic minorities who are most at threat from Boris.”
Some marchers have traveled hours to be here and, swarming behind the double-decker disco in their neon-orange beanies, resemble nothing so much as an invasion of friendly aliens. As we go down the well-to-do roads, the sound system sets off car alarms, driving residents out to tell someone to fck off – and it’s not Boris. A woman in a pink beret moans about the noise: “In 10 years’ time, this lot will have come out of university and got fantastic jobs – and they’ll all be voting Tory. ”
Polling suggests that Laborour man in Uxbridge, Ali Milani, has a slim chance of toppling Johnson, but over the past few months Momentum has dispatched hundreds of activists to the seat. Symbolism is important here, as it is in Chingford in Essex in the battle between Labour’s Faiza Shaheen and Iain Duncan Smith. On one Saturday alone, Shaheen helmed an army of 700 volunteers to help oust the ex-Tory leader. Yet just half-an-hour’s drive away lies the marginal of Enfield Southgate, which Labor is fighting to hold with only handfuls of doorknockers. It is an example of what one former Labor adviser warns is “an epic misallocation of resources”.
The tactical queries about who Labor is speaking to are meat and drink for journalists covering elections. But the bigger question is about who it is speaking for, and on what authority. It is one that Labor leaders have ducked and dodged for decades, and Corbyn is still struggling for a response. Yet it is the question his troops are having to answer on doorsteps across the country right now.