Having picked herself up and brushed herself off, Nicky throws herself into the world of TikTok in an effort to bond with daughterContinue reading
Having picked herself up and brushed herself off, Nicky throws herself into the world of TikTok in an effort to bond with daughterContinue reading
I really liked Jeremy Corbyn. When I was campaigning against the invasion of Iraq, he was a hero for me. Watching the dishonesty and malpractice in the build up to war was difficult when you’d been brought up within the Labour Party. After Iraq, I stepped away from politics completely and didn’t return until I received a Facebook post telling me Jeremy Corbyn was on the ballot paper to become leader. I promptly joined the party and voted for him. That was in 2015.
A year later, I found myself at the heart of Corbyn’s team. As the orchestrated resignations began to hit the headlines I, like many others, joined a volunteer online army using Twitter and Facebook to defend him. I dropped the work I was doing and turned up at the Union offices where his campaign was based. A few weeks later I was making grassroots videos for Momentum, profiling the activists around the country who were rallying behind Corbyn. The Midlands and the North were amply represented at that time. The Corbyn movement had broad appeal and its message was addressing the concerns of the traditional heartland Labour voters.
In retrospect I realise how much Corbyn phenomenon was inextricably linked to the man himself. After thirty years of campaigning, Corbyn had become a familiar face for many activists around the country and it was fellow campaigners who drove the movement forward, along with young, university educated middle class children aware of the disadvantages they faced in comparison to their parents. These energies combined to kick-start a movement which, over two years, gained pace, culminating a 2017 election result that seemed to herald the reverse of Labour’s electoral decline.
The campaign in 2017 was as incredible as it was unforeseen. Being part of it, I witnessed the power of mass mobilisation through politics that inspired people. Many of us were united by a feeling that, in our own country and abroad, people were not being treated well enough by our leaders. Looking back, it was simplistic. But the emotions were real and Corbyn made us believe we had the power to change it. We felt like heroes. Whatever small contribution we made, felt important; we felt important. And the more of us who used our talents in support of Corbyn, the more others were inspired to do the same. My fondest memory was of the last night of the 2017 election campaign, we had travelled to see Corbyn speak at Islington Town Hall. There was clearly no chance of getting in to the hall, no tannoy to hear him and no screen to see him. But still, we remained outside along with hundreds of others who wanted to be together on this very special evening in late spring. I stood beside a young woman around whose neck hung a chintzy gold necklace with ‘Corbyn’ written in italics affixed on each side to a chain. It had been made by her friend, she told me, and was available to buy via her Facebook page. The humour, the glamour, the sheer incongruity of this necklace made it effortlessly cool. For me, it was emblematic of how far our movement had reached, and how much further it could go.
With a background in grassroots video, I spent the election campaign making short films in partnership with Stand up for Labour under the banner ‘Brit Rocks’. We toured the country putting on variety shows that raised money for local parties and motivated members to keep fighting on the doorstep. The clips were short and simple: Labour Party members talking about their communities, the issues they faced and the possible solutions. They were shared widely, and through making them, I learned a great deal about the situation faced by people in the Midlands and the North.
The first realisation was how present deindustrialisation still is for these communities. Factories, pits and potteries were closing their doors within living memory of Generation Z. The second was how little investment had flowed into these areas since the massive industrial wipe-out of the 1980s. For a young person living in Whitehaven to learn Photoshop, they would need to travel on a railway un-modernised since the 1950s to a town forty miles away. For those determined enough to learn online, via Youtube tutorials, overwhelming obstacles would still be in their way. The cheap aluminium cables laid in the 1970s when the price of copper was exorbitant means that high-speed broadband cannot reach them, so these videos simply will not play. Without training or a decent internet connection, the gig economy must feel to these communities as far away as the planet Mars.
The psychological impact of deindustrialisation is also very present. A darkness fell over people’s faces when recalling the battle to keep their industries, a mixture of embarrassment in admitting they were so brutally crushed, and pain at remembering the trauma it inflicted. ‘I think the deindustrialisation of Doncaster and towns like it was purposely done…’ one man told me, ‘The working class had improved their lots across Britain.. since the war and they [the Conservatives] wanted to reverse that.” A report by the Centre of Social Justice paints a dark picture of the heavy toll it took; ‘When a community experiences an economic shock, the social problems that evolve as a result make it harder to bring back jobs, investment and opportunity. In Britain this happened in communities when people lost their jobs in coal mines, car plants and steel mills. Many became dependent on welfare for support, and as they lost their sense of self-worth and identity.’ This was echoed during a discussion in Rotherham by a man in his sixties, ‘‘You must know, that the residual of the last forty years of austerity in the town has left it with a severe mental health problem”.
Some of the most passionate Corbyn supporters I spoke to were grandchildren of working families left on the dole. In some cases, activists had previously been alcoholics, drug addicts and eventually, become homeless. Through government funded schemes, they had pulled themselves out of this downward spiral. As a result, Corbyn’s fight against austerity resonated strongly with them. In an old Labour Club on a council estate in March 2017, people were asking questions following the screening of Ken Loach’s recent film. One man’s question summed up the attitude of many in the North at that time, “When my local MP votes for austerity, how can I vote Labour?’
However for many, austerity did not begin in 2010 but thirty years earlier when Thatcher came to power and, from 1979 and 1990, dragged the economy from one model into another. But New Labour, in power for longer than Thatcher, chose not to redress the economic imbalance she left. Of course inroads were made, and I am sure there is a compelling case for New Labour’s success in addressing the economic imbalance in post-industrial Britain, although I have not seen it. To the outsider, New Labour preferred to support wealth creation in the south and use tax revenues, along with government borrowing, to fund welfare benefits and public services in the old manufacturing heartlands. A Labour member in Rotherham contrasts Corbyn’s agenda with the approach of New Labour, “I look back and I think, if Jeremy Corbyn hadn’t become leader and it was say, Yvette Cooper, we wouldn’t have the radical policies that we’ve got. That’s the main thing for me. I think we’d still be thinking: well the Tories are doing this, we’ll maybe look at some of their popular policies and try and amend them a little bit. Or we’ll water down some of our policies.”
Corbyn’s radical agenda, enshrined in the 2017 manifesto, was a blueprint for change. A network of local investment banks would encourage entrepreneurship; infrastructure investment would provide a foundation on which people could build business and gain skills, nationalisation of utilities would bring down the cost of living but most significantly, Labour would bring manufacturing back to Britain. Yes, a great number of people believed Corbyn was a threat to national security, an IRA sympathiser and an apologist for terrorism. But I saw the tide slowing turning. A Labour member I interviewed in Stoke-on-Trent summed it up, “I think now people are resurging in a way where we’re getting this confidence back again… we can still manufacture stuff in this city. We can still offer something to the world and I think that’s what’s changing now”. It is worth noting that in five of Labour’s oldest constituencies, now Conservative, every single one increased their Labour vote in the general election of 2017. In Dudley North, Labour gained 2,200 more votes in 2017 than in 2015; in Bassetlaw, 3,500; In Great Grimsby, 4,000; Rother Valley, 3,000; Bishop Auckland, 4,500.
Sadly, as the months rolled on after the 2017 election, Labour’s economic agenda began to overflow with wilder and wilder spending pledges. The commitment to restructure the economy – already extremely ambitions – became overlaid with public spending increases to which there seemed no end. At the 2017 Labour Party conference in September, to which I was a delegate, I became increasingly uneasy watching Shadow Minister after Shadow Minister promising to increase welfare and public sector spending by the billions. At the moment when we most needed to understand where the battle lines were drawn for this economic revolution, I left Brighton in a haze of uncertainty. What were us foot soldiers being asked to do?
Two and a half years later, the Labour Party had squandered this growing base of support. People like me were voting Conservative for the first time in their thousands. How did this happen?
I voted to Remain in the EU. But like millions of other ‘Remainers’ I instantly accepted the referendum result. Sure, I cried a bit, for the Britain I knew and loved which I felt might be slipping away. But then I did a bit of research and found there were good arguments on both sides. I was not alone in this response. Whenever I watched BBC or ITV News do a feature on attitudes across the country, almost every interviewee, be they a Remainer or a Brexiteer, replied with pretty much the same sentence: we’ve had the result and now we need to get on with it.
As the Brexit debate raged on, I kept waiting for a comprehensive Labour Party vision for post-Brexit Britain. One that saw Britain’s departure from Europe as the first step towards a fairer economy. When interviewing Labour members in Bolton, another Brexit constituency, a father in thirties explained the motivation of many who voted to leave, “People say, ‘you do it for your children’s children’… a lot of people thought they could deal with the brunt of it and then later on we’d be more prosperous”. Corbyn and McDonnell had been sceptical about the EU for years; many of their nationalisation policies (as far as I understand it) would be very hard to achieve inside the EU. As Britain casts around for new trading partners, now is surely the time to assess our skills base, our strengths and our untapped resources? And in doing so, articulate cogently how investment could be intelligently targeted to towns and cities in decline? However, as the prospect of a vision receded into the smoke and mirrors of ‘constructive ambiguity’, a position with the aim, it seemed, of weakening the government, I began to question my allegiance to the Corbyn project.
I understand the dilemma of a leader who has argued his entire political life for members to have a greater say in the direction of the party, and then to find himself with a membership that was approximately two-thirds against leaving the EU. But with conviction and authority I believe Corbyn and McDonnell could have steered the membership away from calls to overturn the referendum result and towards an excitement and energy for what happens next. Certainly they would have been supported in this by many Labour members in the North and Midlands, many of whom themselves voted to leave and understood why their communities had.
However, it is also important to remember that there was the added pressure of New Labour stalwarts, still with huge influence amongst MPs, mounting a serious challenge within parliament and through informal, high-level political channels to stop Brexit from happening.
In the spring of 2017 I attended a conference in central London purporting to discuss what happens after Brexit. Despite the event’s strapline challenging attendees to ‘Think Anew. Act Anew’, The Methodist Central Hall was filled with furious left-wing middle-class professionals refusing to conceive a departure from the EU. Presumably accepting the invitation to participate on the basis that London’s left-wing elite might help in reshaping the country, Brexiteers were faced with an audience that refused to listen. Applause was reserved for those panel members calling for a plan to reverse the referendum result. Prominent members of New Labour spoke. Mr Campbell was on a panel and Mr Blair had been invited but declined at the last moment. It was only a year since the findings of The Chilcot Report had exposed the disregard for processes that safeguard our democracy. By the middle of the first day, it had become uncomfortably clear that attempts were already being made overturn the referendum result and stop Britain leaving the EU.
Over the next two and a half years, the majority of the population watched with mounting horror as MPs and campaigners relentlessly exploited every possible loop hole and parliamentary privilege to stop a deal – any deal – from being reached. The arguments justifying the strategy as a means to avoid economic apocalypse were sounding increasingly absurd, as calls for certainly from business leaders grew stronger. The role of New Labour grandees in this exercise was significant. And yet, following Labour’s election defeat, the media has invited them as pundits to comment dispassionately, rather than challenging them on the fierce attacks they mounted in the three-year battle that ravaged Westminster and further aggrevated the country’s divisions.
For me, and for others, Corbyn was a welcome antidote to New Labour. A year and a half later, Corbyn seemed to be colluding in this mission to reverse the referendum result. As I followed increasingly incensed Facebook updates posted by Labour Brexiteers in the North, it was like watching an edifice slowly crumble. Two-thirds of Labour constituencies had voted to Leave. From the films I was making, I gained some insight into the reasons people in the North and Midlands voted to do so, and often these were linked to deep-rooted and genuine concerns for the future of their families. However, Labour’s top team – intelligent people with huge caches of data at their finger tips and a nationwide network of well-informed supporters – entered into a collective delusion. The Labour Party’s surprise success in 2017 had convinced many in Corbyn’s team that, had the lead-in time been longer, Labour would have won. The constant demands for an election in the face of Mrs May’s increasingly desperate appeals for support to get a deal were, I believe, driven by this belief. So ingrained was the conviction that Labour would win an election the next time round, that when the alignment of favourable elements changed, the conviction nevertheless remained the same. It was like watching the painful end to a tragic farce when the motion for a general election was finally tabled by the Tories. As they realised they had such little chance of winning, Labour then opposed it.
Although bewildering to watch, it has become customary in our political class for a small group of people with very loud voices to construct a fantastical reality, ignore any appeal to the facts, and then try to shut down debate. This is particularly common on the left, and seems to have percolated down to a generation in whom has been instilled the ambition ‘to change the world’. The extent to which this fantastical reality was enveloping Corbyn’s Labour Party by 2019 is exemplified by the almost complete alignment of Momentum with identity politics ideology. Starting life as the focus point for a spontaneous, broad-based, national movement to get Corbyn elected as leader, Momentum morphed into a portal for disseminating an ideology that demands group allegiance (such as skin colour, sexuality, sex, religion or class) take precedence over individual character in order that society should become ‘just’. Ironically, this fight for social justice is then waged through ascribing generalised characteristics and opinions to people based on their group identity. Inevitably, politics rapidly becomes an exercise in accusing opponents of racism, sexism, Islamaphobia, transphobia etc.
I came to realise, with sadness, that Corbyn’s perspective is not too far off this. His lifelong opposition to racism is eminently commendable, but if you see the world through a lens of ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed’ there becomes little room left for nuance or understanding. Instead people are pitted against each other along battle lines of group identity. And because complexities are ignored, those placed in a category of ‘oppressor’ – the Israelis, for example – have no right whatsoever to be understood. When you have a Jewish population in this country with quite natural ties to Israel (although often in disagreement with the actions of its government), they can easily be made to feel insecure by a political philosophy that damns. The fear within the Jewish community in Britain now is palpable and should never have been allowed to happen.
This ideology is also unhelpful in a country trying desperately to unify and move forward. The troubles articulated by community leaders in the Midlands and the North are not to do with ‘white privilege’, nor are they the legacy of a colonial conspiracy. Instead, they stem from huge economic shifts that took place across the global in the 1960s and 1970s when countries with very cheap labour forces acquired the knowledge (much of it from Britain) to set up manufacturing and sell products much more cheaply on the world market.
And if there was a consistent message from those I interviewed in post-industrial areas, it was to bring manufacturing back to Britain. The left-wing Brexit camp were putting forward the case for how this could be done, citing conditions needed to bring factories back to this country. However, as I understand it, these people were largely ignored. A tight circle had formed around Corbyn, exacerbated I am sure, by the constant attempts to undermine him from within his own party. But this bunker mentality allowed great mistakes to be made because people with expertise were shut out. ‘Labour Live’, the music festival in London conceived as a follow up to Corbyn’s epic appearance at Glastonbury the previous year, was a startling example of this. A lack of skills and experience led to huge costs and pitifully low ticket sales, rescued only when Unite the union laid on coaches for their members to travel to London and attend for free. The final bill was estimated as somewhere between £650,000 and £1 million. Yet I suspect no one lost their job or was even disciplined. This operational style struck me as particularly dangerous when combined with a far-reaching policy for state intervention in the economy.
As I write this, I am acutely aware of the consternation it may provoke in those who have spoken to me openly and honestly about the concerns they have about a Conservative government and the impact it might have on their families and their community. The simple answer is that I voted Conservative because I believe it was in the national interest to do so. Britain must now leave the EU as soon as possible, and only the Conservatives are prepared to make that happen. The unspoken compact between electorate and those elected was being strained further and further with every show of parliamentary acrobatics landing another blow to the chance of a deal. By denying these communities their political will to leave the EU, Labour became redundant as a force to represent them.
And yet, I still believe Corbyn was the vanguard for a movement which could come. Although he lacked the qualities to deliver on his promises, the excitement around the Corbyn project, particularly in the North and the Midlands should not be forgotten. Brexit sadly, laid bare his personal deficiencies as well as the inefficacy of the tight circle around him. But if incoming Labour leaders can take from this defeat both the knowledge that Corbyn’s policies resonated with community activists, and the humility to listen to those they were founded to represent, they could hold the government to account with authority, re-ignite their grassroots support base, and force the long-term economic and social changes these people are calling for. I saw the power of mass mobilisation through politics that inspired people. There is no reason why, with the right leader, Labour cannot do this again. But for me personally to come back to Labour, there would need to be a credible economic blueprint to reshape the economy that is clear enough to be articulated by members and supporters. The Party would need enough confidence to bring in good people, based on merit, and retain them. It would need to continue to support local campaigns by developing policy solutions and not just promising more and more funding. But most importantly, the Labour Party must have the will to unify the country and a vision that includes us all. Without that, it will continue to alienate its natural supporters. With it, Labour can win.
After giving almost no attention to the referendum campaigns leading up to the 2016 vote, I since became determined to understand why so many people think Britain would do better out of Europe. In particular, I kept asking myself, why did Labour voters choose to leave?Continue reading
There is a lot of discussion in the media about why Labour did so well in this election. Journalists and commentators are trying to bridge the gap between their expectation of Conservative landslide victory and the reality of Labour’s strong performance. Their analyses though, must take into account that today’s Britain is not as they had perceived it, and in order to understand the result they need to reconnect to country beyond commentariat.
I have been working on the ground with political campaigners since last June. In the first instance, by setting-up a grassroots channel called Momentum TV that captured the activity, opinions and campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn supporters. In the second instance, by touring the country with variety show called ‘Stand Up For Labour’, which enabled me to interview people actively involved in local Labour Party branches across the country; from Carlisle to rural Cornwall, North Wales to suburban Nottinghamshire, Stoke to seaside towns on the North East coast. These films are available to view on a Facebook page called ‘Brit Rocks’. Having spoken to these people, I have a few observations that might be helpful in piecing together what happened in this election and will, in my view, continue to go on.
What I see happening is manifold. On the one hand, Corbyn speaks to Labour Party supporters who left the party after the Iraq invasion. I put myself in this category. Like many others, I became unable to engage with mainstream politics because the party I wanted to vote for had ignored our protests and taken us into conflict. Corbyn was one of the figureheads of the anti-war movement and we remember that keenly. We want a foreign policy shift towards diplomacy and away from military solutions, even if it risks weakening our relationship with the United States. We see hope for this shift in Corbyn.
Secondly, Corbyn appeals to the working class. This certainly does not include everyone. But the numbers are significant and I believe, will rise. In traditional Labour heartlands where the Brexit vote was strong, Labour Party members have been working hard to defeat UKIP’s politics of blame by arguing instead for investment to restructure their economies, which they do not feel has happened, in some place since the 1980s. The politics of hope plays a strong role here. Labour Party members talk about gaining back confidence and fighting for the future. Alongside this, Corbyn focused on making Brexit work for Britain rather than contesting the result. This is making an impact and, I believe, influenced the recent vote as evidenced by the near even split of UKIP voters to Labour.
The lack of investment following the closure of heavy industry is also the cause, many believe, of generational poverty that exists in these areas, in some cases with as many as three generations in a family dependent on state benefits. For these people, the austerity cuts have been extremely painful, and I am not sure the Conservative Party fully understood this. Many had given up hope that life would get better. However, Corbyn has been at the forefront of the anti-austerity movement since the beginning, and people see him as someone who could reverse the exponential rise in food and clothing banks, which are now a fact of life for many in this country.
There are some who fluctuate from employment to unemployment and many of these people work on zero hours contracts. For them, Corbyn offers a return to unionised work-forces. Many union members have re-joined Labour Party because of Corbyn, and they are often its most active organisers. There is a great deal of contention about the role of unions in Britain, but many people believe they are a force for good. The re-engagement of union members with the Labour Party has, I believe, played a role in Labour’s increased voter turnout.
The Labour Party manifesto includes a commitment to invest in jobs for the future. One of the ways set out for achieving this is through the establishment of a National Investment Bank, modeled on the German system. Through its network of local branches, this bank will provide access to business loans at reasonable rates. This has caught the imagination of the entrepreneurial and the ambitious, as well as of those who want job security and self-respect in the workplace. I accept there many be a great deal of tension between the above two factors but perhaps less so when they are presented, as they are, as part of a profound re-structuring of the economy here in Britain.
Another factor in this is the widespread discontent around the privatisation of the NHS and other public services. Although Theresa May hoped to run this election on a Brexit ticket, for many it was about the NHS. I see a clash of ideologies here, that many feel they have not seen played out in parliamentary debates for a while. Instead, there is the perception – rightly or wrongly – that a consensus existed between the two main parties that the public sector, by its very nature, is inefficient. However, there is a counter-argument to this, particularly in the case of the NHS, and Corbyn makes it. This is not a throw-back to the 1970s. It is an argument that many people believe has yet to be won by those advocating the introduction of market forces into the public sector. Many people are looking to Corbyn to make the case in Parliament and that influenced the way they voted and, in some cases, in their decision to cast a vote at all
Much has been ascribed to the impact of the youth vote. This is real, and there are many factors involved. Tuition fees is obviously one, and Labour’s commitment to abolish them appeals to young people from all backgrounds. However the young vote was galvanised hugely by the scores of register to vote events that happened throughout the country, leading over two million to people to register, half of them under twenty-five. At the events I attended, young people expressed regret for not casting a ballot in the EU referendum as Brexit showed that every vote counts. At the same time, Corbyn’s team were able to reach young people through social media, which they have become masterful in using as it has often been the only way they could get messages out. Simultaneously, Momentum has been developing a series of apps for canvassing that are firmly rooted in the online world where young people spend much of their lives.
The role of artists can not be underestimated in this election either, and their input has also impacted on the youth vote. Corbyn became cool and, by extension, Labour did too. Musicians, graphic designers, visual artists, video artists, filmmakers and actors have all served to create a tipping point. Suddenly politics had become an exciting movement and thousands of young people wanted to be part of it.
But perhaps the most significant factor in this election for me has been the phenomenal voter turnout. Where Labour has won the seat, or significantly increased its share of the vote, it is likely to be because Labour Party members have undertaken the hard slog of knocking on doors and explaining what Labour stands for. Again and again I have heard the same thing, which is that the Labour Party strategy locally has been to connect with people on a human level, listen to what they have to say and tell them about the policies set out in the Labour Party manifesto.
Whereas before there was resignation and hopelessness, now people have faith in their ability to influence the future. Having been told by the Conservative Party, previous Labour leaders, and the media that they must accept Britain as it is, Jeremy Corbyn has offered them a choice and they have responded. By engaging or, in my case, re-engaging with the democratic process comes renewed confidence. Young people are part of this, but I believe it is a lot more widespread. I also envisage it continuing as we try to figure out what happens next for Britain.
Teresa Cullen is a Councillor in the borough of Browtowe. She talks here about the changes that have occurred in the local Labour Party and her hopes for the future.
Loading up the van on a street in West London, Robb Johnson carefully places his guitar beside a box of signed Jeremy Corbyn mugs. Today we’re driving down to Cornwall for a gig in Liskeard. Situated twenty miles from the border, Liskeard is an ancient stannary town that once administered the tin mines in the area, delivering tax to the Crown. At a service station halfway down the M4 we pick up comedian, Wil Hodgson. Stocky and tattooed, Wil has taken the afternoon off from hairdressing. He installs himself in the passenger seat to avoid car sickness as I decamp to the back. Sweta and Shabbir chat and laugh together like brother and sister. Both young activists, they stage manage and sell merchandise during the gigs.
Outside Liskeard, the sun is setting over Sterts Theatre, a tented amphitheatre set in the rolling hills of Bodmin Moor. Front of house smiles are abundant, the theatre employs only three people and everyone else volunteers. Proudly, I am told the theatre season runs mainly community shows. In a field beside the tented entrance, Sweta and Shabbir have set up their stall. Electric blue t-shirts with ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ superman graphics rest neatly in piles of size. On a grassy knoll, members of band, Phatt Bollard, relax. Having driven twenty miles from Plymouth, these five musicians are enjoying a pre-show can of Special Brew and a bag of chunky chips. Rarely do they perform at gigs, preferring to busk on high streets around the country. But Stand Up For Labour founder and compere, Crispin Flintoff, has convinced them to play tonight’s show.
Kerry Cassidy is a mum, a County Council candidate and a stand up comedian. She grew up a mile away from Liskeard and remembers the theatre before the canopy was raised, ‘If it was raining we all used to sit there with plastic bags on our heads’ she chuckles. Kerry wears a pillar-box red sequined dress and matching lipstick. Liskeard is widely regarded as a no hope seat for Labour. In the 2015 election it came in fourth place after UKIP, with less than ten percent of the vote. Like other constituencies with a strong Lib Dem presence, the logic has been to vote tactically in an attempt to dislodge the Conservatives. South East Cornwall constituency contains pockets of generational poverty. Cheap rents attract lower income families and landlords collect housing benefit. But the remoteness of the area impedes investment, making jobs scarce and keeping unemployment rates high, so the impact of austerity cuts on these people has been particularly severe. Food and clothing banks are a fact of life in South East Cornwall.
Inside the amphitheatre, the show has begun. Robb Johnson attacks his guitar strings with songs of resistance. He promotes his latest track, I’m Voting Labour Next Thursday, soon to be released. Wil Hodgson thinks on his feet as a huge insect flies in from the moorlands and joins him on stage. Richard James has driven down from Plymouth too. Charming the room, he reels off a list of British post-Apocalyptic scenarios: Five inches of snow and it settles; a power cut on the same day as the frozen food shop; leaves on the line. Halfway through Crispin’s audience banter, Sweta rushes on stage stretching out her mobile phone. Crispins places the mic close to the ear piece and the voice of Jeremy Corbyn fills the space. ‘Hello everyone and thanks so much for being there tonight.’ The crowd are rapturous, puffed up with the value of their work and their worth.
Gareth Derrick is Labour’s candidate. A retired naval commander, Gareth has arrived dressed in a sharp, white, double-breasted suit with a silk red tie. His wavy silver hair sits neatly, his steel-rimmed glasses straight and discrete. The first question that comes to mind when I meet him is, why Labour? His blue-eyes flash, ‘Seeing what is happening to our public services was so devastating to me; how – as Jeremy Corbyn says – how our economy is rigged for big business, rigged to take money out of the country for global business interests at the expense of ordinary people. It’s a fight I want to fight, and here I am doing it’. South East Cornwall came out decisively for Brexit. There is an appetite for change here and Gareth believes he can win. The Labour manifesto has helped, ‘it’s a bold and adventurous manifesto that has actually shocked people.. there is nothing wishy-washy there. We are trying to put right the damage that has been done over many years’.
Back under the canvass, Phatt Bollard have begun playing their signature track, ‘Millionaires’.
I don’t give to the Big Issue seller
Because he’s probably on heroin
I walk past him with a grin
And if I can I kick his dog
I don’t give to the busker
He’s talentless and lazy
He’s ruining the country
I think he should get job
Instead I give my money to
Wall Mart for its tax evasion
Prime Mark for its child labour
Texaco for the next invasion
And I don’t give a f**k about you
I give my money to the millionaires
I give my money to the millionaires
I give my money to the millionaires
And I don’t give a f**k about you
Members of the audience leap on the stage and start dancing. A bearded man in a Lenin cap flings himself into the centre, pulling a couple up from the front row to join him. A lady in her eighties leans on her walking stick while she shakes her hips, a blond mother and daughter dance together, smiling at their boldness. Crispin sings along as he jives with the crowd. People are happy. Supporting Labour is fun. There is solidarity on the dance floor and a feeling of togetherness under the canvas of the amphitheatre on Bodmin Moor.
After the show has ended, Martin Menear takes a break from collecting coins in a bucket to tell me about the profound change that has taken place within South East Cornwall Labour party since the last election. In the 2015 election the local party had a meagre 130 members, no activity and no structure, ‘we tried to do what we could’ he shrugs ‘and the result was what it was’. But then Corbyn got on the ballot. ‘I was getting twenty, thirty members joining a day!’ he exclaims ‘We went up to around 750 full members, and hundreds and hundreds of registered supporters and affiliated supporters, so we were around twelve hundred in total. That’s ten times the number of people we had previously’. The mobilisation began with tea and cake. ‘I baked a cake… and said come along… and we’ll talk about what we’re going to do.’ For some groups it was hosting a screening, for others, a Saturday morning coffee and chat. ‘You don’t need to do a lot’ Martin urges ‘just doing something, and that leads to something else, and then you’re on a road that can lead to incredible places’.
The beauty of Stroud strikes like a magnificent, resounding bell. Alighting from the train, I am welcomed to this market town by the Hill Paul building, a former Victorian clothing factory with its seven towering red brick floors and five sets of double windows. With all the characteristics of the time, each window wears a sandstone cap matching sandstone lines running horizontally and at intervals, a formidable Roman numeric clock reminds anyone in the vicinity the value of keeping time.
Not long ago, the people of Stroud saved this historic building from demolition, just one in a great line of victories that include a house dating back to the Middle Ages, Stroud Maternity Hospital, a mature hornbeam tree, and the local branch of the Post Office. Activism in Stroud is nothing new. The Stroudwater Riots of 1825 saw mill workers join the Weavers Union in protest at low pay and unacceptable conditions. Strikes turned violent after the army was called in and after reading the Riot Act, soldiers were pelted with stones while looms were burned and strike breakers doused in the local fish pond.
I am spending the evening with Natasha Josette, a local activist and single Mum who has been working hard to get young people registered to vote. Tonight there are two competing events in Stroud town centre. One is a collaboration of ‘Register to Vote Stroud’ with ‘Stroud Against The Cuts’. The other has been organised by ‘Global Beats’. At Stroud Valley Artspace I catch up with Natasha’s co-organiser, James Beecher. Surrounded by a galaxy of leaflets, public announcement posters, newsletters and pamphlets, James sets out the aims for the evening, ‘We’re trying to increase youth engagement in politics now and beyond the election… to see what young people think about politics, why they might not be engaged and what might help them to get more engaged’.
Interviewing three young people who have registered to vote, two have already decided which political party they’ll be voting for. One considered young man wants to do more research first. The subject of learning about politics comes up a lot. Young people in Stroud want to take informed decisions. Three young men, not yet old enough to register, were quite clear that their level of maturity meant they should be granted a vote at sixteen and are frustrated that they have to wait. Going against the grain, one confesses he doesn’t agree with much of what the Labour Party stands for, but would vote for them because the Conservatives are trying to regulate the internet. Political information is gathered online and through friends ‘If one friend gets into politics’ explains another ‘they can spread the good word’.
Natasha moved to Stroud a few years back after deciding London was not the place to bring up two kids. As we talk, the conversation moves onto Stroud’s community, a subject about which Natasha is effervescent, ‘We have a very strong sense of community here! Strong community groups and single issue campaigns getting together in solidarity. And I would love to do a shout out to the rest of the country to say, if you have something as great as here come and tell me about it because I haven’t seen it before – but if it exists, tell me!’
Walking through the streets of Stroud, not a corporate chain or American brand is in sight. Instead green flags of ‘The Republic of Stroud’ flutter from the lamp posts. Stroud is a key marginal. Labour’s current candidate, David Drew, won the seat in 1997, 2001 and again in 2005, losing to Conservative, Neil Carmichael, in 2010 and 2015. There are only a few thousand votes between the winning and the losing side, so new voters could tip the balance. David Drew is a Corbyn man, making Stroud an interesting marker. If the vote goes Labour, it could be judged as an endorsement of Corbyn’s new direction. If Conservatives hold the seat, seens as a rejection of Labour’s recent swing to Socialism.
Preparing to leave the event that night, I notice James deep in conversation with two teenage boys. As we say our goodbyes, I ask how he thinks it’s gone, ‘Most people are registered now’ he confides ‘ but I was struck tonight by how interested young people are in discussing issues and debating them, and how much they already knew’. I had seen this myself and, on departing the following morning, was filled with a profound sense of confidence in the future. Stroud may go Left, and it may go Right but whatever the result, the community will be driving its direction and Stroud’s young people will be taken with it.
Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire is getting pretty political. Situated just outside Nottingham City and a Labour seat for many years, it was won by Anna Soubry for the Conservatives in 2010 and again in 2015. Broxtowe Labour Party has avowed this will not happen again. Local councillor, party fundraiser and events organiser Teresa Cullen, explains why she is so confident about winning this election, despite Broxtowe dropping off the list of marginals and into the category of unwinnable seats.
‘When we were a key marginal we had a lot of help from the Labour Party but now that we are no longer – even though there is only a few thousand votes in it – we’re actually doing the campaign ourselves and having much more fun… We’ve bought a loud hailer to put on top of one of our cars, we’ve bought a loud speaker so we can stand on soap boxes and shout around on the streets, I’m busily organising events so we can be everywhere and be seen by everyone, and win this election in the way that we actually did until only two elections ago’.
Broxtowe party membership has almost trebled in the last two years and Teresa sees more excitement around politics now than she’s ever known. Whereas before the local Labour Party might get two or three people canvassing in a day, now at least 16 and sometimes 20 people are out on the streets three times a day. People are talking about politics in a way they never did before. Rather than accosting people during street stalls, members of the public are approaching them. What do you put it down to? I ask Teresa.
‘We’d got so tired of feeling we were just Tory-lite, and nobody was listening to our policies because they weren’t really anything different to what was being offered by the Conservatives. What’s different now is… we’ve got policies that are actual Labour policies; clear, Socialist policies that are distinctly, distinctly different from the Tories and the Lib Dems, distinctly different from UKIP and of anybody else. We’ve got something to stand and fight for now, and it’s re-energised us in quite an astonishing way.’
The crowd who turned up at the White Lion pub for Stand Up For Labour’s show that night was pretty mixed. Couples of a certain age sitting behind a young woman with a three month-old baby listening intently as the singer-songwriter, Rob Johnson, strummed revolutionary songs about class war that seemed to go down quite well, followed by a comic who made people laugh. Teresa headed up the raffle, ‘Right!’ she announced ‘Now’s the time to win Christmas presents that nobody wanted!’ More laughter filled the room. Broxtowe’s Labour candidate, Greg Marshall, made an impassioned speech as ladies in the audience reached for their mobile phones to film him. Warm applause greeted his critique of fracking and condemnation of the Conservative Party manifesto, which was released that day.
During the show we screen a short film by local filmmaker, Lewis Stainer, about Teaching Assistants in nearby Derby who have gone on strike. The women‘s pay has been cut by 25% with no reduction in hours or conditions. The women have responded by getting political. ‘They’ve got to understand’, says campaigner Helen Mo, ‘that we work with the most vulnerable children and the most challenging children in this city and we get results, and we get results because we dig our heels in and we work hard. And we are doing the same thing with this dispute. We are digging our heels in, and we are working hard to get what is right.’
Broxtowe voted by 55% to leave the EU in last year’s referendum. Like so many leave constituencies across the Midlands and the North, Broxtowe was an industrial heartland. From its factory in Beeston, British L M Ericsson produced telecommunications products from as early as 1903, and in 1910 it made handsets for Scott’s second Antarctic expedition. Early models of telephone were made in Beeston and this high-skilled engineering continued throughout the twentieth century. In 1961 British Ericsson Telephone Company was sold to Plessey who continued running the Beeston site until 1989, when it was bought in a hostile takeover and finally closed in 2008. Now the biggest employer in the area is Royal Mail.
As the show came to a close and the audience moved downstairs into the bar, I looked around and felt a great sense of energy. Hanging on all the walls of the pub were paintings and drawings by local artists, posters for storytelling nights, film nights, dance classes, theatre shows. The gentle rhythm of Brazilian music played in the background, the Portuguese owner, pulling pints with huge biceps and an afro, everybody chatting and buying one another drinks. I left feeling the people of Broxtowe were onto something here. This was the place to be that Thursday night. There was no pessimism about the election result in The White Lion. Instead, it was as if they had found themselves again. And maybe they have.