A practical strategy for left-wing hope in 2020

Those of us on the British left can't wait until the next election—or long-term demographic shifts—to create change

January 06, 2020
People outside a food bank on Oldham town centre.
People outside a food bank on Oldham town centre.

When those of us on the left look back on the end of 2019, we will remember one thing: it wasn’t the blue dawn that broke us, but, inevitably, the exit poll. Then, as it turned out, things could only get worse. Blyth Valley went, Bolsover went, and we knew it was true.

Most of us on the left knew we weren’t going to win, but there was still a tiny bit of hope that there would be wiggle room. Some fragility to the majority, if not a hung parliament. Instead, there was shock, numbness, flipping-channel from the BBC as soon as Priti Patel emerged, grinning, onto our screens. Gawping as Alan Johnson and Ed Balls laid into Jon Lansman on ITV’s surprisingly superior coverage, then flipping back over when Gove came on.

Those of us who live with anxiety all the time felt sick as hell when the morning came. The arrival of listicles explaining how to manage our mental health via the usual tips—eat! talk to friends! sleep! exercise!—and post-mortem articles explaining that it was decolonisation and support for trans people that lost us our heartlands couldn’t help but make me angry and depressed.

A majority of 80 gives the government carte blanche to do whatever they want, and the executive will have learned from Blair and Cameron that you need to push through all your public sector reforms as early as possible in order to avoid scrutiny. We will leave the EU by the 31st of January and the mess that follows will be ignored in the rush to Get Brexit Done. Fresh mandate, fresh hell.

Beyond the grief and anger—and the warning to try not to fall out with people who are actually on the same side as you—what does the left do next? Opting out of trying to win isn’t helpful, but if all we have is electoral politics, nothing will ever change. Local elections are coming up again in May, and left parties must fight them strategically, but the Labour Party isn’t embedded in people’s lives and workplaces anymore and the Lib Dems have been routed. That takes work to fix. Despite optimistic tweets about the 18-24 vote, we can’t just wait for demographic change to take its course. Nothing ever got better from being sad and hopeless, or from waiting ten years for voters to change their minds.

Where does new hope come from? Firstly from people who could represent the future of the left, like Leeds North West’s Alex Sobel—someone who has been taking climate seriously for many years, and bucked the national trend by not just holding on but increasing his majority.

There’s also something about community and infrastructure and local character that means that not all places that experience deprivation, underemployment and deindustrialisation will automatically fall to the right. Liverpool’s vote didn’t move to the Tories or the Brexit Party, for instance, and you can’t put all that on Hillsborough and Thatcher. After all, people who weren’t even born in the 1980s have had the vote for quite some time now.

We need to turn the solidarity and shoe leather and youth mobilisation and rallies into action for our communities. The compassion and concern so many on the left have been sharing for mental health services, homeless people, migrants, LGBTQ+ people, for food banks and public transport—that needs action now and forever. When a parent dies, you keep going (or I did) by throwing yourself into everything that needs doing practically. We have to do that with our grief over politics, too, and keep it going.

Short term, it makes sense to do things close to home that make us and our neighbours feel better: a supermarket order for the food bank, a January soup kitchen shift, a donation to homeless charities. It’s a difficult time of year, and things like this help. However, like leaving politics to a brief flare every election cycle, it’s not a solution to structural problems.

We can’t put activists on buses to listen to people and not build up the capacity to make this something that happens locally.

“Community organising” sounds good, but what do you mean by it if you live in London or another big city? As the parliamentary party of the trade union market, Labour should start putting compassion back into the heart of organising. That means taking the trades unions back from professionalisation, big employers and macho shouting about the working class (always implied to be white, mostly male and solely manual workers) and making collective action part of every workplace. Casework should stretch beyond the unions, too: if the left is to achieve anything over the next five years, we need to be the support people struggling can always rely on.

I don’t want meetings about potholes and war memorial flowers; I want action on housing co-operatives and debt advice. I want to be who people need and want, and not just a tick in a box.