Corbyn has opened the door; but today’s progressive revival is coming first and foremost from the grassroots, as a diversity of citizens connect with each other and start daring to believe in changeby / June 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
The week the snap election was called, I was in Madrid with leaders of Podemos, top Bernie Sanders organisers, and British campaigners including Owen Jones and Momentum. Theresa May’s Conservatives had surged to a 25 point lead in the polls, her slogans were rampant across the airwaves, and the expert consensus was that—absent a miracle—Labour MPs were about to be scythed down like fields of hapless wheat.
What happened next wasn’t a miracle: it was a chaotic and delightful case study in democracy. In the last few weeks, a new chapter of political revolution has been written here in the UK. In its own way this outcome is as big a shock as the victories of Trump and Brexit. But now it is left-populist insurgents making all the running, and a right-wing establishment’s decay that is being exposed to sunlight.
How did the mighty fall? All the tricks of the old politics were swiftly marshalled by their Svengali, Lynton Crosby. The campaign centred on the personality of May as the only trustworthy leader. Crosby hammered home slogans like “strong and stable,” whipping up fear about “threats” like Corbyn and Europe, while claiming that only May could offer security. Former Ukip voters were offered a firm Brexit, while Labour’s base was romanced with triangulating rhetoric.
Crosby’s dream team included Obama strategist turned gun-for-hire Jim Messina. Targeting data informed their expensive full-spectrum advertising campaign, from wraparounds in local newspapers to the anti-Corbyn mudslinging in countless millions of “dark ads” on Facebook. A few wheezes like a free vote on fox-hunting were thrown out as red meat to get the base salivating. For the most part though, policy was treated as distracting “barnacles” to be scraped off the hull.
This familiar playbook had never felt more hollow or cynical—but early on, it was working. A landslide looked almost inevitable; and Labour’s splits were still hamstringing them organisationally. I was told of separate war-rooms with different game-plans; in practice the party was investing the vast majority of its resources in defending sitting MPs, particularly those with majorities of 5,000 or more, and had largely given up on winning anywhere else.
“No movement impressed me more than Momentum this election”
But as I talked to more and more people, I realised something strange was happening: a people-powered swarm of movements, individuals and campaigns was springing up in response. This swarm wasn’t coordinated, but its goals overlapped — stopping a landslide, more youth turnout, tactical voting and giving people something to actually vote for.
Much of the bottom-up action was crowdfunded on our open platform at Crowdpac—from Owen Jones’s “Stop A Tory Landslide” campaign to RizeUp’s non-partisan work for youth registration and turnout, which included street teams doing outreach in communities as well as online. Three million registering to vote was one of the first signals that something game-changing might be brewing. Meanwhile, scrappy campaigns like Grime4Corbyn combined with Jeremy’s old-fashioned rallies to signal a diverse and people-powered alternative, one which compared favourably with May’s refusal to debate her rivals or meet the public.
No movement impressed me more than Momentum this election. They swiftly raised over £120,000 with us, using it to super-charge their greatest resource—a network of hundreds of thousands of passionate supporters and campaigners. Over ten thousand signed up to knock on doors for Labour, with thousands trained to have deeper conversations with voters.
Momentum’s MyNearestMarginal site became an important portal for campaigners. They filled gaps that Labour headquarters’ defensive strategy left, channelling hundreds of activists into constituencies they thought they could win from the Conservatives, like Croydon Central, Brighton Kemptown and Weaver Vale. These priority seats were won with huge swings and rises in voter turnout.
Momentum also mobilised one of the best attack campaigns since Peter Mandelson wielded Excalibur (New Labour’s massive intelligence-gathering and rebuttal database). They used rapid-response viral videos to exploit the failures of May’s campaign and drive narratives more effectively than The Sun or the Daily Mail. In the penultimate week, they reached a quarter of the population on Facebook, while spending only £700 on advertising. This kind of performance is almost unprecedented, and depends on a critical mass of people sharing content with their networks — something which also makes the messages more persuasive than any number of expensive micro-targeted ads.
The more traditional Labour grassroots and other outside movements also played important roles. The Progressive Alliance forged local partnerships in dozens of constituencies and helped thousands of people organise and campaign locally for tactical voting, something that will continue to be vital even as the leading two parties surge (and which was only made possible by the Greens’ generosity). Claire Sandberg, the leading Bernie Sanders organiser I saw in Madrid, played a key role in sharing know-how. Innovations like “barnstorm” meetings to kickstart local canvassing and peer-to-peer texting were used by the Alliance, Momentum and Labour.
“The old politics is rotting from the head down, and a new politics is rising from the grassroots”
Meanwhile More United was giving crowdfunded donations directly to candidates, Best for Britain raised almost £400,000 to campaign for a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal, and Tactical2017 and Avaaz also played crucial roles in doubling the number of people intending to vote tactically.
A bold and appealing Labour manifesto helped change the conversation and gave people something to vote for. “For the many, not the few” was a people-powered message with far more resonance and content than “strong and stable.” A set of populist common sense policies filled out this story; and the contrast with the disastrous Conservative manifesto was stark.
Jeremy Corbyn rebounded from a terrible starting position to perform extraordinarily well. His campaign made many people rethink their previous opposition or skepticism about him. He continues to surge post-election, and is now tying with May in the leadership stakes (although that bar is low, and she may not last long). He must raise his game to the next level and rally a world-class team around him to defeat her incipient successor.
But as Lao Tzu once said, “With the best leaders, when the work is done, the people will say we have done this ourselves.” Corbyn has opened the door; but today’s progressive revival is coming first and foremost from the grassroots, as a diversity of citizens connect with each other and start daring to believe in change.
The old politics is rotting from the head down, and a new politics is rising from the grassroots. The campaigning is just getting started. Labour’s membership is surging again since the election: if it does not drop the ball, it could be a million strong before long. The next chapter of our politics is yet to be written. The stadium is filling up. But we citizens aren’t just spectators now; we are becoming active players on the field. That has to be a good thing for our democracy.