This is a once-in-a-generation election. That’s the refrain being repeated on the left right now to rally the troops for door knocking. And it’s true, of course. But a once-in-a generation vote is never just about an election — it’s about much, much more than that.
Taking stock as we near the end of the election campaign, I find myself uncharacteristically cheered about the state of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn. Of course, the picture isn’t all positive, and we still have a mountain to climb. Before the campaign started, I was over-optimistic in some respects, under-estimating the continued influence of the mainstream press: I’ve been genuinely shocked on the doorstep by how far they have succeeded in turning the Labour leader into a hate figure.
In other respects, though, I was too pessimistic: I thought the party’s prevarication on Brexit could result in fewer enthusiastic young activists willing to go out knocking doors than in 2017, when in fact the opposite seems to have happened. More generally, if we zoom out from the day-to-day ups and downs of the campaign, I think there are three key ways in which our movement has matured in leaps and bounds.
Strength in Depth
First, the depth and the sophistication of the policy agenda this time around is miles ahead of 2017. Then, facing a snap election soon after taking charge, and still under siege from internal opponents, the team around Corbyn effectively had to bootstrap a radical manifesto from nothing. The fact that this document is nonetheless credited with turning the campaign around is testament to the popularity of policies like public ownership, which has defied conventional wisdom about what voters want. But the two and a half years since then have not been wasted. Today’s manifesto offers a much more cohesive vision for moving beyond neoliberalism and building a democratic economy.
Take my own policy area, banking reform. In 2017, the party had a “shopping list” of commitments in this area, such as establishing a National Investment Bank, and setting up a new Post Bank attached to the Post Office. They were all good policies, but they had been developed in a scattergun way. Now, the party has given serious thought to how these public institutions can work together (full disclosure: I worked on this report). It has also commissioned separate work on how the Bank of England could change its oversight of private banks to shift their lending towards more productive and sustainable activities.
For the first time since the financial crisis, Labour is offering a truly coherent strategy for fixing our banking system. Likewise, it is moving beyond public ownership and thinking seriously about how to democratise private enterprise — with policies like Inclusive Ownership Funds (which would give workers a collective stake in listed companies) and support for community wealth building (the so-called “Preston Model” of keeping money circulating in local economies). We’re still not quite there in terms of a Thatcher-style strategy for shifting power, or flagship policies that pack the same punch as Right to Buy — but we are streets ahead of where we were.
An Empowered Membership
Second, the ecosystem that sits behind this programme is now much stronger than it was in 2017. There are more and better supportive think tanks, with established players like the New Economics Foundation and the IPPR upping their game, and new entrants like Common Wealth. Perhaps more importantly, Labour members are getting educated and organised. Nowhere was this more apparent than at this year’s party conference in Brighton, where member-led campaigns won policy victories on issues ranging from private schools and drug prices to free movement and a Green New Deal. Even better, many of these were backed up by social movements outside the party — like the Just Treatment campaign on access to medicines, or the renters’ rights movement on housing policy.
Of course, not all of these have been fully incorporated into the manifesto. But in some ways, this is to be expected. In our book People Get Ready!, Joe Guinan and I wrote about the need for a strong, well-informed grassroots base to push radical parties to the left, recognising that they will always be able to go further than a leadership subject to the pressures of winning and wielding power.
If Brighton was anything to go by, this counterweight exists in the Labour party now to a much greater extent than it did just two or three years ago. And its cutting edge is The World Transformed, which this year hosted an ambitious experiment in participatory policy making — using a series of “Policy Labs” over the four days of the festival to draft a “manifesto for the movement” in real time.
Organising to Win
Third, the strength and sophistication of our grassroots mobilisation is now truly impressive. From inside the ground game, it feels as though 2017 was a dry run. Momentum in particular has clearly learnt lessons about how to absorb large numbers of activists quickly and give them useful things to do — taking on best practice from the “big organising” model that underpinned the Bernie Sanders campaign, as well as using data more intelligently to send activists to where they are most needed.
Many of the most talented organisers and communicators on the left are working for Momentum during this campaign, and it shows. And the sheer number of people going out to knock on doors or join in phone banking has been unprecedented. In Manchester, where I live, the volunteer-led grassroots effort has been truly incredible.
Again, there is of course more to do. As I’ve become more involved with Labour this year, I’ve been continually struck by how white and middle class the activist base still is. At a time of rising racism, fascism and xenophobia, this just isn’t good enough. We need to do better at reaching out beyond our existing networks and building a party that truly looks like the society it wants to achieve — one that gives voice to the most marginalised to organise for the change they want to see. And we need programmes to nurture the leaders and politicians of tomorrow, as Justice Democrats have done in the US with the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
After a generation where party politics was the preserve of Blairite careerists, smart and radical people are once again being attracted to stand for election – including candidates like Sam Tarry, Fran Boait and Faiza Shaheen. But building this new generation of leaders is a long task, and we have only just begun.
The Next Step
Of course, this scale and intensity of grassroots mobilisation comes with its own challenges, the most obvious being the risk of activist burn-out. Whichever way the election result goes, it will be the beginning and not the end of the need to mobilise.
If Labour wins, there will be much more to do to ensure it can deliver on its programme. The media attacks we have seen so far are just a tiny taste of what could be unleashed if Corbyn makes it into Downing Street, and the party simply will not survive what is to come without a strong, well-organised movement at its back. If it loses, the challenge will be to build on what’s been achieved so far rather than allowing it to be dismantled by those who would seek to blame defeat on the party’s “unelectable” radicalism. Young activists who have thrown everything at this campaign will need to be picked up, dusted off, and encouraged to keep going.
Yes, this is a once-in-a-generation election. But generational change is not a one shot thing. It’s messy, it’s unpredictable, and there will certainly be setbacks. Victory only ever looks inevitable with hindsight. Whatever the result on December 12, our movement is undoubtedly stronger today than it was in 2017 — and that gives me hope.