“We were having trolley wars in our supermarkets,” says Lewis Nelson, a Labour councillor in the Cadishead district of Salford. “People got wind of a seven-day isolation period, then fourteen days, and now there’s talk of four months for people identified as ‘vulnerable’. The scramble is now about organising to make sure nobody is left behind.”
Alongside his fellow councillor Sharmina August, Nelson – who, at the age of 21, is one of the youngest Labour councillors in Britain – moved quickly to set up the Spirit of Salford initiative on Facebook last Saturday.
Both Nelson and August are keen to point out that people willing to step up and help their neighbours were in no short supply in a city like theirs, which has a vibrant culture of socialism and trade unionism. But that spontaneity came with problems. People began buying goods in bulk to later post the goods on Facebook to offer anything to friends and neighbours for free.
These acts of decency put immense pressure on local shops and caused worry. Due to dreadful government communication, few were aware that coronavirus can survive on food packaging for up to three days, meaning that thoughtful neighbours with selfless motives were an unconscious threat to Salford’s population of thousands of elderly, disabled and vulnerable people.
To counteract this, Salford’s council – led by Paul Dennett, one of the few socialist local authority leaders in Britain – began making calls for people to register as emergency volunteers to receive the right training. The steps taken had roots in recent lessons learned; after the floods which ravaged areas of northern England in 2015-16, Salford Council began making in-depth processes to tighten and organise the city’s community voluntary sector (CVS) for future crisis events.
In the crisis plan, which was developed and signed off by Dennett earlier this year, everyone involved in the city’s communal life – from baking clubs to knitting societies – can be directed into providing productive care should they so wish. August says that the move “isn’t about the council taking away the community spirit, it’s about strengthening and constructively directing that solidarity so that support goes where it needs to.”
The point about constructive organisation is clear. Along with sharing the general fears of the population about coronavirus, many in Salford are rife with anxieties over the running of food banks, whose ranks have been temporarily decimated by predominantly older volunteers self-isolating. One community activist who wished to remain anonymous agreed with the council’s plans, telling Tribune that “it just isn’t sustainable for people to just start handing out stuff for three months. It’d be just wrong if that didn’t happen, people want to help, but you can only be really effective if you’re properly organised.”
Since the Spirit of Salford group was founded on Saturday, over 2,000 members have joined. They also have over 700 volunteers ready to be trained to appropriately help people and provide mutual assistance. New communal solidarity is being built through the network already; Nelson offers an example of a teenager joining the group asking for food for their parent who had only just moved to Salford, had no connections in the area, and couldn’t use social media.
On the group, Salford mums are organising to keep an eye on milk formula stocks in the local shops so they can help people avoid making unnecessary shopping trips and aid those who might be short. Local teachers have offered help to parents by providing kids with free homework lessons, and vulnerable people are finding supportive neighbours who will walk their dogs for them.
Despite Spirit of Salford’s apolitical status, it is clear many Salford Labour Party members are organising in the project. However, the party’s embeddedness within the community across the city means that this raises few eyebrows. A hostile post on the group casting aspersions over the page’s political loyalties was met with mockery and anger from everyday Salfordians (with comments like “if you don’t like Labour then where the fuck the Tories then?” and “If this were a Tory group I wouldn’t fucking join”). So much so, in fact, that administrators removed the post for fear of inciting a pile-on.
However, while saying firmly that the operation is not “being branded as hugely Labour,” the initiative was created with solidarity at its heart, and the connection between Labour and community action in working-class areas like Salford should come naturally. “It’s what the Labour Party should do shouldn’t it?” August tells Tribune. “It’s about solidarity, and taking care of everybody, and that should be a core principle of every Labour Party member trying to help solve this crisis.”
This collective strength may have more ominous implications for many seeking to reap financial rewards from the fears of others. August tells Tribune that there’s an awareness in the group that “certain people are profiteering from this crisis.” Many Salfordians have begun compiling blacklists of shops hiking prices on essentials such as hand sanitiser and toilet roll. On Salford Online, a large community Facebook page, a pinned post told shopkeepers to resist the temptation to profiteer, warning that “we will ensure that once this is all over, those responsible are taken to task.”
Within a day, the post received nearly a thousand likes, was shared hundreds of times, and received clear backing from locals. A retiree living in the former dockers community of Ordsall told Tribune: “It’s class war, pure and simple. They can’t shaft us in the bad times and walk away from it later. Let them have their moment now and we’ll put them out [of business] the day after.”
Spirit of Salford’s next step is to use its database to begin delivering nutritionally balanced food parcels, free at the point of need, to vulnerable people. Volunteers are in a strong place to assist the thousands who have registered with local services, but the community knowledge brought to the table has meant that around 4,000 potentially vulnerable people – the isolated, precarious workers in private rented accommodation, older people, and those who live on their own – who may be what one community activist calls “the hidden vulnerable”.
Though most talk is of people raring to go, people cannot but help thinking about what comes after this. August says that she hopes that the group will create stable, long-lasting communal relations, and that the sense of people meeting new people will improve the city as a whole – as well as help it tackle other problems created by the past decade of austerity, such as ameliorating child hunger during school holidays. “There has got to be the message that when it comes to help, there is somebody for everybody,” she says.
A council worker impressed by what the mobilisation was also keen to tell Tribune how “when this is all done, we should be having parades for the volunteers and the bin men and the nurses who stuck out through this. Get them on a parade and march them through town with a big flag that says “SALFORD” on it.” Plenty of people are considering this, having seen the energy by which a socialist council – whose motto is “the welfare of the people is the highest law” – has sought to mobilise and energise its citizens to help others. As Nelson tells me, “the winds are calming because Salford people are stepping up.”