How Grassroots Activists Are Rebuilding Solidarity in Southampton

As poverty rises in the wake of Covid, the Southampton Social Aid Group is organising in communities, not to offer charity but to build solidarity – renewing the bonds decayed by decades of neoliberalism.

It has been an almost implausibly awful 18 months for socialists in the UK. The sorrow of Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election was followed by ruthless attempts from our various political opponents to drive us out of political life, and the Covid crisis has necessarily precluded most of our organisational and social practices.

For Southampton, things have just become worse still. The ‘dented shield’ of an ineffectual, right-wing Labour council has just been replaced by a Tory one sure to plunge the city’s vulnerable further into crisis. The local Conservatives managed a remarkable seven-seat swing to gain control.

In addition to the well-documented failure—or refusal—of the national Labour Party to stand for anything tangible, at a local level, Labour’s capitulation was in part due to years of deeply unpopular policymaking from ‘moderate’ councillors all too willing to implement Tory austerity, and in part due to a once vibrant activist base shrinking through disillusionment and ferocious factional bloodletting from the general secretary. Southampton Labour’s campaign was insipid and uninspiring, and had few people left who were prepared to carry it out.

In the recesses of despair, though, resistance is being generated. Southampton Social Aid Group (SSAG)—a co-op set up by local left-wing activists in the city—isn’t just about helping, or some Victorian liberal notion of service. It is about participation, raising consciousness, and building confidence, power, freedom, and solidarity by bringing people together.

One of the group’s activities has been providing food. An irate local resident recently railed against the group on the basis that its members pay for their food, mistakenly inferring that this was a right-wing iteration of a food bank that sought to monetise poverty. In reality, the difference between a food bank and the food group is that food group members are not getting handouts but being invited to build networks that allow them to help each other and themselves. As well as meeting needs, it’s nourishing emotionally, even spiritually – combating loneliness and building relationships.

‘The difference between us and a food bank,’ SSAG founder Simon Oldham tells me, ‘is that I don’t really class us as “emergency food”. We’re not here to replace food banks or shops – we’re about helping people to free themselves from food poverty. There’s a space for people who don’t want to go to a food bank to come here and contribute, and the more members we have, the better quality goods we can get, and the more we can achieve overall.’

Oldham is keen to emphasise that the group is not about charity – it’s about supporting one another. ‘Everyone gets a say. You become a member, and you can elect the board going forward. Everything we do, we run it by our members. You have a choice here as well, unlike at a food bank. We don’t just say “Here’s what you’re getting,” we ask people to get involved.

‘It’s about participation and solidarity, not charity. Many of the volunteers use the food club as well. That participation and choice is different to a food bank – people feel part of this.’

Emily Jones was a Labour staffer during the Corbyn era, and ‘saw everything being torn apart from the inside.’ Now SSAG treasurer, she makes another important distinction between the group and a charity. ‘An issue with charities is that they tend to be quite top-down and they often—through necessity—have barriers to access,’ she says. ‘For example, most food banks require a referral.’

This is a vital point – SSAG is bottom-up, direct, and democratic, and doesn’t rely on creaking infrastructure, or politicians, bureaucrats, general practitioners, or CEOs deciding who is deserving of help. ‘Members get a say in how the group and the Food Club runs, so decisions are made by and for the members rather than being dictated from above.’

Oldham says he was motivated to get the group started by his experience of involvement in Covid mutual aid groups – both the gratification and the frustration.

‘We’d talked about it for a while, but being involved in mutual aid gave me the confidence and knowledge to just go for it. With mutual aid, though, there ended up being a lot of gatekeeping, with a technocratic elite forming, which frustrated me quite a lot.

‘Southampton Social Aid Group is about bringing people in. It’s about democracy. That’s why we created a board and decided it should be run as a co-op – we wanted to be democratic. I suppose this is me becoming more right-wing as I get older, but for me being more right-wing means being a hardline democratic socialist instead of an anarchist!’

A sometime Labour council candidate, Oldham quickly grew disillusioned by the party’s direction under Keir Starmer, and by the inertia of local party and council politics. I ask about the politics underpinning this form of organising.

‘Both my parents are working-class Tories,’ he says. ‘It never made sense to me. And when I got older, I started to wonder, “Why can’t we improve things? Why can’t we meet everyone’s needs?” And then more recently, in a newer, more local sense, I keep hearing people on the council and in government say, “We can’t do this because we haven’t got the money. We can’t do this because we lost the election and can’t get the legislation through.”

‘But there are ways of doing it. People need it. So let’s do it. I’m part of the Labour Party, and the council do a lot of good things in the city compared to Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors nearby. Why aren’t we doing more in our communities, doing things that are possible, instead of making excuses?’

For co-founder Barrie Margetts, a left-wing Labour councillor in the city’s Coxford ward and a professor emeritus in public health nutrition, the food group was a meeting of his expertise and his politics.

‘Research has shown that when people go to food banks there’s a stigma associated with it,’ he explains, ‘and people don’t like receiving charity, whereas here it’s about being part of a collective and helping each other. Plus it’s a more sustainable model. This is really the community lifting itself.’

He adds that the group shouldn’t be necessary. ‘If you look at the food system we have, it’s driven by the wrong forces. It’s driven by profit, not by ensuring that people have access to healthy food. So if you look at what we’re trying to do here, another difference between this and a food bank is that we’re trying to give people access to healthy food, which we know is more expensive.

‘When they’re making choices on a limited budget, people won’t buy fresh fruit and vegetables because they’re expensive, and because they’re expensive, the children might not want to eat them anyway because they’ve not been exposed to them. We’re making it affordable and accessible.

‘We’ve got celeriac over there,’ he says, gesturing. ‘I’ve never eaten it so I wouldn’t know what to do with it, but we’ve got cookbooks that show you how to cook with it. And in the kitchen here they were cooking celeriac last week. Going forward, we’d like to do educational stuff: classes, for example, and not just around food. At some point our members are hopefully going say, “Actually, we’re OK with food, but we’d like help with washing or gardening.”’

As well as food, there are hygiene products and even culture in the form of books donated by the independent October Books, a local institution popular with Sotonian left-wingers. The social aid group is partly about civic pride: Margetts is known in the city for his Grassroots community gardening campaign (funded by Unite Community), and isn’t averse to ‘guerilla gardening’ to try to raise standards of living.

I ask Oldham what advice he has for people who might want to start similar initiatives but feel overwhelmed. ‘Reach out!’ he replies. ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find a structure that other comrades have created and build from there. That’s what we’ve been doing. I contacted local groups who’d done something similar. You don’t have to be a charity or an official cooperative, you can just do it. We can try and support just as we’ve been supported by others. We’ll share everything we’ve got.’

There are plenty of ideas on how to go further. ‘We would like to have a community hub where different groups could use that space together and help each other and have a cross-fertilisation of ideas and activities,’ says Margetts, ‘ideally on a high street.’ Oldham even nurtures aspirations of a community bus service: ‘What we’d like to do is what the council can’t and the government won’t.’

I ask if they’re having conversations with new members about the ideological underpinning of the group, trying to make the point that everyday life is political. ‘Not yet. Because of Covid, at the moment, we’re a shop. But there is the opportunity, when we’ve established this as a social hub with a more cafe-type feel, to have those conversations, encouraging people to get involved with unions and campaigns. At the moment, it’s not telling, it’s showing.’

This seems like an important step for the socialist left to take. It transpired that convincing people that we could transform society from above was a hard sell. ‘One thing I learned as a Labour Party activist is that all the door knocking and leafleting in the world won’t change anyone’s mind if they don’t believe that building a more collective and equal society is actually achievable or workable,’ Jones says. ‘So we have to show people what that looks like in practice.’

With the parliamentary route now blocked, there must be widespread, far-reaching, and varied attempts to introduce radical left politics at a municipal level. In some ways this was a weakness of Corbynism post-2017, as we became seduced (perhaps necessarily) by electoralism.

The silver lining to the series of defeats we have suffered is that we now have time. To convince people that better things are possible, we need to stop arguing amongst ourselves and show people outside our bubbles there are appealing alternatives to their current ways of living. We need to make the world seem changeable. If we don’t, our enemies will pick up the slack.

One of Southampton Social Aid Group’s grandest aspirations is to have a social club that would provide a space not just for organising, but for fun. Reading groups and political meetings are great, but carousing and talking nonsense can also fight disconnection and hopelessness. We can’t just try to get people angry; we have to collectively empower and help people to relate to one another if we are to build new solidarities and reforge old ones. What could be more effective in building consent for socialist ideas than implementing socialism in some way, however localised and small-scale?

Southampton Social Aid Group is in its infancy, but there is a nascent radicalism in creating struggle where before there was only survival. This isn’t campaigning; proving that things can be done better is something else entirely. It is resistance. And where there is resistance, there is already a sense that things can be done differently.

As Raymond Williams said in ‘Socialists and Coalitionists’, an essay that appeared in his book Resources of Hope, ‘the centre of this new politics would be a campaign to shift the popular ground on which we have in fact been defeated: not to adapt to it or to manoeuvre around it, but to go out and try to transform it.’