Turning the Suburbs Socialist

The suburbs of England are seen by many as a symbol of Tory strength, but a new book argues that beneath the surface lies a potential for change that socialists can bring to life.

Durose argues that the suburbs could provide the building blocks for new coalitions. Credit: Getty Images

‘Brentwood and Ingatestone […] have very little to be said of them.’ This was the judgement of Daniel Defoe in 1722, when he toured the eastern counties of England and wrote of their varied peoples, traditions, and landscapes.

When it came to these parts of Essex that lie, in our own time, just over the M25 from London, there was simply triflingly little to say. These ‘large thoroughfare towns’ existed only in relation to London, to provide for London’s merchants and manufacturers routes to ports elsewhere in the county of Essex. Beyond this identity, Defoe could see no place for them and they were skipped over hurriedly so more pressing topics could fill his pages.

Three hundred years on and—as much as Britain has changed—London’s periphery is still an afterthought for many of us, not least for modern socialists who find themselves living in great urban centres and focusing squarely upon urban struggles. A new book from Oly Durose, once a Labour candidate for the constituency of Brentwood and Ongar, challenges this complacency and looks towards the horizon of a suburban political terrain painted in hues of radical socialist red.

Suburban Socialism is an ambitious book for an ambitious project. Durose not only provides a well-researched overview of the state of Britain’s suburbs and ‘suburban capitalism’ as they exist, which would be a commendable feat on its own, but he strives beyond mere definition to offer imaginative alternatives to our present ways of living, theorising, and organising. The book attempts to upend orthodox understandings of socialism’s purchase in the suburbs and the demographics that inhabit Britain’s suburban landscape.

While places like Durose’s Brentwood are often well over 90 percent white and predominantly, if not exclusively, middle-class, he makes the compelling argument that there is far more diversity of race, experience, and income hidden beyond suburbia’s façade. It is our folly to believe the suburbs are an unwavering Thatcherite holdouts, where a marriage of capitalist ‘aspiration’ and white supremacist ‘respectability’ is held to be sacrosanct by even those who oppose it. The only way around the suburbs, some might posit, is by abolishing them altogether.

But Durose looks askance at such ideas: the suburbs, as they truly exist, carry more than the prospect of eternal defeat for left-wing ideals, candidates, and movements. Peeling back the layers of misconception, he argues that they actually could provide the building blocks for new coalitions of activists and voters willing to tackle an economy rigged against the supposed domestic security and green idyll of the suburban lifestyle.

Behind the drawn curtains and charming high streets are shop workers, care workers, teachers, delivery drivers, homeless people, and dispossessed peoples of all kinds. Behind the veils of respectability and civility are feelings of hopelessness over an endangered planet, fear of an atomised society, and longing for something better.

It is down to socialists, wherever they may be, to look at the challenge of the suburbs not as an electoral exercise that consists merely of winning the votes of a sympathetic minority or shifting Labour so far to the right that it becomes indistinguishable from suburbia’s current political beneficiaries, the Conservatives. Our long-term project must be to tear down the ideology of what Durose calls ‘suburban realism’ and build up the bonds of solidarity that could lead to socialist victory in the future, rather than fatalistically accepting the suburbs as we have always imagined them to be.

Drawing upon his experiences as a Labour candidate in the 2019 general election and as a caucus organiser for the Bernie Sanders campaign in Nevada, he wields his anecdotes with precision and puts campaigning praxis at the heart of his theory. Tales of Tory jeers at campaign hustings, kickabouts with teenagers at a Las Vegas high school, and speaking with primary school children about the vision of a society in which all wealth could be shared in common: these are vignettes of a lived politics that informs Durose’s unique perspective on traditional political geography and its limitations for socialists who seek to win power.

At times, it may feel as if these asides are drawing away from the focused political manifesto the author expounds, but the reader is never left to meander for long. Durose stamps his authoritative voice on every digression to bring us back to the premise of the book itself: that the suburbs, so far misunderstood in the socialist imaginary, must be reimagined without prejudice or defeatism if socialism is to succeed in suburbia and, indeed, everywhere else.

Everything urged in the text is borne out by the author’s retelling of his experiences—and it is in his use of his experiences of the 2019 general election campaign in particular that this book’s importance comes to the fore. Much has been written of the Corbyn years and their infamous end, with as much emphasis placed on wallowing in the nostalgia as on attempts to figure out how to ‘get over it’, but few have thus far succeeded in truly moving past 12 December 2019.

What Durose has crafted in Suburban Socialism is the blueprint for a maturation of the British Left and a move beyond recrimination and retribution. It may not be an exhaustive plan of the next steps for socialists to take as they organise in a post-Corbyn world, but it signposts the way forward in terms that are accessible, practically viable, and intellectually serious. We may not be able to see every turn on the road ahead, but this book maps out the terrain of our success in the years and decades to come.

Original in conception and expansive in scope, Suburban Socialism serves as both an antidote to the Left’s weariness and as a challenge to our long-held notions of where and how socialism is supported, practised, and propagated in modern Britain.