These are the last days, a countdown to 8 June, and to a vote that will set the course for more austerity, more privatisation and a crackdown on civil liberties over the next five years, or one that will lay the basis for an increasingly confident fight-back and the resurgence of the left, of feminist, anti-racist and ecological struggle.
You do not have to be a member of the Labour Party to support the campaign, through leafleting or even through canvassing. I am not a member, but I simply turned up at the campaign office round the back of Withington Community Fire Station and asked for some leaflets. Withington constituency was seized from the Tories in 1987 by Keith (now Lord) Bradley who held it until 2005, part of the wipe-out of the Tories in Manchester, one of the side-effects, I was told by the Labour campaign team, of Thatcher.
They gave me a round to do, letters which were targeted letters to possible voters, which is where you start to realise how hard a postie’s job is, how important it is to know how door-numbering works, and how misleading addresses are in this part of the world. The anthropologist Kate Fox notes in her book Watching the English, that these people who are so proud of their home as their castle also seem to take great pains to conceal the numbers on their houses.
Delivering personally-addressed messages from Jeff Smith – sitting MP for Withington – was not as easy as it seemed, involving endless detours around the backs of shared buildings and down hidden stairwells to doors with tiny letterboxes. The next round the next day, a huge block of glossy fold-over A4 leaflets with Jeff’s face all over them was a different matter. A bit more freedom over the addresses because I didn’t have to search for particular numbers, but more difficulty getting the things through letterboxes that seem to be cunningly and deliberately blocked with layers of brush; to get the leaflets through those ones you have to fold the leaflets around several times more and push them through with some force. And there is the question of what to do with multiple-tenancy houses with up to eighteen separate flats, whether to push eighteen leaflets through or make do with a smaller sample.
You don’t need to be the cleverest detective in the world to deduce that Jeff Smith is no friend of Corbyn. This is an issue that came up at the Withington for Corbyn campaign meeting soon after the election was called; activists were angrily asking why it was that the usual Labour Party practice of showing the smiling candidate shaking hands with the leader had been abandoned. There are no pictures or mentions of Corbyn on Jeff’s leaflets. This is the onward march of two parties – Labour divided between the apparatus (central office, the sitting MPs and a host of loyal members who have been in this for the long haul and who set their sights on a party in government that hopes to stem the worst effects of the crisis and save as many services as possible) and the new upsurge of membership, with supporters energised by what Corbyn promises; a movement that will take us beyond the limits of what capitalism will give us, that will mobilise people to build for more fundamental change.
There is a problem, and the deep rift between apparatus Labour politics and the new Corbyn supporters does not directly map onto a difference between passive reformists on the one hand and activists on the other. In some places, the mapping is exactly the opposite of what the new Corbyn left would hope for, with the old Labour apparatus supporters now actually the most hard-working activists campaigning for a Labour victory and bitterly complaining about the absence on the doorstep of all the new Corbynites who, they claim, are no more than paper members. I have already been harangued by an old comrade, a member of the Labour Party who told me that she hadn’t seen any of the new members out to leaflet or canvas. Actually, she also told me during the last general election campaign that she was happy to agree with voters on the doorstep that a vote for the Greens would do just as well, and she told them to go for it. This time I think that line will be harder, the stakes are higher.
Withington is not, strictly-speaking, a ‘marginal’ constituency, but it could still slip back into the hands of the Liberal Democrats who held it until the last election. It is home of John Leech, the only Lib Dem (and the only non-Labour councillor) on Manchester City Council, Leech who briefly held the seat until Jeff Smith took it. (It is a deeply liberal place, including a recent influx from the media-workers relocated to Salford from London, and Leech’s ward in Withington also recorded the lowest percentage vote for UKIP in the whole country.) The Lib Dems are a real threat, with the Tories pretty well invisible, and most Tory voters going for the Lib Dems, especially this time with the absence of a UKIP candidate.
A little team met on bank holiday Monday in the car-park behind the Co-op, and we were given canvassing prompt leaflets: Say “Sorry to disturb you” when someone opens their door, “Smile and be polite” and “always shut the gate”, and so on. And there were codes for the team leaders to indicate how people were going to vote. L = Labour and T = Tory, of course, and S is for Lib Dem because S stands for SDP, the old 1981 breakaway from Labour led by the gang of four (Jenkins, Owen, Rogers and Williams), an outfit that eventually folded into the Liberals to form the Lib Dems, and B is for UKIP (that is, B for BNP). Jeff Smith was there. “And if someone keeps banging on and on about Brexit”, one of the team was saying, “point out that Jeff voted against triggering article 50 twice”. I commented that he was right to do that (yes I do think that), and then Jeff drove us over to East Didsbury, taking us via Fog Lane to see if the Tory campaign office was open. It was not.
Jeff talked about discussion on the MPs WhatsApp group about the recent slippage in support, grimly putting it down to what he called ‘The Leadership’. No one disagreed with him. I asked him about a phone conversation he had a few days ago with a relative keen to quiz him about antisemitism and the necessity to support Israel. Jeff said he thought the conversation had gone well and that he had some sympathy with her. There was then agreement in the car that the best way to deal with Ken Livingstone was to expel him from the party. I said that it was probably a good thing that Ken was keeping quiet at the moment. This was not the moment for a political fight. We were, at this moment, striking together.
The morning round was targeted at households where there had either been an indication that they might vote Labour or had voted Labour in the past. One voter told me she wanted the flood waters outside her house dealt with but that, whether or not anything was done about it, she would vote Labour. She took a poster to put up. Another voter told me that he would vote for whoever stopped the kids riding their motorbikes around the park and throwing stones at his windows. I said I would talk to the team about it. A Green voter told me that this time he would make an exception, this time he was for Labour, and he took a poster for his window. Another told me that she was worried about Dianne Abbott, and wanted to know how “we” – she said she had once been a Labour Party member and “not a Blairite” – “could get our party back”. She said she felt sorry for us, and I felt sorry too. This was not the moment for a political fight; we needed to get round the rest of our target voters.
The afternoon round in Burnage included a member who said he supported Corbyn, but my campaign team was led by someone who I knew from a while back, and knew he was resolutely hostile to Corbyn. It didn’t stop us working together, even when I forgot the names of some of the people in one house I had knocked on; he tapped his clip-board saying “we need the data”. There were moments when anxiety about accusations that could be levelled against us kicked in; at one point, for example, one of us helped a voter fill out his postal vote, but then had to take the envelope back to that house saying that we could not actually post it for them, but they could ask their neighbour to do it. Would it matter that I was not actually a member of the party I was campaigning for? No. I realised quite early on that it didn’t make sense to say that I was a member of the Labour Party and managed things by saying (politely) that I was “with the Labour Party”. That’s true. I was.
Leafleting and canvassing for Labour – particularly when the literature is so obviously side-lining the Corbyn leadership and when the activists on the doorstep are willing to collude with the demonization of this leadership and reassure them that this local MP is a more sensible character – poses activists on the left with a painful question about their own double-role, about the double-effect of their involvement. On the one hand, yes, this support for Labour – the largest possible vote, including securing seats against the Lib Dems as well as against the Tories – is absolutely necessary for any sustained fight-back against Tory policies. On the other hand, and at the same time, this kind of support is, let’s face it, support for the apparatus. In Withington we will succeed in returning an MP who has been openly hostile to Corbyn and who will continue to manoeuvre against the left of the party when he is elected. It will, for some, be seen as a vote for the ‘moderate’ kind of cuts politics pursued by the local Labour council. It is both things.
There is a dialectical contradiction at the heart of this election, uncomfortable and unavoidable, but that should not prevent us from being actively involved in it. Anyone who is for Corbyn should now be out on the doorstep for him, on the doorstep with the Labour Party teams; go on, do it for Jeremy. It is vital that the left supporters of Corbyn are active and visible in the campaign, active and visible as members of the Labour Party, and active and visible outside the party too.
Theresa May’s snap election could well be the opportunistic gamble that failed, and now is the time for us to make sure it fails in the most dramatic way possible. We need more than voting, yes, of course, and we need more than simply voting now. We need to get that vote out as a precondition for building a real left Labour mobilisation against the Tories. Whether we have signed up as members of the Labour Party inspired by the Corbyn leadership or whether we still feel queasy about signing up to a party apparatus that continues to administer cuts through local councils and that is intent on blocking Corbyn, this is the moment to act.