Our new issue, “From Socialism to Populism and Back,” is out now. Get a discounted $20 print subscription today.

Labour’s Battle-Scarred Campaigners Are Unbowed

For Labour door-knockers, defeat was bitter, but the experience built skills and solidarities that will carry them into the next fights: preserving Labour as a vehicle for socialism, battling austerity and despair at the local level, and preparing the ground for victory at the next election.

Supporters react to the speeches during a stump speech by party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the Sporting Lodge Inn on December 11, 2019 in Middlesbrough, England. (Ian Forsyth / Getty Images)

Throughout polling day, campaigners were beset by torrential rain. Pollsters were still nervous about calling the election results wrong, after several embarrassing failures in the last decade. The unpredictability meant that despite expectations of a Conservative victory, when the exit poll predicted an eighty-seat majority, it still came as a shock to most people.

Recriminations from centrists implacably opposed to the Left were swift, but the election yielded genuine lessons, both positive and negative. The biggest story for the Left was just how many people were convinced to get out campaigning. Thousands who had never knocked a door or even delivered a leaflet before put themselves forward for training, plowing hours of time into fighting for Labour seats. Momentum sought to re-harness the technological nous it had shown in 2017 with websites showing where nearby campaigning events were, which marginals needed volunteers, and allowing people to phone bank remotely. Leading up to polling day, campaigners could book tickets on buses to constituencies in need of people on doorsteps, and thousands took time off work to dedicate themselves to campaigning.

For many, campaigning initially seemed daunting: the idea of speaking to stranger after stranger and asking them to switch their vote or support your cause is intimidating. But it also made many feel more confident in their own skills and ability to advocate for a cause. Immediately after the results were announced, huge numbers of people were already defying hopelessness by planning to channel that energy into volunteering and organizing locally: despite the victory of a government that has shown absolute disregard for the homeless, for migrants, for people with disabilities, and the poorest and most precarious in society, the work of campaigning against the Tories had strengthened people’s commitment to fighting for a longer victory rather than accepting defeat. Despair is an easy emotion to give in to, but fighting back is more satisfying as well as productive.

Having so many campaigners on doorsteps also offered insight into the issues people cared about and the motives behind their votes. From those who said they would vote against Labour, regurgitated verbatim smear stories leveled against Corbyn in the press were heard again and again: the bones of contention were his historic campaigning record on international issues, for Ireland, Latin America, the Middle East, against British wars and nuclear weapons. Time is also an undeniable factor in UK politics: Labour won in 1997 not because of the genius of Blairism, but because the Conservative government had ground to a completely dysfunctional halt after multiple terms. Squeaking into power again in 1992 put the final nails in the coffin of Conservatism for thirteen years, and though he may be confident now, Boris Johnson will find it more difficult to cling onto his new seats in the next election when the legacy of the Conservative economic policies has become increasingly undeniable. It was clear during the election that the Tories had lost the argument on austerity; they were forced to accept that public spending was necessary, that the National Health Service and schools needed more funding. Being in power may be Johnson’s undoing: with no hung parliament to blame, the fallout from his Brexit policies and the damage from NHS staffing and funding crises will be blamed on Johnson personally, as well as on the Conservatives.

The North of England held some of the biggest defeats for Labour, and there are lessons for the party next time. Campaigning resources should have been targeted more heavily at seats in the Midlands and North rather than relying on celebrity campaigners to attract volunteers, or an overreliance on the belief that unwinnable but symbolic seats could be turned Red. Labour under Blair ignored many of those areas, including Wales, which had seen massive industrial decline, when it should have invested in house-building and jobs. Instead, they saw precocity and unemployment, with the only big industries moving in often being call centers, which kept people on poor contracts before outsourcing the jobs offshore. In those areas, with little power, protest votes are the only possibility of a voice, or the hope that things can change, even if for the worse.

Corbyn has said he will not lead the party into another election; he will stay as leader until a process is agreed to elect a new leader. For his critics in the party, the hope remains that Corbynism dies with Corbyn standing down. But Corbynism was never about the man himself: he was a useful figurehead for rallying enthusiasm, but the project was always about reclaiming democratic socialism in Labour. The party’s membership has not been higher in decades, polling showed that the manifesto was popular, and despite media portrayals Labour was not seen as untrustworthy with the economy. Those door-knocking volunteers are in the party for the long haul, fighting to keep the ideals that have been at the heart of Corbynism in Labour. Many campaigners said that when they spoke to people under forty who weren’t politically engaged, the arguments for class politics and Labour’s policies were easy to sell. But battling against a media that barely even attempted to appear impartial or to scrutinize the Conservatives as they did Labour was always going to be an uphill struggle.

Whatever comes next, the activists who fought for a Labour government aren’t going away, nor are the ideals of fairness, equality, and the belief that the party can improve lives. Centrism has collapsed, and the membership won’t allow the party to retread the mistakes of Blair, Brown, and Miliband. For now, those activists can fight locally; next election they will be back to fight for a Conservative defeat.