After the doorstep: the 2019 UK election

“Now we were where we were, with so many bemoaning the fate they’d wound up with, despite themselves having helped to reject an alternative.”

Julian Sayarer
22 December 2019, 9.40pm
Jeremy Corbyn canvassing with Labour activists in Govan, Glasgow, General Election campaign, November 13, 2019.
Andrew Milligan/PA. All rights reserved.

Those weeks of winter had felt unusually bright. The air was crisp, blue sky cold and with cirrus stretched across it. You saw your breath in front of you. One evening, canvassing in Putney, the chill rain did what it had long threatened to and finally turned to hail. The wind blew, hard, sending away the last of autumn, where trees were sketched dark and bare as if in lines of black charcoal. Weather moved in, the country recorded consecutive records in wind power generation from those offshore turbines that now adorned the coast. 

The people went to work, as had long been promised, and in great number they took to the streets. It feels somehow cliché to speak of how spirited their faces were, lifted up, what optimism was there. But it was true. The hopes of an at the time unelected prime minister, that winter would keep Labour campaigners indoors, went pulled apart with the cirrus. The country spoke to one another. People left their cities, left their boroughs, left their better-to-do towns, returned to places they’d once called home, found people still bravely holding the fort. Some of them called themselves ‘socialists’, others didn’t see the need to, but in truth it didn’t really matter.

Once the view had been that the election – whatever came about – might have been the end of something: the close of an experiment, “the Corbyn Project”. Again, it didn’t really matter what you called it. It was clear that wasn’t to be the case, you felt the surety in every interaction; that something outside the regular political structures had been built and the builders were ready to build more.

The forces ranged against it too; the relentless attacks from a far-right press, now so comfortable as to include the likes of Aryan United among their sources. A Prime Minister who’d been employed most of a decade for a paper that had campaigned tirelessly for him, both before and since his being given the post he’d always wanted. The most people seemed able to ask was that, for the purposes of a single television interview, he be held to account by the chairperson of the magazine he himself had once been editor of. That was just the way it worked. £5million in donations ran into the Tory party in one week, £200k to Labour. The BBC? It scarcely seemed worth talking about the BBC any longer. 

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Parting favours

In all this: the institutional, industrial-scale corruption, the nepotism, the silencing, the erasure of Windrush, of Islamophobia, you realised that in life there are some things that are not to be appeased. Some terms are too odious to accept, and your spirit commands you to reject and risk losing rather than acquiesce, knowing that in that compromise you’ve traded only perhaps to lose slower, to have lost already.  

The ring-wing of the Labour Party felt a different sense of loss, one where they had been relieved of what they regarded as ‘their’ party, but to nothing more sinister than the democracy of one-member-one-vote. If that was an irresolvable problem for them, then this as much betrayed an even greater truth of how they wanted things run. Tony Blair was still consulted at every turn, just as people talked still of Sheffield Hallam as “Nick Clegg’s seat”, proofs of how the entitlements of dynastic rule flowed from our monarchy to corrupt and limit our political horizons too.

Of these people the present circumstances required one feat; a final favour to their party or parties, to a country and society they professed to care for. Without any malice or slight, they had to look hard at themselves, their country, and at the Conservatives.

If indeed they cared for the public good, but if they were comfortable with the rules of a game so fixed rather than in need of fixing, a deck so stacked in favour of capital: they had to join the Conservative Party. From there they had to mobilise for genuine change, to rebuild the social conscience of a party that had none left to speak of, to scrape whatever social amelioration the donors and newspapers could be made to give. From there, they could ask for compromises from the powerful and not, as the case had been for over four long years and more, from the vulnerable.

But all that was for another day. For now, the country talked to one another. The country met itself. And, against capital and corrupted institutions, people worked with a valiant hope that they would find their own victories, large and small, in whatever came about. 

Letting Felicia down

Some encounters live with more prominence in my mind than others. The elderly black lady in Putney, dealt that most unfair of life’s injustices in having her child, her daughter, die before she did, and then so too her own mother in the same eighteen months. All living at the same council house, her name was Felicia, an African surname foreign and immaterial enough to those at the Department for Work & Pensions that, in administrative error, they had pronounced Felicia dead instead of her passing mother, stopping her benefits payments and plunging her further into the poverty she already lived. When the election results came in, it was hard not to have a small part of me feel that we’d let Felicia down.

Then there was that man, Andy, met in a Sussex pub after a football match, large-hearted but a few pints in and with a tendency to shout everything in your face. “He’s a nob”, he’d said repeatedly when asked why he wouldn’t vote Labour under Corbyn. Andy had once been in the navy, “I remember, coming in on the ships, into Faslane and the Greens and Lib Dems all there spitting at us.” It was a memory of an old age, where Liberal Democrats had in them an ideology beyond political positioning: proportionate pacifism, anti-nuclear, willingness to protest, disrupt that which was wrong rather than their newer, managerial turn as enablers of it.

There were the volunteers of Stoke, who said they’d stopped taking meals and were surviving on biscuits, tea and socialism. And then there was that man, out of work, on that last day in Dagenham, hours before polls closed and perhaps most representative of what had happened. He’d voted for Brexit, and wouldn’t vote for Cruddas, the local MP for Labour:           

“Forty years I was in Labour. Worked at the factory, down on Salinas Road. The union said Cruddas never spoke up for us, they said that was the nail in the coffin. They made me redundant. I’d always been Labour, but never again. I’ll never join a union again.”

My heart went out to him, to life events that eclipsed any one party or election. 

“Did you find a new job?”

He shook his head. 

“I’m 62. Too old. Nobody will take me on at this age.”

And in him, as he shut the door, was the cross section: a change in industry, a Labour Party taking labour for granted, an economy that no longer favoured his workplaces, a fraudulent diagnosis of leaving the EU in response.

“Wait,” I said as he shut the door, “let me shake your hand. It’s important to shake hands.”

And we did. “I’m Julian,” I said, “I’m Kelvin,” he replied. 

And Kelvin and me, we stood on the threshold of the future, shaking hands.


Losing the contest

Of course the results were hard, but I suppose I’d been braced for them; to some extent consciously, and certainly in my subconscious, groundworks had been laid. Kinnock, Brown, Miliband, Corbyn. Any individual, no matter how different, could be relied upon to be left looking the same. Any leader from that half of the Labour Party would always need a bunker, but it had to figure out a method of control over what came in and out, how to lessen the need of a bunker in the first place, in what was supposed to be a democratic environment.

A naively well-meaning centre ground talked of “optics”, as if elections were a matter of political deities, and if you just dressed them right and gave them a sharp haircut, then all would be well. They’d forgotten what Brown had looked like, Miliband too. Anyone could always be found and photographed in an awkward moment eating a sandwich, mouth strangely agape, if that was what an editor had been tasked to provide.

For a long time people had talked of polarisation; an easy term that warmed the hands as moderate types wrung them in strained perplexion. Some even went so far as to acknowledge an asymmetric polarisation had come about, one in which the debate had bifurcated most of all due to the leap of the Tory party into the ranks of UKIP, Brexit Party, BNP retirees.

What was unmentioned was the asymmetry of methods by which the contest was even fought. Lies, smears and violence had all been deployed by the political right in the ultimate service of the Tory Party. The murder of a Labour MP in 2016 gave heavy weight to a threat, thereafter freely used by the Conservatives and their press, that democratic responses to the Brexit process risked the violence of an angry mob. Corbyn personally was smeared as a racist, as un-British, as a terrorist enabler and threat. Lies were cast about Labour policies, their costs, the state of the economy, the extent of Tory investment past and future. An audit had 88% of Conservative online claims as lies. 

The political centre

At least the horror show spared us the normal fawning that some dark political genius and cunning guile was behind the Tory win. Everybody knew it for what it was. Everybody knew it was rotten, that it had undermined UK democracy.

What went unexamined was the effect on the political centre, and not the policy centre of proposals in play, but the accepted norms on which democracy could function at all. The attack was asymmetric in such a way that allowed the centre to hold-on only by virtue of Labour remaining committed to conventional political norms: policies, avoiding personal attacks, honesty above relentless lies.

If Labour had also engaged in politics in the form of veiled threats at violence from extreme actors, pre-emptive lies to shape media narratives, and the unceasing personal smears that Johnson and the Tories could easily have provided for, the discourse would have descended wholly into only white noise with no space for substance.

Labour’s conduct had been the only thing that held democracy together, to remind us what democracy was supposed to look like. And by it, they lost, and so was such conduct even useful in the first instance? If even the sensible folk of the political centre would still refuse to back it for what it was? It was hard to argue that total delegitimisation of all media wouldn’t have advanced Labour’s cause more than the scraps of truth that fell from it.

We canvassed on the ground because the information and ownership systems above us were broken, but to canvas was to remind people of those uncomfortable truths, when for most, it was preferable to forget.

‘Look, no hands’

Walking the streets of marginal seats, canvassing had already provided ample time to reflect on this and many other questions besides. Most of those in the movement had come to realise that five weeks intensively appearing on doorsteps, once every few years, was no substitute for the ambient propaganda of broadcasts glanced in-passing each day, the newspaper headlines laid out in petrol station forecourts and supermarket shelves.

All that conferred a certain, higher kind of legitimacy to the claims, so that in the end the effortlessness of the Conservatives must have looked attractive compared to the ardour expended by Labour members. It was a ‘look, no hands’ sort of a boast, one where the campaign rolled simply by pressing print, putting the microphone to the broadcaster’s mouths. 

Psychologically too, there may have been those poetic souls whose hearts might have swelled at shaking the cold hand of a youngster, rain dripping from their hood in pursuit of a better country on a cold December dusk. But many more must have wondered what the hell was going on: would they too be enlisted in such a thing? Was this it? Would they be voting for themselves one day having to wander dark streets, trying to change minds already mostly made up? In many ways it reminded me of the spirit I’d seen in volunteer-run refugee camps: hearts of gold, all the right ideas, technology harnessed, our better nature doing what it could in the face of a systemic failure that their very presence – paradoxically – made more evident and so uncomfortable to see.

We canvassed on the ground because the information and ownership systems above us were broken, but to canvas was to remind people of those uncomfortable truths, when for most, it was preferable to forget.

Those who believed

Not all had seen it so: they believed, believed deep. The election night, watching it come in at a London pub, I saw a young woman I’d met the week before, campaigning in the Harrow East marginal out beyond Wembley. She didn’t look so good. I said hi, gave her shoulder a squeeze. 

“It’s not just the stuff about the sort of society I believe in,” she said, “It’s me, too, my life. With Labour I could’ve imagined social housing, a council house. Now I’ll be locked in to the private rental sector forever.”

People extended a sort of consolation to me after the results, one that went beyond what I personally needed. I guess they’d believed that the optimism and commitment I’d projected was my own, unadulterated, when in truth it was one put-out in the hope others might feel a fraction of it and so help it spread.

It hadn’t worked, and now we were where we were, with so many bemoaning the fate they’d wound up with, despite themselves having helped to reject an alternative.

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