Something Lost, Something Gained: Reflections from between Elections
As Labour elects its new leader, we are launching a series of essays on political possibilities of the new decade. Read more here.
I’ve decided to forgive myself for failing to get, or remain, excited about the Labour leadership election. It’s not that I think its outcome doesn’t matter; it’s rather that I’m unsure about how much it does. My withdrawal proceeds from the fact that I at least don’t know what the extent and nature of its significance is, or will be. Plus the fixation on crude sociological credentials—a northern working-class woman versus a southern knighted man—and the bombastic return to business-as-usual party politics signalled by the heart-sinking euphemism ‘uniting the party’ and the vapid talk of that chimeric quantity ‘electability’ has not exactly been riveting; it has often been simply demoralizing.
But the whole thing has also lately begun to seem like a distraction, a mechanism of avoidance. It can feel as if, still reeling from the trauma of defeat, we are taking numb refuge in watching a kind of puppetry, the stylized performance of thoughtful reflection, and so being deprived of the space to reflect on the experience for ourselves, our own experience. The public agon displaces the private process of metabolizing what has happened, and of working out what we—members, voters, citizens—are going to do next.
As the days lengthen and lighten, December feels a long time ago. I was very late to the Corbyn party. Like many others, I had never canvassed before the 2019 election, and started doing so for a party of which I wasn’t even yet a member (I re-joined so recently I wasn’t eligible to attend my CLP’s nomination meeting), but which—with the unlikely rise of an openly socialist leader whose authentic, seemingly egoless iconoclasm formed such a refreshing contrast to the usual, personally ambitious, ideologically shape-shifting type—was all of a sudden transformed into a party whose values seemed aligned with my own.
I was not convinced that canvassing worked (with reason, it turns out). Like physiotherapy, it is an incremental undertaking, the eventual benefits of which can be difficult to believe in. But everyone seemed to be doing it—not just seasoned activists or political aficionados, and not just one circle of friends, but everyone.
Canvassing isn’t a wholly feel-good activity. I was initiated into its arts by a more experienced friend one Sunday afternoon in November in Battersea. At first, I just followed him around, trying to memorize his openers and copy his doorstep demeanour, hardly speaking but grinning indefatigably. It felt unnatural—illegitimate even—and often uncomfortable. Most people didn’t answer our question about how they would be voting, and many didn’t want to talk at all, so having any conversation—even a negative one—was a relief.
One gains confidence quite quickly—perhaps too quickly: soon I was doing the initiations. But you begin to feel less self-conscious at the cost of feeling a bit less like yourself. You develop an artificially undaunted and insufferably polite manner to override your misgivings, while the sense of purpose and mild-sacrifice can lead you to acquire a regrettably chipper, slightly officious and self-satisfied attitude (after all, you are giving up your Sundays to traipse around for the Greater Good…).
In the weeks building up to the election I didn’t stray from local London marginals—Putney, Battersea, striking out to Hendon later on—but on polling day itself, informed by Momentum that constituencies in the capital would be over-subscribed and volunteers were needed elsewhere, I took a train to Shoreham-by-Sea which I knew a little because I have family nearby. My canvassing mentor had some friends in Brighton who had been canvassing in the Tory-held East Worthing and Shoreham constituency for weeks, and the local organizers were optimistic (in the event, the Conservatives increased their already-healthy majority by over 1,000 votes).
As it was everywhere else, the weather was spectacularly grim and unpropitious, but its hardships and impracticalities only heightened our delirium and sense of adventure, and our perception of our own valiance. There was a particular road perpendicular to the seafront—you could look down it and see big, grey-brown waves frenziedly crashing into the shore—where the wind was extreme, aggravating the rain. We had to shelter beside garden hedges to write on our madly flapping sheets, using our clipboard as a wind-shield, before plunging them back into a plastic bag so they wouldn’t become illegible.
After an hour or so battling the weather, we would return to a house whose owner had offered it as a makeshift base camp. There, we were fed home-made soup and sandwiches and cake, and made cups of tea and coffee; we could use the bathroom and plug in our phones, sit down, get warm, let our legs dry off a little and generally recharge before heading back out to the front. The intense, but also purposeful sociality of the experience gave me that intoxicating sense of strangeness to myself, of distance from my everyday personality—a rare, life-affirming feeling I associate with the otherworldly collectivity of music festivals. But this immediate sense of community was also underpinned by a broader atmosphere of imagined solidarity: one was perpetually buoyed by the thought of the thousands of passionate volunteers who were doing the same thing in similarly dreadful conditions across the country.
We finished up at about 7.30pm—the Shoreham organizers told us that there were no more doors to knock on. Feeling triumphant, we got on a train that was due to arrive at Victoria at 9.58pm. As we neared, I received a text from a friend who had been canvassing in Battersea; they were heading to the Labour HQ to watch the exit poll results come in. I looked it up on Google Maps and saw it was right next to Clapham Junction, which our train was pulling into that minute. We jumped off and raced out of the station to the HQ. Arriving, I recognized it as where I’d been for my first ever canvassing session. Everyone was crowded into a glass-walled conference room sitting on the floor, eyes glued to the big screen at the front. The room was extremely tense; I was nervous too but also undeniably—dangerously—elated.
We can skip reminiscence about what happened next—the evening’s events are no doubt seared into everyone’s memories anyway. Some days later, once the initial winding shock had begun to subside, there was a feeling of bathos and quasi-embarrassment at the seeming futility and deludedness of the campaigning effort—an effort that had felt all-important, pivotal. Perhaps also the faint feeling of having been misled, or led on.
I go into the detail—the gory arc—of my election experience first because I think it is an experience that is easy to misrepresent in memory. The analogy that comes to mind is the self-loathing that can greet you the morning after a party at which you were too chatty. But self-analysis in the throes of a hangover is not known for its lucidity or fairness; I think of that kind of cringing retrospection as the affective opposite of nostalgia, and the light it casts is no more trustworthy than its idealizing counterpart. If one’s feeling about the efficacy of one’s door-knocking activity was inflated before, it can be equally distorting to hyperbolize its pointlessness, and one’s earlier benightedness, now.
But I also wanted to revisit my experience because I know it is not remotely unique or extreme; the opposite. I take people like me—late-arrivals with no prior experience of organizing, and very little exposure to sustained activism—to have been lightly touched by Corbynism, my participation being tardy and modest compared to the many who joined or re-joined the party punctually, in 2015, and those who devoted hundreds of hours to organizing and campaigning.
In some sense, this makes people like me an embodiment of several of the paradoxes of the mobilization Corbyn inspired: fleeting but intense; narrow, demographically and geographically, but numerous; shallow but spirited. In another sense, I take myself and people like me—mild cases—to be encouraging litmus tests, since though inevitably the energy and intensity has faded since December, I felt, and feel affected by what happened—both inspired and traumatized, activated and numbed. I don’t yet know—I suppose I’m waiting to find out—how deeply or lastingly, and in what ways the personal change will manifest in future.
This question about what will endure from that frenetic period and what it portends, is, of course, one of the questions at the heart of the leadership election. One scrutinizes the candidates for signs of who will be most likely to protect and expand the political energy that was released by Corbyn’s tenure; or to put it more negatively, which of the candidates is least likely to oversee its petering out. Sensing that these may be the stakes can make watching the leadership election unfold a rather painful thing.
Hence it can be a balm—and a productive, rather than avoidant one—to ask the question of oneself. I take heart from a couple of sentences I came across in Tribune’s ‘After Corbyn’ issue: ‘People are changed through their involvement in projects like the ones around Corbyn and Sanders. The process of trying to build a party that can transform a state itself creates a broader capacity in people to look at the world differently.’ On the one hand, it is clear that in strictly political-strategic terms, 2019’s electoral mobilization was a failure. It felt shallow because it was. Secular trends—regionalized economic neglect, the dis-embedding of political parties from civil society, the neoliberalization of the ideological field—cannot be reversed overnight, nor solely with doorstep conversation. But shallow was not all it was.
Canvassing actually reminded me most of all of my time as a Deliveroo rider. The differences are obvious—not least, the difference in reception when you’re handing over a miraculously hot takeaway versus brazenly attempting to extract an electoral commitment—but the parallels are perhaps not trivial: going into neighbourhoods one would otherwise have no reason to visit and getting to see where, and to imagine how other people live—many of them people you would not ordinarily encounter. This remains valuable and edifying.
There is also the common fact of being part of a decentralized group being sent to different locations by a data-driven algorithm. Canvassing prompted the same realization I’d had Deliverooing in my local area of London a couple of summers ago: I know so little of where I live, let alone of where I don’t. Apart from a brief interlude at university, I’ve lived in the same square mile my entire life, but what is my relationship to my neighbourhood and its community? Such thoughts about late-capitalist urban experience are not new, of course, but they are newly urgent in the wake of a political defeat that brutally exposed the long-term withering away of the social infrastructure that had helped to provide the essential opportunity and enticement to associate with others—the convening that prepares the ground for becoming organized for a specific political purpose.
Tribune’s reminder that people are changed through involvement evokes something else I hope I have learned from the heady final months of 2019—a lesson I regard as an experiential confirmation of one of the axioms of the socialist world-view: its acknowledgement and celebration of the radical sociality of human selves and consciousness. Being swept up in a collective project, in a fleeting, shallow but nevertheless impressive mobilization—not just door-knocking, but meeting, talking, reading, self-educating—helped to activate a dormant politics, which were previously merely assumed, untried, often inarticulate. Once awakened, these politics were then tested, and shaken, by the devastation and disorientation of defeat. My impression is that in the immediate aftermath, especially as splits and differences emerged between generations and within friendship groups about the nature of the mistakes, the lessons, the solutions, this disorientation tended to express itself among new recruits like myself as anxious self-probing to try to overcome the rattling sense that I didn’t know my politics after all.
The sense of disorientation abides, but recently the question has begun to form itself rather differently: how to relate one’s awakened politics to the new conjuncture, the new reality? This seems to me to be a question of engagement beyond mere introspection, a question of knowledge and of strategy, but most of all a question of activity: of how to behave in the world, how to live one’s values, so that one can live in the world—help make it more liveable—and live with yourself.
If one of the fittingly socialist lessons of the experience of 2019 is that one’s activity with others can initiate inner change and precipitate evolutions of political consciousness and behaviour, the other half of this dialectical truth is that the legacy of Corbynism—the future of what Corbynism was—is not entirely in anyone’s hands. One cannot wish a movement into being; one must also wait for it, but not just wait for it passively, perhaps lie in wait for it, ready oneself. And as with whoever wins the leadership election, the proof will be in the pudding of our activity, of what I do, you do, we do, next.
Lola Seaton is an editor at New Left Review.