Blog post

Dangerous Spaces

Sita Balani asks what is at stake in the shift from activist organising to the discipline of a national election campaign.

Sita Balani11 December 2019

Dangerous Spaces

In radical or alternative left movements, the idea of safety is paramount. It is rare to go to a meeting about feminist, anti racist, queer, or otherwise progressive politics without a safe (or safer) spaces policy being presented. This document, whether read aloud or pinned to a wall, is implicitly a contract between participants regarding suitable conduct. The idea of ‘safe spaces’ has been mocked, derided, and obsessed over by the right wing, viewed as idealistic, authoritarian, or both, though these policies are also subject to significant internal debate in alternative left spaces, whether at the level of specifics or as a mode of organising more generally. Sometimes there is furious and exciting debate on the limitations of safe spaces, and we grapple collectively and openly about our desire for safety. In these moments, the safe spaces policy becomes an opportunity to confront how desperately we need some respite when we live in a political system constituted by a cruel disregard for our dignity. More often, there is a low rumble of discontent. With our closest comrades, we raise our concerns about the culture of sniping and suspicion in left spaces, the trashing that pervades feminist organising, and the obsession with purity that emerge from our desire to be safe in a dangerous world.

Whose safety is enshrined by such policies? More than a document about how to be cared for, the safe spaces policy is, in practice, a way to mitigate our own potential to harm another person. It’s a set of rules to mitigate harm but also, more often, to mitigate the terrible, overwhelming feeling of having done wrong, of being in the wrong, of being, in your very person, wrong. What these policies produce is the reassuring fantasy that, if you follow the rules, you’ll be in the right. There is great irony, then, in the ways in which these shibboleths become the source of an exhausting lack of compassion, for oneself as well as for those that might hurt us. In the end, the rituals – various linguistic pieties, ‘accountability’ enforced via the looming threat of shaming or excommunication, labeling certain behaviours as ‘problematic’, and other postures of wokeness – often alienate precisely those who they purport to protect. Such posturing binds us together around slogans rather than strategy, and ends up producing an in-group that is rarely able to build a base beyond a leftist scene.

In the last few weeks, the vast majority of those I’ve encountered in this scene have shred the safer spaces policy and abandoned the rituals. Instead, everyone is out campaigning — doing voter registration, phonebanking, canvassing. Since the election was called, the great fantasy of safety, and the folly of leftist purity, has been exposed. In the course of this election, we’ve seen examples of what an authoritarian state, an emboldened far right street movement, and a simpering, corrupt media would look like under a Tory majority led by Boris Johnson. This threat is not the threat of bad behaviour, of hurtful, or even oppressive dynamics, but of the decimation of any last semblance of social solidarity or state welfare. Thatcher claimed that there was no such thing as society and set about destroying institutions of social good; Johnson is promising to make sure that even the remnants of the welfare state are sold to the highest bidder or burnt to the ground. Under a Tory government, there will be no space safe from the market’s rapacious logic.

In the face of this dismal vision of what is to come, we have taken to the streets, not with banners but with clipboards. This shift marks a radical transformation of activist culture. For many who came into politics following climate camp and the 2011 student protests, the move from autonomous, non-hierarchical decision-making focused on direct action and single-issue campaigns, to the discipline and scale of an election campaign has been remarkable for its speed. For all the flaws of the radical left, the energy of the Labour campaign is partly down to the cultures of self-organisation, the DIY spirit and punk ethos, the sound systems and social networks we have nurtured over the last decade. We finally have a vehicle (albeit an imperfect one) through which our piecemeal struggles can coalesce.

We have quickly discovered that door-knocking is horrible and brilliant, fraught with risk and potential. On the doorstep, no one cares what pronoun you prefer or whether you have social anxiety. It is a kind of political primal scene. Just you and a stranger. They can slam the door. They can call you a terrorist. They can complain about Jeremy Corbyn or Brexit or immigrants or their landlord, or assholes like you turning up unannounced, or about all of this at once. They can listen to your patient explanation or your frustrated ramble. They can laugh in your face. They can invite you into their homes, forcing you to make a snap decision about your potential safety in their domestic space. You always say yes. They can offer you a cuppa or ask for a sticker or introduce you to their nan. They can commiserate with you at the state of the world. They can change their minds and you can change yours.

Often, in these conversations, a soundbite is rehearsed (‘I just don’t see Corbyn as a leader’), and we can see the way that media rhetoric becomes woven into the demotic. But while there’s no real talking back to Rupert Murdoch, on the doorstep there is sometimes the chance to contest his logic with some of our own. Of course, we also need to start producing an alternative set of narratives that will begin to make the values of solidarity and collective action part of everyday common sense. But to understand the scale of that task, we need to confront where people are at right now, after forty years of Thatcherite ideology in different iterations. We cannot do this from inside our safe spaces.

I don’t mean to fetishise canvassing — indeed, many turns over the last couple of weeks, I have wondered about its strategic value. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy, and there’s no sure fire way to track how that converts to votes. If we lose, it’s hard not to shake the sense that we’ll have poured those hours down the drain. Yet, the sweet shock of the 2017 election can only be down to the Labour ground game, and besides, we don’t have any other options. They have the money and the media. We are all we have.

Beyond the emotional risks and the enormous commitment of resources, campaigning for Labour comes with genuine dangers. There has been an appalling lack of outrage after a 72-year-old woman was attacked canvassing in North Herefordshire, and left with broken ribs. Owen Jones was beaten up earlier this year in a vicious and targeted attack. Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016. There have no doubt been more acts of violence and more threats of which I am unaware.

Whatever happens on Thursday, we’ve got a long fight ahead of us. If we lose, the temptation to dust off the safe spaces policy and return to our in-groups will be strong. Defeat will be bitter and we’ll want seek solace in our familiar modes of doing politics, or we’ll want to give up entirely. If we win, we will have to fight the fury unleashed by beating dog-whistle racism, mythic white victimage, and disaster nationalism at the ballot box, without having transformed the larger culture. We’ll also have to confront the limitations of the electoral project and the inevitable and violent exclusions of allowing the nation state to contain our ambitions for social transformations.

In either case, we need to remain open to risk – to engaging far beyond our circles, to having the argument with an open heart, to systems change as well as transforming individual consciousness – that we’ve cultivated during the last few weeks. Party politics might recede from our strategy, but mass social change, not pockets of safety, must remain the aim.

Despite the risks, the uncertain spaces into which we enter with each door knock, we are out there. In the cold and in our fear, we are giving it everything we’ve got. We’re doing so in the hope of a genuine safety – not the momentary, contradictory promise of safety offered by belonging to a small group – but something more expansive; social solidarity, a redistributive economy, public ownership. Of course, many of us see this as a fight for all the things that are not in the Labour party manifesto. A Labour government will not deliver an end to the patriarchy, real internationalism, open borders, or prison abolition, but these struggles will be crushed by another decade of Tory rule. This election is about choosing the very state under and against which we will keep on fighting.

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