How civil society remade British politics

Lydia Noon
10 June 2017
How community groups organised behind parties' backs to redraw Britain's electoral map. The conductor of National Health Singers, a Londoner named Rishi Dhir, was fuming as we spoke at the South West Surrey town of Farnham’s summer fayre two weeks ago. After performing just two songs, the 15-strong group of NHS workers, NHS supporters and teachers were pulled off the stage for being “too political”. The National Health Singers collective was set up in Autumn 2015 by junior doctors, in response to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s bid to impose a hugely unpopular new contract on them. Almost two years later and National Health Singers consist of one united national choir with regional choirs that meet regularly around the country. At Farnham’s bank holiday fayre, everyone was trying to ignore the first rain drops with plastic ponchos, Mr Whippy icecream and resilience when the choir were prevented from singing Yours – a song celebrating the NHS that got into the UK’s Top 40 Singles Chart in December 2015. Wearing ‘Vote NHS’ navy t-shirts, the group sang one of Dhir’s own songs called Stand Up before their promised half an hour came to an abrupt end at the request of Farnham’s Conservative mayor. The song and the choir are not political, said Dhir. “We’re all from different parties. Green, Labour, Liberal Democrats. I was a Conservative voter in the last election [in 2015]”. But the group travelled to Farnham to support GP Louise Irvine who stood as a candidate for the National Health Action Party; one of 13 who represented the party nationwide on 8 June. Irvine set out to unseat Hunt in his own constituency in a move that gathered support locally and nationally. A progressive alliance initiated by the South West Surrey Compass group – a national leftwing thinktank – was built around Irvine in the run-up to Thursday’s general election. A crowdfunding campaign for the candidate raised £36,612. Susan Ryland from the Green Party stood aside to support Irvine and, while the Liberal Democrats, Labour and UKIP fielded candidates, many local Liberal Democrat and Labour members supported Irvine instead. Controversially, three lifelong members of the Labour party – dubbed the ‘Godalming Three’ – were expelled from their party after they publicly stated their support of Irvine and the alliance at the beginning of May. Jennifer Thompson is a member of the National Health Singers and one of the 1.6 million people who make up the NHS work force. She is a radiographer at Nottingham City Hospital but travelled South to support Irvine. “We want to make the public more aware of what’s going on and the lies they are being told about the NHS”, she said. Thompson hasn’t always supported Labour but she planned to vote tactically for them in her local constituency because of “Corbyn’s policies for the NHS”. In the end, in Tory-dominated Surrey, Jeremy Hunt kept hold of his seat with a sizeable majority of 33,683 votes. But Irvine came in second with 12,093 votes, not bad for a candidate who, according to two Farnham locals, was unlikely to get her deposit back.

The people’s election

In an election where traditional tribal politics lost their grip, meaningless soundbites, glossy billboards, uninspiring leaflets through the door, smear campaigns and targeted Facebook ads were traded in by progressive campaigners for crowdfunded stickers and posters, slick websites made by volunteers and professionally made films created for alternative media and spread by receptive social media audiences. As well as Compass’ progressive alliance in South West Surrey and other marginals, on the ground efforts by grassroots groups such as Campaign Together contributed to mobilizing the anti-Tory vote. Volunteers organized meet-ups in their communities via team messaging app Slack. First-timers were offered online training to canvass in order “to stop the Tories” in swing seats such as Bristol North West, Derby North and Gower in Wales. Acoss the UK, students’unionst, co-orsinated by an NUS tour, ran massive voter registration drives, and – as seen in the shock result in Cantebury – helped turn students out in their thousands, redrawing Britain’s political map. Face-to-face initiatives were matched by online campaigns, like Tactical2017, a website that was launched after digital marketer Becky Snowden’s tactical voting spreadsheet went viral in the days following prime minister Theresa May’s snap election announcement on 18 April. Over 1.5 million visited the site. Why did people vote tactically? “This election was called last minute and with not a lot of time for opposing parties to prepare. In fact we had all been previously told that there wouldn't be one”, explains Snowden via email. “Because of this, and because of how well the Tories were doing in the polls, we realised that it was up to the British public to win the election – not any political party”. Tactical voting – or smart voting – has long been employed by the British electorate and is necessary in Britain’s first-past-the-post system. The Conservative party won in 2015 with just 36.9 percent of the vote. A split vote for other parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in previous years left many people – particularly those most effected by government policies – such as young people, people of colour and people with disabilities – feeling unrepresented and frustrated. Thanks to tactical voting and grassroots campaigns, not only did Thursday see the highest voter turnout in 25 years at almost 69 percent (68.7 to be precise), but also the highest Labour vote share increase since 1945.

Promote the Migrant Vote

Migrants Organise is a platform where refugees and migrants organise around the country. During the election campaign, they worked on a collaborative project with other groups called Promote The Migrant Vote to encourage migrants, refugees and EU nationals to get their voices heard – including those ineligible to vote. Only British citizens and some Commonwealth citizens living in the UK have the right to vote. This further marginalises communities that already feel ignored by Whitehall. “Many of our member organisations told us that this election was one in which was the concerns of migrants were not on the agenda”, said Akram Salhib of Migrants Organise. “People feel that policies by political parties treat migration as a problem to be dealt with rather than focusing on people’s legitimate concerns such as detention, the government’s hostile environment and hate crime”. Even within this tight time-frame, Migrants Organise supported communities around the country to organise hustings, registration events, public awareness seminars and workshops. In Manchester, several groups put on a large event with free food and activities. In Dudley, advocacy group Hope Not Hate gave out free icecream to Dudley college students registering for the first time. Seven mosques held registration events around the UK on 19 May and churches with large migrant congregations also mobilized the migrant vote. “We wanted to ensure people had the resources they needed to equip their communities. Uptake was  remarkable in such a short space of time. Apart from the issues that effect migrants specifically, there are the more general issues that effect everyone and international relations is a big concern. As one Eritrean member told me recently, the reason many people are here as refugees is tied to Britain’s international policies”, added Salhib. On polling day, groups coordinated Get Out The Vote events with Migrants Organize, which included community walks to the ballot box and post-voting open spaces. Fadi Mohammed is a refugee from Syria and has lived in the UK, mostly in London, for two years. He doesn’t have British citizenship so wasn’t able to vote but he volunteered at a voter registration event at his college before the 22 May deadline. “Democracy has left Syria. But here people had the chance to vote for Corbyn. He is a good man. I have some English friends who have never voted. I told people to use their voice and their vote because I cannot”. He told me with a determined look in his eyes that the next time he will vote will be in a free Syria.

Grime for Corbyn

Turnout among Black and Minority Ethnic people eligible to vote was 56 percent in the 2015 general election compared to 66.1 percent of the general population. Research by the Electoral Commission after the 2015 election found that 26 percent of Black and Minority Ethnic respondents felt that politicians did not represent them or reflect their concerns, compared to just 2 percent of White respondents. In the absence of a concerted effort by political parties to get the black vote this time around – even though seven out of the UK’s 10 most marginal seats in 2015 had a significant Black and Minority Ethnic population – organisations such as Operation Black Vote and Blacksdontvote did the job for them. They mobilized through poster campaigns, social media and events in marginal seats such as Central Croydon in South London where the Black and Minority Ethnic electorate is far larger than the slim majority that was held by the Conservatives – before Labour won the seat on Thursday. Popular poet and rapper Akala and grime artists like Stormzy went public with their support for the Labour party via Twitter and mainstream media. Website Grime4Corbyn urged people to register to vote before the registration deadline to win tickets to secret grime parties. During election week, artists hosted parties to get out the vote. But grassroots campaigning isn’t necessarily about getting people to vote your way, said Dhir from National Health Singers. “People are really happy to have an opportunity to talk about some of their insecurities or misconceptions”, he explained. “Many people I meet just want information and they’re not getting it. I’ve had people who’ve disagreed with me but I love that, Debate is good”. Through debate, positive campaigning and co-operation, digital and community organisers have started a movement – a movement bigger than being anti-Tory or pro-Labour, not confined to young people or lifelong activists but inclusive of anyone who wants to build a more progressive society, together. While an alliance between May’s Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s DUP party is now looking likely, it’s still too early to tell what the final impact of this election will be. But in the battle for hearts and minds, community campaigns have won.
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