In car parks, side roads, and community centers across the United Kingdom, canvassers in thick coats and red rosettes gather armfuls of leaflets before taking to the streets. Facing down the winter gloom, shaking off the Conservative lead in election polls, Labour activists are throwing everything into their campaign to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as prime minister in the December 12 snap election. Battling against a billionaire-backed Trumpian campaign of aggressive fake news from Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, for this army of Labour supporters the choice in this election couldn’t be more stark: between the nativist, hard-right, hard-Brexit Conservatives and Corbyn’s Labour Party, which has produced the most radical left policy platform the nation has seen in decades.
A powerful mix of factors is fueling Labour’s accelerated campaign of rallying, phone-banking, and pounding the streets to reach people house by house. Brutal government cuts have caused devastation across the country, ravaging schools and hospitals, youth clubs, and social services, leaving millions with work but in poverty and one in three children growing up poor. The Conservatives, since Johnson became leader in July, have rapidly morphed into a fundamentalist-Brexit “do or die” operation. With Johnson’s campaign staffed by strategists from the Vote Leave campaign, which flooded Facebook with targeted, distorted advertising during Britain’s 2016 EU referendum and appears to be using similar tactics during this election, the Conservatives are now the party of unashamed illiberalism, bluster, and bigotry. Against such high stakes, Labour canvassers are fired up by their party’s bold manifesto to rewire the economy, tackling the climate crisis as well as the daily hardships that blight a bitterly divided Britain, now the most dramatically unequal country in Europe.
“Definitely it’s the hope, the chance, to see something different,” says Jamie Spooner, 53, a public-sector key worker from Oxford who was out campaigning in Swindon, a town in southwest England, on a recent Sunday. “I’ve seen what austerity has done to people’s lives, and that was always a political decision.” The Conservatives hold the constituency of South Swindon, considered a bellwether of who wins the election overall, but only by 2,464 voters since the Labour candidate Sarah Church halved the majority in 2017’s election. It is one of dozens of seats targeted by Momentum, the grassroots Corbyn-supporting group credited with turning marginal seats into Labour wins in the 2017 election, using a campaigning app to funnel canvassers into key or under-resourced battlegrounds. The group’s current campaigning tool My Campaign Map is a more developed, responsive version and has so far been accessed 1.4 million times (compared to 100,000 for the entire election in 2017). “We learned a huge amount in 2017 about how to mobilize, and we’ve been putting these lessons into practice in this election from the outset,” says national coordinator Laura Parker, adding that 1,800 people have pledged to be “Labour Legends”—committed to two full weeks of campaigning, mostly in the final stretch. On a mass mobilizing call to kick off Momentum’s campaign, Corbyn told activists, “You’ll look back on the winter of 2019 as a time you delivered a government that believes in people, social justice.… You will have got cold and wet for a very good reason.”
It’s the combination of people power—party membership rose from under 200,000 in 2014 to half a million when Corbyn became leader—and political program that, it is hoped, will turn the polls on election day. Labour’s manifesto promises systemic change of the sort that wouldn’t turn heads in mainland Europe but is dramatic when set against Britain’s decades-long political consensus that the market knows best. From nationalization of public services such as energy and rail to raising taxes on the highest 5 percent of earners; from promises to lift the minimum wage, ban zero-hours contracts, and strengthen worker rights to plans for regional investment banks to kick-start local growth; from free elder care to free child care, broadband, adult education, and student tuition—Labour’s manifesto pushes state-driven solutions for the multiple economic ills that are currently holding Britain back and holding chunks of the population hostage.
Underwriting the entire project is the Green Industrial Revolution—effectively a blueprint for a Green New Deal, acknowledging the imperative to address the climate emergency while at the same time creating a million green jobs across the country. Economist Ann Pettifor, one of a group that devised the first Green New Deal in the midst of the financial crash of 2008, says Labour’s green plan “is exercising global political leadership in demanding this transformation of the British economy.” This plan to steer Britain toward a carbon-neutral energy system by 2030 puts green projects in parts of the country—such as manufacturing bases and coastal areas—that have experienced long decline. Swindon, where a Honda car factory will close in 2021, losing 3,500 jobs, is one of three towns marked for a gigafactory to make batteries for electric cars, which would create over 3,000 jobs. Across the Midlands and the North East, where the Leave vote is strong and the Labour vote is vulnerable, the party now has plans for metal reprocessing plants, plastics recycling centers, wind turbine factories, and carbon capture plants.
“It’s the first time we have seen a major party in a major economy look at restructuring the economy with the climate crisis in mind,” says Fatima Ibrahim, co–executive director of the Green New Deal UK campaign. “It is addressing the north-south divide, saying the Green Industrial Revolution is going to be the thing that puts power back in the north—and that will speak to a lot of people.” According to recent polling from the New Economics Foundation, climate change is a key deciding factor for 68 percent of voters in Labour-held marginal constituencies in the North and Midlands, while 59 percent supported government intervention to create green jobs.
But the trouble is that the very communities that stand to benefit from these policies are not always hearing about them. Labour’s manifesto met a mostly hostile, incurious reception in much of the British press, even as 163 economists and academics explained that the party had come up with “serious proposals” to address the “deep problems” faced in Britain. A made-up Conservative figure’s wild exaggeration of the costs of Labour’s plans was swiftly debunked, but it set a tone of disbelief regarding the party’s supposedly flash promises of “free stuff”—the exact same language used by cynics recently dismissing social programs promoted by Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. This incredulity also greets Labour campaigners: It all sounds lovely, they are told on the campaign trail, but it’s just too good to be true, and in any case, who is going to pay for it?
This is what canvassers are finding in Scunthorpe, a steel town in the rolling hills of the Humber estuary region, one of the areas earmarked for Labour’s green jobs revival. Kate Simpson, whose research at Imperial College London focuses on reducing energy demands in homes, says carbon transition would offer her home region of the Humber a “huge opportunity for good quality jobs,” while her research interviews indicate that construction workers in Scunthorpe, an area of high unemployment, are keen for skills training in energy efficiency. But Labour activists here are battling against what they describe as a Conservative campaign of voter suppression, much of it focused on “completely unfair” character attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, depicted as “a dreadful human being that you can’t let loose on the country,” according to MP Nic Dakin, who is defending this Labour seat with a slim majority of 3,431 votes. He is going door to door to remind constituents of Labour’s record on the National Health Service and defending jobs, but his campaign cannot reach as many people during the short daylight hours of a winter election.
“It’s a struggle to get through the Brexit culture war onto anything else,” says Richard Willis, a 53-year-old translator and canvasser in Dakin’s ward. He explains that the Conservatives are pouring a “torrent” of attacks against Labour into mailboxes and targeted social media, hammering the Labour leader while relentlessly repeating the Tory campaign slogan to “Get Brexit done.” “People open the door to us and say ‘no’; they have completely accepted the narrative and repeat it back to us,” says Willis. Another canvasser notes that some of the anger over Brexit is turning vitriolic, and that in 35 years of campaigning, he has not seen a subject that has produced “so much hatred and venom.” This febrile atmosphere has seen numerous reports of attacks on activists—frequently those canvassing for Labour: In one case, a 72-year-old was hospitalized after being punched.
Like campaigners across the country, Labour activists in Scunthorpe have tried to reach beyond the older demographic that tends to answer doors, extending efforts to parents at school gates and to colleges. A record 3.2 million people registered to vote in this election. While a million of those are not new voters, the numbers skew by two-thirds toward people under 34—who aren’t typically Conservative voters.
Amid a dirty campaign from Conservatives, which broadcast media have been accused of getting played by, Labour is catching up in the polling and turning the election into a tight race. Falling so close to the holiday season, the mood among those determined to stop a Johnson government oscillates between festive cheer and Christmas Grinch. On top of obstacles such as Brexit, Corbyn’s low popularity ratings, and the winter weather, there is also resistance to the possibility of change. Decades of disillusionment with politicians, cemented by the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and Britain’s parliamentary expenses scandal, have snowballed into bitter resentment after three years of political paralysis over Brexit. Those battered by economic hardship, sometimes for most of their lives, have little faith in politicians’ delivering anything better. “You see so many people who have been abandoned,” says Emma Jones, a 35-year-old university administrator recently out canvassing in Swindon. “You are asking people who have been treated very badly, who have been lied to, serially, and are sick of it, who have lost all faith, to take a leap of faith. You are asking them to dare to imagine that something might be different.”