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What Lies Between Hope and Fear?

by | December 10, 2019

They call it Project Fear. By they, I do not mean – like the bedroom tax – its critics. I mean the people who ran the first Project Fear – also known as the ‘Better Together’ campaign during the run up to the Scottish independence referendum – themselves coined the term. The point was not to defend the present state of affairs, to make a positive case for the continuation of the status quo. They knew the present was shit. They knew that the only they could win was by making the other side’s promised future seem destined to be worse than the present.

And they know it now.

Many readers will know that Salvage was founded in a period of deep despair. Mere months after its inception, its editors were stung by the bitter hope aroused by Syriza’s battle with the IMF in Greece, as we watched and heard the hope in mobilising and organising the OXI vote, cast in defiance and hope and in anger, and swiftly cast aside.

We were so pessimistic about the chances of the left, the state of the movements, ultimately, about the lack of hope, that we saw no option but to mobilise around pessimism itself. Pessimism, as we have written many times and in many ways, is not despondence. It is not apathy, or cynicism. It is an attempt to face up to the difficulties ahead, to prepare activists for the many setbacks and failures we face along the way, in order that we may keep going. False hope, enforced optimism, dishonest boosterism is debilitating, demoralising, festers guilt and resentment in its congregation. We cannot rely on the immanence of success to motivate our side. Success is unlikely to be immanent.

Recently, like many others, I’ve been canvassing and phonebanking for the Labour Party. A sentence I never thought I would write. The polling data does not look good. The conversations I had on the doorstep did not totally contradict that. The conversations I had on the phone were, at best, a mixed bag. We might not win.

But we do not only do this to win. One woman I met canvassing had been a Labour member since the Thatcher years. She let her membership lapse in the Blair years, and has become involved again since Corbyn. Four of the people on a seven-person board I was part of had never canvassed before. The area we were canvassing was complicated, and many people weren’t in. About two hours in, the heavens opened, and we huddled under a doorway to some flats while the rain went off, and to let some of our group catch back up. A woman entered the building, and on the way in we offered her a leaflet. She took a look, and yelled NO NO NO NO NO to each of us individually.

When we regrouped, one of the stragglers joined us grinning from ear to ear. He said, ‘Sorry, I was in a long conversation. The guy I was talking to was undecided, now he’s voting Labour.’ We cheer. There is no answer at any of the last houses, we leaflet and say goodbye.

I’ll probably never see the people from that canvass again. They aren’t in my local branch, and, like me, some of them had travelled from their own safe seats to campaign in a marginal that was, according to mycampaignmap, in need of volunteers.

As anybody who has experienced it will know, there is something immensely powerful about campaigning with people who are complete strangers. About meeting people in the context of a shared commitment so strong you will give an entire afternoon walking the streets in the pouring rain in December to it.

Last weekend, I hosted two phone banking parties. Over the course of the two days, perhaps thirty or so people came by to make phone calls to voters to find out their voting intention and log it in Labour’s system to help local branches target their door knocking where it might be most effective. It is not a glamourous activity. It is roughly equivalent to working in a call centre, without the horrendous working conditions that usually accompany such work, but also with none of the wages. More than 50 per cent of the time, people don’t answer the phone, have moved house or are not available. We log the appropriate reason we did not get through. Of those who we reach, many have no interest in talking to us. Either because they think we are trying to sell something to them, or because they are hostile to Labour. We log their voting intention as ‘Against’ or ‘Won’t Say’.

But a small minority of people want to talk. They want to tell you how they feel. They want to tell you that they are angry, abandoned, betrayed, ignored. That they feel powerless. Some of them have no intention of voting, they are not registered. For the sake of the phone banking, they are of little use to the Labour Party in terms of ‘getting the vote out’. But they tell me nobody ever calls unless they want a vote, so if someone wants to talk, I let them. They tell me they don’t believe politicians care. They tell me that all politicians lie. They tell me that politicians make promises but we all know that they won’t keep them.

I tell them I think that this time is different, but that I also understand why they think it is not. I tell them I wish we’d spoken before the date to register had passed, because people like Boris Johnson don’t want them to vote. They tell me it will make no difference who gets in. I tell them I hope we get chance to prove them wrong this time.

The best calls are the ones where someone is undecided, and wants to know more. They tell us that there seems to be a lot of lying, and they don’t know what to believe. I tell them that it doesn’t seem to me like an accident that they feel that way, that it is to some people’s benefit if people do not feel confident about what’s true and what isn’t. It is very tiring trying to sort fact from fiction. Many people stop trying.

It only dawned on me after several of these conversations that this is the point of Boris’ lies. He does not expect them to be believed. He knows that we know they are lies. What he wants is to flood people with so many contradictory claims, so may lies and counter-lies, misinformation and rebuttal, that people will switch off. A kind of IRL shitposting. If working class people do not vote, Boris will win.

When I point this out to people, the relief is audible. There seems to be a lot of shame about not understanding what is happening. I encourage people to look at the Labour Party manifesto, and to try not to take what the papers tell them as necessarily true. I tell them that I am a volunteer, that I have never made phone calls for any party before, and that I think this is a very important election.

I ask them about their local labour MP, their local NHS services, their concerns about the climate. I ask them if they know how many votes their seat was won by last time. I remind them that it is going to be very cold on Thursday, that it may even snow where they are.

Each person who arrives to join the phonebank brings their membership number and a sheepish look when they apologise for never having done it before. They are relieved when they hear they are not alone in the room. I help them access their account, and teach them how to use the app. They sometimes ask questions about how to log a response, for instance if someone says they won’t disclose who they are voting for but it is clear that they are voting labour. You can see people grow in confidence as the day goes on, as the phonebank gets busier. People who only learnt themselves in the morning are teaching new arrivals in the afternoon.

We know nothing about each other except our first names. At the end of the day, we are exhausted. We share campaigning plans for the coming week, our hopes and fears about what the result might be, our sense of how things are changing. We all agree we are glad to have spent the day as we did.

We may have won some votes in our campaigning. Doorstep conversations seem to be the most effective way to cut through the advertising and media bias against Labour. The numbers and determination of the activists on the ground, the strategic targeting of marginal seats that we can defend and win, the degree to which, even more so than in 2017, people who have never campaigned before have taken ownership of this campaign is enough to cut through what is being reported in the polls. The polls don’t match our experience on the ground.

It is true, yes, that the more people we have on the ground, the more people we can reach on the doorstep, the more resources we have to try to combat the overfunded campaign from the other parties and the lies and misinformation that would be otherwise hard to compete with. Activists can win votes. But change does not (only) come from the ballot box.

Hope doesn’t always feel like victory. Hope can feel like not being isolated. It can feel like no longer being in a tiny embattled minority, treated like a mad person every time you are honest about the kind of world you think is possible. It can feel like walking the streets in the rain with strangers.

I am hopeful that we may even win a majority this week. But if we don’t, this wasn’t in vain. Because of the phonebanks I was part of this weekend, thirty more people are confident to call people on the phone and ask them about politics. And there are phonebanks like these across the country. Last time I checked, we have made more than 100,000 calls this election. That doesn’t only mean that they can phonebank again in future. It also means they have gained confidence about having conversations about politics with strangers.

It also means that every person turning up to a stranger’s house with their phone at the ready, or to a bus station in the dark and cold ready to door knock, is relating to this election campaign, to this organisation, as something they will sacrifice their evenings and their weekends for. Something they will fight for.

Whatever happens on Thursday, every single person who’s been involved in this campaign has been changed by it. And whether or not Corbyn moves into number 10 on Friday, given the forces lined up to stop us even if we get in, that’s the kind of real change we’re going to need.