During this election I spent two days canvassing for Labour in my home constituency of Bridgend, which in the event tragically fell to the Tories. I have a huge amount of scepticism about door knocking as both a campaign strategy (in reality it is mainly a form of data harvesting rather than a mass campaign of persuasive interaction) and the way the wisdom of ‘the doorstep’ is elevated in British political discourse. The reason it is seen as so special because this is ultimately the only contact most journalists and many MPs - although in fairness not my local one- have with the general public.
Much like polling data, these brief, awkward conversations provide only a snapshot of what people believe or think. It provides no context as to how people arrived at their opinions, the reality of people’s lives, or any reflection on the structures that lead people to think how they do.
Nonetheless, once a sociologist, always a sociologist, and I came away with much to reflect upon.
The first and in my view the most disturbing issue that door knocking immediately raises is that of media influence. Working class people are clearly, painfully, conned into voting against their own material self-interest by the corporate media, tricked into believing that people who openly despise them, like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, are actually on their side.
A huge amount of people regurgitated, verbatim, media attack lines about Labour and Corbyn. Many would preface this by saying ‘I seen on the news that…’ or ‘they say that Corbyn is….’ For the first time in my life I encountered people I was convinced didn’t exist- lifelong Labour voters who were voting for the Tories. This was because they were absolutely convinced that Corbyn was a terrorist, that he would bankrupt the country, that he was an anti-semite.
I asked if they trusted Boris Johnson. Of course they said ‘no’, but then again ‘Boris’ has not been turned into a hate figure, quite the opposite in fact: his carefully cultivated image of the harmless, benign clown has been promoted relentlessly by the media, and this cosiness could not even be punctured by the rare occasions his mask slipped in public, revealing the sinister bully that lies beneath it.
In many ways, I feel that elements of the cultural studies movement and postmodernism, in emphasizing human agency vis a vis the media, have obscured the extent to which the media influences people. In my view, door knocking hits home the enduring strength of the propaganda model: make no mistake, the corporate media in this election acted as an arm of the Conservative party and are largely responsible for their victory.
They did Johnson’s work for him- the Tories in Bridgend did not even have to campaign. Labour canvassers were helpless to cut through the barrage of propaganda.
Labour need to be aware that this will be the same no matter who the Labour leader is. If they are offering transformative socialist policies, they will be attacked. If they are not attacked, it is because they are not socialists and represent no threat to capitalist hegemony in the UK.
It will be next to impossible to achieve socialism in the UK without reform of the existing media, not least the BBC. Until then, independent left media platforms urgently need to focus on breaking out of the current bubble that they occupy and getting through to people outside the Twittersphere.
Perhaps more upsetting was the fact that many people were obviously distressed at the barrage of information they had to sift through from unverified, unregulated sources and their sheer confusion at what was going on. I had numerous conversations with people who were very upset, saying they were confused, that they didn’t understand what was going on, that they had seen such and such on Facebook, which came up time and time again as a news source.
Whilst it is easy to mock Carole Cadwallader, Facebook acting as the prism through which many people understand society and politics is incredibly pernicious.
We desperately need a mass campaign of political and media education which will equip people to deal with the never ending waves of bullshit that they are clearly drowning in. Incidentally, this is something we could do tomorrow in Wales, but which the Welsh Labour government refuses to embark upon.
I was particularly shaken by an incident which summed up how people are conned into voting against their material interests. I knocked on the door of a lady in Brackla who was busy cooking dinner for her two children. Dressed in her work uniform, she was initially stand offish and claimed that she didn’t understand politics, didn’t know if it was worth voting as she felt nothing ever changed, and also stated she wasn’t keen on Corbyn.
As I turned to leave, I asked her whether she valued the NHS. This piqued her interest and after a short conversation about the risk posed by the Tories to the NHS she invited me inside and showed me to her small lounge at the back of the house. In the corner was a large machine, its high tech luminous gleaming buttons incongruous in a room full of children’s toys. It looked like a huge robot sat in an armchair.
It was a dialysis machine. Her husband’s kidneys had failed.
She was working full time on minimum wage, raising two children and caring for her husband. She depended on the NHS. Despite her scepticism I am confident that I eventually won her around to the importance of voting Labour, but it was once again extremely distressing to see someone who had so much to lose from a Tory government (and to gain from a Labour government) come so close to voting against her class interests .
How new social relations under neoliberalism impact on politics
The next thing door knocking made me realise was that if we want to build a working class mass movement, we need to think seriously about how class plays out and is understood in everyday life. Above all, we need to reflect on the shifting structural forces which govern our relationship to the economy and ultimately to one another and therefore to ‘politics’.
While out canvassing we had a bizarre engagement with a female parcel courier who kept doing deliveries on the same street as us . She would helpfully tell us which houses were in and which ones weren’t in. One of my colleagues began talking to her and asked if she would be voting. She said yes, for Boris, and that she didn’t like Corbyn. When my colleague probed further, she said she had three jobs, all of which were zero hours. My friend told her Labour would work to ban zero hour contracts. She said she was self-employed, actually, and was doing just fine.
No job security, no trade union representation, no rights. Yet here she was saying she was self-employed and would therefore be voting Tory, as naturally as if she was a traditional small business owner.
As well as media influence, we have to appreciate the extent to which this isolated, relentless working environment and culture of ‘flexibility’ militates against class consciousness, collective action and solidarity. The fact is that this is the experience of work for many people south Wales today. It is the polar opposite of the forms of work which gave rise to the sets of social relations which gave rise to the Labour movement.
With Ford soon to close, the last vestiges of traditional industry will leave Bridgend, and the world of work will increasingly soon look exclusively like this- couriers, callcentres, warehouse workers. Zero hours contracts, unsociable shift work, no trade union presence, no camaraderie with work colleagues.
An urgent challenge for the left over the coming years is to ensure that the trade union movement keeps up with this mass transformation of the world of work and the lived realities of people’s lives, be flexible enough to respond to this challenge, and stop pretending everyone still works in large factories or in unionised sectors, which seems to be its current approach. We have to strive to find ways to connect to workers in industries in which they are encouraged to act like ‘self-employed entrepreneurs’, with all the ideological baggage that comes with that pernicious term, and articulate a language of class conflict which overcomes these atomized working conditions.
Similarly, I was struck by how huge council estates in Bridgend like Wild Mill, Cefn Glas and Brackla, which were formerly uniformly social housing, are now a complex mix of housing association properties, council owned properties, right to buy privately owned former council houses, and new builds thrown up by the likes of Persimmon.
Council tenants live next door to private rented tenants, who live next door to young home owners commuting to Cardiff. The pattern within the estates is jarringly uneven, with pockets of obvious poverty on one street, with the next street full of houses with Landrovers and BMWs in the driveway.
This social mixing has clearly impacted on a sense of solidarity and community, and areas which were once solidly Labour are now becoming dominated by the ‘aspirational’ and house proud petit-bourgeois, a class fraction which is traditionally deeply conservative, terrified by the prospect of being dragged back down into the working class once again.
Symbolically, the iconic Labour club in Bryntirion has been closed down and replaced by new flats. Property fetishism, one of the pillars of Thatcher’s quest to transform the ‘soul’ of society, is tangible in the built environment of these estates. We have to be realistic about social mobility and its insidious effects on people’s sense of solidarity and community in contemporary neoliberal society.
Whilst many former middle class professions such as teaching, HE, nursing have become obviously proletarianised and precarious, many working class people, particularly tradesmen, have thrived. In regional towns, it is now not uncommon to see people with degrees living at home with their parents working in coffee shops or in retail, whilst lads who did apprenticeships at 16 are materially far better off, regularly owning their own property. Just as Thatcher had Essex Man, Johnson perhaps has younger ‘Bridgend man’ on top of the older ‘Workington man’.
Equally, many of the white collar working classes are sacrificing their rights at work and job security for the chance to be lucky enough to one day join the hallowed ranks of the ‘homeowners’, all the while being relentlessly bombarded by media narratives which encourage people to aspire to the petit- bourgeois lifestyles promoted by shows like TOWIE and Love Island; the flip side of which is defining themselves against those unlucky enough to not be in work.
Of course, the class diversity of Labour ‘heartlands’ is only new to people who are not from here and who think everyone still works underground, but it is nonetheless necessary to be aware of the ways in which the shifting economic sands impact on people’s political consciousness. In particular, we need to be alert to this new, creeping culture of individualistic atavism, defined online by ‘Fiat 500 twitter’ that is a defining feature of capitalist realism in 2019.
These new social relationships, particularly related to property and the world of work, represent the motors of contemporary conservatism that is gaining ground within Labour heartlands. It needs to be smashed, displaced somehow by a collective will based once more on kindness and community.
Since the Brexit vote in 2016 I have seen a lot of sneering at working class people from liberal commentators and even erstwhile leftists. The working class are derided as thick, selfish, stupid racists. As ‘gammons’ (lol!). This will now naturally accelerate following the collapse of the red wall and the amount of working class people who have chosen to immiserate themselves further by voting for Boris Johnson.
But door knocking gives us glimpses into people’s lives, and reminds us that we really don’t know how much other people are suffering, what they are going through, or what goes on behind closed doors. One elderly gentleman informed me he had lost two wives to cancer. Here was a man who had seen untold personal tragedy, but kept getting up every day and battling on.
Despite the undeniable tragedy of losing the seat, and the scale of the challenges that we face, I came away from canvassing feeling quite motivated and energized. This was because, despite my worst fears, most people I spoke to were warm, friendly and welcoming. Despite unrelenting narratives of individualism over the last 30 years, and despite being clearly disillusioned, struggling, and scared, most people still to me seem to have good values, be amenable to socialist policies and to deep down, care for one another.
Once I had made common ground with people, I encountered no prejudice, and little rugged individualism. I did this by talking the language of class, which is something the left have not done well, even under Corbyn. When I asked them about public services, about the Labour manifesto and its promises, they were very enthused, and yes, even those people who had voted Tory or who were abstaining because they ‘hated all politicians’ (Corbyn in this sense undeniably reaped the disillusionment sowed by Blair and Mandelson).
This tells me that it is absolutely possible to win people round to socialism if the left can cut through the media bullshit, once again root ourselves in these communities and make politics, and class, relevant to people. As long as people are still kind to one another, we have a chance.
And ultimately, we have no choice as socialists. We knew it was never going to be easy. We can’t expect people to have a perfect class consciousness, or perfect politics under conditions of neoliberalism.
Our job is not to write people off but to lead them and empower them. Above all, we owe it to people like the lady whose husband was on dialysis to keep fighting for a better world.