Hope in the suburbs: election notes from Suffolk

A few days after the general election was called a group of volunteers gathered under lowering skies, raindrops speckling the windows, in a small room in a community centre by a scruffy field in north Lowestoft.

The mood amongst the gathering of Waveney Labour Party members was, in part, dismay. There had been no time to select a candidate. We were casting around for an agent. We had no office or equipment. There was no strategy. And many of us crammed into the room had never met.

But there was also energy. There was anger that a sudden, opportunistic election had been called by a Government that – as every opinion poll indicated – seemed set to bury the Labour Party by presenting itself as the solution to a constitutional crisis of its own making.

We were defiant, but I can’t honestly say how much hope there was, with regard either to our national or local prospects.

Waveney is a curious constituency of two halves. Lowestoft is one of those English seaside towns forever in search of renewal following the collapse of its traditional industries, the signs of former prosperity evident in the ornate Victorian architecture lining the bright seafront, now for the most part shabby and soiled, a wedding cake left out in the rain. A giant gleaming wind turbine looms improbably over the skyline, a hint of some future that has never quite arrived. Further inland, the constituency takes in the historic, Tory-voting market towns of Beccles and Bungay.

Labour-leaning Lowestoft kept the constituency red during the Blair and Brown year till it was taken narrowly by the Conservatives in 2010, a victory consolidated by a strong UKIP vote in 2015. Brexit, we feared, would turn Waveney dark blue, the constituency having voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU last year.

But we would give it a go. An office was opened, leaflets printed, social media channels opened, and a canvassing schedule established.

Campaigning got underway. Jeremy Corbyn made a flying visit – the battle bus crawling through the narrow town centre roads – with what impact, we don’t know. But a couple of weeks into the campaign, breaks in the clouds appeared. The first shard of light here, as elsewhere, was the appearance of the Labour manifesto, a simple, powerful programme proposing that good public services, better working conditions and higher paid jobs are possible if we are prepared to tax a bit more and invest in our economy. It was a straightforward appeal to classic social democratic principles, and it cut through. The response on the doorsteps was positive.

But it was a message that really began to shine a few days later, when the Conservative manifesto was published. The social care U-turn was, of course, important, the first hairline crack in the Prime Minister’s brittle image, a crack that widened as the campaign went on. But more significant was the manifesto’s failure to offer any policies commensurate with the challenge of improving the day-to-day material concerns of so many voters: the challenge of securing decent work; the affordability of decent housing; the cuts to school budgets; the frustrations of negotiating a punitive benefits system. People quoted some of our policies back at us. With the exception of the ‘dementia tax’ and the removal of the triple lock nobody could name a single Tory policy.

It would be too easy to say that we began to think things were turning our way. It is always so difficult to discern what is happening during an election campaign. There are too many doors to knock on, too many that don’t open, too many polite, enigmatic, non-committal smiles when they are. But the sky seemed brighter, the sun visible behind the clouds. There was a sense of possibility, of a widespread acknowledgement that a genuine choice had been offered, of a different future being silently considered by minds once closed.

The realisation that something had changed became clear to me during a brief episode in the course of a hot afternoon spent leafleting Lowestoft’s sprawling suburbs.

Normanston Drive is a long leafy road with a social mix emblematic of the constituency. One side of the street is prosperous, a drowsy English Arts and Crafts suburban idyll of Tudor beams, Edwardian gables and trellis fences, offering glimpses of endless lawns round the back, punctuated by the occasional sundial, disappearing into a wall of elm trees. Not a soul was in sight, the silence broken only by birdsong, the sound of a distant lawnmower and the crunch of gravel underfoot.

The other side is – or what used to be – post-war social housing, a mix of terraced flats and neat little houses in the gentle Scandinavian Modernist style so typical of Lowestoft, some lovingly maintained, others falling into decay, the gardens overgrown, the letterboxes jammed with unanswered mail, cigarette butts on the pathways.

A man in a tracksuit, puffing away, sat on a wall watching me as I crossed the road and pulled out another batch of leaflets, only to lose them as a gust of wind blew up, scattering them along the grass verge. As I bent down, cursing, he walked over and silently started to help me pick them up. I noticed how he tracked down each one, and handled them with infinite care, stacking them neatly, making sure not to fold or crease the little slips.

He asked if he could take some for his friends and family, and then said, rather sadly: ‘Thanks – thanks for the hope. I don’t expect anything to change, but we’ll remember the hope.’ Then he was off.

A few days later, of course, Labour came closer to being able to address some of those hopes than either of us had dared believe. And it is heartbreaking to think that the opportunity to make a start on the difficult process of social reconstruction may not present itself anytime soon.

Despite coming together as a determined team, beating the streets, sheltering from sun and the occasional downpour, and blitzing our social media channels, we lost Waveney, and lost it badly, the big UKIP vote transferring en masse to the Conservatives.

And at Westminster the ancient Conservative instinct for survival has already kicked in. Polls might suggest voters want another election sooner rather than later to clear the air, but the Tories don’t. Labour’s wolves are at the door and they will do everything to keep it bolted.

I hope I am wrong but the reality is that it may well be that not a single policy in that celebrated manifesto will be implemented. So as this electrifying summer fades into autumn and the Tories are still in charge, perhaps under new leadership, we need to find ways of keeping the hope that has been kindled alive, from fading, as my friend on Normanston Drive feared, into memory.

How? We need to retain and build upon the hope and energy generated over the past few weeks, rediscovering something of the old labour movement ideal that the aspiration for a better world is a way of life, not a big push every few years. Hope is a flame to be tended through activism, political education, film nights, book clubs and visibility within the community. Here in Waveney members with better voices than I are organising a Labour choir. Social media, which Labour used so effectively during the campaign, offers a space for organising our activities, and engaging with those outside the movement looking in.

Above all, it is crucial that we never forget the agency we have, together, to change things, to counter the despairing sentiment that we are on our own: that the difficulties we face – unemployment, low pay, poverty, lack of opportunity – are always our fault, and ours alone. Election 2017 showed that politics matters.

I am reminded of the words of the brilliant political and cultural critic Mark Fisher, who we so sadly lost in January. In one of many powerful essays he wrote:

Inventing new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger: all of this can happen, and when it does, who knows what is possible?

Perhaps a new, hopeful political settlement is on the horizon, sooner than Mark could have ever thought possible.