/How a British activist army is taking lessons from the U.S.

How a British activist army is taking lessons from the U.S.

LONDON — Two white-haired lefties on opposite sides of the Atlantic hope an enthusiastic youth movement can propel them to power — and their activists have teamed up in pursuit of victory.

Momentum, the campaign group that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the U.K. Labour Party in 2015, has sought advice from supporters of U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on how best organize grassroots volunteers as they push for victory in Britain’s upcoming election.

Deploying a strategy known as “distributed organizing,” which fueled Sanders’ expectation-defying challenge for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Momentum’s leadership hopes to use volunteers to extend their reach and to get around the spending limits mandated by U.K law.

This involves developing a loose network of volunteers across the country and giving them digital tools to coordinate their activities. Volunteers are trained to do work that would otherwise have been managed by a centralized campaign, such as organizing events, creating campaign videos and knocking on doors.

In the spring, two 2016 Sanders organizers — Becky Bond and Zack Malitz — flew to London to help Momentum prepare for a snap election. Bond came to the U.K. again in the late summer alongside Jo Beardsmore, founder of anti-austerity protest group UK Uncut. Beardsmore now lives in California but is working with Momentum for the duration of the campaign.

Momentum’s leadership hopes to use volunteers to extend their reach and to get around the spending limits mandated by U.K law.

Bond, who has co-written a book on distributed organizing, is based in the U.S. but visits the U.K. regularly and advises Momentum. She joined conference calls with Labour activists last month, telling them there is a “huge capacity in the grassroots that’s just waiting to be called into service.”

“Some of you are going to need to travel across the country to places where full-time canvassers are urgently needed to talk to voters key to winning crucial seats,” she told volunteers. “Some of you will stay for a week in those places; some for two weeks. You may have relatives that you can stay with; you may find local supporters that you don’t know, but who will put you up.

“The time for strategizing is over. We know what we have to do, and we have to do it in massive numbers enough to win.”

And while help from across the Atlantic is welcome in Britain, Sanders’ team also hopes success for Labour will boost their campaign back home.

Jeremy Corbyn poses for photos during a UK general election advertising launch on December 4, 2019 | Darren Staples/Getty Images

“The left in the U.S. is watching the U.K. general election very closely,” Bond said. “An upset win by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party would be a huge shot in the arm for activists in the U.S. pushing for the similar policies.”

Another Sanders organizer who has worked with Momentum said the two campaigns share “similar kinds of politics” and “a lot of shared goals.”

“We’ve got lots of volunteers here who are very much into Corbyn and want to see him succeed,” the organizer said.

Momentum’s Corbyn problem

Momentum has a mountain to climb if Corbyn stands any chance of making it to Downing Street.

With just a week to go until polling day, Labour is still trailing well behind the Tories, according to POLITICO’s poll of polls. There is a “close to zero” chance of Corbyn winning a majority, according to leading pollster John Curtice, so he would need to team up with smaller parties to become prime minister.

While many on the left admire Momentum’s tactics, there is widespread concern that Corbyn himself is a problem for Labour.

“The gap between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson is enormous,” said Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, pointing to his company’s latest results. Corbyn’s net personal rating is minus 39, with just 27 percent of those surveyed saying he is performing well. Boris Johnson had a net personal rating of 2.

John McTernan, who worked as a political strategist for former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, said the problem is “the product not the presentation.”

“We don’t know how many Let’s Go groups there are now. The whole point of it [is that it] would just grow like topsy” — Laura Parker, national Momentum coordinator 

“I’m a strong supporter of what Momentum do in terms of training, campaigning and canvassing. The mobilization of people on the ground and on social media is a very effective part of the Labour ground war,” he said. “If you ever talk to Conservatives they feel outgunned on the ground and outgunned on social media.”

But he added: “Labour are losing because the product and the leadership are not popular enough across the country.”

Momentum, which is headquartered in Finsbury Park, north London, has seen its staff grow from around 15 people before the election was called, to more than 50 now.

Laura Parker, Momentum’s national coordinator, said their approach is to give “activists the encouragement, the tools, a bit of training, access to information and then just letting them run with it.”

The group has launched two online campaigns with the explicit aim of recruiting as big an army of volunteers as possible.

Labour party activists campaign in north London on December 2, 2019 | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

The first is a drive encouraging volunteers to set up “Let’s Go” groups on WhatsApp, Facebook and by email, asking friends and family members to campaign for Labour. The underlying philosophy is that people are most easily persuaded by people they know. Seasoned activists can also set up training events to teach newcomers how to convince wavering voters.

“We don’t know how many Let’s Go groups there are now,” Parker said. “The whole point of it [is that it] would just grow like topsy.”

The same tactic was deployed by the Sanders campaign, which directed people who had posted supportive social media content via its smartphone app to text others and encourage them to get involved. Sanders’ team estimated that it had reached the same number of votes through this method as it would have from knocking on 63,000 doors.

Momentum’s second campaign, Labour Legends, was also imported from the U.S. It encourages people to take at least a week off work to help the election effort full-time.

A separate tool, My Plan to Win, lets volunteers organize their actions for the final stretch of the campaign.

“Last time we understood — and this is partly from working with the people from the Bernie Sanders campaign who we’re still collaborating with — is that if you make a bigger ask, you get a bigger response,” said Parker.

Labour activists listen to an address from Jeremy Corbyn at a campaign rally on December 1, 2019 | Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

More than 1,500 people have signed up to become “Labour Legends,” with people committing to set aside 2.6 weeks to campaign on average. Parker said Momentum liaises with constituency Labour parties to send volunteers wherever they’re most needed.

Those who can’t go out door-knocking are encouraged to set up “phone bank parties” at home with their friends, using a Labour Party smartphone app to call voters.

Within 48 hours of the election being called, Momentum launched a web tool to distribute these volunteers, called My Campaign Map. Activists can punch in their postcode to see a list of events in areas where they can have the most impact. The selection is based on how tight the race for each seat is and how much campaigning activity it has seen, with data fed in by activists. Volunteers can also upload their canvassing groups so that others can join, and organize voluntary “road trips” to travel to several key constituencies.

It’s a step up from Momentum’s 2017 website, which directed campaigners to their nearest tight battleground. That proved to be a blunt instrument: Labour’s majority ballooned in places flooded with activists while the party narrowly missed out on other constituencies that the website hadn’t categorized as winnable.

“We’re not going to have any wasted time,” Momentum organizer Callum Cant told a planning call of 1,500 volunteers on October 30. “This time, our campaign will be much more data-driven, and we’ll be encouraging to go to marginals that need you the most.”

‘Digital army’

This decentralized approach means Momentum can scale up beyond the restrictions set by electoral spending limits. Electoral Commission regulations say that non-party campaigners can spend a maximum of £584,817 across the U.K., with no more than £9,750 spent in any individual constituency.

But if volunteers are funding their own travel to battleground seats; if they are finding people who will host them for free; and if they are sharing content in social media organically, reducing the need for digital advertising, then Momentum’s reach becomes significantly larger.

For its own spending, Momentum — like Sanders’ campaign — relies on volunteer donations. It raised over £200,000 in the first 48 hours after the election was called, and has now amassed nearly £500,000. This figure is dwarfed by the amount collected by both Labour and the Conservatives, who have raised millions during the campaign.

Digital volunteers can also amplify the work done by professional campaigners. Momentum’s videos are among the most-viewed political ads on social media, with several racking up more than a million views.

“We’re encouraging our activists to get their phone out and tell us why they’re voting Labour …We know that people trust people” — Laura Parker

Momentum employs just a handful of people to produce its sleek “blockbuster production” videos — such as this one where the Joker takes Batman to task for not paying his taxes — according to Parker, many of which deploy a riskier tone that those produced by the Labour Party itself. “Jeremy can’t have a film out with the word clusterf*** in the title,” Parker said.

The group has a dedicated team that watches political TV shows, clipping and sharing Labour politicians’ rhetorical victories and Tory slip-ups.

Volunteers are urged to make their own content via an initiative called #VideosByTheMany.

“We’re encouraging our activists to get their phone out and tell us why they’re voting Labour,” Parker said. It’s a way of flooding social media with organic content that creates a sense of impetus behind Labour’s campaign. Again, this is an approached borrowed from Sanders, whose team asked supporters to share videos on social media explaining what had motivated them to campaign, with the hashtag #MyBernieStory.

“We know that people trust people. You trust your next-door neighbor talking about their hip replacement more than you’d trust me if I was on the telly talking about health spending — and definitely more than you’d trust [Shadow Health Secretary] Jonathan Ashworth,” Parker said.

Momentum has a WhatsApp circulation list of volunteers signed up to its “digital army,” and it pumps out messages encouraging people to share specific content and help it go viral. “If you share one thing this election, make it this,” the group said in a message on November 21 following Labour’s election manifesto launch. “Labour has a radical plan for real change — and now we need to show the media just how popular these policies are.”

Ground war

Momentum’s distributed organizing strategy is not just deployed online. Digital campaigning is no substitute for face-to-face contact on the doorstep.

For Emine Ibrahim, Momentum’s vice president and a Labour councillor in north London, the most important thing is message discipline, particularly on Brexit.

“The challenge is to get the narrative on the Labour’s Party position straight among canvassers,” she said. “If you want a second referendum, you’ll only get that by voting Labour. If you want a sensible Brexit deal, you need to vote Labour as well.”

What we shouldn’t do when we are on the doorstep is have conversations that we would be having internally.”

Jeremy Corbyn gives a speech on the general election campaign trail on December 1, 2019 | Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

Traditionally, Labour canvassing has been a data-gathering exercise of knocking on as many doors as possible, asking residents whether they’re supporting the party, and then ensuring that they vote on polling day.

But Momentum thinks the party is missing a trick if it is not actively trying to win people over. Its ethos is that effective campaigning involves “persuasive conversations” with voters on the doorstep. At the core of this is volunteers sharing personal stories about what motivates them to campaign.

In its guide to canvassing, the group encourages volunteers to invest time in talking to undecided voters, listen actively to their concerns and share their own experience. “Often our job is to plant a seed that will make them open to our national campaign and policy agenda,” the document says.

The guide includes advice on how to hold difficult conversations. When asked about anti-Semitism — an issue that has dogged Corbyn’s leadership — volunteers are encouraged to say that although a small proportion of Labour members have been found to be anti-Semitic, the party is “taking action.”

Asked about Brexit, they are encouraged to “adjust what you’re saying depending on if it’s a Leaver or Remain[er],” while arguing that Labour’s policy — to negotiate a new deal with Brussels and put that deal to a second referendum within six months — is the most democratic.

Momentum will need to have lots of such difficult conversations to overcome the public’s distrust of Corbyn.

But whether or not it succeeds in putting the Labour leader into Downing Street, its impact on how British politics is done is undeniable.

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