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“Almost every constituency we targeted, we won”: The inside story of Labour’s ground game

An ambitious strategy from Momentum swung marginal seats to Labour – and united the faction-riven party.

From California to Canterbury, a handful of young activists began messaging each other the minute Theresa May called a snap election on 18 April. They were making plans that would, seven weeks later, help deprive the government of its majority – and bring the Labour party closer to government.

“When the snap election was called, I came the weekend after,” recalls Erika Uyterhoeven, a 30-year-old Bostonian who was employed by the Bernie Sanders campaign during the US election.

She was its National Out-of-State Organiser, which meant the difficult job of rallying activists to go and canvass in places that were often a five-hour drive away from where they lived – in marginal states rather than their own areas.

Uyterhoeven had helped out with Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, advising Momentum – the membership movement that grew out of Corbyn’s network of supporters in 2015 – on how to train its volunteers in canvassing. The group got hold of her again, after May’s election announcement, and asked her to bring some colleagues. The training was going to be on a much bigger scale this time round.


A Momentum rally. All photos unless credited otherwise: Getty

“Hey, does anybody want to come? They’re doing this big training programme, they want people from the Sanders campaign to come and do it,” is the message received by her friend Jeremy Parkin, a 27-year-old from California who worked on the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Utah and California primaries, and then for community organisers MoveOn.org on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. They had worked together in New Hampshire.

“Erica had been helping out with Momentum for a while, so she reached out to some people from the Bernie campaign,” Parkin adds. “We’d heard about Corbyn in the States and it was really cool – he was this guy who was doing similar to what Bernie was doing over there. I thought it was a great opportunity to come and help Corbyn out.”


Jeremy Parkin in an activist training session. Photo: Anne Laymond

Twenty days later, he was in Momentum’s shabby office in Euston, central London. It was here that he, Uyterhoeven and two other former Sanders staffers planned a programme that would train over 3,000 Momentum and Labour members in canvassing techniques – and develop digital tools to mobilise activists across the country. They worked as volunteers.

“Almost every constituency Momentum targeted, we won.”

The weekend following the election, I meet Parkin in the foyer of the building, owned by the TSSA union. It is a concrete block that looms over the rather appropriately named Melton Road (“melt” is an insult used online by some Corbyn supporters).

Parkin is a lanky figure in baggy jeans, suede Pumas and a grey t-shirt, bouncing over with remarkable energy for someone who has been working non-stop the past month. He introduces himself in his broad Californian accent. He tells me they were doing three or four training sessions a week up until polling day: one in London and then all over the rest of the country per week.

“I went up north a lot, did a few trainings up in the Midlands, and then in Manchester and Liverpool too,” he says, as we sit down, shaded from the sunshine outside.


Labour doorknocking in Battersea.

In these sessions – where sometimes 300 people would turn up; the smallest had 20 attendees – volunteers were taught how to do “persuasion canvassing”. This is a technique that uses a “response cycle” – empathising with a voter’s concerns on the doorstep, isolating the main thing they are worried about, and then giving relevant information about your candidate to address those concerns.

It sounds quite basic, but lots of first-time doorknockers would overload voters with non-specific information about Labour’s manifesto, or end up in a confrontation with people they didn’t agree with, for example on Corbyn’s leadership.

“It’s really overwhelming and kind of in your face, right?” says Parkin. “So one of the things I worked on at first was acknowledging concerns and building empathy. That’s a big thing of what I do.”

This is a shift from Labour’s time-honoured Voter ID method, which Parkin demonstrates sarcastically: “Knock knock. Hi! Are you voting Labour? Yes. Great, thank you! No. Great, thank you! Maybe. Great, thank you! Bye!”


A Momentum training session in London. Photo: Ana R Pepe

Once trained, Momentum’s volunteers were sent to marginal seats no one – the Labour party included – believed were winnable. Groups of hundreds went to Croydon Central, Kensington, Canterbury, Battersea, Sheffield Hallam, Brighton Kemptown, Leeds North West, Crewe & Nantwich, Lancaster & Fleetwood, Hampstead & Kilburn, Derby North, City of Chester, and Ealing Central & Acton.

Momentum held about 50 campaign weekends in marginal seats.

“In some places we were the only ones doing a lot of it”

This was enhanced by the My Nearest Marginal online tool, the growing impact of which the New Statesman wrote about before the election. This provided a car pool service for participants to travel easily and cheaply to target marginal seats. You just type in your postcode, and the map shows where it’s most useful for you to go.

By polling day, 100,000 people had used the site – that’s nearly a fifth of the whole of Labour’s membership, and four times that of Momentum.

“Almost every constituency Momentum targeted, we won,” says Parkin. Compare this to Tory support in swing seats – of the 43 marginal constituencies May visited during the election campaign, only five went Conservative.

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There was suspicion at first from Corbynsceptic MPs in marginal seats. Local Labour parties have often clashed with their Momentum counterparts, unable to reconcile their opposing opinions on the Labour leader.

Lack of Momentum presence was felt in some areas. “They’d rather stick to slagging the MP off on Facebook,” one Labour aide in a marginal northern seat lamented a few weeks before the election. “There’s all these new members, hundreds of new members, and none of them are doing anything, literally refusing to come out.”

At the start of the campaign, accusations flew around that My Nearest Marginal was directing activists away from helping MPs critical of Corbyn, such as Bermondsey & Southwark’s Neil Coyle. This was soon resolved, put down to a slow updating of information.

Some in Labour HQ were privately accusing Momentum of scraping data about campaign events from the main party site. Frustrated Momentum figures, in turn, were claiming that local parties in Sheffield and Battersea were directing activists elsewhere. “I think our campaigning made a difference in those kind of places – simply because we were the only ones doing a lot of it,” says one Momentum insider.


Jeremy Corbyn at a Momentum rally.

But by all accounts, relationships improved between Momentum and the rest of the party when the group proved it was pounding the pavements. “We’ve been able to actually see each other face-to-face, rather than briefing through the press,” a Momentum source tells me. “I do think this election’s really good for party unity. Not just in the sense that we did incredibly well, but also just that we’ve had the opportunity to work together, very closely.”

New MPs representing marginal seats are grateful. Croydon Central’s Labour candidate Sarah Jones, who didn’t vote for Corbyn and is aligned with Progress, was impressed with the “absolutely tonnes” of Momentum activists who had turned out for her when my colleague Julia joined her on the campaign trail.

“It was a completely different kind of campaign”

After being elected, she told the Guardian: “So many of the first-timers and Momentum people would come back, that was the amazing thing – and after two sessions they were the experienced ones, leading the new ones. It was a completely different kind of campaign.”

Sheffield Hallam’s new MP, Jared O’Mara, who ousted Nick Clegg, said in a statement: “The contribution of Momentum members in South Yorkshire and beyond was exemplary. It was a blessing to have them on board campaigning to get me elected.”

It was in O’Mara’s constituency where 69.2 per cent of 18-25 year olds with a Facebook profile watched at least one Momentum video online. The group calculates that nearly 30 per cent of all UK Facebook users viewed one over the campaign, with figures particularly high in marginal seats – for example, 35 per cent of Facebook users in Battersea watched a Momentum video.


Labour rosettes.

The organisation also used peer-to-peer texting, which simply means sending out geographically targeted texts from Momentum telling members about local events or cavasses coming up – messages that can then be forwarded to friends. The open rate of texts is much higher than with emails, which are easily ignored.

On election day, 400,000 people received a Whatsapp “cascade” message sent out by Momentum to rally people to go out and vote.

Following another Sanders campaign method, Momentum also made a phone bank app that could be used by supporters from home. So from your sofa, you could call vast numbers of people to canvass – with the follow-up question asking them to pledge part of their day on 8 June to get out the vote.

“We’ve been asking that since the beginning of the election,” says Uyterhoeven. “We asked all our activists and supporters to pledge to take the day off work to knock on doors for Labour.”

This resulted in 10,000 people knocking on more than 1.2 million doors on election day.

Not bad, for a group of 24,000 members with a handful of paid staff and £2,000 to spend on Facebook advertising. With the full weight of a unified Labour party of nearly 700,000 members behind it, Momentum could help win constituencies vital for victory next time round.

“I wouldn’t mind coming back here and working another election,” grins Parkin. “There’s probably going to be another soon.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear