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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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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.