I feel increasingly disgusted by the empty rigmarole of the official general election campaign. This is a moment that cries out for a proper contest over the kind of country we want to live in. Yet the real possibility of a no-deal Brexit, the need to forge a new social contract, and the deepening divides in our society, economy and union are challenges that seem completely beyond our shipwrecked political class.
Thankfully, signs of hope are beginning to spring up from the grassroots. Citizens are realising that if we want a better politics, we can no longer outsource our hopes and dreams to the miserable prisoners of the Westminster bubble. Public passions have seldom run higher; but today’s parties fail to channel them effectively. So people are starting to flock to new movements and platforms that offer fresh ways of thinking and acting, independent of the old political cartels.
Citizens are asking tough questions, making up their own minds, and starting to use their time, votes and money to impact elections. Crowdfunding gives insurgent campaigns the power to scale up rapidly; and with tribal loyalties fraying and fears of a hard Brexit rising, polls show a third of the electorate are ready to vote tactically. Thousands of people are signing up as volunteers to knock on doors and have conversations with their fellow-voters, while a growing army of creatives and technologists are building voter websites, making viral Facebook memes and planning media stunts.
In 2005 my first non-party election campaign, Vote4Peace, helped in a modest way to defend around 30 MPs who had voted against the Iraq war. Today the landscape of British political movements is far more potent and diverse. I have spoken with over a dozen major non-party campaigns since the snap election was called. Between them they will spend millions and mobilise thousands of volunteers, with most focusing their efforts on some or all of the hundred marginal seats that will decide the outcome on 8 June 2017.
More United has already raised half a million pounds, with its members voting to endorse, fund and canvass for candidates who share their movement’s principles and values – regardless of their party. Meanwhile, with the help of Gina Miller, the Best for Britain campaign has crowdfunded £370,000 to support candidates who oppose a hard Brexit and back a meaningful vote on the final deal.
Best for Britain are planning to run their own independent campaigning locally and on social media, with a big focus on tactical voting. The Remainers of Open Britain and the European Movement are also mobilising their members and supporters in target marginals, while on the other side Arron Banks’s Leave.EU is calling on its supporters to “put country before party” by backing a mix of Ukip, Tory and Labour Brexiteers.
The progressive alliance movement has just launched its election crowdfunder on Crowdpac, and is holding a rally in East London. In our first-past-the-post system, “progressives” of all stripes often lose because they split their votes across a handful of parties. But in the last week, local movements and hustings events have identified unity candidates in over thirty seats – with Greens standing down strategically to support Labour and Liberal Democrats against Tories, and the Lib Dems doing the same for the Greens’ Caroline Lucas in Brighton.
Labour’s national leadership is myopically rejecting such alliances even where local members want them. It even expelled the ringleaders in South West Surrey who backed doctor Louise Irvine as a unity challenger to Jeremy Hunt. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson struggle to unite their own party at present, but have missed a golden opportunity to expand their coalition and embrace the new politics.
Clive Lewis, a frontrunner in the Labour leadership succession who has won the backing of many of these movements, will nonetheless champion the progressive alliance at tonight’s rally. Lewis will be joined by Yanis Varoufakis and by Claire Sandberg, the former digital organising director of the Bernie Sanders movement.
Meanwhile, dozens of candidates and campaigns are now crowdfunding on our platform, Crowdpac, including independent candidates like Claire Wright in East Devon and Michelle Dewberry in Hull. Corbyn’s Momentum movement raised over £60,000 this weekend to power their own plans for tech-enabled organising, while the left-wing journalist Owen Jones’s Stop A Tory Landslide Fund has helped several Labour MPs in tough fights.
New faces are playing a huge role: Becky Snowden, a twenty-something from Yorkshire, created the Tactical2017 spreadsheet which went viral and turned into a campaign which is being visited by hundreds of thousands of people a week; and the Campaign Together group have recruited over a thousand volunteers to organise and knock on doors in key marginals.
Networked movements Avaaz and 38 Degrees have millions of members around the country, and are testing support for different strategies; Hope Not Hate will be campaigning fiercely against Ukip, and non-partisan youth registration and turnout campaigns like Bite The Ballot and Rise Up are taking off. Civic technologists gather daily for hackathons in the evocatively-named Newspeak House in Bethnal Green, while creatives and marketers test messages on Facebook; and a float showing Theresa May holding a Brexit gun in her own mouth is preparing to tour the country.
While they are in a kind of loose swarm, all these groups are working independently, with their own distinct goals and plans. The so-called “Gagging Bill” of 2014 had a chilling effect on independent campaigning: it constrained spending and joint working, and created additional confusion about what is permitted, stopping many of our civic organisations from raising their voices.
But during the short campaign, independent campaigns can spend almost as much as candidates themselves locally — up to £9,750 in any given constituency, as long as they talk about parties and not candidates (in the latter case the restrictions are tighter, and you can only spend £700 promoting a specific candidate). There is some confusion about this higher limit, but the Electoral Commission has been very clear when consulted.
These insurgent movements are flying mostly below the radar of the media, against the wind, and with almost no time to spare. The Conservative Party is wrapping local newspapers in Theresa May’s face and flooding Facebook feeds with micro-targeted ads, but lacks its own mass membership or ground campaign. The non-party campaigns could yet have a huge impact in the marginals, where a few hundred or thousand votes will decide the outcome. Most of them still need more funds and volunteers.
But even more important is what happens in the next decade. I believe the citizens and movements rising up now will play a huge role in re-shaping our political landscape. This is a revolutionary moment in which things are evolving fast – a Cambrian explosion of politics. Our democracy is what we make of it – time to stand up for what you believe, and get involved.