How a ‘Corbynista’ bucked the national trend

By Cllr Maya Evans

Hollington ward in Hastings, located on the periphery of town, was originally built for an anticipated overspill of skilled workers from 1970s London. But the expected numbers did not arrive. Instead, it became social housing for local residents and later gained a reputation in the 1980s as a ‘no-go’ zone. People still tell stories of drive-by shootings and colourful characters who met a sudden end.

Today the area isn’t so much famed for crime, but rather bearing the brunt of austerity, with hundreds of kids living in poverty, dependent on foodbanks, and an average life expectancy for a man ten years less than the national average. The majority of residents voted to leave the EU, and in the 2019 general election, the ward overwhelmingly voted Conservative.

In 2009, the far right targeted the area.  The English Defence League marched into the predominantly white working-class estate, hoping to imprint a mark of racism and hate. Yet in last week’s election, a ward which was identified by its CLP as being ‘vulnerable’, ended up as the ‘safest’ ward in the borough, mopping up 53.6% of the overall vote.

Hollington bucked the national trend which saw Labour lose 326 seats, and the local, which resulted in Hastings Labour haemorrhaging five seats, three of which were predominantly working-class wards. So, what were the crucial aspects which allowed Hollington to transgress the national trend, despite the candidate (me) being a ‘Corbynista’, in an area with a recent voting history of backing the right, and no clear national Labour identity or policies?

Grassroots community-based campaigns were the first key winning component. By door knocking and talking to ward members, we managed to identify five pledges which were directly relevant and emotionally meaningful to residents.

The first was related to youth activities. Most in the area are acutely aware of kids being drawn into drug-running for county-line dealers, that is large drug dealers based in London who, by use of violence and coercion, create networks into surrounding counties, preying on the vulnerable, and often using children on scooters as a delivery service. Vandalism is common, cars are ‘keyed’ by bored children with nothing to do, vulnerable residents are often targeted with things thrown at their front doors. Local residents are acutely aware that a once thriving youth centre, which is now generally closed due to Tory austerity cuts, has left local youth to conspicuously hang around on the streets.

The main housing estate was built with playgrounds on every block, pocket parks designed to be visible from overlooking homes. The estate is now run by various housing associations who are loath to pay for new play equipment and maintenance, instead preferring to remove swings and slides, then eventually gut playgrounds and board them up. Residents across the board are crying out for play equipment and youth activities. It’s a heart-breaking and emotive story clearly exhibited by groups of kids loitering with nothing to do. The obvious campaign for Hollington ‘Team Labour’ was to pledge youth activities and to re-open the community centre. This message was communicated via a leaflet which went out across the ward, and 30 second videos and Memes which were shared on community Facebook pages.

The other ward-specific campaign pledges included tackling fly-tipping and litter, lobbying housing associations for improved repairs, a campaign for home adaptations, improved accessibility infrastructure for the elderly and disabled, plus support for physical and mental health post-Covid. Bearing in mind the current national image of the Labour Party, we emphasized  at every opportunity “Labour team”, realizing that people obviously like to see, and feel more confident in, representatives who are a united and functional team. Social media featured the ward candidates together, and “Labour team” appeared on the front of our leaflet.

Due to the pandemic, the local election was an anomaly with many veteran Labour members saying they’d experienced nothing like it before. We were not allowed to canvass face to face until 12th April, and the royal death, and then the funeral, took up further scarce days. Even when canvass restrictions were lifted, it was hard to get even the minimum one canvasser to come out with you as many of the die-hard stalwart members are now elderly and shielding from the pandemic.

Much of the younger energised activist base which sprung up during the ‘Corbyn era’ fell away when the whip was suspended from Jeremy, and the Parliamentary Labour group abstained on things like torture and the spy cops bill. The Covid vaccine bounce meant that Tories unexpectedly grabbed Labour seats without even setting foot in the wards, with many voters repeating the Tory propaganda spin readily peddled by the majority of our mainstream media outlets.

Although most election coverage depicted Labour as completely lost in the wilderness, the detailed picture actually shows a different story. Consider Worthing, which, with grassroots campaigning, went from zero to five county seats in one election, also snatching another 5 seats at borough level. And of course, Labour stayed strong in Wales and improved in Scotland. Metro Mayors did well, with the common campaign theme of devolved powers from Westminster.

It is now not enough to rely on people voting Labour because they have always done so. That tactic is just about sticking in the middle-class Labour voting areas, but in the working-class wards, that can no longer be assumed. Labour candidates must now work hard and smart. They need to be completely embedded in the community, they must understand needs and have an activist approach to solving problems.

Although Hastings Labour took a battering last week, it still stands, and is now the only remaining Labour council in the Southeast. As the Green Party now dabble in coalitions with Tories, they enter their own existential political identity crisis and may well veer off to the right. Labour must now be brave and completely own the left and present inspiring policies.

Hollington residents were eager to hear about what the council is doing to tackle climate change, and about a Green New Deal approach which would see their homes prioritized for retro-fitting and green engineering jobs in the area. Tackling climate change can only be effectively achieved via social change, a massive overhaul of the current system, holding corporations to account, a redistribution of resources, profits ploughed into people and planet, rather than the pockets of a few wealthy share-holders.

Some of the 2019 Labour manifesto policies – such as free broadband for all – were rubbished at the time, but within less than a year, it became patently obvious how useful and smart such policies would have been. Labour needs to revisit the Green Industrial Revolution pledges, and not be afraid of multi-billion-pound budgets. More than ever, we must push for social justice, promise to represent workers and clearly communicate how. We need to effectively highlight the ongoing impacts of Tory austerity with real life stories and examples, and moreover, we need to become more of a team.

Maya Evans has been an international peace activist for the last ten years, visiting Kabul and working with youth activists. In 2005 she was the first person to be criminalised under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act for a peaceful protest which remembered the Iraq war dead by reading aloud the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians who had been killed in the ongoing conflict. Maya is now the Hastings Borough Council Cabinet lead member for Natural Environment, Leisure and Climate Change Strategy.

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