With a radical suburban strategy, Labour can win everywhere

By Oly Durose

And is this ‘wall’ in the room with you now?

Two years on from Labour’s electoral rout, and tired debates about the Party’s geographical path to power have well and truly hit the wall. Two walls, to be exact. One – the Red Wall – is to be rebuilt, by winning back Labour seats in the North, the Midlands and South Wales. Another – the Blue Wall – is to be smashed, by capitalising on the apparent erosion of traditionally reliable Tory support in the southeast.

In both cases, swathes of the political commentariat are experiencing ‘wallucinations’. I’m certainly not the first to suggest that people are seeing walls that aren’t there. Questioning the existence of the Red Wall, David Edgerton explains why it is a grave mistake to assume a politically volatile region was a monolithic Labour fiefdom until Jeremy Corbyn came along.

Instead of reflecting on this critique, analysts have indulged further in their passion for masonry. It’s important to understand that the ‘Blue Wall’ is more than just a term for safe Tory seats in the southeast. After all, it’s unclear where we go from here. Surely, we need to know why – and in which seats ­– the Tories are losing support. That’s why, for many, the term refers to a coalition of relatively affluent Remainers who have lost faith in the Conservative Party. But herein lies the problem: if we exclude seats that don’t match this description, then the Blue Wall collapses long before anybody has a chance of smashing it.

Those who overlook these caveats do not do so in error, but to protect the fragile ideological concoction they’ve created. Neither the Red nor Blue Wall describe the existing state of play. They are signifiers for battlefields the centre-ground wants to occupy, foreclosing the possibility of transformative change.  

When strategists appeal to Labour’s ‘traditional’ voter-base in the Red Wall, they know what they’re doing. By reducing the working-class to white social conservatism, advocates of a reactionary party platform now have a much more palatable justification: it’s what ‘ordinary’ working people want.

Likewise, optimism that the Blue Wall is collapsing has been hoarded by those who want to paint it a shade of beige centrism instead. I’m thinking of those who, for example, celebrated Lib Dem success in Chesham & Amersham as a victory for cross-party cooperation, more specifically between a former minister in the austerity-driven coalition government and a leader driven by a desire to marginalise the Labour left.

In fact, the ‘Blue Wall’ might be the headquarters for a potentially nationwide strategy. After the Lib Dems took their second Tory scalp in North Shropshire, Starmer insisted that yet another double-digit reduction in Labour’s vote share was all part of the plan. Falling short of endorsing a Progressive Alliance, Starmer hinted he would not bankroll campaigns in seats – like Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire – that Labour stood little chance of winning.

I know this feeling of resignation well. In the 2019 General Election, I stood as the Labour candidate in Brentwood & Ongar. An affluent commuter hub in Essex sitting just outside the M25, my hometown had been a safe Conservative seat ever since its creation in 1974. To say we were the underdog is an understatement. We were a bunch of left-wing nutjobs in Tory suburbia.

Nobody expected us to win. They were right: we didn’t. The Tories pipped us at the post by a slim 29,065-vote margin. Resignation did not come in the form of idleness; a small but incredibly dedicated team of activists spent hours in the pouring rain knocking on doors in the face of widespread hostility. Instead, and in part cultivated by an absence of financial support from the Party, our resignation was psychological. We did our best, but none of us seriously believedwe would win. In other words, we had all but resigned ourselves to certain defeat.

Starmer’s snub of ‘unwinnable’ seats, then, is nothing new. Labour has always made strategic decisions about where to expend its limited resources. What is new is the ideological context in which these strategic decisions are being made. Against the backdrop of a libidinal death-drive to bland managerialism, we might question the sincerity of Starmer’s seemingly care-free reaction to two Lib Dem victories. After all, aren’t disillusioned Tories meant to be voting for New-New-Labour instead? But, on reflection, this reaction makes perfect sense. That’s because, unlike in 2019, Labour have carved out an ideological terrain on which Labour and Lib Dems can happily co-operate; surrendering seats to the Lib Dems and surrendering the Labour Party’s soulare one and the same.

But what if there was a way of winning the unwinnable? And, more importantly, what if there was a victory worth fighting for? In Suburban Socialism (Or Barbarism), I seek to turn certain defeat into radical victory by forging a new path to power: through the suburbs. If Labour are serious about winning right across the country, then why not start with the place in which eighty percent of the British public live? There is no Red or Blue Wall. There are no winnables and unwinnables. Instead, there is a vast and complex suburban terrain, underneath which lies a coalition for radical change.

As an ideological epicentre of atomised living, the suburbs do not exactly jump out as centres of leftist insurgency. Detached housing down quiet cul-de-sacs. Pristine lawns at the foot of leafy walkways. Middle class managers reversing their Ford Mondeos. If anything, this image would suggest I’m about to launch into exactly the kind of ideological triangulation that Starmer would embrace. However, those who treat the suburban terrain as a centrist battlefield are walking into a conceptual cul-de-sac. That’s because the suburbs are far more layered than this image would lead us to believe.

As I explain, the suburbs are increasingly home to a multi-racial working classwho have been displaced from urban centres. And even where the stereotype of the white, middle-class suburbanite rings true, it’s wrong to assume that they are all beyond the reach of a radical campaign. Those who make such a submissive supposition neglect to understand the varied living and working conditions disguised by the vague, ‘middle-class’ label. And they overlook the possibility of common bonds across blurred class boundaries. Bonds that are shaped in response to the realities of suburban capitalism – monotonous work, unaffordable housing, debt, broken systems of care, domesticated surveillance, racial inequality, and the destruction of green space ­­– hidden behind the façade of the white picket fence.

The suburbanisation of these social, housing and climate crises will not be tempered by triangulation. The only path to a more collectively fulfilling future in the outskirts is one that leads to suburban socialism. One that replaces crude geographical narratives with a willingness to recognise the complexity of the suburban terrain. One that mobilises the suburban working class while bringing other ‘unlikely’ suburbanites into the frame. I know that, for some, socialism in the suburbs is – and will always be – a naïve pipedream. But maybe, if we stopped wallowing in our own futility, then suburban socialism might be closer than we think.

Oly Durose is a socialist activist, parliamentary researcher and writer. In the 2019 UK General Election, he stood as the Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate for Brentwood & Ongar. In February 2020, he was a Caucus Site Leader for the Bernie Sanders Campaign in Nevada. His book, Suburban Socialism (Repeater Books, 2022) makes the case for socialism in the suburbs, unveils the challenges of its electoral realisation and proposes a strategic revolution required to win. It is published this week.

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