The Sound of the Suburbs

Mike Phipps reviews Suburban Socialism (Or Barbarism), by Oly Durose, published by Repeater

In the 2019 general election, Labour candidate Oly Durose lost by over 25,000 votes in the safe Conservative seat of Brentwood & Ongar in Essex. Learning from his loss, his book aims to navigate “the suburban challenges to socialism’s electoral realisation, and proposes a political and strategic transformation required to win.”

For Durose, socialism is more than just an electoral project: it is a collective mode of production and the effort to achieve it comes from below. So “if socialism is contingent on the way in which people struggle for it, this means that socialist futures are contingent on the particular sites and settings in which these struggles are waged.” That includes the suburbs.

Two reasons stand out: first, largely white, middle-class suburbia should not be beyond a socialist campaign’s reach. Second, this is a caricature: the multiracial working class are suburbanites too. And this is not just a UK issue: Durose draws on his experience as a campaign worker for Bernie Sanders in Nevada. But his crucial point is: “We will not win inside the electoral arena unless we revolutionise our strategy outside of it.”

A lot of people live in suburbs:  80% of the British population say they do. A closer look at this terrain also helps avoid culturally and geographically reductive notions of class identity, which are often based on crude and inaccurate generalisations.

It was once a universally acknowledged truth that only New Labour policies could win over the suburbs. But Labour’s result in Tory stronghold Brentwood & Ongar in 2017 under Corbyn was only 2% less than under Blair in 1997, and across the county of Essex, Labour actually got a higher share of the vote in 2017. The same is true of Merseyside’s suburbs.

The suburbs are changing as well. Take Chingford and Woodford Green, another Essex constituency on the outskirts of London.  In 2010, the incumbent MP Iain Duncan Smith had a majority of 13,000. By 2019, a bad election for Labour, it was down to less than thirteen hundred. The benefit cap, forcing many working families out of boroughs closer to London, is just one of the drivers of this displacement.

Through the myths of suburban aspiration, Durose drills down into the reality: deteriorating services due to funding cuts. Lamenting the state of Essex’s roads, he notes that, “Between 2010 and 2019, Harlow Council’s budget was slashed by £5 million. That’s the equivalent of £156 per household, or 93,681 filled potholes.”

Public transport, healthcare and education have also been badly hit by austerity cuts. Even the local fire station has lost one of its two engines. Durose is correct that suburban Labour constituency parties must orient to the workers in these services, even if they are not local residents. He is also right to note that these cuts were not primarily about saving money to secure economic stability, but about redistributing wealth from poor to rich and from public to private sector. Britain’s richest thousand individuals saw their wealth increase by £138 billion in real terms between 2009 and 2013.

The big question facing Labour, even in seemingly unwinnable constituencies, is how to give local people real ownership of the manifesto policies on which a candidate runs, rather than just engaging in a limited consultation exercise. The launch in 2018 of Labour’s Community Organising Units was meant to flesh out this approach, but in practice it was applied in only a handful of seats. Labour performed above average in these, but that did not stop the new leadership closing down the project in 2021.

Durose makes a strong case for a specific orientation to the suburbs – a Suburban Care Service, Socialised Suburban Housing, Green Suburbs: a suburban socialism, where “Locally owned banks, cafés, canteens, cinemas, libraries, community centres, and educational and cultural institutions represent a vision of the suburb as a self-sustaining economy that isn’t so heavily dependent on metropolitan centres for its commerce and character.”

It’s an interesting view – and one that, in the absence of a national Labour government, possibly for quite some time, underlines the necessity of grassroots organisation in all the diverse localities where socialists find themselves.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts