Where were you at 10pm on Thursday 8 June, 2017?
I’d just parked my car after knocking doors until the last of the daylight faded. My partner and I were jogging to the town hall where the local count was to be held while manically refreshing Twitter. We wouldn’t get in front of a TV in time, and were on tenterhooks waiting for the exit poll: a national survey released just after the polls close…. that almost always calls the result right.
We were just outside the doors of the town hall when I got the alert. “Hung Parliament. Conservatives largest party.”
This is how Campaign Together, a political startup contributed to that upset.
I could barely believe it. For weeks – months even – pundits and politicians had been predicting over 100 seats moving hands from Labour to Conservatives. Radio shows were debating “the death of the left” whilst women like Brenda from Bristol cried “not another one!” at the news of yet another public poll.
Despite the polls and the public commentary, I’d spent every spare hour over the past 6 weeks in conference calls, phoning volunteers and knocking doors trying to push back against the 100+ Tory majority the polls predicted.
We managed to turnout over 2000 people to join us to hold back the tide of the Tories. But losing their majority? Only one, widely ridiculed poll had predicted this.
We achieved more than we ever imagined when we set out, motivated by the terror of what 5 years of this new, deeply reactionary conservatism would do to our society.
The story of the 2017 UK election was one of ordinary people getting active and snatching an era-defining victory from an emboldened neoliberal elite, ready to take away from us everything they could away with.
When the election was called, progressive organisers had already done a lot of the required thinking for what we were about to build. We’d devoured Big Organising, a book written by leaders from the Bernie Sanders campaign the previous winter, and were excited to see if we could use it here to fight back against this tidal wave that seemed to be heading for us.
We believed there was a group out there, horrified by the prospect of 5 more years of Tory government, but that weren’t die-hard party members or even regular voters.
Make change simple
We were going to capture people who wouldn’t otherwise get stuck in. By making it as easy as possible for anyone who wanted to fight back to get out and do meaningful work in the election,
The idea was simple.
We would invite people to a meetup in their closest target seat. Each meeting would be hosted by someone who’d knocked doors in elections a few times before, then heading as a group over to a canvass session run by the party best placed to dislodge the Conservatives.
When I organised the first one of these in Oxford West, people quickly realised it wasn’t as daunting as they’d thought, and promptly offered to host more meetups themselves to welcome newcomers.
Knowledge is power
How did we get people to this point? We commissioned a super-focused video explaining how a handful of votes had handed the Tories their majority in 2015. That knocking on doors was proven as the most effective way to flip the result. We scrambled together enough funding to promote the video, which asked people to sign up to get started. This brought over 1000 people into the fold. Our job was now to guide these passionate people to their first section.
Build a community
We had to build the feeling of a community of like-minded people right from the start. It began by inviting people to join a conference call that explained the strategy, debunked the scary myths about going door to door, and answered people’s questions, before volunteers matched everyone up with a target seat, and suggested which session they could go along to. Modelling the user journey from what we knew of the Bernie campaign, we then encouraged people to sign up for Slack where they could be in regular touch with others working in their area to the same goal.
Pick up the phone and knock on doors
Of course, behind the scenes myself, the other founders and everyone we could think of were texting, calling and messaging everyone we knew near the target seats, looking for people to host the first meetups. We also looked for people to join our phonebank, who started calling through our signups every night encouraging people to go along to their nearest session.
These early sessions we hosted in places like Oxford and Bristol more than doubled the number of people knocking doors for the opposition parties. The candidates and campaign managers noticed very quickly and warmed up to tell us well in advance when the next sessions were, so we could keep adding more and more meetups to invite our sign ups too.
Use smart tech to scale
A couple of weeks in, our staff were telling us the journey we’d built wasn’t making full use of our people. They said people weren’t engaging with Slack because it was yet another app people were reluctant to spend time learning to use. That’s when we decided to pivot to using WhatsApp groups.
This worked brilliantly – we simply emailed our list inviting them to join their nearest WhatsApp group, people quickly added their friends who also wanted to keep in touch, and people started organising their own sessions independently. Once someone had gone canvassing a few times, they felt comfortable enough to simply turn up at the next party-organised session, inviting newbies in the group to join them. People shared photos of them and their kids out with clipboards, told each other how good the vibes on the doorstep felt, which kept bringing more people out to help as people saw the polls narrow.
Because of how well the project scaled to people’s social ties, we don’t know for sure how many people turned up thanks to our work. But we know at least 2000 people turned up to our activities, believed to be 20% as much as Momentum managed to turn out. Not bad for a scrappy start-up!
People show up for the big and brave
After the election, we surveyed volunteers to find out what their previous political involvement was. A majority said they’d never canvassed before, and we were inundated with comments about how easy we’d made it to show up and do something positive. The model also proved great for mobilising women to show up, something organised parties still struggle with.
In the end, we worked out that areas where we turned out lots of volunteers correlated with the size of majority for the progressive candidate. In areas where we were most active, such as Bristol East, saw huge swings away from the Conservatives.
We started out motivated by the fear of what a Tory supermajority would mean for our lives, our communities, and the world. Now, we want to use this model to make sure, when the next election comes, we bring this period of Conservative government to an end. We need 10,000 volunteers working across 50 constituencies to make this happen.
Labour and the Tories have been stuck in stalemate for over a year. Despite the euphoria of 2017, we can’t be complacent.
We can’t leave it all to the Labour party to ensure a new government.
Every seat is going to matter, and we need to be helping out the opposition most likely to beat the Conservatives, whether that’s Labour, SNP, Lib Dem, Green or Plaid. Every one of those seats will get us closer to the world we want.
From ceaseless news of climate breakdown, to the housing crisis, to Windrush and rising racism, to hard Brexit, everyone has their own reasons for knowing the current government are a disaster. By coming together for our 21st approach to politics, we are creating the change we need.
Sam Coates is a director of Campaign Together, a group set up during the snap 2017 election to mobilise ordinary people against a Conservative super-majority. He’s been involved in election campaigns since 2007 and currently works for a democratic reform campaign.