Impact Equality

UK Voters Rode the Bernie Sanders Wave of Electoral Disruption and Won

The Labour Party accomplished what Democrats in the US have not.

by Nick Chedli Carter
Jun 13 2017, 7:20pm

Whether it's finance, jobs or electoral politics, disruption is the name of the game and those who don't get smart quick will be left out in the cold. This reality for politics was confirmed last week when the Labour Party in the UK delivered nothing short of an electoral upset, shattering Prime Minister Theresa May's plans for a quick and easy election to solidify the Conservative Party's power. Led by the oft-criticized and low-profile Jeremy Corbyn, Labour gave a defiant middle finger to conventional political thinking and demonstrated that a Bernie Sanders-esque people-first campaign can succeed in mainstream UK politics. Many factors came together to solidify the win, ranging from backlash to the sitting Prime Minister's perceived coziness with US President Donald Trump to general displeasure about Brexit. But one of the most important factors to inform future elections was Labour's execution of game-changing, grassroots organizing tactics led by the group Momentum.

After a bit of a rocky start, the Labour Party saw the writing on the wall that traditional top-down electoral politics is no longer effective. Labour got its shit together and incorporated a true bottom-up, grassroots organization like Momentum into their ranks that empowers the electorate, and utilized innovative tactics largely incubated in the US during Senator Bernie Sanders' insurgent presidential primary campaign.

But there are also stark realities about the UK electoral process, namely checks on the influence of money and special interest in politics that made it possible for a real grassroots candidate to be successful. Electoral politics in the US is a billion dollar industry, and the 2010 SCOTUS ruling on Citizens United certainly didn't help an already desperate situation.

The Saturday after the election, I hopped on a video conference call with my former Bernie 2016 colleague Erika Uyterhoeven who was on the ground in the UK working closely with Momentum to implement a grassroots team model she helped develop in the US. Erika gave her insider's perspective on what went down, and shared some best practices for the future of successful electoral organizing.

VICE Impact: What really stands out for you as the big picture factors that played into this massive upset?

Erika Uyterhoeven : We were really good at mobilizing and getting people involved, but in a very meaningful way. A lot of the organizing was grassroots and people-power to the core yet with a very solid strategy, a really solid ground-game, and making it easy for new people to join the movement. The Labour Party in the UK hadn't really done a whole lot of training, and for a lot of people it's kind of inaccessible. Ultimately, we trained over 3,000 people. It made politics very accessible and very tangible.

A lot of people, like with Bernie, were ready to go. But you have to provide that opportunity, that empowerment in a way, and you can do that through events like these trainings.

How does Momentum operate and what's it's relationship with the Labour Party?

Everyone who's a Momentum member is also a Labour Party member. So we're very much about working within the Labour Party, and we're very explicit about that. With the ground game, all the canvassing and the targeting was done by Labour. But then our digital team was able to reach something like a quarter of the UK population through social media.

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There were some growing pains at first between Momentum and Labour. Is that relationship in a good place now?

It's kind of got parallels to the Bernie part of the Democratic Party, in a way. There's certainly differences and all that, but in a sense, at the end of the day we want to change the party into the party that it was — the same way that the Democratic Party is very democratic, the Labour Party reflecting labour values.

Do you see lessons to be learned for, say, the DNC in the United States?

One thing that was very clear with Corbyn's campaign was that he had the support of the people, which was shown through the leadership election results, but he was being opposed by insiders. That's sort of that role the DNC plays with the Democratic Party base -- the insiders versus the base.

The DNC needs to listen to the base because these are the people who are knocking on your doors, these are the people doing phone-banking, these are the people who are going to get you elected. And the UK election was an exercise to make sure all that happened.

Given the way that campaigns are financed in the United States, do you think that it's going to be possible for a real grassroots candidate to win?

The campaign finance laws help us in the UK because it prevents billionaires from buying all these TV ads and all that. At the same time, it was kind of incredible how much everyone at Momentum did with so little money. I think the social media team spent a few thousand pounds to reach one-fourth of the UK population. That's insane. It's all through all this volunteer energy, and people bringing their skills to the table and doing everything they can to make it happen.

Bernie's campaign was successful thanks to that as well. It's definitely a hurdle in the US to have these campaign finance laws, but at the same time, even though the campaign finances laws are different in Europe, there's clearly an influence of money in politics. It might not be as blatant, but it's definitely there. And you see that with the media narrative, and how Corbyn has been presented. There's a clear, follow-the-money issue in politics globally.

There's a part of me that's worried. I guess my concern is the spreading of the commercialization of politics like we have in the United States. It's a big, big business.

It's almost like unless you have that money people don't think you'll go anywhere. Momentum literally started from nothing, and over these two years it's grown to this 24,000 member base, and these are due-paying members. It's entirely financed by small donations and the membership dues. And we're able to accomplish so much.

In the US, there's sort of this expectation that something like that can't happen, and I just hope that Momentum as an organization could possibly provide that inspiration. Bernie provided that as well because of the fact that his campaign was so successful and completely built on small donations.

Distributed organizing is a big buzz word around forward thinking political circles. But you described more of a grassroots organizing model à la Marshall Ganz. What's the difference?

Distributed organizing focuses too much on tech and not enough on developing leadership, power in the community, or deep relationships between grassroots team members. I see distributed organizing as one of the structural problems with progressive grassroots organizing in the US, where there is a free for all by various large organizations to send tons of texts, throw one barnstorm in an area, and coordinate on slack but don't spend enough resources on developing teams and leaders who are empowered to make a sustained impact in their community

If you were calling the shots and revamping both, what criteria would you put in place to be most successful for Labour in Britain and for the Democrats in the US?

Bernie wasn't ever a Democrat but he ran for the Democratic Party, and despite that Bernie has worked with Democrats for decades. It's a little bit of working together and getting people unified behind it. For example, in the UK for the past few decades the left has been very factional and very disparate. The thing that has helped Momentum a lot is that Corbyn brought a lot of people from across the spectrum together behind a very cohesive strategy. Bringing all those people together is the challenge facing both Democrats and progressive activists in the US.

This is how we're going to reform the party -- not as a free-for-all but a unified vision. The ability to do that defines whether we do well in 2018 or not.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity