No seat is unwinnable: how Labour activists set out to reclaim Tory strongholds and defy predictions

An article from Open Democracy by Nick Mahony.
In North London’s Chipping Barnet, pop-up alliances and an emerging ecology of democratic campaigning came together to renew participatory politics.

Labour Party activists in Chipping Barnet. Credit: Nick Mahony.The suburban North London constituency of Chipping Barnet has been a safe, relatively quiet, ‘true-blue’ Tory seat for generations. That was until June 8 2017, when Theresa Villiers’ 2015 majority of over 7,500 votes was slashed to just 353.

The Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto and the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn were important catalysts for Labour’s unexpected success in the general election, and, in Chipping Barnet,  they spurred on a group of local party members looking to write their own future, rather than follow a script.
The campaign begins?

Soon after the snap election was called in May 2017, tensions surfaced between two groups of Labour party activists in Chipping Barnet over the issue of how to plan for the election campaign ahead.

To a group of more established members, Chipping Barnet was ‘unwinnable’, so it followed that the local campaign should largely consist of one round of direct mail to voters in target wards and a batch of get-out-the-vote leaflets dispatched to pre-identified supporters. At regional level, party officials had decided that Chipping Barnet was not a ‘marginal’ seat, leading to Chipping Barnet being officially ‘twinned’ with the adjacent constituency of Enfield North and a strategy of directing members to campaign for Labour MP Joan Ryan, instead of their own candidate Emma Whysall.

A second group of activists, some of whom were already aligned with Momentum, had a different take. They wanted to approach the election as an opportunity to get as many local members as possible out on the streets campaigning.

At the heart of this emerging alternative strategy was the idea of involving the newly enlarged membership in a process of large-scale face-to-face engagement with the local public.

At the heart of this emerging alternative strategy was the idea of building the base and involving the newly enlarged membership of the party in a process of large-scale face-to-face engagement with the local public. As well as believing that such an approach could give Labour a chance of winning the election locally, this group was convinced that such a process might also help the local Labour Party start to become more democratic, member-led and successful in the local area in the future.

Following this meeting, I was one of the handful of people who pressed local officials for an open campaign meeting  to which all members would be invited. We wanted to give all members the chance to take part in discussions about how Labour should campaign.

This meeting was subsequently organised and it quickly demonstrated that, beyond those already involved in Momentum and agitating for a more open approach, there was also a larger and even more mixed group of members in favour of a more energetic campaign locally, keen to discuss their own campaigning priorities and ideas for local action. Several members also enquired about whether a ‘progressive alliance’ strategy might be explored.
Social campaigning

Within a week of this meeting, weekend street-stalls were up and running. Over the coming weeks, there were more stalls, with one set up outside the main Further Education College in the area, to encourage voter registration and to persuade students to vote Labour. Similar activities were repeated outside local schools and the main hospital during weekday afternoons.

By this point the number of local members who were involved had significantly increased and planning and communications related to these activities had largely transitioned from an ad hoc email list to a Facebook page and a WhatsApp group. These platforms opened up campaigning to Labour Party members beyond the initial group and many more local members started to get involved.

As activity continued to increase, these social media tools enabled new ideas about the campaign’s coordination to be collectively discussed. At the same time, activists were also pressing local officials to help publicise these member-led activities through the normal local party channels. This eventually happened, though members were still directed to campaign in Enfield North.

Many people continued to raise the idea of some kind of Progressive Alliance but it remained difficult to make inroads with local officials.

Undeterred, local members instead pressed the local party for more resources. Election-related material had almost run out and the group were able to negotiate 15,000 new constituency-specific leaflets. The minute these were delivered, they were immediately distributed and used to instigate conversation out on the streets, right across Chipping Barnet.

There was some canvassing happening led by local party officials, but this was dwarfed by the scale and excitement generated by the other activities that were rapidly emerging on a more ad hoc basis.

As members’ contact with the public increased, so did the collective confidence of those driving these activities and the strength of members’ conviction about the value and impact of what was happening.

The process of campaigning began to breed a broad alliance of progressive campaigners drawn from within the ranks of the newly enlarged local Labour Party. Those getting involved included: local anti-cuts activists, a group of women from Totteridge and Whetstone (the most affluent part of the constituency and indeed one of the most affluent parts of the country), local trades unionists, students, young parents concerned about the erosion of nursery, primary and secondary level education, nurses, doctors, teachers and older people alarmed by the prospect of further social care reform, as well as quite a few people who had re-joined the Labour Party in recent months.
Honk for Labour

Fuelled almost entirely by the kind of euphoric hope that perhaps only emerges from an intense collective experience like this, the campaign in Chipping Barnet entered its final phase.

Small-scale, convivial and highly agile campaigning teams surfaced all around the constituency, almost spontaneously. Leafleting was taking place at every station and there were people moving around seamlessly, to cover gaps, apparently with only very minimal coordination.

By now an unpredictable mixture of smiles, snatched chats, deep and very lengthy conversations and heated but largely good-tempered exchanges were taking place with members of the public, on a great number of streets, on a near industrial scale.

What happened was the rapid development of a collectively invented social process of alliance building.

The campaign climaxed with an unplanned gathering of about 20 red-eyed Labour activists outside the party office. Holding aloft an enormous Labour banner, singing the Red Flag and inviting passing traffic to ‘honk for Labour’, this normally anonymous main road was temporarily transformed into a spectacle of camaraderie.
What just happened?

Momentum. Funk Dooby/Flickr. Some rights reserved.What happened amongst local Labour Party members in Chipping Barnet was the rapid development of a collectively invented social process of alliance building. This ‘pop-up’ alliance of members developed its campaign against the grain of the official local campaign. But this was not grass-roots activism, not least because it was geared to an existing election timetable, aimed at maximising the vote for our local Labour candidate Emma Whysall and therefore all about persuading as many people as possible to play their part in our current form of representative democracy.

But the campaign only took off when members started to organise it for themselves and connect what they were doing to what was going on nationally with the new Labour Party manifesto and the campaign led by Jeremy Corbyn. Most importantly of all perhaps, this local campaign was set up from the start as an endeavour that would be as participatory, directly democratic, inclusive and open as possible. This meant supporting processes of collective discussion, collaborative planning, group creativity and online coordination.

The policy platform offered people hope for more equitable, fulfilling and sustainable forms of social relations.

In Chipping Barnet this approach worked, in other words, because of the desire people had to collectively invent the future, rather than do exactly what was expected of them. The Labour Party manifesto was a catalyst for this. The manifesto and the enthusiasm there was for collective forms of participatory action went hand in hand – the policy platform offered people hope for more equitable, fulfilling and sustainable forms of social relations – and this included new and more directly democratic ways of doing politics too.

Labour didn’t win the election in Chipping Barnet – the Tories won by 353 votes. And of course it wasn’t just our self-organised campaigning that so dramatically reduced the Conservative majority – there were many other factors. As well as Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the new party manifesto, these factors included: the years of neglect meted out to Barnet residents by its council and its national government and the years of door knocking, data collection and relationship building undertaken by local Labour councillors and other party activists.

The people we spoke to on the street during the campaign told us time and time again about the damage that cuts in public services were inflicting locally. In the years leading up to this election, Barnet Alliance for Public Services and other activists had already done great work to galvanise public resistance to these ‘reforms’, through the petitions, marches, demonstrations and other activities they had organised.
What next?

Post-election, the number of people who believe Labour can win here has massively increased. The number of people that are enthusiastic about the more democratic, socialised and participatory approaches to local campaigning has definitely grown as well.

But what has been achieved here goes further than this., There are now many more people getting involved in progressive politics here, not just to get Labour into government and to reclaim the state but also to change their whole way of life. They are increasingly tired of the hierarchies and inequalities they live with and see around them; the ways that their workplaces and their country’s financial system are governed; how the housing system and their neighbourhoods are run; they want to protect and improve their local environment and demand a future that is sustainable; they want better and more democratically run education, health, social care and food systems.

Long before the 2017 general election a growing number of small-scale initiatives had been experimenting with different forms of socialisation and democratisation up and down the country – in the realms of housing, energy, the arts, media, technology, food, the workplace and many other spheres. Now, after an election that has seen large numbers of people campaigning in more open, socialised, participatory and democratic ways, there is likely to be a much greater expectation for the Labour Party to be democratised too.

But such democratisation, if it happens, can’t just come from the top-down. People expect to be involved in the democratisation of democracy. It will require new mediating institutions. Pre-existing democratisation projects need to be connected up with emerging alliances. These need to be scaled up and rolled out into new contexts.

People expect to be involved in the democratisation of democracy.

In the context of Chipping Barnet, there were no pre-existing spaces to negotiate between ‘new’ and more established campaigners; there was insufficient time for the democratic selection of our candidate; and the infrastructure needed for cooperation between members developed as we went along.

Nationally we see something developing that is more like an emerging ecology of approaches to progressive and radically democratic politics, than a top-down plan. There is no one ‘killer app’ for democratic reform or new universal progressive campaigning technique, nor should there be. Approaches to democratisation are evolving out of disparate traditions and in diverse contexts, with convergences and divergences between different newer and more long-standing sets of activities.
Inventing the future?

Back in Chipping Barnet I am not the only one still recovering from the exhilaration of our campaign. Many of us briefly experienced forms of social relations that we’d never before been part of, at least in Chipping Barnet.

There will be aspects of what’s been described here that will resonate with what’s happened in other settings. The task now is to continue to open out, elaborate and extend these self-managed social processes to ever-greater numbers of people with the aim of collectively renovating the public and socialising whole ways of life. Only then, by continuing to collectively invent forms of participatory politics; deepening and extending alliances to broaden the base of support; and securing victory for a Labour-led government, will we be able to create the progressive public movement needed to realise more equal, sustainable and democratic futures.

Team Momentum: Barnet Super Saturday #JezWeKhan


On Saturday 12 March, Barnet Labour Party are holding Sadiq Super Saturday and would love for you to be involved. This is a day of campaigning in the local area to try and encourage support for Sadiq on in the London Mayoral election. To support Jeremy, and in order to ensure we have a Labour Mayor in London, it’s essential that we inspire support all across the city – and what could be better than doing that whilst making friends with other like-minded people. Don’t worry if it’s your first time, as there will be experienced canvassers there to help.

Volunteers will be meeting from 2 pm, at Finchley & Golders Green Labour Office, 38 Church Lane, Barnet, London N2 8DT, and the event is scheduled to end by 4 pm


#‎Unisongate‬: “Clear as mud or perhaps not?”

‪#‎Unisongate‬: “Clear as mud or perhaps not?”

Some of you may have seen an earlier posting today, if not here is the link to it

Today NEC reps had a big meeting at Unison HQ and I know some of the NEC reps really wanted to talk about the Private Eye article.

Interestingly there have been three other articles about #UnisonGate see photo below.

I am digressing, I was hoping that common sense would prevail and our NEC reps be allowed to ask questions and seek clarification about the article.

So what happened?

I have seen a short report online here…/returning-to-subject.… from one of our NEC London region reps.

I was very surprised to read that NEC reps were told that Unison were still waiting for a report from ERS Returning Officer?

According to the Private Eye I read this morning and I quote:

“Meanwhile, the Eye asked the Electoral Reform Services (which ran the election) what had become of its investigation into the alleged “organised election abuse” arising out of the taped meeting. Complaints that union rules were breached were made to the election returning officer and scrutineer, Alex Lonie. A spokesman at ERS said complaints had been passed to Unison, which was also carrying out a disciplinary investigation.
As the emails disclose, Roger McKenzie, who is carrying out the investigation for Unison is a member of “Team Dave”. Unison is preparing a report for Mr Lonie, which would enable him to decide if the election was properly conducted. Unison would then in turn report his decision.”

I think Private Eye are clear they have been told by ERS that Unison have been handed the complaints.

If that is the case why were NEC reps being told that ERS are carrying out an investigation?

As someone who has made an internal complaint to Unison in December and have still to be interviewed and also made a complaint to ERS and chased up my complaint to ERS, I am very confused.

Is there two investigations or one?

If there are two who is conducting the investigation?

I have now written to the ERS Returning Officer named above seeking clarification as to who is doing what?

More later…………………………

John Burgess's photo.
John Burgess's photo.

‪#‎UnisonGate‬, ‪#‎EmailGate‬ is getting worse

‪#‎UnisonGate‬, ‪#‎EmailGate‬ is getting worse

Today I bought a copy of Private Eye and turned to page 38.
I refer to an article entitled “Flexible friends”

Online here…/Private-Eye-Flexible-friends-artic…

It starts with:
“Leaked emails reach the Eye providing more evidence that full time staff of Unison mobilised to get general-secretary Dave Prentis re-elected in December, making the union’s claim to be member led look increasingly questionable.”

It goes on to say:
“The emails were sent by assistant general secretary Cliff Williams in October and November. The bulk of the recipients were other Unison officials – a rough count shows 45 of 50 addresses are regional secretaries, head office staff and other union staff.”

I was also sent the emails from an anonymous source and can confirm that the most senior Unison paid officials were on the campaign mailing list.
The article then goes on to reveal:

“It may be in some cases circumstances you may be able to “circumvent” hostile branches by working with sympathetic employer contacts. I acknowledge that some colleagues may feel this is ethically inappropriate but it doesn’t breach campaign rules; it will, however, need to be done with caution.”

I find this appalling and wonder what other Unison reps and members feel when they read this? I can’t believe our union would do this, so I would hope NEC reps are given an explanation as to which employers were contacted and by whom? Are they the same employers who are attacking members and reps through cuts and privatisation?

Lastly I along with many others have been trying to elicit a response to my complaint from the Returning Officer from Electoral Reform Services, the article reveals just why I am many others have not had a response:

“Meanwhile, the Eye asked the Electoral Reform Services (which ran the election) what had become of its investigation into the alleged “organised election abuse” arising out of the taped meeting. Complaints that union rules were breached were made to the election returning officer and scrutineer, Alex Lonie. A spokesman at ERS said complaints had been passed to Unison, which was also carrying out a disciplinary investigation.”
As the emails disclose, Roger McKenzie, who is carrying out the investigation for Unison is a member of “Team Dave”. Unison is preparing a report for Mr Lonie, which would enable him to decide if the election was properly conducted.Unison would then in turn report his decision back to its members. Thus it appears “Team Dave” is effectively left to investigate itself.”

If I have understood the above correctly, ERS are not conducting any investigation into our complaints, I hope this is also discussed at the NEC meeting today.

If the emails are not genuine then I expect to hear that NEC reps who are at a meeting at Unison HQ today are briefed on Unison’s response.

However if the emails are genuine it is essential for the future of our union that all of the issues contained within the article are discussed at the meeting today.

A number of Unison reps have been calling for an independent investigation and over 800 have signed a petition…

It is important that this matter is fully investigated by someone from outside our union in order we can move on and mobilise our members for the fight against Austerity which is already decimating our lives our communities and our services.

More later

More on the background to #Unisongate click on this link here…/damning-evidence…

The audio tape can be heard here

Private Eye have written three other articles about #Unisongate here…/2995…/Private-Eye-3-articles-in-one

Lastly before forming a view, buy a copy of Private Eye read it and then decide what you think should happen next.

UNISON officials taint members election of new general secretary

Corrupt UNISON officials in the London Region who are employed by UNISON to work for us, UNISON members, have been caught on tape trying to subvert the election of a new General Secretary.

60 full time paid UNISON officials took part in a meeting in which ways to nobble the chances of the opposition, John Burgess, Heather Wakefield and Roger Bannister, were plotted.

Praise was given to these “officers” in promoting the chances of the incumbent, Dave Prentis, re-election.

if you listen to the tape it is evident the contempt these officials have for the Union and it’s membership – truly shocking.

If you feel that UNISON should be a democratic organisation answerable to its members and that corruption of this magnitude should be investigated by an independent inquiry   then please sign this petition:



This corruption has been reported by Private Eye and, most recently the Guardian






UNISON General Secretary Election – ballot papers to arrive today

John4GenSec FLYER (1)

Dear Member,

The Tories are intent on destroying our welfare state, our public services and our jobs,terms and conditions.

Like Jeremy Corbyn says:“It doesn’t have to be this way” – there is an alternative to austerity.

But it’s going to take a fight. UNISON needs to punch our weight. But all too often– on pensions, on pay and on cuts –we haven’t. This election is your chance to vote for change,for: Someone to truly stand up for members; A rank and file member facing the same problems as you; A workers’ leader on a worker’s wage.

Unlike other candidates I have a proven track record, as Branch Secretary of Barnet UNISON, of organising real resistance to Tory attacks,in Maggie Thatcher’s backyard: •Working inclusively with trade unions and community groups; building coordinated action with National Gallery and Bromley strikers on Osborne’s budget day and with Care UK strikers;

• Holding back full privatisation by a flagship Tory council for seven years and retaining national pay;

•Defending facility time – so union reps can support you at work;

•Winning the Living Wage for low paid members;

•Leading Teaching Assistants and Nursery Nurses to win amongst the best pay and conditions in schools; and

•The highest recruiting branch in our region this year.

We can’t continue with the same approach at the top in UNISON. I urge you to vote for real change.

Best wishes,

John Burgess


John4GenSec FLYER (1)shadowchancellor

John Burgess standing for general secretary of UNISON


John Burgess, Branch Secretary of Barnet UNISON LG will be standing for the position of UNISON General Secretary.

Barnet Trades Council collectively and unanimously endorse his candidacy.

John has long been a driving force and figurehead in our community campaigns.

He brings his knowledge, innovative and resourceful thinking, energy, drive and leadership to our community and is an inspiration to all who come into contact with him.

UNISON, under his stewardship, will become an inclusive, campaigning union that members sorely need.

John would stand against the Austerity-Lie, fight injustice and inequality with the burning passion that he has brought to our community campaigns and champion the rights of workers the precariat and the dispossessed.

Good Luck John we support you 100% 



John Burgess



Labour Leadership Election

Barnet Trades Union Council – Statement in regard to the Labour Leadership Election

At the Barnet Trades Union Council meeting held on the 13th of August it was unanimously agreed to endorse and support Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature for Leader of the Labour Party.

Jeremy has proved an avid supporter of numerous community and Trade Union campaigns in Barnet over the years, and we believe that as Labour Party Leader that he will continue to support community issues and workers’ rights.

Jeremy stands for true Labour values and is committed to improving the economic and social conditions of working people, including seeking improvements to the social services, public education, housing and health and the creation of a fairer society.

Jeremy is the only Labour Leadership candidate who is opposed to the Neo – Liberal dogma of austerity. Barnet Trades Council are proud to give Jeremy our support and urge all members of our community to do likewise.




Register to vote in the Labour Leadership Election

Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader

We now have just 24 hours left to recruit new members and supporters to vote in the leadership election.
I am asking you to approach 5 of your friends, family or co-workers, who share our values to join up before noon tomorrow (Wednesday).
It couldn’t be easier – please ask them to either:

Signing up in any of these categories will give you a vote, but must be done before noon on Wednesday.

Just forward on this email or share this link on social media:

Please only ask people to sign up if they support the aims and values of the Labour Party, and are not a supporter of any organisation opposed to it.

John Burgess for UNISON General Secretary

John Burgess for UNISON General Secretary

I have been fortunate enough to have held the post of Branch Secretary for Barnet UNISON for 13 years and during the last seven years we have been organising our fight against a mass outsourcing ideology which now calls itself a “Commissioning Council.”

The last seven years have provided me with a ‘coal face’ experience of organising a broad based community campaign with limited resources. Despite the odds we have managed to maintain a positive approach to these serious challenges. Our branch has learnt from other branches and embraced innovative ways to mobilise and publicise our numerous campaigns.

I know just how it feels when wave after wave of cuts and/or outsourcing land at the door of the branch office and members & reps look for a response.

I know from talking to UNISON branches across the UK just how hard it is to try and mobilise a workforce that feels powerless in the face of the ongoing austerity measures.

Since the general election our worst fears are starting to materialise. The recent Osborne budget has targeted public services for extinction and on top of that the government has submitted the Trade Union Reform Bill designed with one end – to finish off the trade union movement.

It is clear to me that the government still believes the trade unions are their final obstacle to ending public services.

We have a government committed to the destruction of our National Health Service and all our public services. This is also a government ruthlessly committed to dividing and ruling the working class by encouraging racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice. I believe that UNISON must stand against this Government, in support of public services and equality and against all forms of discrimination.

The odds may not seem good, and perhaps that is because our union has not yet woken up to the potential that exists amongst the rank and file activists within UNISON. But I genuinely believe we have great talent and experience within our union to organise a positive and coordinated successful response to the austerity agenda.

We know that austerity hits women hardest of all – as the Union with around a million women members, UNISON has to organise our members to hit back.

We are organising in a world which is very different from when UNISON first emerged and our union needs to change, and change quickly, if we are going to be able to defend our members and public services. One of things that needs to change quickly is to encourage branches to talk to each other and share experiences to become more effective.

I believe the experience of this year’s UNISON conferences, including the recalled Local Government UNISON conference, and the incredible numbers of people who turned out to the June Anti-Austerity demo show that a large number of our activists understand we are living in desperate times.

One example of this quickly changing mood is the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leadercampaign – it has captured the mood across the country showing that people have had enough of the politics of despair and really believe that there is an alternative to austerity.

Organise or die

It is the simple realisation that if we do not organise now, very many of us will not be around in the next couple of years, nor will the services we are so passionate about. Public services are buckling under the strain of continued austerity attacks and the communities we are part of, and which we serve, are suffering. The Tories have declared war on the public sector and on working class people in general. I believe this means our union has to radically change its tack – we need to start telling the Labour Party what we want and, while as a Labour Party member this is something I have been doing locally, we need to do more of it nationally.

From my experience of fighting for our members in Barnet I know we need to fight back seriously when we are under attack. We need to do the same thing nationally – not just call a token day’s strike and then back down. UNISON hasn’t done as well for its members as it should have in the last five years – as a General Secretary with experience at the sharp end at branch level I will give a stronger lead.

I want to increase the confidence of our lay activists to lead the campaigns we need by releasing the support and resources they need.

It is patently clear branches need more resources and in particular a greater share of the subscriptions. Branches need to have the resources to be able respond to the relentless assaults on our members in the workplace & the attacks on facility time and office accommodation costs.

We also need a change in culture in terms of support. We need to look at what we can do for branches rather than what we can’t do.

In Barnet I am used to fighting and organising against the odds, building alliances with our community and across other trade unions.

I want to encourage and promote a coordination of fight backs where possible, both within our union and with other unions and campaigns. In Barnet we were able to do this with Bromley UNITE and UNISON and the PCS at the National Gallery so that in spite of our separate issues we all came out on strike on Osborne’s budget day.

With a hostile Government encouraging rogue employers to victimise our activists, UNISON also needs to stand up for our people like never before. As a General Secretary who knows what it is like on the front line, I will make sure UNISON uses all its strength to defend every activist facing victimisation.

This is why I believe we need to elect a UNISON lay rep for this challenge which is why I am standing as a candidate for UNISON general secretary.

Click here to see who is supporting John Burgess, and contact us to add your name.

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