By Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
Boris Johnson’s election landslide has prompted hundreds of people to join a fast-growing community union that organises direct action on social problems instead of relying on party politicians.
Acorn has reported a glut of applications across England, which began within minutes of last week’s exit poll predicting a Conservative landslide. Organisers of the self-help project, which already has 11 branches, have also been asked to set up eight new units from Bradford to Weymouth after it issued an online call urging: “Don’t mourn, organise!”
Acorn has campaigned on housing but is now considering branching out into workers’ rights, immigration and the environment. It is not affiliated to any party and is funded by the dues of its members, who can come from any part of society. Its popularity appears to be a sign of growing appetite for non-party political action, not only as people brace for five more years of Conservative government but also as they lose faith with Labour’s ability to deliver change.
In the north-east, where Acorn’s young activists are using the organisation to circumvent councillors and MPs, Labour lost eight stronghold constituencies to the Conservatives, causing one outgoing veteran socialist MP to attack his own party’s “bloody lazy” representatives.
“The Tories have come out in Blyth and done exactly what we used to do,” Ronnie Campbell, the MP for Blyth Valley since 1987 until his retirement before the election, told the Guardian. “Their councillors work and work. Our lot [were saying] ‘When do we get our money?’”
The training organisation Campaign Bootcamp has also seen its courses three times oversubscribed in the last year and has now trained over 1,000 new activists who “find party politics off-putting, or feel that their cause is not represented”. It focuses on training ethnic minorities, working-class people, disabled people and women outside the south-east.
The developments come amid a post-mortem for Labour that has seen repeated calls for the party to reconnect with its historic voter base in northern towns through grassroots activism. Labour peer Lord Glasman is among those who have argued that Labour needs to return to community values based on trade unions and voluntary groups like Acorn.
“The kind of organisation they are doing, building closer relationships, is in tension with the idea [advanced by Labour] the state should be doing these things,” he said. “Labour’s campaigning has been based on policy ideas rather than doing stuff.”
“We’ve had hundreds of new members join,” said Nick Ballard, founder and national organiser of Acorn UK. “They started coming in just after the exit poll and haven’t stopped since. Communities are going to have a rough time of it over the next parliament. [They] need to be organised and, we would say, outside of political parties.”
“Parties shouldn’t engage with local campaigners solely with an eye on polling day,” said Johnny Chatterton, who runs Campaign Bootcamp. “People across the country campaign on a variety of issues for lots of different reasons. Trying to restrict them to, or corral them into, party agendas will not work for anyone.”
On Wednesday evening in Newcastle’s East End a dozen Acorn activists assembled in the community room at the bottom of a Byker council tower block for the annual general meeting of the north-east branch. The agenda included considering whether to set up a group to oppose immigration raids, how to report unregistered landlords, providing pre-school breakfasts and starting a red gym – a place where activists can meet and work out, a healthier alternative to bar-room politics.
“A lot of people are angry the Tories have got into power and they feel powerless,” said Kiera White, 24, who works as an administrator and is secretary of the branch, which now has 140 members. “But there is a limit to what you can do by writing to your MP. We’re here and we will address the problem.”
The branch has fought for a return of 24-hour concierge services in social housing blocks, better security and improved fire safety after a spate of arson attacks. They have formed action groups to confront landlords unfairly withholding tenants’ deposits, protest against estate agents and form human chains to block evictions.
“It gives you satisfaction and a feeling of power that I haven’t had before,” said White. “I am not looking forward to the next five years because it will be dangerous for a lot of people, but I think we are on the edge of something.”
Among the other activists, Brooklyn Ward, 24, the branch membership officer, said she had found party politics too “abstract”, John Evans, 27, a software engineer, said he felt being involved in party politics “requires living in London so you feel connected to it” and Ciara Lenihan, 28, an artist, said she was attracted by the group’s lack of political links and remarked that no-one canvassed her during the election.
“I want more people like me helping run the world: marginalised, queer, people of colour, poor people, disabled people,” she said. “I mean everyone who hasn’t had a go yet!”
The Newcastle branch covers some of the north-east Labour heartlands that were lost to the Conservatives, including Blyth Valley. In comments that will reinforce a sense of a party adrift, the outgoing MP, Ronnie Campbell, told the Guardian that “too many people [are] coming into the Labour party thinking they can get a career out of it,” rather than dealing with voters’ problems.
Speaking at his Blyth home, he said the infrastructure of trade union chapels, the co-op and the Labour women’s clubs that stitched voters to the party for decades has all but gone and the influx of new party members from the £3 membership drive in 2015 had little effect and attracted members of the Socialist Workers party.
Kath Nesbitt, a Labour councillor for Blyth on Northumberland county council, said she does voluntary work almost daily and has seen demand growing over the last eight years. She is a local politician but, tellingly, prefers to be called a community activist, saying: “I very much care about our town.”
“It is going to get worse,” she said, taking a brief break from helping at one of several Christmas lunches for the elderly this week. “They come about universal credit, about housing, about problems with antisocial behaviour. This government may do something for us at first, but then we will be the forgotten town again.”
Momentum, the leftwing campaign group affiliated to the Corbyn project, is considering launching an online tool next year to encourage its members to connect with community action groups. It has previously focused on getting its activists placed as candidates and social media campaigning, but a spokesman said direct activism “means that when you go to communities at election time no-one says ‘Where were you?’”