The footballer Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign last year set off untold chain reactions across the UK In the case of Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, Labour activists had been running a campaign to provide food aid for local people during the pandemic when they heard about another project nearby: Phoenix FC, a youth football club inspired by Rashford to provide lunch boxes to local families in need. Members of Broxtowe Labour party went round bearing multipacks of crisps and offers of help.
When I visited Phoenix FC on a recent weekday, their coach Darren admitted that he and club manager “Bomber”, both full-time workers and parents in their late 30s, were initially suspicious of the Labour people turning up at the door. But a relationship was forged in the heat of the crisis: any local group offering support was inundated with requests, as the pandemic plunged swaths of the population into food poverty. Demand soon exceeded capacity at Phoenix, so the Labour team connected the club to Himmah, a grassroots action network running one of Nottingham’s largest food banks, which provided boxed, ready-to-dispatch supplies.
One year on, Phoenix FC are setting up a new community centre, with a lease and funding from the cross-party council. They operate in Chilwell, a traditionally white working-class Nottingham suburb, where public spaces and services have been gutted by austerity, leaving people with nowhere to go. The plan is to use the space to run coffee mornings and after-school clubs, alongside skills training and anti-racism awareness, from a now-empty nursery building.
The new community centre could be seen as a sign of the serendipitous power of mutual aid: the unexpected possibilities that open up when people pool their time, skills and resources. But it is also the kind of thing that Labour’s community organising unit might have been able to create, if it were still running. The national unit was set up by Jeremy Corbyn in 2018, and had been operating in Broxtowe in the run-up to the 2019 election – but was disbanded by Keir Starmer in February.
Without a Labour MP – Broxtowe is a marginal seat that has been Conservative since 2010 – and with no say-so from Labour HQ, local members decided to reboot a version of this dormant form of community organising for the pandemic. Whereas many of the mutual aid efforts established via WhatsApp groups since March 2020 have explicitly sought to steer clear of party politics, Broxtowe shows that the two approaches to political organising can successfully overlap.
I recently sat down with the chair of Broxtowe CLP, Jane Marshall, at the local party’s community hub – a drop-in centre that during the worst months of the pandemic also delivered about 300 food parcels a week. Marshall suggested it was entirely possible to copy and paste the Labour values of collectivism and solidarity on to the mutual aid model: “When there is a crisis, people look to see who has stepped up, and it should be Labour that [does].”
Responding to the immediate needs of neighbours for medicine and food deliveries, pandemic mutual aiders uncovered a deeper crisis: the combined effect of economic neglect, insecure work, atomised neighbourhoods and a hobbled welfare state. Labour’s community organising unit had been set up to respond to this shocking decline, not with top-down solutions imposed from London, but by empowering and supporting those already engaged in grassroots work locally. People like Bomber and Darren at Phoenix FC.
It’s hard to overstate the positive impact and the trust generated when Labour volunteers show up consistently in a neighbourhood more accustomed to being ignored. In places such as Chilwell, for too long the prevailing view of politicians and campaigners has been that you’ll only see them at election time, bearing clipboards and empty promises. The challenge for Labour isn’t simply to tally votes but to persuade people of the value of voting at all, so diminished is the idea that politics could ever change anything.
Coaches at Phoenix FC see the area’s youth written off, and a pervasive sense that nobody could ever improve their situation. The club want to provide young people with skills training that could be an essential first rung in the ladder to formal learning. They have already helped funnel young people into universities and apprenticeships, and the new community centre could act as a force multiplier.
Himmah, the Communication Workers Union and Unite are also helping with funding and potential skills training for community centre users. It’s a collaboration bringing in different networks, all pulling in the same direction, wanting the area to be better for everyone. For Sajid Mohammed, Himmah’s co-founder and a local Labour councillor, helping create a climate of social cohesion is a core part of the work. “We have common problems and can’t allow our working-class communities to be split on race, gender or sexuality, or else we will all lose out.”
Appraisals of Labour’s decline in its long-held heartlands often suggest the party has lost touch with socially conservative white working-class voters. That much was telegrammed in leaked strategy plans earlier this year, showing the Starmer leadership in pursuit of an “authentic values realignment” premised on flags and dressing smartly. Rather than fobbing off communities in long-neglected areas with a bit of red-white-and-blue, why not offer them the means to make things better?
Phoenix FC’s managers didn’t need to be told to set up a community centre, or to have it set up for them. Instead, they sought advice on getting funding, and navigating the gnomic local council planning process. Broxtowe Labour marshalled the resources required: a slow-burn, quietly radical act more impactful than the empty pledges of remote political leaders.
When the Phoenix pair talk about their new community space – for which they are about to sign a lease – their enthusiasm is infectious. They want to consult the community it is intended to serve first, but already see the centre bringing in elderly people and stay-at-home parents, after-schoolers and dog-walkers, hosting cookery clubs, mental health and diversity awareness groups. Their plans are full of a spirit of revival and care and connection. Imagine the power of that.