Why Socialism Needs the Suburbs

Suburbia has long been considered conservative and hostile terrain for the Left. But with the majority of people in the US and the UK residing there, socialists cannot afford to neglect the suburbs.

The high street in the suburban town of Ongar, Essex, United Kingdom, where Suburban Socialism author Oly Durose ran for Parliament in 2019.

There’s a line in Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat, his masterly portrait of dejected radicals after the English Revolution, about the potential uses of political losses. According to Hill, defeat can work to force ideologues to confront the insufficiency of their beliefs and organizational systems and search for new ways to continue their cause. In short, movements that lose are forced to spend a lot of time recriminating.

The resurgence of the electoral left in the West that began with Syriza’s victory in Greece and saw socialists mount serious bids for government in the UK and the United States has since faced its own experience of defeat, followed by the grim years of the pandemic. Learning from these defeats is now the essential but daunting task, and one that can only be accomplished through sharing and evaluating a huge range of perspectives on what went right and what went wrong in the Left’s latest push for power.

Oly Durose’s Suburban Socialism (or Barbarism) offers us one such perspective on the British Labour Party’s 2019 election defeat. Durose, a mid-twenties Labour activist and political staffer, contested the suburban and staunchly Conservative seat of Brentwood and Ongar in 2019.

Commentary on the 2019 defeat has focused on Labour’s long-term decline in its former strongholds in the ex-industrial parts of England’s North and Midlands, but southern commuter-belt towns like the one Durose stood to represent have long been regarded as essentially no-go zones for the Left. It is assumed to be an iron law of British politics that major cities — regardless of other regional divides — are left-leaning while ringed by doughnuts of both social and economic suburban conservatism.

Durose’s campaign did little to dispel that narrative, but his book is a brave attempt to turn the experience of defeat into one of future hope. His first-person account of the campaign begins with his description of this attempt to transform the defeat of election night, when he fell asleep “with the sound of Tory applause still echoing, and wondering what it could mean to fight for a suburb that shares.”

Notes From the Field

Suburban Socialism is above all a foot soldier’s war diary of a dismal winter. Durose takes us through hostile doorstep conversations on sodden lawns with voters who often regarded him and his party as naive at best and dangerous at worst. This maudlin, often self-deprecating set of dispatches from the front line of a seemingly impossible uphill struggle frames his more theoretical insights. In addition to these reports from the field in 2019, the book also includes contrasting descriptions of the sun-drenched boulevards of Nevada, where the author and I flew in February 2020 to campaign for Bernie Sanders — who managed to beat the house in Las Vegas with an unprecedented suburban organizing drive.

It’s these experiences that give us Suburban Socialism’s first argument: rather than engaging the suburbs as an organizing point, the Left has neglected them, seeing them as dull, threatening, picket-fenced wastelands. For many on the Left, Durose argues, suburbs are conservative by design, cultural deserts populated by the right-wing middle classes.

Durose refutes this view. Cities, he says, will always have peripheries, and they are heterogenous. As evidence of this, he first points to the suburbs populated primarily by the displaced and marginalized, often with radical traditions, from Latin communities in the American Southwest to the Parisian banlieues. He revives the postwar Labour utopianism of the English New Towns like Harlow, bold modernist projects to build towns that communities could thrive in. Second, he points to the suburbanization of the urban working classes, such as London’s service or transport workers priced out of the city’s core.

Finally, Durose reaches into conservatism’s tortured relationship with its claimed support for an “aspirational working class.” He demurs from the stereotypes about inherently Thatcherite attitudes in his native Essex and points to the solidarities developed around him during the pandemic as evidence of political capabilities in the suburbs.

That said, Suburban Socialism is no misty-eyed eulogy. Durose disagrees with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s pithy line that defunding the police “looks like a suburb”; he refers to the architecture of racist facial-recognition algorithms and neighborhood policing that defines wealthy, whiter, and more gated suburbs — and the exclusion and enforcement that defines poorer and more racialized suburbs. He reckons with the conservative worldviews of suburban contemporaries, acknowledging that his own past as a teenage Tory does not provide easy answers or a formula for persuasion.

The second section of Durose’s argument is a more strategic pitch that responds to a challenge recently raised about how a large enough left-wing coalition can be built to make real electoral gains. Durose examines recent literature on relational and community organizing and considers the processes by which a suburban leftist manifesto might develop, and what such a program might look like. The result is a kind of instruction manual for suburban radicals to convince their unpersuaded neighbors who may have a mix of values, some germane to leftist ideals and some less so. How effective these methods are is difficult to tell until they have been tried, but there is a valuable synthesis of what has worked elsewhere.

Choosing the Terrain

Durose convincingly asserts that suburban working- and middle-class voters do have a material interest in policies such as green jobs, universal services, and the standard demands of the electoral left. Moreover, he argues that they can be convinced to support such policies. Yet somewhat less convincing in all this is Durose’s argument that such a slate of ideas constitutes a specifically “suburban manifesto.” Rather, it seems more accurate to cast it as a universalist manifesto, capable of speaking to the concerns of those inside the suburbs and outside them — albeit in a manner pitched to those in the suburbs.

Another query about Durose’s argument is more political. Durose campaigned in 2019 for a second Brexit referendum against the wishes of his suburban constituency, a position he defends in the book — though not always convincingly. The 2019 election defeat saw Labour lose fifty-one Leave-voting seats (of fifty-four lost in England, mostly in deprived postindustrial areas outside major cities) to a party given over to the Vote Leave campaign and framing the election as a choice on Brexit, all the while stealing Labour’s insurgent clothes. Labour’s decision under liberal pressure to ignore the electorate’s 2016 choice had the outcome of creating the hardest Brexit possible, which Durose’s reflections on Brexit do not deny.

I have no particular desire to relitigate Brexit, but this illustrates a general flaw in many of the post-2019 recipes for recovery. One can improve policy appeal, develop better organizational strategy, or manage internal conflict more effectively — all to see it sundered by a single issue one did not choose, as happened in 2016. Trying to fight battles on our own terrain (rather than engaging in say, dull procedural maneuvering over Brexit) is good, but much of the post-defeat literature says little about what happens when we don’t get to choose the terrain.

Nonetheless, in a short and readable volume, Durose navigates large tracts of ground — racial justice and surveillance capitalism, austerity, climate, and more — without losing his territorial focus. The war-diary style helps this by giving a sense of urgency and life to the lessons he presents. Spread your resources wisely but never treat anywhere as a no-go area. Ask people what they need, listen, and then try to provide it. Build big-tent coalitions but don’t avoid confrontation or put “compromise” on a pedestal when conflict is needed to get the job done.

Such lessons are products of their time. Durose draws them from the very different yet in some ways remarkably similar environments of Nevada and Essex during the rise and falter of radical social democracy across the Atlantic. I wrote in 2020 about the tragedy of a brutal and mishandled pandemic following the defeat of candidates committed to building universal health care in the United States and saving it in the UK. The post-pandemic world is now a qualitatively different place and requires new approaches. Investigating the past chapter of the Left’s history in detail has an important role to play in this process.

Durose is to be commended for making an enjoyable contribution to the fossil record, one that combines readable anecdotes with a clear-eyed grasp of the connective tissue between critical issues, grounded in the environment he writes in. As every good politics tract does, it asks more questions than it answers and demands hope against the odds. And it succeeds in raising real hope for the places he describes and aims to organize.