The UK’s mutual aid groups are making plans for a new post-lockdown future

Mutual aiders gave out free packed lunches in Newcastle
Tom Anderson

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has claimed over 43,000 lives in the UK so far. Only two other countries have reported a higher number of fatalities.

The UK government, presumably keen as always to protect corporate profits, was slow to accept the need for social distancing back in March, ignoring expert advice and costing people’s lives.

The UK is currently progressively easing its lockdown measures in order to get people back to work. Experts are again advising that the government’s policies are wrong.

The state has clearly failed to meet the needs of communities which have arisen as part of this crisis. Workers have been left with insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) and hospitals have often been under-equipped.

Many people who have lost their livelihoods are suffering. People still remain on the streets during lockdown, despite government promises to house the homeless.

Thousands of mutual aid groups have been created; solidarity funds have been set up in many areas to support people collectively through financial difficulties; people have formed collectives to make PPE for NHS and other workers, and grassroots projects have come together to meet people’s food needs.

The Canary has carried out exclusive interviews with people involved in some of the UK’s new mutual aid groups. In this second part of our series we take a look at their long-term plans as the UK’s lockdown eases.

Permanent institutions and infrastructure that will continue to build working class power’

In our previous article The Canary spoke to Cooperation Birmingham which, since the lockdown, has begun distributing hundreds of meals from a community space called the Warehouse Cafe. Cooperation Birmingham has begun planning several new cooperative projects, aimed at building the ‘solidarity economy’ in Birmingham. These projects include a cycle courier cooperative aimed at creating an alternative to the precarious zero-hour contracts of companies like of Uber and Deliveroo.

We asked John from Cooperation Birmingham how its food distribution project fits in to a broader strategy for change. John responded:

Unlike the helpful but temporary work being done by countless neighbourhood mutual aid WhatsApp chats, our focus is on building permanent institutions and infrastructure that will continue to build working class power…

[During the lockdown] our organising has touched on distributed manufacturing; accessible and democratic online decision making; production and delivery planning; mutual aid disaster relief; open source tech development; land commoning and autonomous farming; providing for our own material needs even under crisis conditions – these are all areas of struggle that will continue to be relevant once the pandemic is over.

A focus on ‘the commons’

We asked John whether he thought Cooperation Birmingham would continue after the pandemic:

Definitely, although our focus will certainly change. For one thing, we don’t anticipate to have to provide for people’s material needs on this scale indefinitely.
For another, our current planning is reliant on an army of underemployed labour, much of which relies on the furlough wage, so this will mean a big change in our operations. Of course, we are already trying to resist the impulse to return to a post-coronavirus society that is identical to the old, broken one. Post-crisis, our longer-term work on the commons, on cooperation and on democratic participation in the local economy will come to the front again.
Elswick Mutual Aid
The Canary also spoke to Dave from Elswick Mutual Aid in Newcastle about how mutual aid organising has been going in the city. Dave told us about the setting up of mutual aid groups across Newcastle after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic:
The mutual aid groups in Newcastle grew up in direct response to Covid-19. It started, as I understand it, through a conversation going on in [the] ACORN [community union] as well as some other groups, and rolled out across the city quite quickly.
In the West End of Newcastle we had a cluster of groups, particularly Elswick and Arthurs Hill Mutual Aid, which are two parts of the city right next to each other, along with Scotswood, Benwell and Wingrove, which are wards of the city adjacent to this little area, who had really quite a radical response.
In terms of organising structure, at least in our little cluster of West End groups, we’ve naturally developed a consensus-based structure which we are formalising now.
‘Prioritising community need’

One issue that has faced many mutual aid groups has been the relationship with the council and the police. Dave told us that Elswick Mutual Aid’s response to this question has been first and foremost to prioritise community need:

We have been prioritising community need and avoiding anything which might disrupt our ability to relate to the community, such as having a relationship with the police which could discourage people from migrant backgrounds from contacting us due to, for example, the hostile environment policy.
The government’s racist ‘hostile environment policy’ is designed to make life as difficult as possible for migrants, and push for deportations.
Takeaway school lunch service
We asked Dave what sort of things Newcastle’s mutual aid groups had been doing:
Well there’s been a lot of really active food aid going on. We’ve been holding takeaway meals on the street for anyone to come and take if they need it. We’ve obviously been doing all of the getting prescriptions and delivering food to people [who are self-isolating]. We’ve been helping people [financially] a little bit with their bills and with their shopping if they are desperately out of money.
We’ve also been collecting toiletries for local care homes that were short on necessities.
In the half term holidays we have provided a takeaway school lunch service for kids. To try to compensate for the lack of free school meals.
Dave tells us that the takeaway meals were not just available to kids, but to “homeless people or anyone else who was in need”.
‘Community larders’

The mutual aid groups have got permission from British Telecom to use phone boxes as ‘community larders’ to store food, which can then be taken by whoever needs it.

A phone box in Newcastle is used as a community larder
A community larder in a public phonebox in Newcastle
We asked how the mutual aid response differs from ‘charity’. Dave responded:
Of course we’ve been trying to do more than just filling a gap with charity. We want to try and mobilise communities and also put pressure on institutions that should be filling some of these gaps. We’ve been making press releases criticising some of the failings in council and government policy that have led to some of the gaps in provision that exist and trying to help mobilise people in the community
We asked Dave what sort of people were involved in mutual aid in Newcastle. He told us:
The groups have been relatively diverse. There are a lot of people who have been involved in social activism and community projects like this before, and that’s really useful as those people have brought a lot of experience. There are some people who are pretty new to this sort of stuff, and we have had some involvement from local councillors and things like that as well.
The West End of Newcastle is a very diverse area. While I’d have to say we are majority white, the organising group is quite diverse in terms of our ethnic makeup. I think in the organising group we’re also majority female.
We are working with people of colour from various different communities, both [inside] the group, and with the aid that we are giving out. Several members of the group have had a relationship with some of the Black Lives Matter protests that have been going on recently.
In terms of class makeup… We have a range of people involved, from people on zero-hours contracts to university lecturers.
We should have ‘been doing this a long time ago’
Dave had this to say about how he saw the efforts of the Newcastle mutual aid groups as part of a strategy for social change:
In terms of how I see it as part of a movement for social change, I think that these sorts of social infrastructure projects are things that we should have been doing a long time ago really. I think that they’re very much in need at the minute because of the failings of government policy over the last decade or more, and because of the harm that neo-liberalism does to our communities. I think they are needed both to counteract the many financial and other quality of life harms that our current government, and the neo-liberal and capitalist tendencies in our society, cause to everyday people. And the extreme poverty and extreme conditions that are produced at the bottom end of that spectrum, as well as various problems that are produced at all levels.
Challenging alienation
But also I think [these mutual aid efforts] are important to help with the alienation that our system causes, and to bring communities closer together so they can support one another in times like this, and even in general times. In everyday life [aside from the coronavirus pandemic] we still have people struggling to pay their bills, struggling to eat. So we definitely feel that [mutual aid is] something that was needed all along.
Obviously Covid-19 has brought a lot of us together who weren’t working together before… and has solidified some of those bonds, but we see this as part of an ongoing process of trying to build communities that are able to be connected, to be aware of the problems [that we face], to support each other… and most importantly to push for change to the systems that produce those problems, to understand those systems and see how change can be made.
Mutual aid post-coronavirus

Like Cooperation Birmingham, Dave sees a clear need for ongoing mutual aid work as we come out of lockdown:

We are looking at different ways that we can approach doing mutual aid post Covid-19. At the moment this is still an ongoing process, and we are looking at different models from elsewhere to see what works… But something we’ve realised is the need for food aid of different sorts is going on all the time. And we are looking at… setting up food cooperatives, or doing different sorts of food aid work in the future…
[local community] Food co-ops are a way that people can buy their weekly food shops at much reduced costs, by bulk buying together as a group. [These food co-ops could be] very participatory,
In terms of financial aid… we are looking to set up a solidarity fund in order to be able to give financial aid more broadly to individuals in desperate need in our communities. This is something that has always been needed, it’s certainly been needed over the last ten years of Tory austerity, and will be needed very seriously going ahead as we go through the economic after-effects of the Covid-19 crisis
Cooperation Birmingham and Elswick Mutual Aid are just two of the thousands of mutual aid groups that now exist across the UK. These groups have the potential to be part of building a stronger movement which is rooted in communities, and which can continue to build support and power because they are aimed at meeting people’s basic needs and challenging oppression.
As we come out of lockdown, many of us are suffering financially, or feeling isolated and alienated from loved ones. Some of us have lost people, and some are worried about the ongoing risk to ourselves or our friends that this virus poses. First and foremost we need to care for each other. But it’s also important to remember that we are living through a moment of great potential. A moment where people are turning to each other for support, rather than to a state which has failed them. It’s up to us to envision a future where our community power can outgrow the state, and to make it happen.
Featured image provided by Elswick Mutual Aid (with permission)

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Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Twitter: @shoalcollective.

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