Ask members of one Covid mutual aid group in Whalley Range, south Manchester, about what they feel most proud of and two things crop up: the hardship fund and the epic street clean. It’s not hard to see why. Transforming the once rubbish-strewn alleyways that run between the neighbourhood’s back-to-back terraces was an act of collective power. Meanwhile the fund, which relies on everyone chipping in, allows any member to access £50 cash each month, no questions asked. Both of these projects have forged trust and a sense of responsibility among this group of 100 neighbours.
Spread across just three streets in south Manchester, this group is as hyper-local a version of mutual aid as you can get. Members are all from different backgrounds: renters and owners, ranging from their early 20s to late 70s. The area is home to a Pakistani community and a Sudanese family also belong to the group. Its flyers are translated into Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and Gujarati, while members use online translation to participate in the group WhatsApp chat.
The group was originally focused on providing necessities during the early months of the pandemic, such as help with shopping, collecting prescriptions or providing reliable Covid information. Its remit has since expanded – members now share food and festivals, pool DIY tools, brainstorm measures to tackle unscrupulous landlords and speeding cars, and tend to a community garden. When I met some of the group recently, one member, Helene, 50, told me: “It’s a gazillion unplanned micro-miracles that happen when neighbours talk to each other.”
As researchers and campaigners survey the mutual aid phenomenon that took hold during the pandemic in the UK, a question hangs over its political significance. Within weeks of the first lockdown in March last year, Britain became home to one of the world’s largest mutual aid efforts, with more than 4,000 groups springing up nationwide. This development was itself political, reflecting a terrible vacuum of state support that volunteer groups rushed in to fill. The pandemic devastated those with no stocked cupboards, no savings and no support systems. Rees Nicholas, one of a small group that set up the Mutual Aid UK website to support local organising, told me that in the early days of the pandemic, the website was receiving 600 messages each day from people in distress and need.
Mutual aid is, by definition, political. The 19th-century Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin coined the term to describe the phenomenon of communities helping each other. Such collectivism is how societies thrive. Mutual aid volunteering is often accompanied by the slogan “solidarity not charity”. In contrast to the charity sector model where there is a giver (the charity) and a taker, mutual aid involves horizontal, two-way support. Particularly in the US, the tradition of mutual aid is rooted in Black and minority ethnic, LGBT and migrant groups, marginalised communities that have not been able to rely on state support.
When Emma O’Dwyer, a political psychologist at Kingston university, started researching Britain’s Covid mutual aid groups, she found volunteers more likely to be middle class, female and leftwing. But across the country many groups avoided political discussion altogether, in a bid to foster more inclusion. Big P politics can seem alienating and is perceived negatively by many. Some of the group members in Whalley Range insisted it was not at all political. One 39-year-old woman told me that, in contrast, the group was “about kindness and love and supporting each other”.
But the trouble with dialling down the politics is that the right readily co-opts mutual aid as a cover for dumping more of the state’s responsibilities on to the voluntary sector.
Last year, Danny Kruger, the Conservative MP for Devizes, launched the New Social Covenant Unit, attaching the government’s “levelling up” rhetoric to the blossoming of Covid mutual aid. Last month, the unit published a report about “community-powered Conservatism” that was championed by the new secretary for levelling up, Michael Gove. The report portrays the millions of people who joined mutual aid groups as part of a “civic core” whose empowerment is “the logical conclusion of Brexit”. With Labour remaining silent on the issue, the government appears to want to turn this surge of collectivism into a Conservative force.
Mutual aiders I speak to say that instead of plugging the vast holes left by a neglectful state, they want to pressure the government to alleviate these gaps. But what would turn Britain’s extraordinary mutual aid network into a force that was capable of doing this? As a first step, mutual aid needs to thrive beyond the pandemic. Nicholas says that many of the Covid groups that haven’t wound down have adopted a charity model, such as a London-based lottery-funded venture that sources laptops and phones for migrants. Others have started to meet longer-term needs; one Newcastle group runs a continuously stocked community larder providing free food. But the survival of the group I met in Whalley Range suggests a sense of community is self-sustaining, and a need in itself. If the left is struggling to find a foothold in regions decimated by de-industrialisation and economic disadvantage, perhaps these new communities could provide more favourable ground.
Whether articulated politically or not, volunteers often say mutual aid has changed them. Taking part in collective action is powerful and creates its own momentum. As Emma O’Dwyer told me, it isn’t any particular measure that matters, so much as the act of doing it. Harnessing mutual aid as a progressive force that could renew the left, though, is another story.
• Rachel Shabi is a journalist and broadcaster, and the author of Not the Enemy – Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands