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I have a generalist attitude to political campaigning. To use the traditional metaphor, I think that social movements should use all the tools in the box. And electioneering is one such gadget. I’ve been involved in different ways over the years in applying various of the sorts of gizmos that activists tend to use in the UK. I’ve found most of them amazingly helpful for some things and all to be utterly useless for others. Blockading a street is a terrible way to convince its residents to support you, but a wonderful way to stop a military convoy from going along it.
And as well as being useful or not in particular contexts, I’ve found that different kinds of tactic don’t just have short term impacts, but longer ones too. They teach us lessons. They push us in a particular direction. They shape us, and they shape our movements. In that context, I often find it frustrating when people dismiss party politics and standing in elections as tactics. I think they can be really useful. Here are six reasons why.
1) Regular elections help keep you active
Without structure, I find work hard. With no to-do list or deadline, it’s only the headache from a dearth of caffeine which gets me out of bed before midday.
The same often seems true of social movements. Electoral politics are helpful because they provide a clear timetable. There are regular (almost annual in most of the country) elections to get excited about and to build momentum up to. There are cycles of conferences to persuade of your policy passions. There are always doors to knock on or to push leaflets through.
Mass street movements flash every now and then. Once they’ve passed, people become despondent, and drift back into their lives, nothing new to excite them. Regular elections keep people involved in the slow times as well as the fast. They give you something to get out of bed for.
2) Regular elections keep you recruiting
It’s way too easy for activist groups to end up as cliques: people meet through some kind of political activity – on a protest, perhaps. They drift into a friendship group. Gradually they spend more and more of their time in the pub and less and less of their time recruiting. Soon, you find movements full of affinity groups of chums, with too few entry points and no new members.
Now, political parties are susceptible to this problem too. But if this happens, they quickly lose. And so there is an ongoing pressure to break the walls of the clique, to find new people and to maintain contact with that guy who’s a bit annoying but excellent at website maintenance. Or whatever. And this is a good thing.
More importantly, there is an endless practical pressure to reflect the diversity of your community. If you want to win, you have to know the major issues angering every street you seek to represent: the things which are pissing off each ethnic group; the gripes of the young and the dreams of the old; the injustices faced by your local LGBT community and the barriers erected in front of their disabled neighbours, the concerns of those who work and the worries of those who care for their children or parents. You need votes from women and trans people, from long term residents and transient people. If your work isn’t at the very least guided by, and ideally led by, those embedded in all these communities, living these lives, then you erode your collective chances of success.
This may not be so true of those who can rely on the votes of the powerful but that makes it doubly true for everyone else. Every activist group I’ve ever been in has talked about how diversity matters, but only in political parties is the imperative so overwhelmingly obvious.
3) Canvassing helps you see outside your bubble
I know loads of awesome activists who spend nearly all of their waking lives organising people against power, and yet who have never once knocked on a door and spoken to the stranger behind it about what matters in their life. Of course, it’s entirely possible to canvass without a party rosette. But there is much more of an immediate drive to do so if your aim is to win a vote. And door-knocking is vital, I think, for three reasons.
First, if you believe that people's movements are never going to win through the pages of the corporate media, then we need to be able to communicate in other ways. There are various of these. But best of all is face to face chats – they are to progressives what Fox News is to right wing America: it is how we pass on our messages, unfiltered. They have the airwaves. We must have the streets.
Second, it changes the canvasser. We are, too often, taught to believe that politics is a geeky hobby. We are told it’s like Star Trek or stamp collecting, but without the popular support. In fact, it’s about people, communities – what they yearn for when they enthuse in the pub and what they fear when they can’t sleep at night. There are few better ways to be reminded of this than knocking on strangers’ doors, and asking them what matters most to them.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, canvassing is how I recharge my belief in human goodness. Capitalist realism – the doctrine that there is no alternative – depends on the trope of the lonely left winger. We are forever persuaded to believe that people are the tabloids they read: selfish and cruel and, most of all, right wing.
You only need to knock on the doors down any street in the country I have ever visited to discover that this is a lie. People are awesome. And kind. And funny. And on many issues – many of the most important issues – they are significantly more left wing than the mainstream would ever let on. On other issues – such as immigration – people have been persuaded by reactionaries. But they are remarkably easy to sway: they wish, most of all, to be kind. Humans are instinctively solidaristic. Nudge them onto an explanatory track along which they can be, and they will be. Or that’s my experience.
4) Elections let you see what works
In an election, your success is mathematically measurable. If you make a mistake, you find out pretty quickly: polling day is an inescapable deadline. If you get something right, it’s easy to tell. All too often when I’ve been involved in other kinds of campaigns, it’s been incredibly hard to know if what we were doing was working. Of course, that doesn’t mean I was wrong to do that thing – some of the most important contributions are almost impossible to measure. But it’s sometimes nice to get speedy feedback. Even if you believe the aim of electing someone is futile, learning how to mobilise people around the issues you care about is helpful, surely?
5) If you win, you get a paid organiser
Local councillors go to a formal meeting a couple of times a month or so. But otherwise, they are basically paid to organise their community. Having someone in your activist group with any salary to organise in your area is pretty damned useful. Without it, energy soon saps as people are dragged into busy lives and monthly rent requirements.
6) Parties encourage you to think systemically
Too much of modern activism involves talking about one issue as though it is the only and the most important one. Political parties, by their nature, end up discussing and engaging in policy on the whole range of issues. They bring together activists who are passionate and knowledgeable about different things. The result is that it’s hard not to begin to think about the systems behind what you’re all campaigning.
I haven’t touched on the fact that engaging in party politics is a direct confrontation to one important form of power exercised by our rulers – that secured through elections. Nor have I mentioned that it allows us to secure the soft (shaping the debate) and hard (voting on motions) powers of elected politicians.
For some people, party politics probably isn't the right thing. We can’t all do everything. And for some things, it's like using a feather duster to knock down a sky scraper. But I think it probably would be useful for many more activists than are currently in a party. So, go on. Think about joining one.
This piece first appeared on Bright Green