We need to reach out

Activists and organisers across the UK need to find a better way to do politics.

Sarah Beattie-Smith
1 August 2016

the Black Panther free food programme - image,

Like many campaigners in Scotland, and up and down the length of the UK, I’m shattered. Exhausted after years of pounding pavements delivering leaflets; spending every waking minute organising meetings; writing post after post trying to persuade friends, colleagues and twitter trolls of the rights and wrongs of our respective positions; even standing for election. Exhausted because after all these years of work, at times I find myself wondering whether any of it was worth it. 

In the Brexit-destined Britain of today, it feels impossible to be inspired and hopeful about the better future we’ve been working for. But whilst giving up and stepping back is as tempting as lying on a beach in the sun for a month, there is a way to build that future without destroying ourselves in the process.

Step one: We need to start by examining what we’ve been doing for the last few years. Whether you’ve been working for or against Scottish independence, backing Corbyn or stabbing him in the back or arguing for or against the UK’s EU membership, ask yourself this: how much of your energy has gone into designing and delivering leaflets that go straight in the bin? How many hours have you poured into organising an action where fewer than ten people showed up? How many days have you spent organising meetings where you end up preaching to a room full of the converted?

If the answer to any of these is “too much” then maybe we’re doing something wrong.

The hard truth is that all too often, we opt for the easier path of speaking to people we know, of reading and sharing things that confirm our own biases and broadcasting our message without stopping to wonder who our audience is or what they need and want to hear. And so long as we’re doing all of that in the context of fighting some big bad “other”, we can be comforted by knowing that even if we’re ineffective, we’re not as bad as them.

Whether your “other” is Brexiteers or Blairites doesn't really matter. The point is that so long as we’re laying the blame for all the ills of modern Britain at the feet of someone else, whilst simultaneously spending our time talking to people who already agree with us, we render ourselves powerless.

Step two: Go out and talk to people. Movement building isn’t just about pulling together with likeminded folk, but reaching out to folk who can challenge and strengthen your beliefs. The chances are that while you can guess at what motivates your great “other”, you don’t know until you talk to them and listen. So instead of pounding pavements delivering leaflets broadcasting your views, get out on the streets and ask folk what they think and what matters to them. And crucially, find some common ground.

Step three: We need to start doing things for ourselves. Over the last three decades, the social infrastructure of the UK has been eroded. Benefits have been slashed, trade unions undermined and industry privatised, all under the watchful eye of an increasingly corporate media. It’s easy to think that only governments have the power to affect any of these things, but governments get their power from us. It’s our assumption that we’re too small and too powerless that makes us so.

Nearly fifty years ago, the Black Panther Party saw that the struggle for civil rights and racial equality had to go hand in hand with fighting poverty. They set up free breakfast clubs for poor, largely black, hispanic and latino children in 1968. By 1969, they were feeding 20,000 children a day. After initially being attacked by the FBI for “subversion”, the example set by the Black Panther Party was later adopted by the US government in a programme which today feeds 13 million children.

Around the world today, there are new media establishments springing up to counter the prevailing bigotry and bias of the Rupert Murdochs and Paul Dacres who dominate the stories we tell about ourselves. In the UK there are movements to start alternative local currencies and take power away from supermarkets and big banks and invest in local economies. These are actions taken by people just like you and me which have changed the balance of power.

My point is not just that it is possible to do things for ourselves, but that it is necessary.

So – let’s stop pouring our hearts and souls into confirming our own biases and getting nowhere. Let’s stop assuming we know what other people think and start a conversation with them. And let’s stop sitting around in half-empty church halls talking to the same 12 people about why everything’s broken and instead, work together to fix it.

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