Talk to any committed Labour activist and 9 times out of 10 the first thing they’ll tell you is that helpers are few and far between. Most Constituency Labour Parties rely on a hard core of loyal stalwarts and councillors who do everything from data entry to leaflet delivery.
This notion of the decline in party activism is evident everywhere from the mass media describing a Labour Party “organisation in creaking disrepair” through to academic papers on the subject.
In Birmingham Edgbaston Constituency however, the reality on the ground could not be more different. We’ve always been on the more positive end of the organisational spectrum but since January this year we’ve recruited over 100 extra activists – some to deliver leaflets, some to talk to voters and some to collect petition signatures.
When we tell people about this we get one of three reactions – disbelief; two – you may have done it but it won’t work in our patch or three – how? (and please explain in detail).
This activist recruitment project started as the Obama campaign for the White House came to a successful close. Neither of us went over to the States but many people we knew had gone over; as they came back the excitement about the movement that Obama had built was palpable. Donations from 3.7 million people (a quarter of which were those under 0); one million people on a Facebook group; canvass sessions 100 strong.
And it made us question – was there something about political activism that we could learn? Or was this just Obamamania and all about a big budget campaign harnessing the power of a remarkable politician on the up.
The answer lay in an article called: “The new organizers, What’s really behind Obama’s ground game?”. For those who dream of perfect organisation it is a treasure chest filled with nuggets of gold! But there was one pearl of wisdom offered by Jeremy Bird, the Ohio general election director, which really stuck out. “We decided in terms of timeline,” said Jeremy, ” that [our organisers] would not be measured by the amount of voter contacts they made… – but instead by the number of volunteers that they were recruiting, training and testing”.
It was obvious what we had to do to change our campaign. We had to stop doing and start building. We don’t have a paid organiser so something had to give – for a time we stopped our regular canvassing sessions and started using the same volunteers to call potential volunteers, both members and non members.
All the time we remembered the words of field director Jackie Bray, “movements are not built by individuals but by relationships”. It is not good enough to ask simply what that person could do for us but also to ask (and continue to ask in the case of those who had already been helped) what we could do for them; to take time to explain the context of every bit of volunteer work and to train people to participate at a level appropriate to them. We followed our volunteer recruitment programme with social events and coffee mornings and in turn they tell us what issues need addressing in their communities.
Six months later on the fruits are plain for us to see. We have more helpers, delivering more leaflets, talking to more voters and crucially more people telling us what we can do for them in their area. It’s a project that never stops.
Re-reading Zac Exleys article before writing this it is clear that we are still at the very early stages of organisation building. Advice and case studies which made little sense 6 months ago are now useful as we continue to build our campaign infrastructure.
Slightly tongue in cheek we will admit there are – blatantly – differences between a campaign trying to get a local MP re-elected and Obama’s campaign. Obama and the Democrats were on the up; Labour is in a third term of government. American campaigns have enormous budgets; our local resources are limited. The field campaign was directed from the centre with resources to match; ours is a locally inspired programme.
But similarities remain. Political affiliation may be on the wane but localism is not. People want an MP and local Labour movement which are going to work for them, help them affect positive change and that are on their side. If they feel that their MP and local party fulfil that role then they will come out and help.
Politics has changed and if we don’t respond to that change, local constituency Labour parties will be unrepresentative, moribund and unable to fulfil their campaigning or community function. The beauty of this is that once you have built your organisation you can of course use it for anything: leaflet delivering, voter id and most importantly for political change in the communities we serve.