It isn’t much fun being a Labour activist right now. I suspect being a Lib Dem activist gives it a run for its money as they adjust to the smacks in the face their leadership feel empowered and seemingly compelled to give them. But the Lib Dems, at least nominally, have their hands on the levers of power. If they work out how to use them, that might even cheer up those left in council seats next month.
Labour are fighting back in local government, and our activists are knocking on doors up and down the country. We’re leafleting in the freezing cold and generally trying to maximise the Labour vote. It’s what we do. We are the marching army.
I believe that our activism needs updating. I fear that our focus on quantitative engagement when canvassing and leafleting can mask a lack of qualitative engagement in communities. The kind of activism that proves our worth by showing, rather than counting our worth in contacts made and promises tallied. I believe that what happened in Bradford, when fully analysed, may well prove a catalyst for better understanding of the kind of change to activism that’s required.
But in the meantime, we’ve elections to fight. A new kind of activism isn’t going to present itself, ready-made for each and every constituency. It will take time and effort to change. Meanwhile, we need to continue to work to reach out to voters in the best ways people currently know how. That means for many the kind of activism people are used to.
Now here’s something you won’t hear very often: Labour activists are normal people. Sure they engage in an unusual and highly minority pastime. But they do so equipped with the same social needs and desires as everyone else. Some of us are a bit nerdy, but we’ve found a group of people with whom we can share our nerdiness and bolster each other’s happiness. We share our battle stories and our triumphs. Because it’s the 21st century we do some of this on mediums like Twitter and Facebook.
If Labour activists are only talking to each other, that’s a huge problem. We need to talk – and more importantly listen – to people of varying degrees of political engagement, from those who couldn’t name the Prime Minister to engaged floating voters. We need to understand what’s happening in our country and communities and we need to ask how Labour can help. Ask them, ask ourselves and ask the Party as a whole.
Confirmation bias can be a really damaging thing. I saw it happen to Yes activists in the recent referendum and to Labour activists at the last election. I hear Labour activists fall prey to it when discussing the cuts, completely misunderstanding where the public are, because it is not where the people they are talking to are.
So I understand people’s concern about Twitter memes like #Labourdoorstep – a hashtag used on Twitter where activists share the interesting and most often positive experiences they have had while canvassing. I understand it, but I simply don’t agree with the concern.
Activism must never, ever be a closed shop. It must reach out. But as long as it does so, activists must also be allowed to support one another. To cheer, console, rally and rouse one another. External facing comms is essential. But so are the values of friendship and camaraderie that we develop between fellow Labour members, whether they be those we know from our physical communities or those from our virtual ones.
When activists were just rallying each other in pubs and community centres, this was uncomplicated. No one in their right mind would complain about people sharing tales in such arenas. But recent complaints have focused on tales shared on Facebook groups and Twitter. Concern has been entirely well meaning. The worry has been a concern that the conversations are excluding or unnecessarily boastful. But for me, they miss the purpose of social networking: the social. #Labourdoorstep isn’t excluding anyone. It’s just activsts who 20 years ago would have had a select few others defined by geography to engage with, support and be supported by, have simply reached out to each other through different, less inhibiting channels.
We ask a lot of activists. Sometimes we ask too much and we know that we do. The least we can do is not deny them the social pleasures that activism can bring, wherever they may find it.