‘In praise of organisers: the hidden cogs in Labour’s election machine’

Eden Kulig

Do you know what a WARP sheet is? Or a risograph? Is your working life dictated by an entity known as ‘Region’? Do you regularly wear items of clothing branded by trade unions? If so, chances are you are, or once were, a Labour Party organiser. 

As we gear up to an election, Labour is recruiting a new tranche of organisers, tasked with the monumental responsibility of ensuring Labour gets into government. I’ve known enough organisers to know I could never do the job myself, but my admiration for them is unbounded – they are the campaign generals of our movement, and they work incredibly hard to help Labour win locally and nationally. But what the does job involve? And who tends to do it?

Starting out

At a national level, the public view political parties as well-funded professional machines, but at a local level, they are voluntary organisations and, like many voluntary organisations, can be under-resourced, dishevelled and somewhat chaotic. Put simply, an organiser is a member of party staff, deployed to work through these organisations to run election campaigns. 

This is typically an entry-level job in politics; the hours are long, the work is hard and the pay is modest. It is a labour of love, working out of the distinctly un-glamorous setting of a constituency office; think a converted former shop in a suburban high street, with one’s ‘office’ a desk in the corner piled high with leaflets and a small supermarket around the corner for a lunchtime meal deal if you’re lucky.

You may work alone for some of the time, but the office is also likely to function as something of a drop-in centre for party activists. Some will want to welcome you to your new role, some will just pop in for a cup of tea before taking a leaflet round, and some will see you as a willing new interlocutor for their many opinions on the state of politics. Good organisers must treat everyone with equal friendliness and goodwill, as you will be relying on all of them to help you do your job.

This job has one singular aim, to which everything else is subordinated – getting the candidate elected. Organisers therefore require one quality above all else – to care, passionately and obsessively, about Labour winning elections. This needs to be one of the most important things in your life; the first thought in the morning and one of the last at night. Almost nothing, beyond perhaps the wellbeing of your friends and family, should matter to you more than this, and you must be willing to do whatever it takes (within the bounds of electoral law, of course) to make this happen. 

In practice, this means working across a constituency to identify, target and motivate Labour-inclined voters to actually vote Labour. One of those facts which is obvious to political activists, and not to everyone else, is that canvassing is much more about data collection than political persuasion. The former is its raison d’être, and the latter is a bonus. Months and years in advance of elections, parties identify, street by street and house by house, where their support lies and use this data to mobilise voters on polling day. With results sometimes coming down to around a thousand votes (the majorities in Tamworth and Mid Beds respectively were 1,316 and 1,192), this can make all the difference in competitive seats.

In order to accomplish this task, a pool of volunteer activists must be willing to sacrifice any number of more enjoyable things they might be doing with their evenings or weekends in order to serve the Labour machine, and it is the job of an organiser to extract the maximum efforts out of them to do this.

The local party 

In addition to obsessive levels of dedication to the Labour Party, organisers thus also need – or must develop – excellent people skills. Everyone knows managing volunteers is harder than managing staff, and organisers, often in their first full-time jobs, must cajole, encourage, motivate and co-ordinate a varied group of local activists to carry out all the activities that comprise successful campaigns – delivering leaflets and knocking on doors, but also parting with their hard-earned money for fundraisers, standing behind visiting politicians with big placards during campaign visits and anything else that arises during the course of a campaign. 

Being party activists, these people may also be highly opinionated, prone to factionalism and have been known to include some fairly difficult and eccentric individuals (as well as some lovely ones, of course). Local feuds can stem from everything from tensions over the politics of the Middle East to a particular councillor still holding a grudge about losing out on chairing the planning committee 15 years ago. An organiser must arrive within such a group, possibly in a place they’ve never even visited before, and quickly understand these dynamics while rising cheerfully above them, in order to pull everyone together in one common aim – winning the next election.

Organisers quickly become embedded in a local party, often getting to know local activists incredibly well – campaigning alongside them, socialising together, meeting their friends and family – as well as getting to know the wider community during the course of the campaign.

They will accompany the candidate during campaign visits and might find themselves briefing them to address a Jain temple, volunteering with them at a litter-pick and meeting dozens of community groups and must stay abreast of Labour’s national messaging in order to deliver it through campaigns on local issues.

It’s an insight into the breadth of a community not many people are able to get and an incredible education into politics on the ground and into the real priorities of the voters Labour is trying to win over. The skills, experience and knowledge developed stay with organisers for a lifetime and are transferable to many different roles inside and outside politics afterwards.

The candidate

In terms of the candidate, you will be working with someone whose perhaps lifelong dream of becoming a Member of Parliament now rests in part on your shoulders, creating a fairly intense workplace dynamic. Running for parliament is a very psychologically intense experience, and organisers must be their avatar when they are unavailable, their constant champion, perhaps even their confidant or counsellor. 

Anyone who has reached the stage of being a serious contender for parliament tends to have some combination of great ambition, extreme levels of drive, a sense of a personal mission, strong political views and an ego of at least a healthy size. They may be impressive, dedicated and decent would-be politicians, but they are unlikely to be the kind of people one would ever describe as being, for example, ‘quite chilled out’.

Becoming an MP will really, really matter to them; it may be the most important thing in their lives. If they fail, they will fail publicly, feeling they have let down not just themselves, but the party, the country and all the activists who have campaigned for them. It’s a crushing prospect, and an organiser’s job is to make sure this doesn’t happen. The prize on offer is huge, and the pressure on everyone is immense. 

When I was running to be a councillor, I woke every day to messages from our organiser that started with ‘Good morning! It is now 45 days to polling day!’ followed by exhortations to attend multiple canvassing sessions at which he was ever-present. He would appear unannounced outside my house with leaflets, he tried to popularise the concept of ‘canvassing FOMO’, and he did all this with relentless energy, enthusiasm and cheer. But when I won by only 50 votes, I understood he had been, if anything, restrained in his quest to get candidates to devote every waking hour of our lives to campaigning. His demands were both unreasonable and completely necessary – that was what it took to win.

And because all politicians, myself included, can prefer to believe we won our campaigns due to our own great vision and personal charm, we can sometimes forget how much of winning comes down to good organising. So I’d like to end on a note of gratitude. All of us who were either elected as Labour candidates – or whose lives will benefit from a Labour government – are here in part because of you. You are some of the hardest-working people in politics, and you help make everything else Labour does possible. So to all organisers, past and present, thank you.

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…