One of our editors, Dave Pike, argues for canvassers to take the lessons learnt from the 2019 election into their workplaces and unions.
On December 13th last year many of us woke up after an exhausting 6 weeks of campaigning with the same government we fought hard to get rid of. Some of you may have been involved in political campaigning for the first time and feel disheartened and stuck after such a brutal defeat. But the experience gained from canvasser training, learning how to politically educate people and becoming politically engaged can (and should!) have applications outside of an election cycle. Specifically, these same skills can be used in organising for class power in the workplace.
In this article I hope to lay out 5 simple ways we can apply the lessons of 2017 and 2019 to our workplace organising. The election may be over, but we will never see a progressive government in power if we do not learn how to build power and solidarity in our communities and workplaces between elections. Here is how we do this.
- Fucking Talk to People – Have Persuasive Conversations
For many activists on the left they will not be ashamed to admit that election campaigning can be hard, and different from what they’re used to. Rather than operating in known leftist spaces, it inevitably included speaking to people we didn’t agree with. However, the benefits are clear in the huge increases seen in polling numbers for the Labour Party as both national elections were called and the door knocking began.
The lesson here should not come as a surprise to any of us;
If you want to convince someone of your position you actually have to fucking talk to them
I will always argue that organising is not complicated, it is just about speaking to people, often, and over time gaining their trust. Every one of us who campaigned in these elections spent time speaking with strangers about politics. That is no easy feat. All too often politics is seen as a private choice for individuals to make – only discussed publicly by ‘experts’ on the TV, radio or in newspapers. Yet there we were: on doorsteps in the pissing rain talking about the merits of nationalisation, foreign policy, or even broadband communism. Speaking to your co-workers might be easier in some ways: you know them, you are talking about much simpler issues and you are trying to convince them that we all deserve more at work, not vote for someone who the media has spent half a decade tearing down.
The act of speaking to people is not something that comes naturally to everyone. I know my own position as a cis white man means it is easy to just demand everyone be more confident. Any conversation about skills building or outreach must incorporate a nuanced understanding of intersecting race and gender identities, class position and power. BUT focusing on talking mattered in both campaigns. Spending time and effort in upskilling people in this vital area had a huge, and hopefully lasting impact.
Momentum’s Persuasive Conversations training was delivered far and wide, and time and time again, with the aim of arming activists with the ability to… TALK TO PEOPLE. The focus on engaging emotionally, listening, repeating and relating with their concerns, and tying issues back to the policies at stake are all relevant skills to organising. As a labour movement we need to replicate this and arm every member with this same tool kit. Asking members to get another member to a meeting, or ask a coworker to join the union, or another member to take on a task requires the ability to persuade someone to take part in a political act. We need to have these same Persuasive Conversations with our co-workers.
- Coalition Building
Building and campaigning in the Labour party often involves biting your tongue. Anyone who has spent time involved in political campaigns will know that better than anyone. When they say Labour is a broad church, they are not kidding. From the almost cultist devotion of some Corbynistas, to the stubborn Blairite MP who just won’t resign already, and everything in between. Somehow, almost without exception (I am looking at you, Chris Williamson!), we manage to all campaign together to get on with the work. This is not easy, and arguments and disputes do break out, but during the campaign we try to put it away.
That is the lesson to hear;
Shut up and get on with the work
Much like campaigning to win an election, organising in a workplace doesn’t mean you and your co-workers, or even your fellow organisers, have to agree on everything. It matters if your co-worker is prepared to take direct action and organise with you. You cultivate this by focusing on common goals and opportunities to build solidarity. It is not necessarily what every leftist wants to hear, but it doesn’t matter what your co-worker’s political ideology is if they are going to show up at the picket line.
And besides, people learn through struggle. The act of taking direct action and witnessing their boss’ reaction might well turn your co-worker from a liberal to a socialist in no time. Members of our editorial team have seen Deliveroo riders take militant, continued action against their company, hospitality workers stand on a picket for the first time in their life, and go from that to taking officer positions in branches and departments of their unions.
As organisers we need to be comfortable bringing a wide array of interests, motivations and people together. If a workplace required homogenous political identity to organise effectively, there would be no successful strikes anywhere. Issue based workplace organising does not have to be perfect. Organise people where they are, and the politics of collective class-based ideas will follow. Most people need to experience them first.
- Using data to target activity
One of the key elements of an election campaign is the use of voter data. In the UK this is made up of 2 key sources; the list of registered voters and voter intention data collated by political parties. To use this information the Labour party creates localised strategies based on areas where they need to build the vote up most, creating door knocking routes for activists that most effectively target activity where it is needed. It is a messy, yet extremely effective exercise, and one that can be rolled out with 4 or 5 activists or 100.
Organisers need to use data better and more often.
More often than not campaigns are based on where hot shops come up. What we mean by that, is when an issue arises, and members come to us, we focus all our energy on that workplace. That method is only an effective way to fight fires, oftentimes workers are so exasperated that they don’t want to – or can’t – slow down enough to follow the steps to organise sustainably. Oftentimes hot shops result in workers mass quitting before any demands are met because they were already at the end of their ropes. We need to work with workplaces before they reach their boiling points.
The clipboards we used while out door knocking over December last year give us a very clear strategy for how we can collect data on our coworkers and their intentions. We should all be maintaining something similar about our own workplaces or workplaces we are organising.
Think of it as a full list of your co workers instead of a list of registered voters, with the following adaptations;
- Instead of how they voted last time we want to know how they have reacted to union activity before.
- Instead of their party membership we want to know their union membership.
- Instead of their voting intentions we need to know if they will support us on a scale from 1 to 5.
- Instead of whether they will take a Labour poster for their window we need to know whether they’ll take part in an action which shows the boss and their coworkers they’re in the union – wearing a badge, a lanyard etc.
Keeping data often makes people feel uncomfortable, but we all have to remember our bosses keep everything on us, legitimised by the legal system and use it to their benefit. We need to collect that data, understand our workplaces and then use it to target our activity where it will have the most impact.
It is also worth noting how important it is to keep data up to date. Some canvassing data was years out of date and knocking on a door to find a staunch Tory voter instead of a long time Labour family illustrates what can happen if you don’t keep your data on your co-workers updated. Just because someone supported the union last year or even last month doesn’t mean they will tomorrow.
- Time management and personal campaign planning
Throughout the campaign both in 2017 and 2019 Momentum produced a number of tools for personal campaign planning, essentially methods of time management over the election period. These tools provided activists with key information about upcoming events, helped people plan their own activity around their life commitments, and encouraged people to give whatever little time they could spend.
Although on many occasions we can get wrapped up in demanding physical or financial resources, we all know that the most valuable asset we can garner is time given freely by activists. The tools that Momentum offered were key because they tapped into this specific resource.
Our time as organisers is valuable and we should give the time we have value.
In workplace organising this is equally essential and given the restraints on people’s time when asking them to act outside of work, this is doubly true. How could we make this work on a small scale?
As organisers in your workplace, or across an area or industry, we should be honest about time commitments. It’s ok to have other things going on, and that shouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise we drive people towards burn out, or lose organisers who have caring responsibilities, for example.
As an organiser, you should look at your diary (and please do keep one) and carve out what time you have to work for the campaign. In each of those spots, give yourself a task. Those tasks should be ones agreed with other organisers or in your evaluation of your own campaign at work.
It can be as simple as the table below;
|Monday||Free from 12-2||Write up a list of all my colleagues|
|Tuesday||Free after work||Ring 3 colleagues and organise one-to-ones|
|Wednesday||Free before work||Have a one-to-one with Jimmy|
|Thursday||Busy all day||–|
|Friday||Free over my lunch break||Have lunch with colleagues|
|Saturday||Free all day||Meet an experienced organiser for advice and to go over my mapping|
|Sunday||Taking a day off||–|
Plan your time, plan your time off, understand your own limitations, but most importantly PLAN.
- Organising with your friends
Many of us out campaigning in the pissing rain worked closely with our friends to ensure we didn’t go it alone, and support those of our comrades who were less confident about speaking to people or what to say. This took many forms, from Whatsapp groups to housemates going out together.
Social groups already exist. Don’t ignore them.
As organisers we readily recognise that social circles, and support groups already exist and we spend a lot of time discussing them when mapping a workplace and trying to find social leaders. What we often fail to recognise is that we ourselves are members of our own social circles that we can lean on – coworkers, friends and family.
With that same gusto that local Labour party activists organised on Whatsapp groups we should be doing the same with our friends for workplace organising. It is not enough for us to get the ‘left’ interested in organising. We need to get as many people as possible involved. We can only do that by asking them, encouraging them. Everyone we know has something they’d want to change about their workplace or neighbourhood.
I want to conclude by saying that we have all gained a ton of useful skills, and we now need to use them to build power and a culture of workplace organising. This makes it more likely we will win in 2024, and get a Labour government elected then. The workplace strength and community cohesion we build in the meantime means we will be able to push ANY government in a direction that would be more beneficial for us and our class. We have a world to win – and a lot of work to do.