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Big Politics, Big Organising, and Internationalism: How the Left can Win

Adam Klug, Emma Rees

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‘Big organising’ 

In addition to the need for a big, bold political offer, the ‘big organising’ approach has proven itself to be a game-changer across the globe. In Rules for Revolutionaries Becky Bond and Zack Exley tell the story of a breakthrough experiment conducted on the fringes of the Sanders presidential campaign. A technology-driven team empowered volunteers to build and manage the infrastructure to make 75 million calls, launch eight million text messages, and hold more than 100,000 public meetings. The fact that Sanders didn’t win in 2016 does not diminish the sheer scale of the achievement nor the possibilities that this organising model presents for future campaigns. 

The book sets out numerous ‘rules’ which challenge conventional campaign orthodoxy, but at its core, ‘big organising’ is about setting up systems which enable volunteers to participate at scale. It points to the hundreds of thousands of people who volunteered for Bernie Sanders as proof of the appetite for greater levels of participation in politics and argues that the role of the campaign staff should be about facilitating and enabling that participation, rather than controlling or directing small teams of volunteers in specific localities. It postulates that campaigns should build up leadership capacity amongst volunteers, enabling them to do a range of meaningful work to drive the campaign.

There are parallels with the organising approaches that have been pioneered by Momentum, Corbyn’s leadership campaigns and, increasingly, the Labour Party itself.  During the 2017 General Election, 100,000 individual users visited Momentum’s marginals map, mynearestmarginal.com, to find out where to go canvassing. The map was built by volunteer web developers, and teams of volunteers across the country kept it up to date with relevant canvassing information throughout the General Election campaign. This is a ‘big’ or ‘distributed’ organising platform because it is a system which allows huge volumes of people to participate in a campaign in a meaningful way (in this instance, to go canvassing in key marginals) by distributing knowledge or resources across a network.  

The cooperation amongst grassroots organisers and activists of the Sanders and Corbyn movements has been ongoing since the campaign to re-elect Corbyn in the summer of 2016. Based on the barnstorm model, Adam and a team of organisers hosted ‘Campaign Call Outs’ across the country which brought people together, trained them up to use the ‘Call For Corbyn’ phone canvassing app and encouraged volunteers to host ‘pop up phone parties’ in their own homes. This app was developed by a team of volunteers from the Momentum Bristol group, which further showcases how much can be achieved with a volunteer-led approach.    

In the 2017 General Election, a team of volunteer organisers from the Sanders campaign played an instrumental role in the digital and training strategies of Momentum. They helped to develop the flagship ‘persuasive conversation’ model, and Momentum then hosted ‘Bernie Sanders Training Sessions’ in every major metropolitan area and key marginal during the election. At the start of the campaign, when Labour was trailing considerably in the polls, this international support gave activists an extra boost and made them feel part of a much bigger struggle. 

Earlier this year, we both spent time in the USA, and saw first-hand how ‘big organising’ is being applied in different contexts. For example, Real Justice PAC is a campaign to elect reform-minded prosecutors at a county or municipal level. The campaign was co-founded by writer and activist Shaun King, along with Becky Bond, and it asserts that: 

District attorneys are among the most powerful local elected officials in the US. These officials have broad discretion to either reinforce or reform structural racism within our criminal justice system. The Real Justice PAC works to elect reform-minded prosecutors at the county and municipal level who are committed to using the powers of their office to fight structural racism and defend our communities from abuse by state power.

The campaign has successfully elected four prosecutors since launching in early 2018. This is a powerful example of how the principles and tactics of a national, presidential campaign can be utilised to build power in communities, address the crisis of representation (in terms of race in this case, but also potentially in terms of class, gender, sexuality, etc.) and link up with wider social movements (in this instance, Black Lives Matter and campaigns for criminal justice reform).  Hilary Wainwright, writing in Jacobin, suggests that ‘Corbyn’s “new politics” is about political representatives using the platform of the state to empower popular forces’. The same could certainly be applied to Real Justice’s innovative campaign. 

There are many interesting lessons to be learned here in a UK context, particularly as we potentially face another four years before a General Election. National Nurses United (NNU), the largest nursing association in the USA, is also pioneering the winning combination of ‘big politics’ and ‘big organising’.  Last year, the NNU started using a ‘big organising’ model of volunteer mobilisation for their  Medicare for All campaign (which would grant universal free access to healthcare). The campaign started in California, but having successfully got a bill (SB 562) passed by the state senate, they have recently taken it to a national stage. In an exciting development, the NNU have adapted Momentum’s ‘persuasive canvassing’ training.  Hundreds of volunteers have been trained up and this is set to rapidly expand, with a view to supporting volunteers to advocate for Medicare for All at state and/or federal level. Anecdotally, organisers working on the campaign report that the volunteers who are trained up are motivated to hear how these techniques worked for the Labour Party’s fightback in 2017. 

The momentum for Medicare for All is building in Congress too, after years on the political fringes, with over 60 Democrats (approximately one third) forming a Medicare for All Caucus in the House. As Thompson explains, ‘Medicare for All became a divisive issue during the 2016 presidential primary race between Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, who has long advocated for the program, and Hillary Clinton, who dismissed it as too expensive and said it was politically “never, ever” going to happen’. Bonnie Castillo, the Executive Director of the NNU, is keen to link up the struggle for free universal healthcare with international movements. On the anniversary of the NHS, she wrote, ‘in a decade of austerity, and top down reorganization (enabling private firms to take over running various aspects of the NHS), as the system is stretched to a breaking point, America’s nurses have a message for the working people of the UK: We stand in solidarity with you.’ Castillo, along with a delegation of the NNU, is due to attend this year’s Labour Party Conference and The World Transformed festival, so it is likely that there will be further developments in the international coordination of these movements. 

A further inspiring demonstration of ‘big politics’ and ‘big organising’ in action is the recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The 28-year-old overcame the odds to unseat 10-term incumbent, Joe Crowley, as the Democratic candidate in New York, using the Labour-inspired slogan ‘for the many’.  Stone and Gong argue that, ‘like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Ocasio-Cortez’s rhetoric focused on issues of inequality, corporate control of politics, equal rights for all, policies like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and a federal jobs guarantee. Moreover, she used her campaign to invite ordinary people into a movement, raising their “conscious[ness]  of this vast potential power”. This could be called the Sanders playbook, and her campaign might have done it even better than Sanders’s did’.

Whether it is a local campaign like that of Ocasio-Cortez, a national campaign like the UK General Election, or issue-based organising like Medicare for All, the parallels are clear.  In each example, a big, bold alternative vision for the future is on offer, and a movement-based, volunteer-led organising model is nurtured. We have noticed a tendency by some to think it is possible to depoliticise a move-
ment-based, ‘big organising’ approach. This reflects a mistaken belief in a magic bullet solution – if only we focus more on social media or introduce a digital tool to get people active, young people will miraculously start voting for us, we’ll get more members and active canvassers – and so on. But these ‘big organising’ approaches require masses of people to be prepared to give up their time for free. There is no reason to believe that people will be mobilised at scale by socialist or social democratic parties who are offering a different shade of the status quo. People won’t put in the time and effort if they are not inspired by the vision on offer. 

Volunteers need to believe in the worthiness of what they’re doing and sense the importance of the role they are playing in it. If people are being asked to something small which will only have an incremental impact, the majority of people will not see that this is a worthwhile use of their time. On the other hand, being asked to join in an ongoing, people-powered campaign to tackle the structural issues deeply damaging our society, with the hope of transforming things on a systemic basis has proved to be far more effective at bringing new people into the political process – 
people who then become committed activists. 

In the UK 

The UK Labour movement, from top to bottom, is well-placed, given its gains at the last election, to facilitate building networks of international support and solidarity.  Labour’s ruling NEC is showing promising signs of taking up this mantle. The NEC is reviewing Labour’s international relationships, with a view to broadening the parties and movements Labour engages with. Currently, Labour interacts with parties through its membership of the Party of European Socialists (PES), and globally through its observer status of Socialist International (SI) and the Progressive Alliance (PA). However, it seems that the NEC recognise that while these relationships will remain important, an updated, twenty-first century view is needed too, not least because when the UK is due to leave the European Union in March 2019, its membership of the PES will need to be renegotiated. Labour’s General Election performance, along with its growing membership and relationship 
with Momentum and wider movements, has led many parties beyond the sister  party structure to seek support and cooperation. Labour stands to benefit greatly from expanding these relationships too, not just to stay ahead of the curve in organising and campaigning, but also in the event of a Labour government seeking to implement a transformative programme for the many.  

While these moves from the party leadership are welcome, they alone won’t be enough. The cases described above of grassroots cooperation are just a few examples of a bigger trend, and we must nurture the solidarities and networks emerging between left social movements and campaigns across national borders. It is really down to all of us to embed internationalism at the core of our activism. The internet and social media make it easier than ever before to share our experiences and to learn from others. Furthermore, this year’s The World Transformed festival, running alongside Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, is set to have its greatest international focus yet. There are due to be speakers and participants from over 20 different countries (and counting), along with lots of sessions designated for skill-sharing, training and international network building. 

We are living in a time of great uncertainty and upheaval. The challenges we face—climate change, racism, inequality—will never be solved within one country. To be 
in with a fighting chance, we must work together, share our stories and learn from each other. 

Adam Klug and Emma Rees are co-founders and former National Organisers of Momentum and Associates of The Social Practice. 

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