It’s the organising, stupid, or, why field campaigning isn’t everything

More and more campaigns are embracing individual contact as a way of shifting public opinion. Political parties are trying to win votes, while civic society groups from unions to anti-fracking/pro-food groups are also getting in on the action. In a way, it’s very encouraging. Personal contact is a particularly authentic and non-manipulative tactic. I also love to see causes I support doing this because it happens to be very damn effective.

Yet it breaks my heart to see campaigns embrace this tactic, yet fail to embrace the sort of campaign structure that should be the natural counterpart to it – community organising. This sort of one-handed approach to personal political communication means that the communication can’t be scaled effectively, limiting it in quantity. It also reduces the opportunities for canvassers to take on greater ownership of the campaign itself, limiting the quality of the personal contact as a way of strengthening a community’s political power.

What do we mean by organising?

‘Community organising’ is fast becoming an empty phrase applied to things we think are cool – a badge of grassrootsiness. It is actually very important – but also very difficult and rarely practised.

Organizer Fred Ross says organizing is “providing people with the opportunity to become aware of their own capabilities and potential”. Organising means that participants in the campaign aren’t just soldiers in a field army. Rather, each volunteer can become a leader, take responsibility for outcomes, and involve others in the project, meanwhile realising their own power. ‘Organising’ means that canvassers can host their own canvass event, or train other leaders to host events, or take responsibility for an action weekend with five events in their turf. It means campaign goals are distributed outwards through an organisational structure, nested, such that everyone is responsible for their piece of the puzzle, and it can’t be completed without them. It means that victory, if and when it comes, is not a bucket of water into which each person has contributed a drop, but a concerto combining the unique role of the oboes, the infrequent yet indispensable timpani, and the leadership of the first violin.

Alternatively, you can just get a bunch of people to rock up week after week, give them a pen and a kit, and send them out the door.

I’ve seen the pitfalls of the mobilization-only approach where the campaign contact between volunteers and voters is prized above relational contact between leaders and volunteers.

Last year I was saddened to see Stephen Yarwood end his four-year term as Mayor of Adelaide, being beaten by 42 votes. Yarwood, believing in transparency and more engagement between council and citizens, had walked the entire council ward, knocking on doors and speaking with voters (as he did in 2010 to be elected for the first time). Yet, Yarwood didn’t organize. Although his supporters were the most ardent and wanted to do what they could to support him, they weren’t able to take on shared ownership with Yarwood and work in a team with him towards his goals.

This is an illustrative example because the council ward is small and the lack of organising didn’t materially affect the quantity of contacts – I imagine Yarwood still knocked everything he could. However, volunteer involvement would have added two extra themes. Firstly, volunteers are themselves an evidence for why a candidate should be elected. Of course Yarwood would be out there knocking doors for himself – it’s almost more convincing to have a volunteer at your door and realise that Yarwood is such a great candidate that other people are giving up their time to try to get him elected. Secondly, an organizing approach would better suit the campaign narrative of a Mayor loved by the people but being fought by a wealthier minority unwilling to embrace change. Meaningfully including volunteers in a campaign doesn’t just mean you knock more doors – it means you embody and practise how our democracy should function.

Another example is the campaign to re-elect the Greens MP for Brighton-Pavilion, Caroline Lucas. This campaign used field tactics like doorknocking, but did not run an organising campaign. There was not a relational context and doorknockers had little responsibility within the campaign. A lack of structure in doorknocking sessions, with participants arriving unpredictably, meant there wasn’t potential for relationship-building, either at the start or at the end through debriefing. Volunteers didn’t have particular goals they were working towards as a team, thwarting ownership and responsibility for the campaign. Most troublingly, there weren’t particular leaders tasked with developing teams in specific geographic areas. This was a fundamental block on relationship building but also on autonomy. Caroline Lucas herself was, thankfully, re-elected; it is regrettable that the campaign missed the potential to not only win more, but also win better and create lasting social infrastructure for the local Greens party.

On the other hand, a campaign that got this combination right was the “Ellen for Melbourne” campaign that saw Ellen Sandell become the first Greens member of Victoria’s state lower house. This campaign canvassed extensively, knocking virtually every door in the electorate and speaking with thousands of voters on the phone. And it did so much more. In each key area, volunteer leaders were empowered with responsibility for campaign outcomes, being trained in how they could run their own doorknocking events and build local teams. Other volunteers took on responsibility for running phonebanks, for a booth on election day, or for entire mail programs. By embracing both organising and personal voter contact, this campaign was able to deploy the most effective tactic at the necessary scale, simultaneously growing its capacity and developing leaders who, as Ross put it, became aware of their own capability and potential.

So what does this mean for those of us who want to change the way they do things around here?

Without doubt we should embrace those tactics that political science tells us are most effective – memorable, influential, and durable personal conversations with voters. But that alone is not enough. Simultaneously, we must build volunteer organisations with the structures and processes to distribute responsibility and ownership, creating the scale to meet ambitious campaign goals in a way that builds lasting power.

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