UK General Election: ‘Big Organizing’ crosses the pond

United Kingdom
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Campaign Together canvassing in Bristol East.

Theresa May’s snap election announcement left many progressive organizations scrambling to start campaigning for changes to the electoral system, writes Kim Bryan.

Our movement can learn how to go even bigger and broader. We can win – but only if we continue to develop the kinds of tactics, tools and visions laid out by Big Organizing.

- Naomi Klein author of This Change Everything

Passionate, moral, and urgent opposition to the Conservative party this general election could represent the greatest opportunity for mass participation in politics that the UK has seen in a long time. There is a great deal at stake and left unhindered the continued politics of austerity, dismantling of the NHS, lack of action on climate change and a damaging and hard Brexit, will have an enormous and devastating impact on the UK.

Time is ticking. Theresa May’s snap election announcement for 8 June left many progressive organizations scrambling to start campaigning for changes to the electoral system. But they did and they are growing fast. Progressive alliances and tactical voting are the talk of the town with people across the country determined to counter the odds and stop the Tories from winning a third term.

Campaign Together is one such organization, set up to encourage people vote tactically in June, but we are taking the idea one stage further. We are recruiting, training and organizing thousands of people to get out in the streets and talking to their communities to stop the Tories. Using the idea of the ‘Big Organizing’ that was deployed successfully by both Obama and Bernie Sanders in their respective presidential campaigns.

Big Organizing is about harnessing the incredible energy and resource there is around an election campaign. It’s a volunteer led, people powered distributed organizing model that gets people out into their communities and talking face to face with people. During the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, deploying Big Organizing saw 75,000 volunteer-run events around the country during the campaign, 8 million peer to peer text messages to supporters and voters, and 81 million phone calls to voters.

Since Campaign Together launched on 2 May, over 1,000 people have signed up across the country to take part to campaign in 28 marginal seats across the UK. Over the weekend 13th-14th of May, four different groups of nonaligned people got together in Bristol, Croydon and Oxford canvassing in key areas, there are more events being organized, nationwide all the time.

The video ‘5 ways to stop the Tories’ has had 300,000 views across social media. The website campaigntogether.org has had over 9,000 unique visitors. Around 60 per cent of the people who are signing up to be canvassers have never been involved with political campaigning before, which makes it really exciting.

We know that by going door knocking and engaging voters in these areas, we can sway people towards progressive candidates. And with it, change the course of this election. We know that each and every door knocked, each and every conversation, each and every vote can make a difference. People believe that their vote won't make a difference, but in the 2015 general election, just 700 votes across marginal seats gave the Tories their majority.

The concept of Big Organizing was coined by Becky Bond and Zack Exley veteran campaigners from the US. The two organizers pioneered the campaign’s effort to mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers across the country. The network of largely self-sufficient volunteer teams produced invaluable work for Bernie’s campaign.

The 22 rules of Big Organizing are published in Bond and Exleys book, Rules for Revolutionaries. Foremost among them is to trust and value volunteers at the same level of staff, allowing for the creation of a ‘peer to peer’ culture throughout the organizing structure. Whilst this can cause imperfections, the agency and ownership this gives volunteers over the campaign is essential for rapid growth. A central plan is essential for anchoring the operation. This plan involves a concrete set of predetermined actions, performance targets and milestones, all of which are transmitted to supporters through constant communication.

Campaign Together has replicated a great deal of the structure deployed by Big Organizing, with a network of national organizers, regional organizers and volunteers working across a distributed network.

By using simple technological solutions, social media, webinars and conference calls, Campaign Together are able to train up volunteers and match them to campaigns across the country and provide ongoing support and mentoring.

Key to the plan are preconceived roles for volunteers and small, medium and large ‘asks’ made of these supporters in accordance to their levels of commitment and experience. Intake processes and training plans that lead new recruits from simple entry tasks to managerial roles with increasing levels of responsibility.

At the core of Big Organizing is the key principle that the system is broken and it needs changing. Becky Bond:

People are beginning to understand that the problems we face now, like climate change and racial injustice, are too big for incrementalist solutions, we need to address these problems urgently and make huge changes before it’s too late.

One of the greatest lessons from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign was that a relatively tiny number of staff using fairly basic technology can unleash hundreds of thousands of volunteers to do serious work to advance a nationwide movement. There is no reason this energy shouldn’t continue to grow and be deployed to the UK.

Campaign Together aims to get 3,000 volunteers out canvassing on the streets before the general election. We are a third of the way there, with just four weeks to go. We believe we can make a difference. We can change this, but we can only do if we campaign together.

Kim Bryan is a national organiser for Campaign Together. For more information check out: campaigntogether.org