UK General Election: ‘Big Organizing’ crosses the pond

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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

Stuck in the middle

Fortress Europe

Protecting Europe from those not welcome in it. Sara Prestianni/Noborder Network under a Creative Commons Licence

In September, more than 350 sub-Saharan migrants attempted to enter Ceuta via sea, by swimming around a forbidding wire fence separating the tiny Spanish enclave from its border with Morocco. In rubber rings, tyres, with life jackets and armbands only 91 managed to evade the Moroccan border patrols, the rest were repelled back to the northern African nation by border police.

When the 91 swimmers landed breathless and exhausted on the beach, there were shouts of ‘ole’ and one unfurled a Spanish flag. But soon they were confronted by security forces who transported them in vans to the city's Centre for Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI).

There are frequent mass breaches of Ceuta but attempting to swim to the frontier city is relatively new. Trying to get in by land can be lethal. In 2005, at least 17 people died when they were caught between the rubber bullets of Spanish police and machine gun fire from Moroccan security forces.

The fence encloses Ceuta. Andalucian Association for Human Rights

Protecting Europe's only land borders from outsiders are two parallel three metre (10 foot) fences topped with barbed wire, with regular watch posts. In between runs a road where police patrol. Underground cables connect spotlights, noise and movement sensors. Several police ships guard the coast.

Those who make the perilous journey from sub-Saharan Africa to Ceuta are often doing so to escape armed conflict or political persecution. Others are looking for work and a better life than the one they have left behind. The journey into the Spanish enclave can take months, even years, and it can be life threatening. Some migrants fly to Morocco, others are smuggled across Africa by traffickers based on promises they do not intend to keep, who demand more money throughout the journey, often taking travel documents off migrants to exert more control.

Migrants typically spend months hiding out in the mountains of Morocco waiting for an opportunity to cross the border. There are said to be hundreds, if not thousands, camped out. Those who are caught by Moroccan police are deported to the border of Mauritania, 3,000 kilometres to the south. Those that succeed in crossing Ceuta’s fortified fence are corralled into the CETI. The centre has capacity for 512 and is currently running at 700.

Described by one resident as a 'voluntary detention centre', debate rages as to whether it is the epitome of good practice or is plunging people into an inhumane situation where they may remain  for years. Residents are given an identity card and can receive legal services. There is a gym and a 24-hour medical facility. Breakfast, dinner and snacks are available. There is a curfew - inmates have to be in by 11pm and can't go out again until 7am. It is risky staying in the CETI; being known by the authorities could mean sudden deportation.

An African migrant struggles across sand as sunbathers look on. Andalucian Association for Human Rights

Nobody is obliged to stay in the centre but in Ceuta there is no other way to survive. A relatively small enclave with one main high street, migrants are not allowed to work legally. Finding ways to make money is impossible due to the size of the territory and the fact that Moroccans seem to have a monopoly on poorly-paid unregulated employment.

In effect, the city, with its fences and sea, is one big detention centre from which migrants cannot leave. Once in the system the real waiting game begins. A confusing legal tangle dictates if, and when, someone can travel to mainland Spain, just 13 kilometres away. Ceuta is part of the EU’s Schengen area but because the borders within Europe have been weakened, Europe's external borders have been strengthened. The enclave, along with Melilla, is responsible for protecting the external southern border of Europe - the crossroads between two continents - and the rest of Europe wants this gateway sealed off. But Ceuta is part of Spain and so migrants should have the right to cross to the peninsula.

Romero Aliaga, a lawyer for the Comision Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEARS), says the whole process is illegal: ‘Keeping people in Ceuta is against the law. The Spanish High Court states that migrants should have the freedom to move throughout Spain and the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) agrees. In theory, the maximum stay for someone in the CETI centre is three months; in practice, people have been there for up to four years.

At the end of Ceuta's single main street is an astonishing view - to the left, the African continent spreads out far to the south; to the right is mainland Spain and the rest of Europe, tantalizingly close but bureaucratically far. For those who have escaped political persecution and war, to have journeyed so far and to then have to endure endless waiting is a brutal psychological assault.

A demonstration calling for dignity and human rights. Andalucian Association for Human Rights

If entering Europe seems unlikely, returning to countries of origin is not an option. Some migrants are asylum seekers, others no longer hold documents and Spain does not have a repatriation treaty with a lot of sub-Saharan countries. Deportation to Morocco often means harsh treatment by the police and for non-Moroccan citizens, further deportation to the border of Mauritania, West Africa - an unknown country for many. For most migrants and their families, the economic, physical and emotional costs of travelling to Ceuta mean that giving up hope and going back home is unthinkable. 

Tom, a resident of CETI says: ‘It is not the clothes or the food we want. We ask only for our dignity, for the right to work and to live.’ This is a feeling echoed by all of the centre's 700 or more residents. They want to build a new life for themselves. But in the CETI they stay, waiting, unable to go forwards and unable to turn back.

For more information on the situation of immigrants in Ceuta see the Land In Between website.

This blog is part of New Internationalist's human rights series for Blog Action Day 2013.

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