Tuesday, 18 August 2009

the dog shit politics panacea

Nazis do it. Greens do it. Even socialists do it sometimes. Every day graft, listening to people, asking them what they want, and putting in the work to try and get it for them.

The dog shit politics of making sure the little things are dealt with, and that groups set achievable targets, winning things that non-activist people are actually interested in. It helps build a rapport between people and political groups, and keeps people grounded in everyday life.

Left-wing or pro-working class groups should be at a natural advantage in this arena. In the first place they´re supposed to have a deeper understanding of the forces that are behind attacks on working class communities, so should have a better understanding of how to fight back. They don´t have the big disadvantage that far right groups do, in that they aren´t trying to peddle racism and they don´t have quite the pariah status that Nazis do.

Groups that have tried taking this approach have had varying degrees of success.

The group that made it the center of its political outlook, the IWCA, had a few early victories. It established bases in two London boroughs, Glasgow and Oxford, producing creditable results in the first three places, and steadily increasing their councillors to a high of four on Oxford city council.

Over time though the number of outposts shrank, as Glasgow withered away, Hackney left the organisation and Islington went quieter (is it still functioning?) and short-lived flurries of activity in Harold Hill and Thurrock seemed to disappear over time.

The IWCA´s trajectory seemed to prove that outposts could be built and people engaged, with good day-to-day community work, but that it was difficult to expand from that kind of base and that small-numbers of activists could become bogged down in electoral work and community campaigning.

The Socialist Party, a bigger, national organisation, has usually orientated itself in its day-to-day work towards the ´dog shit´ end of politics, whether that be in the trade unions or in community work. On the other hand it does have to wear its other hat as part of the Committee for a Workers´ International, being the historical consciousness of the entire international working class and all.

Over the past two decades they built significant local bases in Coventry and Lewisham, as well as picking up the odd councillor as opponents of NHS privatisation. The SP´s approach differs substantially from the IWCA, in that rather than seeing themselves as a sort of political wing of their communities, they have their own very tightly defined ideas on policy and theory, whilst still trying to attract adherents through practical everyday work.

Although the SP have had a degree of success where they´ve applied themselves in this way, the last year or so has seen them increasingly drawn into high-level trade union work in pursuit of the real long-term project - The Campaign for a New Workers Party.

Straight old-fashioned British Trots, the SP want a bigger sea of reformist workers to swim in, in order to win them over to socialism. Yet, as their rubbish attempt to stand in the last election shows, people won´t vote for you just because a workers´ organisation is involved. Their years of community activism, just like their trade union work has been unable to propel their wider ambition, and they remain restricted to historical footholds.

Which probably goes to show that whilst community activism can build a modest platform, it doesn´t expand your organisation dramatically unless you´re actually selling an idea that people want to buy into.

Meanwhile, a handful of anarchistically-inspired groups have also been doing similar sorts of activism, trying to engage people in everyday politics in a way that attracts them to the idea of a radically democratic society. Groups like Haringey Solidarity Group argue that they can make a real difference to people´s lives through campaign work and engage people in a different kind of political action.

I heard that the people behind HSG have maintained some sort of consistent organisation since the old Poll Tax Unions, which in itself is an achivement for a community group. The question is expansion. Community work is an end in itself, and on some level you´d certainly be happy to devoting your time to improving what you can for yourself and your neighbours. But there is still the question of putting yourself in a position to challenge things.

Groups that focus on elections often get sucked into to the constant, exhausting cycle of winning and maintaining representation, to the detriment of other work. However, groups without that focus often seem to spend much of their existence looking for things to get their teeth into. Without something to campaign on, activity can often dwindle and leave the same small group of people keeping the thing ticking over until the next significant issue.

Much of the energy that was going into groups like HSG has re-directed itself into the London Coalition Against Poverty, which with a broader focus and direct action case work to get stuck into, seems to be better at keeping people involved and occupied.

In terms of sustaining a permanent large-scale organisation capable of advancing the big aims though, the municipal anarchism model still seems to have a missing ingredient that prevents it from pushing on to the next level.

Another category of ´dog shit´ activists has emerged out of the disintegration of the Labour Party in the last few years. In Barrow-in-Furness, a 1997 splinter group led by the former constituency party chair stood in a by-election and lost their deposit. Subsequently they´ve taken a number of borough council seats and currently hold four, it might be more if they hadn´t had their own falling out and lost a load of seats to another independent splinter from the group. The all-women shortlists debacle that led most of the Blaenau Gwent CLP to leave, resulted in one MP and a bundle of councillors for People´s Voice candidates in the last elections (though many of them seem to have left for independent status subsequently) and school protesters took Gwynedd council off Plaid Cymru.

In the leftie news reccently were the Community Action Party, a mash-up of various political backgrounds, which until recently held 18 seats on Wigan borough council. They´ve split (obviously) and recently formed a People´s Alliance with the local SP and the Respect Party. George Galloway even came up to shake everyone´s hand.

The trouble these organisations seem to have is that being formed over local issues, they tend to subsequently split over them. They´ve also got very limited horizons, as well as an M.O. and a structure (in most cases semi-clientalist) that limits them in that way. The lack of resources is exposed in the homely, 1997 style websites.

They´ve got a lot of advantages though. Clearly they show up out of a need, and are identified with something that resonates with their electorate. There´s a meaningful and organic connection with the communities that throw them up, rather than trying to manufacture something out of nothing (and the ¨Save our XXX¨ campaign style doesn´t work if you haven´t got the links or the issue spot on - Colchester Save Our Bus Station did abysmally in local elections a few years back for precisely that reason).

But without broadening their appeal nationally, these groups will eventually outlive either their campaign or the particular local political figure that gave them life. Longer-term, only by broadening their appeal and linking with other groups can they sustain themselves.

The groups that are currently profiting out of community campaigning (the BNP and The Green Party) have a few things in common (aside from a shared love of rural idylls :P), firstly they have a significant national organisation that can sustain local groups all year round, stimulate new groups with resources, produce professional campaign material and maintain attractive, well-used and well-updated websites. This gives the outward impression of being permanent and modern organisations. They combine an organisational focus on the ´dog shit´ stuff, with the ability to intervene on national issues and throw out ´dog whistle´ sound-bites and policies to get new people involved and build up new groups. The two things necessarily compliment one another.

No group can have a national impact without both these elements in play, and that is the key to building something meaningful and permanent.

this was cross-posted from the awesome new meanwhile at the bar blog.

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