1 People doing politics 1 People doing politics
1.2

Activists

Lone protestor

Standing up and standing out

He was standing on the intersection near al-Salhia, just beside the Ministry of Information, all alone and holding a sign saying in Arabic IRAQIS REFUSE TO TAKE ANY HUMANITARIAN AID FROM JORDANIANS AND EGYPTIANS. Right on!

7:30pm, 30 March 2003
Salam Pax, The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi, 2003

Doing politics means standing up for things we believe in, often metaphorically but sometimes literally. The person standing marks themselves out from others sitting, or from the crowd around them, and so draws attention to what they’re standing for.

Nick Couldry writes about a man who wears a hat with a small umbrella fixed to it: he is the Umbrella Man. It was a joke hat he’d bought at the seaside, but he’s pasted it with stickers and slogans. He is a former trade unionist, and now campaigns on issues of public services, such as hospital closure and pensioners’ rights; he’s also been involved in direct action against animal experiments, road-building and land use. He does so by drawing attention to himself, and so to the issues with which he’s concerned: by positioning himself in studio audiences at talk shows, visiting a hospital where the Queen Mother has been admitted, handcuffing himself to an underground train, entering government buildings without permission. He walked into the Treasury on Budget Day 1996 dressed as Father Christmas, his coat adorned with flashing lights, campaign stickers and signs about the ill-treatment of pensioners. As he says, ‘I always try to break the law in a nice way’.


Strike organizer

Living it

I do care about things that are hurting other people, ordinary people, and they call me a ‘community activist’ but me, I’m just an ordinary grandmother and Avon lady.

Shelley Winter, ‘Because we were living it’, 2013

The 320 workers at the Magnet factory in Darlington voted to strike over pay in August 1996. Though the company sacked and replaced them, their dispute went on for almost two years. Shelley Winter didn’t work for Magnet, but her husband and daughter both did, and she supported the strike.

Striking meant forming picket lines outside the factory, 24 hours a day on each of three gates, while some of the women involved also gathered outside the showroom, trying to prevent sales. But it also meant having no money: not just losing wages, but also entitlement to social security benefits, including children’s school dinners. Meanwhile, different unions involved in the dispute were in conflict with each other and their head offices seemed to be slow to offer support.

Brian used to drive me about and he drove me to Dundee one night to speak – only 10 or 12 people sometimes at a meeting – and we used to drive back during the night to go back on the picket line for a mass picket at 6 o’clock and then I used to be making crumpets and toast and cleaning the caravans out and that. And people don’t see that.

Shelley Winter, ‘Because we were living it’, 2013

The striking women began to organize: they wrote to the company’s shareholders, and went to their meetings in London. Because the unions wouldn’t offer strike pay, they called their General Secretaries and went to talk to them, too. Shelley talked to the men on the picket line to try to understand what had gone on at work, and went to speak on their behalf at public and other meetings, to press their case, to garner support for it, and to raise funds.

The picket line was an essential, visible marker of the dispute: a line drawn between worker and owner, between those prepared to cross it and those who won’t, between employer and employee, labour and capital, us and them. It’s not literally a line on the road, but is marked by a gathering of people at a gate. In order for it to be drawn and to continue to be marked, other kinds of political work need to be done. Some of it was done in public, on stages such as the one at the Hackney Empire she shared one night with political comedians, or others in meeting rooms around the country, or in interviews with journalists on newspapers and magazines. Yet much of the work of the strike was hidden, taking place backstage or offstage, behind the scenes.


Student activist

Organizing on campus

All we did was activism. We would get up in the morning, make leaflets, print them, prepared in time for students arriving at college. We would leaflet all day taking to people, then organise actions on campus. It was non-stop all the time.

Jamie Woodcock, in Matt Myers, Student Revolt, 2017

In his account of the student protests which took place across the UK in 2010, Matt Myers notes that ‘The occupations were organising hubs from which to conduct outreach to workers and school students; fast-track finishing schools for activists; cauldrons of competing ideas, organisations and traditions; points of pressure and leverage against university managements; centres of cultural and intellectual exchange; liberated spaces in which students wished to prefigure a new kind of society’.

Your job as an organizer was to find out what it was that people wanted to be different in their lives, and then to persuade people that it mattered whether they decided to do something about it. This is not the same thing as persuading people that the thing itself matters: they usually know it does. The task is to persuade people that they matter: they know they usually don’t.

Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Spadework’, 2019


Campaign volunteer

You get involved

Not many people are paid to do politics. For most it is a voluntary activity, and usually a group activity, too, something we do with others.

Dave spoke of ‘stuffing envelopes, holding signs on street corners, going to rallies, you know canvassing, leaflet drops, that type of thing… You get involved in one campaign and you find this sort of network of people, that you know are politically active, and you just get to become part of that group.’

Bill received a call from an old friend from another campaign who was pitching one of the statewide candidates… (He) started taking calls from the campaign field manager on how to organize getting enough signatures to get on the ballot, then went to the convention and spent 72 hours straight organizing votes to make sure the candidate did get on the ballot. Other than the convention, most of his time was spent on the phone from his office.

Pattie spent most of her time working on environmental issues, but was so impressed when she heard one candidate speak that she dragged her husband to a fundraiser and had been busy helping out the campaign (in between her environmental work) ever since – organizing regional meet the candidate events, marshalling (and then keeping in line) all of her friends to support the candidate, decorating a float in the town parade with the candidate’s signs and bumper stickers, ‘yapping’ to her doctor, the toll booth worker, and anyone who would listen about what a great guy this candidate was.

Betsy Super, Everyday Party Politics, 2009
Notes

Salam Pax, The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi, New York: Grove Press, 2003

Couldry, N (2001) ‘The Umbrella Man: crossing a landscape of speech and silence’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 4 (2) 131–152; ‘I always try to break the law…’ is p 142

McBride, J, Stirling, J and Winter, S (2013) ‘”Because we were living it”: the hidden work of a strike’, Work, Employment and Society 27 (2) 244-253

Matt Myers, Student Revolt. Voices of the austerity generation, London: Pluto Press, 2017; ‘The occupations were organizing hubs…’ is p 136.

‘Your job as an organizer…’: Alyssa Battistoni (2019) ‘Spadework. On political organizing’, n+1 34

The profiles of campaign volunteers are from Elizabeth H Super, Everyday Party Politics: local volunteers and professional organizers in grassroots campaigns, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2009