Standing up and standing out
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’.
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.
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.
Organizing on campus
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’.
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.