Hello new members! I’m writing this at the point where you are part of 25,000 folk (and rising) who have signed on the dotted line – or rather ticked a box online – and signed up for the SNP. You’ve arrived here via lots of different routes, but all in the wake of a referendum campaign that has reinvigorated participatory democracy like nothing else before.
The amount of razzmatazz the Yes campaign generated was unbelievable. Someone tweets on a Sunday evening “hey, let’s all go to George Square on Tuesday for a rally!” and 48 hours later thousands of folk show up and have a laugh. A guy on Facebook decides to have a get together at the Meadows on polling day and hundreds turn out. We could have used you for the knock up though, folks…
Parties are different. There’s a structure, there’s bureaucracy, there’s a rulebook. There’s internal elections, selections, vetting, and delegacies. None of this is bad, nor should it put you off. It’s just the nuts and bolts stuff that keeps internal democracy and external campaigning functioning. All parties get a bad rap for this stuff; a number of the commentariat like to occasionally poke fun at things that seem from the outside to be arcane and silly. But when you’re actively involved in the mechanics of what keeps the show on the road, most of it is perfectly sensible and necessary to actually fulfil the function of a political party – to get things done, and done in a way that wins you votes and influence over the political agenda.
I remember walking along to my first branch meetings thinking they’d be hotbeds of debate; the nuance and intricacies of party policy vigorously contested by all strands of opinion, discourse and rhetoric filling the air from start to finish. Of course, the main thing I remember about my first branch meeting was the discussion about what colour paper to print some leaflets on. The debates and discussions are there – but you still need to keep the lights on.
Take campaign organisation. In the Yes campaign, if you were part of a local group, you had a Lead Volunteer directing the operation. In the SNP they’re Organisers, coming in Branch or Constituency varieties. Organising campaigning is sometimes pretty tedious stuff; CSV files, clipboards, post-it notes, leaflet runs, stickers – if you’ve a stationery fetish this is your time to get your rocks off. But it’s all incredibly important. Think about the campaign when you went out knocking doors – you got lists with names and addresses on it, you got a pen, a bundle of leaflets – someone somewhere had to make up the lists, someone got the pens, someone made sure you had enough leaflets, someone decided it was that particular street in that particular scheme on that particular evening you were visiting, someone took away your completed canvass sheets and inputted the data… and so on. It’s long, hard work, and the totally unsung heroes of the Yes campaign were the people around the country who did exactly this for 2 years, fitting it around work, family, the laundry, their lives. If they hadn’t been burning the midnight oil putting all this stuff together, no way the result would have been the same.
And that’s just one aspect of it; there’s the policy discussions that – gasp in surprise at such antediluvian procedures – do happen. There’s the internal debate about things like AWS or the composition of the National Executive Committee or how we select candidates which might seem dry and inward-looking even to anoraks like me, but actually matter. It’s your party and it’s up to you how you and the other 50-odd thousand of us how we shape it and how it represent us. Yes, you’ll be tearing your hair out on occasion as the branch meeting reaches AOCB on the agenda and you’re gasping for a pint, but I wouldn’t trade the simple common decency of a community centre on a Monday night, all of us having our say, something I wouldn’t swap for all the National Policy Forums in all the Labour world.
It’s this work that goes on, between elections, behind the scenes, that makes a party. It’s the meetings and conferences – and sometimes the drinks afterwards – that bring you new friends, new perspectives, new thoughts, that make a campaign machine, that have you sharing confidences, that mean you’re part of a team. You might have new ideas; they might be voted down. Them’s the breaks. Go back to the drawing board, get on the phone, and try to make them work. We get these things right, the prospects for our cause get brighter.
What am I trying to say here, other than possibly coming across like a condescending twit breaking his 21-month old blogging hiatus? I dunno. Something like: there’s more to politics than the politics. The craic’s good as well. But always, always, bring a pen.