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From the Socialist Alliance Constitution: “An individual who lives too far from any branch to participate at branch level is regarded as an “at large” member.”

But what if you don't “participate” — for whatever reason besides distance — aren't you “at large” too?

I'm trying to hone in on what I think is a neglected conundrum for the SA.

While it may be the habit to divide the SA membership categorically up into “active” and “inactive” members — ruled by the criteria of who attends branch events — such an easy shorthand obscures a challenging reality.

Embedded in this outlook is the assumption that the only activity we offer for members to participate in the life of the party is ruled and formatted by the locality branch.

Don't get me wrong: I think branches are the core organising unit of what we do. They are the backbone of our day to day democracy and sustain our activist culture.

But branches aren't an easy DIY. Sandwiched between the hard slog of left-wing campaigning and the administrative requirements of the electoral commissions, branches are difficult to set up and an ongoing challenge to sustain.

Without them, however, we could not return to the attack again and again.

So branches, despite the challenge of maintenance, must serve as our primary building tool.

We are a small socialist party which is still marginalised by the limitation thus far of the number and locations within our branch network. While we have achieved so much in our 10 years we are still spread thinly over a massive landscape.

But to assume that replicating the branch form we currently utilise will deliver us geographical spread and sharp membership growth is mistaken. We know how challenging it is to organise the branches we have now, so how can we project more of the same into the future as our primary political footprint? What's more, how do we pass on our own branch life ethos and the political culture of the localities (so often with a rich political tradition and “rent-a-crowd”advantages) we currently draw on to do our stuff?

I'll remind you what our formal thinking is on the matter:

8.1 The basic unit of the Socialist Alliance is the local branch. A branch shall have at least seven members ... All Alliance members will be assigned to a branch by the appropriate district organising committee ... or, in the case of remote regions, by the National Executive. Members will normally live in the area covered by their branch, but alternatively may indicate the branch in which they will be active to the district organising committee or the National Executive. The National Executive may charter branches on a non-geographical basis where this helps the organisation of members.

So for us, branches serve as geographical organising units.

Branch building experiences: mine and other peoples

Since I've been a socialist for, give or take, 40 years I have had my share of branch life.

In the late sixties I spent a year or so as a member of the Communist Party of Australia. At the time the CPA was rifted by a faction fight which was soon to lead to a major split as the Moscow aligners left the party.

I was a member of, in turn, two CPA locality branches. We met in member's homes (including my own), went through an order of business, held discussions, decided on what we'd get up to, drank tea and went home. Branch life was very different from party campaigning, such as inside the unions or the central anti-war movement. Interventions there were either the province of industry branches or ad-hoc caucuses.

In later discussions I had with a long-time communist in Brisbane, the party's state organiser during the Second World War, the CPA there used to also run a series of what she called “Cottage Lectures” in member's homes through the 1950s which served as a sort of congregation of members and those close to the party. One member's house I went to had a room out back — a sort of sleep out — which was used for these forums as well as music sessions. The local CP here in Queensland was always into folk music.

I also served my time in the ALP — as it happened — at the time the Socialist Left was formed in Victoria.

What can I say? You met in a booked room at the local school or town hall (booking a room wasn't an option available to card-carrying Commies) once per month and dealt with a set agenda, move a few motions for the various electoral assemblies or state office to consider and make sure you finished your order of business before the pubs closed. There was more to-the-point debate at the electoral assemblies around matters of platform.

The party was a policy fiddling and networking machine. Aside from organising letter boxing and booth duties for impending polls — activism in ALP branches was always, in my experience, contained by factional alignment and job prospecting. That didn't mean that individual members weren't campaign active but rarely was this resourced by the party. In the ALP — as we know — different party factions war against each other to control unions, secure pre-selection, and whatever snout-in-the-trough junket is on offer. It's a very broad church.

Nonetheless, in the case both of the CPA and the ALP, the organisational rationale and party culture wasn't just an ideological package. It was sustained by both parties' trade union engagement and level of embeddedness as both formations projected themselves as organs, indeed leaders, of the working class.

I can't offer anecdotes on the Greens as I've never been a member — but their branch building experiences over the past ten years — when their growth rate accelerated — warrants study. I suspect that various locality networks — such as within Neighbourhood Community Centres — fused with the Greens and may in many instances have facilitated their local presence. But the fact that the Greens have spread across the country branch by branch to have at least a “meeting” presence in many diverse electorates suggests that a self-organising alternative (albeit polling- day focused) does come out of the woodwork when the time is right — despite the burden of electoral regulations.

As we know from our experience with Greens members their locality branches tend to focus on a policy development and an electioneering orientation similar to the ALP. Like the ALP, the Greens are primarily an electoralist party despite whatever movement activists there may be in their ranks.

The recent experience of the Greens creating branches underscores the fact that all communities create organisation. Whether it be the RSL, CWA, the Scouts, ad hoc festival committees, sporting clubs, CSG coalitions etc — neighbourhoods can strut their DIY stuff when they see the need to do so.

But after 12 years working in and with a range of community outfits I know how hard — especially under current incorporation rules — it is to initiate and sustain these enterprises. The advantages of having an already functioning and hopefully well-oiled “head office” to resource you is an administrative plus. But, as I'm sure the Greens are learning, lobbying your local members of council and parliament is a community group obsession because that's where largesse comes from. This cuts both ways and in turn, community groups offer local pollies a platform and photo op.

This somewhat compulsive symbiosis tends to rule over so much of community politics.

I don't want to go into any detail about my experience “socialist branch building” in the early seventies. Suffice to say that I contributed to the hard yards of the first year for Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance branches in Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane. Despite the times, and the burgeoning youth radicalisation, no branch ever got sucked out of any Bolshevik's thumb regardless of personal dedication and energy.

It was all hard yakker: accumulating contacts; distributing literature; networking; establishing routines and priorities — all well worth it for the legacy we now harvest. But then — nothing much has changed, right? Still the same ole, same ole.

What branches can and cannot do

I wanted to explore other party branch traditions because I think we suffer from a certain mindset about our branches and their utility. No doubt we have accumulated our own rich background of branch building especially since we are implanted in some regional centres as well as in a few suburban locales and are no longer contained within the confines of inner city left ghettoes. We may have had many experiences we can all learn from but you wouldn't know it because sharing the stories isn't happening as much as it should be.

Surely branch building in Wollongong or Geelong is a lot different from doing it from Swanston Street or Ultimo, or in Armidale or Parramatta, despite, that is, our preference to follow the same song sheet?

My point is that if we presume that the Alliance's future growth is dependent on creating more branches in more places like the ones we have now, how on earth is that going to happen? We also know how difficult it is to initiate and sustain branches because we have lost some as the movements receded.

How complex forming and running branches can be was captured in an archaic document I help write in 2004 — Socialist Alliance Branch Building Manual. I suspect that not much has changed in the years since.

Since I recently shifted to the suburban periphery and have been stymied by worsening ill health, from a distance, it has become clear to me that maybe we have set ourselves up to undermine what we set out to do.

How can that be?

A problem we have with our branches (most of them I'm assuming) is that they are all coal-face enterprises. They exist to go on the attack over and over again — relentlessly seeking ways to advance our agenda. This is, of course, the great strength of the SA's existence: our activity, our campaign focus, our energy and organisational aptitude.

But this attention comes with a price tag. We are so busy doing what we do at the local branch level that we do not attend to those who don't do it with us.

That's what I mean by “atlargeness”. If you aren't attending branch meetings, forums and fronting up for campaigns etc you are for all intents and purposes at large even if you live in cooee of the local Activist Centre.

We can talk up the advantages of branch life until the cows come home, but if you ain't there you ain't there.

To suggest that “Well, this is about activism” is poppycock. How do you know what it is about? Dividing the membership up into active and inactive members takes us nowhere in a hurry.

Dividing the party up into organised and non-organised does.

But here's the rub: for as long as I've been involved with membership issues, the presumption has always been that what we do is get the local branches to do the reach out work to connect with this “atlargeness” and organise it.

It doesn't always happen and it won't (either at all or consistently) because our party people are so flat out doing stuff at the coal face in front of them that there is not the attention, focus, time nor energy to attend to what may seem to be peripheral issue of people we never or seldom see.

In fact, more so since the DSP merged into the SA, a certain circle spirit has descended on branch life as we try to develop our organisational routines to complete all the tasks we have set ourselves. If our branches have their eyes on the prize, their backs may be all the rest of us see.

Don't misunderstand me: I don't want to change any of that because I know the realpolitick at state. There is simply no other way to do political business.

But we have to get away from the penchant to place the administrative burden more and more on the locality branches we have. Indeed, our history is spattered with failures to make this work for us — from membership renewal campaigns to writing and distributing state newsletters.

While it may be a cop out to say that we should instead nationally centralise more of these tasks, for the same reasons there is a limit to how far we can pass the buck up stairs. Tools we have — Green Left Weekly and the Socialist Alliance National Newsletter — but the atlargeness part (and it's a large part I suspect) of the SA is not necessarily being engaged with, let alone organised.

What to do? What to do?

I suspect that our primary problem is that we do not know how to organise in this milieu. Our mindset is in effect: branch it or we can do little for you.

I realize that a socialist “party” is all about branches. But we also need to recognise that we are also a socialist “alliance”' and as not as strong as we'd prefer.

I'm not playing at semantics — I'm trying to confront a forbidding reality: we need a transitional engineering that services and sustains all those who come to our banner no matter where they come from. At the moment we do not do that as well as we should.

While this is an issue open to experimentation we suffer from the assumption that if the branches and their leaderships don't do it — and variously they do or don't — then there's no one else who will.

To aspire to consolidate some form of state wide and federalist structure to handle this hasn't proven as effective as we had hoped.

But ultimately we're working from the same structural template that seeks to impose a particular form on what may be out there — and I mean out there: back of Bourke out there, in the regions out there and down the road in the suburbs out there.

I wondered about this because it's clear that any at-large SA member who seeks to do SA type stuff has to find ways to go down the branch route. That's not an easy ask for those without a branch life background.

I'll be making some tentative suggestions about what we could consider doing about this in a later Alliance Voice contribution which is currently being drafted.