Atlargeness: transitional engineering

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Previously I tried to outline a conundrum of our existence. I called it “atlargeness” because our activity is ruled by branch life, and those members who may not be branch engaged are not being organised so well by the party.

I cannot claim to have any solutions but I’d nonetheless like to raise some ideas that could be considered to format our thinking on the subject.

Branch burden

Newslettering

Let’s assume that all branches actively relate to and liaise with their members, contacts and periphery. Weakness there surely are but I think we should try not to require branches do more than they currently do.

However, I think branches could be more organised in how they communicate with their milieu and the option of generating a regular locality newsletter — similar and supplementary to the national SA newsletter — makes a lot of reach out sense.

Being rained upon by ad hoc emails or phoned up out of the blue is not the same as a planned and routine engagement that, I should add, is more than a calendar of events.

The easiest way to engineer a newsletter is to post your news and calendar items to a blog and link back to the successive posts in the one email.

What I appreciate about generating newsletters is that everyone can be on the same page regardless of where they are located or what level of contact they may have with one another. 

The act of creating the newsletter is a collective process of organising, planning activities, and arranging information while forcing the generators to look outward and project to an audience that they may not so often see.

Membership renewals

At the moment we rely on branches to chase membership renewals across each state.

We know that members will renew if asked, as most have no desire to stop being SA members.

I cannot see why we cannot encourage annual automatic deductions for membership fees.

Better still, why can’t we encourage members to pledge a regular deduction throughout each year to cover both their dues and an ongoing financial commitment to the work of the Alliance. If I can pledge x dollars per month to support the party’s work and know that my dues will also be taken out of that, I’m sweet, the party gets more money regularly and there are no administrative complications or phone ring-around hassles falling on the branch.

Member engagement

Online options

I don’t want to address the role of Green Left Weekly — along with stalls and standalone newspaper stumps — as a collective organiser for the Alliance because I think we recognise that. But GLW has a major limitation: it’s not necessarily a two-way street.

The SA (and GLW) has tried to address this by establishing a series of online forums and any post on the national web site is now open for contributed comment.

While I don’t know of any other party that does that, comment, like so much of online chat, can often lead nowhere special.

Unfortunately, when we set up a succession of open campaign egroups we later shot ourselves in the foot and made them private. Maybe this was necessary to protect the confidentiality of some tactical discussions, but the consequence has been that these egroups are no longer accessible to the unsubscribed membership as their content and internal life are closed to scrutiny.

I don’t think they should necessarily be made public again because they may still serve an ongoing campaign function, but as a means to engage with at large members they are blunted instruments.

I think we need to reconsider these forums and my preference is that we explore other options in order to sponsor some ongoing online engagement.

Alliance Voices

One option we could consider is to make more use of Alliance Voices as an organising tool swapping experiences and requesting advice/support. We can also open AV articles up to moderated online commentary ( or selectively open AV articles as that also is an option) or set up and run a supplementary moderated online forum geared to membership issues. I prefer the first option because it leads discussion by offering something specific and managed - in the form of a contributed article — whereas online forums can lead to chat all over the place.

We will not be able to rule on who is and who is not a SA member but we will be able to format the content of the discussions. So in matters of security, libel, trolling, flaming, directing focus, etc we would be in editorial control especially as modern discussion moderating apps are very easily customised.

Atlargers organising atlargers

When I went over my experience with local community groups, drawing in and harnessing the labour and talents of volunteers, it struck me that we tend to insist on full on multi- skilling based only at the party office — the local or state’s Activist Centre.

If you cannot be branch life active it doesn’t follow that you cannot contribute to the work of the Socialist Alliance. From resourcing other members’ ongoing political needs, following up membership inquiries and ringing around for membership renewals I suspect there is a plethora of tasks that could be done no matter where those tasks are generated from.

Telemarketing today is often based offshore and the web is not region confined.

In fact, we could assign atlargers to deal with some of the administrative tasks we are often so weak at performing — and we could do that nationally rather than look to the branches themselves to do it.

Member resourcing

Online education

Despite all the resources we invest in education in the party we suffer from the handicap that formal education is so often enclosed, event specific and seems sentenced to hard copy. At a time when even university degrees can be had via cyber space isn't it about time we caught up and placed educational resources, text excerpts, syllabi, class guides, etc online so that any member can access them as an educational resource?

Tool boxing

Much as the national web site is easy to navigate and is user friendly; and much as Green Left Weekly has labelling (albeit shallow) of content, it is only in the pages of Links that there has been a conscious effort to pull together resources and package them.

What we lack in terms of servicing all members — not just atlargers — are aggregations of resources for ongoing campaigns. What I’m talking about is not only articles, commentaries and reports but also the placards, posters, flyers and the like that are generated by localities and not normally shared.

If I’m, say, in regional NSW and I’m keen to take on Santos over CSG, if I can rely on reserve of resources to help do that I’m going to value and depend on my association with the Socialist Alliance.

Where we could host these resources is a moot point. But it seems to me that we could straightaway aggregate resource listings/references, videos and upload (and link back to) useful files (such as placards) for such key areas as the Northern Territory Intervention, coal seam gas and electioneering.

What I’m arguing for are packages of information and resources that can act as campaign tool boxes.

What you have when you don’t have a branch

In my earlier contribution I discussed branch building.

Our formal approach unfortunately presumes that branches have an on/off switch: there is either a branch in a locale or there is not. Inside a branch you are supposedly organised. 

Without being in one you’re not.

While this may seem a crude assessment I think it is nonetheless the approach that rules us.

The corollary is unfortunate: if you don’t plan to form a SA branch as an ASAP event – what’s the point of organising anything in the name of the Alliance?

Transitional engineering: twigging

I think we have to consider optional ways and means of engineering activities that may or may not lead to the formation of locality branches. But these need to be activities that have political and ongoing value in their own right.

I was searching my mind for a word to describe what I meant by this and the best I could come up with was twigging — as in tree :  branch : twig.

How to twig

Rather than getting all formal about this and seeking to incorporate some constitutional ruling to govern the activity, I’m suggesting that what we say to any atlarge SA member — or any would be atlarge SA member — organise an event as easily as you can and invite your friends and/or local network along.

Hold a BBQ or house party in your own home or a picnic in the local park and draw on Alliance resources — see above — as hardware. Maybe you could invite a SA speaker in from the Big Smoke or show a short video. You could book a room in a local hall if you want - but there are these domestic and casual options that have proven very useful reach out means in other parties (such as the Cottage Lectures run by the Communist Party in the 1950s which I described before) and for other campaigns (such as the Ralph Nader/ Peter Camejo campaigns for US president which relied so much on “house parties”).

This is where backup matters — the sort of resource and hardware “backup” I was referring to above. I’m not calling on already existing branches to service these activities as tends to be where the responsibility falls now.

If folk come together under auspices of events like this they could decide to instigate something or join a local campaign. They could decide to come together again; hold discussions about socialism and the content of GLW or gather on a regular basis. Maybe they just want to come together a few times each year to link up and touch base … or proceed keenly to form a SA branch.

Whatever is decided upon, I think the main game is to resource these activities and not be schematic as to their outcome.

What politics do you do?

Nonetheless, any time you approach the reality of atlargeness the complication will so often arise of once active, what politics do you do?

We may have a national party focused on various key campaigns but it doesn't follow that that attention can be replicated at some distance from the CBD.

In fact when you step away from our spotlighted activities we are very weak. This is often presented as our shallow engagement with “local issues”. I think there may be some truth in that but our problem is a chicken and egg conundrum: to do local you have to be local.

While I don't think it is very useful to assume that all our activities must come from the same song sheet, I think there is a lot to be said for prioritizing x number of key campaigns that at-large members can cherry pick from and adapt locally. While I talked about resourcing these (see above) I think we should also invest in a few core bread-and-butter issues that may have broad resonance.

While these may vary from state to state, issues that come to mind are public housing, health services, education and transport; electricity and water charges (as they relate to neo- liberalism and privatisation).

Conclusion

I guess that the main challenge has to be about rethinking our approach to branch building, making it more nuanced and maybe learning to experiment. We have to turn outwards more by developing some flexible transitional engineering protocols and a greater accessibility.

Our habit of thinking small and being enclosed by the myopia that breeds, has to consider the prospect of what if we were a party of 3000 plus members: how would we get there and how would we get organised?

randomness