Building the Socialist Alliance

Building the Socialist Alliance

The following report was presented to the September 5 Socialist Alliance National Council meeting and subsequent motions were adopted.

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We’ve just discussed a political situation that presents us with heaps of opportunities to build the Socialist Alliance.

Forty per cent of federal election votes went to neither major party. Over 1.5 million votes went to the Greens and nearly 50,000 went to socialist candidates. Over 30,000 of those were cast for the Socialist Alliance. While this is cause for ‘woo hoo’, this vote was of course assisted by the donkey factor.

21,000 votes in NSW for the Evans/Iskander Senate team, and over 4,100 in Queensland for the Watson/Lowe Senate team. We’ll never know the true impact of the donkey in NSW; it will no doubt continue to be the subject of debate.

But the increase in Queensland is very tangible. Especially in Aboriginal communities we experienced a marked increased, reflecting the work of comrades over time, and of Sam Watson in In Cunningham, just over 1300 people voted for us. This is up from 706 in 2007, which was double the result in 2004. This reflects work on ground, the consistent profile of leading comrades, and an excellent candidate Jess Moore. We got some great media coverage of Jess, especially during ‘GoogleAd-gate’. Nothing compared to the majors, even the Greens, but very good profile. And there’s definitely a growing respect for what we do and how we do it.

We got nearly 1000 votes in Corio, triple the last election result. Candidate Sue Bull is more high-profile than we thought, which isn’t a surprise really. But comrades in Geelong think the other main factor in the vote was simply that people are looking for an alternative and we are articulating one.

In Grayndler, Newcastle and Denison, Socialist Alliance received between 800-900 votes, reflecting the strong campaigns there and the consistent work over the years. In Denison, Mel addressed 12 candidate meetings, convincing people along the way. You can’t deny we had impressive candidates: Sam Watson, Soubhi Iskander, Sharon Firebrace, and the list goes on.

These numbers and campaigns all prove there is certainly an audience out there for socialist ideas. There is lots of potential to build and strengthen the Socialist Alliance. I think about Wollongong: even though it’s only a small percentage of the vote, it blows my mind to think there are 1300 people in the Illawarra who ticked us #1. How many ticked us #2 before the ALP? As Dave Lowe said, “the problem is finding these people”! Let’s talk about how to do that.

The state of Socialist Alliance

How’s Socialist Alliance looking? Our most basic indicator, membership, is up. We’ve grown by 90 members since the last National Council meeting (June 2010) This means we fell short of our target of joining another 170 members by the end of August, but it’s a good advance given the federal election intervened. 90 more members is nothing to sneeze at.

We continue to consistently join new members through the SA website - a good sign. Visits went through the roof during the election campaign (over 9000 page views on August 21, over 60,000 hits for the month of August), and the Green Left Weekly website has just won another Hit Wise award for visits. People out there can see what we’re doing.

We have 17-21 branches around the country depending on how a couple describe themselves! In terms of strength, the situation varies: there are certainly some branches that have geared down. Melbourne West for example has been less active this year, although it has still grown, largely from website joiners.

Cairns up in far north Queensland has been less active as a branch, though they've maintained regular stalls. They have a plan to re-launch at the start of next year.

So some are less active but others are cranking up, especially during the elections. New England and Lismore had a surge of activity, and Canberra is “alive and kicking” in the words of the organiser, Farida.

The exciting news at the last NC meeting was the establishment of Townsville branch. I’m happy to report that that branch is consolidating, recruited people during election campaign and reports lots of potential to grow.

The exciting news this NC? How about that Vincent and Erica from Sydney (Erica joined during election campaign) have decided they want to pioneer a Sydney Northside branch. They plan to kick things off with a get together with interested others over some coffee. A good way to start.

WA comrades still have plans to launch an Activist Centre in Fremantle too; we just need to find the right place and continue the drive for regular donations.

OK, so on the whole we’re growing but our strength varies around the country. What can we do to continue building and strengthening the Socialist Alliance over the next period?

All out for state elections in Victoria and NSW

Nothing energises and mobilises our membership like election campaigns. For example, over 80 people were involved in the Cunningham campaign in the Illawarra, including 52 staffing polling booths on August 21. Comrades letterboxed 28,000 leaflets, 20,000 of which we folded into DL (!!!!!!!). Illawarra has netted 16 new joiners or renewals since August 21, and a number of branches have reported new people getting involved during the elections.

Melbourne had 111 people involved in the Wills and Gellibrand campaigns. They leafleted 30,000 Senate leaflets and 29,000 Wills leaflets. Perth had 47 donators to their election campaign. They've joined four members in the last 48 hours.

It's reality that more people are more open to politics during elections. Put that receptiveness together with our comrades' energy and enthusiasm during elections and you will get growth for organisations such as ours.

Let's throw ourselves into these state election campaigns as a priority. Other states can get involved too - Hobart is hoping to send a comrade (or 5) to Melbourne to help out there.

Membership drive

The key proposals from this report are that we launch a serious national membership campaign together with a serious drive for GLW subscriptions.

Propose to increase membership by 200 new members by the end of this year, something that's very doable. Consider:

  • WA still has the aim of reaching 100 members by end of year.
  • Illawarra is aiming to be biggest branch in the country soon (watch your backs big branches).
  • A serious membership drive is the key first step in consolidating gains made from federal election campaign, and it's something we can implement across the country.

Every branch organising committee should draft a target list, then assign leading members to chase up the names. For example, in the Illawarra we’ve drafted a list of names then divided it among four or five comrades to chase up. The branch convener is coordinating the drive, reminding, chasing, etc. The list includes every single person who helped out with election campaign (letterboxing, booth staffing, etc), every person who has joined our local SA Facebook group, all former members, and, importantly, Resistance members who are not in SA.

Let’s be confident and ambitious given the political context we’ve discussed. We've been surprised in Wollongong: some unexpected people have said yes!

Something that would make such a drive easier would be an Introduction to the Socialist Alliance pamphlet, like the excellent What Resistance Stands For. Comrades should say whether they think that would be useful, or other ideas. This is also a call out for volunteers to help draft such a pamphlet.

Green Left Weekly subscriptions

In conjunction with the membership drive, let’s make a serious push on subscriptions to Green Left Weekly.

GLW is probably the greatest political asset the left has in this country, and the envy of many parties around the world. Its news section has no rival in terms of covering the workers' side of disputes. (Just last week, a steelworker member in Wollongong got a propaganda email from employer BlueScope. They checked out GLW for the workers' side of the story condemning scab labour).

GLW’s analysis and ability to host important debates is also unrivalled. For example, how vital was Simon Butler's response to Dick Smith's rubbish in his doco Population Puzzle? It's still the case that many of our joiners come from the readership of Green Left Weekly. At least two of our new joiners in the Illawarra have been subscribers, and helped us out during the election campaign.

Given the surge in Green votes, there's probably never been a better time to have a newspaper called Green Left Weekly. A lot of our readers are actually Greens members, red Greens to some degree. We can actually play a really important role in influencing the Greens in this important political situation. This is very important considering the debates we know are going on inside the Greens.

GLW can keep you sane in this insane world. It gives us confidence to discuss politics with anyone on pretty much any issue. Building our subscriptions base is the second thing we need to do to consolidate gains from the elections.

This report proposes we aim to sell 300 new subscriptions between now and the end of the year.

If you look at the subscriptions handout, 671 is the total number of SA members who are currently without a sub or with an expired sub, plus Resistance members whose subs have expired. This makes the 300 realisable: it’s less than half of the people in this pool.

What does a serious effort mean?

  • First up, we need to work this in with the state election campaigns. We should approach Greens party workers on election days, but also in the lead up. If we're doorknocking for the elections, we should have GL's and subscription forms on us. Geelong have discussed linking GLW subs and distribution with the election campaign, targeting areas we'll be campaigning in and where we're strong.
  • Where we haven't got elections coming up, let's look at what Hobart comrades are planning. They've decided to do targeted door-knocking in teams over the next few months, starting with people on their contact lists. They plan to discuss elections, but also GLW and SA, leaving people with a paper, a subscription form and an SA joining form, and follow them up a week or two later. Can we try this out in other places? Hobart, Wollongong and Melbourne all reported positive experiences from doorknocking, but why limit ourselves to only doing it during elections? We should actually go to people, rather than relying on people approaching us on stalls, etc.
  • Let's send a complimentary four-issue subscription to people we think would appreciate GLW and want an ongoing subscription. During those four weeks we shoul include full-page ads in the paper urging people to subscribe, get active, etc.
  • We need more “GLW promoters”, like Terry does for Links. We need to turn more web visitors into subscribers, even into active participants and SA members. I mentioned earlier the Hit Wise Award for GLW: check out the rise in hits in the last three months. This would reflect the elections, but also that we've been doing some more promotion of the paper recently.

One particularly interesting statistic is that visits to GLW from mobile devices — iphones, ipads etc — have risen more sharply than overall web hits. From 1,362 in June; 2,117 in July and 2,868 in August. These devices are opening up the Internet readership to broader demographics.

We are still working on improving the GLW site: with an eye to attracting more readership, increasing the through-the-week updates (which impact a lot on readership), getting visitors to read other articles on the site (and on our other sites - Socialist Alliance, Links, Resistance, etc), and encouraging more to contribute to the project (e-subscriptions and donations). We should encourage comments and discussion on the GLW website too.

Comrades can help by sending in content, encouraging broader participation in writing, taking photos/videos and by passing on links to articles to all their friends and workmates who may be interested in a particular story. You can email it, FB it, Twitter it, or do the lot!

In the next period we would also like to explore partnership possibilities with Actively Radical TV to see if we can take further steps towards establishing leftwing Internet TV connected with GLW Online.

So, we are proposing a serious push on subscriptions to GLW, including online promotion. We also need to discuss street distribution of GLW because sales have dropped.. You can see from the handout that subs are relatively steady, but individual sales are down.

We need to open a discussion here on how we can address this. There are no magic solutions, but there have been some good news, e.g. Canberra has sold out their bundle for a couple of weeks in a row, and GLW is going down especially well at Walk Agaianst Warming and Equal Love rallies.

The suggestions regarding the subscriptions drive will hopefully help re-enthuse people about the GLW project, but what are some other things we can try?

  • First, it's good to note that the hourly sales rate hasn't dropped. So whenever we increase organisation we get results. Can we aim to increase the organisation of sales in the branches? Melbourne may have a new and energetic sales organiser: where else can we bring someone on?
  •  Should we have a special sales week? I propose we do have a special sales week for the last issue of the year, in December: a week where we focus on maximum participation and “buddy” selling to expand our distribution. Adelaide is actually planning a local distribution blitz starting on October 18; branches should feel free to follow their example.
  • We should use the SA National Newsletter too. It's great to tie all our work together and give members a sense of SA as a national organisation. In the newsletter we should encourage greater participation in our campaigning stalls.
  • GLW can be an excellent tool to organise our members and supporters. Not only is it tops for reaching out, it's also excellent to involve members in weekly activity, develop relationships between comrades and get members working together actively.

Finances and fundraising

Regarding national finances, it looks like branches did pretty well with election campaign budgets. Some finished with healthy surpluses (e.g. Geelong).

But the federal election has put a real strain on our GLW finances and Activist centres across the country. The GLW Fighting Fund has only just reached half way (ideally we would have passed that at the end of June) and we finished August with a deficit nationally.

The big standout factor is that we are behind on branch fundraising schedules. This is the key priority in our finances — for branches to catch up this shortfall, especially those branches not involved in state election campaigns.

Some have good plans: Brisbane has Wall Street II bulk bookings, Hobart has a film festival planned for October, Adelaide has their GLW dinner this month. But it's important that those branches organising a collective fundraising target send through an updated schedule to the finance office. We must make sure we catch up here because without financial stability, all of our political projects will grind to a halt.

There's quite a bit of debt owing to Green Left Weekly for bundles, but we could more than cover that if we chased up debts owed to local Activist Centres.

We need to chase up outstanding Fighting Fund pledges too.

This report has gone through quite a bit: state election campaigns; a membership drive and GLW subscriptions push as the key things to run on now; a look at GLW street distribution; and our finances and fundraising. The final few things I want to look at - education, building Resistance and strengthening leadership - are as much about how we can pull off these things as they are proposals in and of themselves.

Socialist ideas and education

For our members to become more than just numbers we need a strong focus on education, on socialist ideas.

Farida, Canberra branch organiser, noted that strong movement groups can train new activists well, but how do we convince people for the long haul? How do we win people to the struggle for social justice in general, not just a specific campaign? Socialist ideas and education are vital.

This report reaffirms that we have strong education programs in the branches. There are some solid plans in this area in a few branches that others might want to replicate.

  • Hobart is swinging into educational meetings every fortnight.
  • Perth have three “socialist ideas seminars” between now and end of year.
  • Melbourne socialist ideas seminars are held twice a month.
  • Canberra has Brett back to take classes on socialism, Marxism, etc.
  • Adelaide has its socialist ideas conference in October.
  • There is the national trade union and community summer school in Melbourne.

Importantly, especially given the membership drive, we need to pay special attention to newer members; we need to make time for them. Discussion classes can be really useful for this, and comrades should ask Melbourne branch for its two-part Introduction to Socialism Classes, which are well worth other branches doing.

Unfortunately, this report proposes we put off our biggest proposal regarding education, the Climate Change | Social Change conference. Given the state election campaign in Victoria, comrades think it just isn't possible to do such a conference justice. It's too much (there are also lots of other conferences on around the same time).

The proposal is that we look to the October 1-3 weekend next year. Earlier dates were either not good for the confirmed international speakers, or were too close to the ACAS. Organising our conference in the same city as ACAS, close to the date, would undermine our ability to send a strong team to the ACAS, something that's really necessary given our involvement in Climate Action Groups around the country.

Subject to the dates being OK with the Office of Environmental Programs at Melbourne Uni, they will work. It's the last weekend of semester break at Melbourne Uni and a long weekend in NSW, ACT and South Australia (Monday, October 3 will be Labour Day). There are no long weekends in Victoria at all in the second half of 2011.

Back to education and socialist ideas in the branches. Something that's been lacking is national coordination, with no-one to pull together meetings of the national committee. Terry Townsend (Sydney West) has volunteered to step forward and help here. This has the added bonus of enabling us to more consciously link our education work with the wonderful resource that is the Links website, integrate them more and help members get more out of the really useful information posted on there.

Consolidating democratically elected team leaderships

But probably the most important part of this report in terms of how we continue to strengthen in order to carry out all of the above is the question of team leaderships in the branches.

Last NC meeting we voted on the need to move toward more elected leaderships on the ground that have the confidence of the membership.

This report reaffirms this proposal.

We've made progress. In many branches now we have elected leaderships (branch committees or executives). Or in some cases, like Melbourne, there’s an elected city-wide organising committee that covers more than one branch. It’s the same in WA, where there's an elected state committee that meets regularly.

The question of which team leadership body we need to strengthen - the branch, district or state - is really up to comrades on the ground, depending on their situation. For example, in WA the challenge is to consolidate two independent branches, Perth and Fremantle, both with elected leaderships of their own.

But quite a few formally elected branch leaderships have fallen out of whack with the actually existing leadership on the ground. Many are operating with an “open organising” model to draw in new people, and have managed to involve new people. Often the elected comrades form the core of the open committee. I think this says we need to prioritise making elections happen more regularly, bring form into line with reality. This will also be more democratic.

We can maintain inclusiveness and openness on these bodies with invitations to participate. If someone steps up, we should invite them along to get involved in the organising committee. But we do need to make our elected bodies more real for a couple of reasons:

  • Elected leaderships are more accountable to the membership; they help guard against cliques and can help ensure less-confident comrades can step forward. They are more democratic in that sense.
  • Elected leaderships encourage responsibility to be taken on and shared; this is what we really need to convince more comrades of. There's a reluctance in some branches to stand for elected leaderships due to a fear of taking on too much, comrades don’t want to take on too much and then let others down. But we need to convince people that being on a branch committee isn’t about taking on the world, it’s about being part of a team. Rather than one stressed-out comrade, we have a team with a sustainable division of labour. This team backs up each other and individuals can take on more or less at different times. This balance is easier to achieve with elected bodies. Too often the alternative to elected team leaderships is worse anyway — a bunch of stressed individuals walking around feeling like they've got too much to do. We need to build teams with trust: where team members can trust each other, but that also have the confidence of the membership.

So we still need to develop our structures. More elected team leaderships and more regular elections. But again, let's maintain the flexibility and inclusiveness in these teams. If new comrades are wanting to get more involved, invite them along.

But one other important thing to remember or clarify is that the most important thing is healthy, strong independent branches. It’s the leadership’s role to organise and build the branches. Interesting and meaningful discussions, important decisions, etc need to be happening in the branch. I think we want to guard against the open organising committee being so open that it undermines the health of the branch. 

It’s a tightening up to strengthen leadership, but one aimed at building branches more effectively.

Only with the development of these teams can we maintain all of our responsibilities, both in the movements and in building the Socialist Alliance, producing GLW, running Activist Centres, etc. For example, after the membership drive we should do a thorough audit - who are our members? how can they get involved? what are they interested in? — but you can't do this alone, you need a team.

Strengthening Resistance

The final thing that’s vital in order to ensure growth for Socialist Alliance is helping to ensure growth and consolidation in Resistance. We need to be very conscious of the next generation of activists and always have a strong orientation to young people. They are always in the forefront of struggle, are less weighed down with past defeats.

Since the last NC meeting, Resistance has done some amazing work. The justice bus rides to the NT, which Resistance spearheaded, were truly inspiring. Brisbane branch in particular has experienced an influx of members because of the trip.

Resistance has perhaps been a little less “independent”, over the last couple months, but that’s because they played a critical role in the federal election campaign.

Seven of our candidates were members of Resistance, a fantastic achievement in and of itself.

Adelaide has developed a real team leadership in Resistance. In Canberra, youth work is on the up. Hobart and Wollongong, in particular, got a boost from the elections, with Resistance leaders Mel Barnes and Jess Moore getting our best electoral results nationally. There has been a spike in Resistance joiners since the elections too.

We need to ensure Resistance is part of election campaigns and has meaningful role to play. Resistance is discussing how to make this real. A stand-out here is the fact that we’re running Resistance organiser Mitch Cherry in Geelong in the Victorian state election. That campaign has a focus on youth rights, and the SA team is getting behind the campaign but it will be led by the Resistance branch, with an aim to train new campaign organisers.

This report reaffirms the proposal from last NC meeting that SA branches should assist in the development of independent team leaderships in Resistance branches.

A key way to help this is buddying up on any assignment: whether it’s writing a talk, going to a meeting or doing a stall, try to buddy up with a newer comrade and take them through the experience. Canberra branch is consciously doing this with great results.

Conclusion

The final thing to say is that we can make these proposals a reality if we take the membership with us. The people in this room (and joining the NC meeting on Skype) have a real role, not only in helping to carry these proposals out, but by inspiring and organising others to do it with us. That kind of leadership is indispensable — taking others with us and building confidence in the collective — and should be the role of all National Council members.

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