Because many members will not have taken part in Socialist Alliance election campaigns, the aim of this piece is to give some insight into the thinking about, and execution of, our most recent Socialist Alliance state election campaign in NSW.
About one year out from the NSW state election on March 28, 2015, the Sydney branch executive started thinking about whether we would run a candidate and if so what our approach would be.
At the same time we started consulting with branches across NSW (West Sydney, New England, Newcastle, Illawarra) about running a team for the NSW Legislative Council.
In the Legislative Assembly, two new state seats (Newtown and Summer Hill) were to be formed from the old state seat of Marrickville — where we had run previously for more than a decade.
If we were to run, we had to consider: Where would we most likely get a hearing with those looking for a left break from the ALP, but who weren't already committed to the Greens? Who would make a good candidate? That is who would be able to put our politics forward in an accessible way but without reducing the politics to make us appear relatively indistinguishable from the Greens? In short, how could we make use of this election campaign to build the Sydney branch of SA, offer up a socialist alternative to and get in touch with more people breaking from the two party-con game.
While we have had a good vote in the inner west — and particularly the suburb of Newtown – we knew the Greens would have a good chance of winning the new seat of Newtown (which we welcomed because it would be another crack in the two-party duopoly).
We also knew that the Greens would run a strong campaign, and that would pull a layer of people who support us, but saw their main contribution to political change as helping get another lower house Green candidate elected.
We also thought that running against the Greens in the new seat of Newtown — even with the majority of our preferences going to them - might still be seen as splitting the progressive vote.
With an optional preferential voting system in NSW, voters did not have to preference.
We decided to run in Summer Hill — a seat which the Greens would not win this time around and where years of campaign stalls and our members being involved in several local campaign groups (the local Teachers Association, the local Stop CSG group, the Addison Road Community Centre, and more) meant that GLW was also well known.
Our vote in several Marrickville booths during past elections (when it was part of the seat of Marrickville) was also encouraging, which made it a good choice.
We pitched this election campaign to the branch as an opportunity to extend our regular campaign stalls more westward – and try and secure a greater hearing for our politics and Green Left Weekly. We tried to join local No WestConnex groups (without success) and we also kept organising local campaigns (as mentioned above).
The branch’s decision to run Susan Price was unanimous. Susan combined a high level of experience as a candidate and political activist, and she had (has) union movement authority. As one of the two national co-convenors, running Susan allowed the party to project the Socialist Alliance in a serious way,
A different PCD piece by Robin Mayo already covered the reasons Socialist Alliance uses the election tactic — so we won't repeat that here.
Suffice to say we saw this campaign as a party-building exercise and to that end we wanted a candidate who could engage well, not be afraid of putting across the hard facts that our socialist politics demands, but who could also do it in a way that encouraged a new audience to take us seriously as an alternative with a view to getting more involved.
We asked branch members to nominate for a campaign committee to carry out the investigative work, and make campaign plans. The committee met frequently at the beginning, as required, and it involved the candidate, comrades from the branch coordinating committee (BCC) and some from the National Office.
That committee reported regularly to the BCC and the branch. We took major decisions (campaign budget, campaign materials and campaign politics) to the branch for discussion and decision-making.
The election committee had responsibility for:
Susan took up the challenge of writing an article each week for Green Left Weekly on an aspect of politics in NSW or nationally that we could use on her campaign website, her FB page, and abridge for media releases. Her articles were either in Our Common Cause, or in the Australian section of the paper addressing transport, health, democracy and union rights.
Green Left Weekly was the main platform at our disposal to project SA's campaign.
The bourgeois press refused to run our media releases. The one more open publication changed editors shortly after publishing our election announcement, and thereafter we didn't get anything printed there. Susan had five, 100-word responses on 5 topics in one local paper. The same paper left Susan out of a photo opportunity with other female candidates running in the inner west. We sent them a complaint.
We asked our collaborators and members if they could organise candidate meetings — at which Susan would be asked to speak — and we had some success with this. At all candidate forums we met new, interested people and had positive feedback, with some attendees telling us that we performed the best of any of the candidates presenting.
Susan spoke at:
The Nurses and Midwives meeting was interesting. Susan's candidacy for Socialist Alliance was taken seriously by the organisers and participants alike, with several union activists keen to engage.
One of the missed opportunities was that we found it hard to organise more members to support and take part in these forums. They are always a litmus test of how well are reaching out with our politics and it’s good for the branch to observe this as well.
Throughout the campaign, Susan was a regular attendee at rallies, meetings and street stalls: we experimented with Saturday morning stalls in different parts of the electorate.
Susan spoke at a rally against women’s refuge cuts at Parliament House (after having asked an organiser at the rally). She also participated in a rally against the foetal personhood bill. As we were not able to join the actual organising meetings for No WestConnex, we made sure to be actively supporting any of the public rallies and events. Susan also asked to speak either on the platform, or from the floor, at some of the many No WestConnex candidate meetings that were organised in the inner west. We also had a contingent in the 1000-strong march down King Street against WestConnex.
Towards the end of the campaign, we invited a key organiser of the No WestConnex campaign to speak at a Green Left Weekly forum along with councillor Sue Bolton. The forum was a good discussion on strategies and the No WestConnex campaigner went away with a better idea of us and our political method.
This focussed on four activities:
Around 35 individuals contributed to the $100 club (with varying amounts) and several hundred was raised at Susan’s election launch. We also experimented with a crowd funding campaign, and raised several hundred that way.
We drew up a list of left unions to ask for support: we asked them if they would like to hear from Susan, and whether they would like to donate to the campaign.
Susan is well known by several left unions; however, this still wasn’t an easy thing to do.
Union officials are super busy and, at least in NSW, they are generally aligned to the ALP, if not the Greens. Even those officials, who have some regard for our politics, would find it hard to go out of their comfort zone in at election time.
No union took up the offer to have Susan address an internal meeting, but as mentioned earlier, Susan was invited to address a candidate forum hosted by the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association. Susan and Howard (and other SA members) stood on a picket line with construction workers at Barangaroo, and our support and solidarity during construction disputes over the years was recognised in a decision by the NSW CFMEU to make a substantial donation to our election campaign. Importantly, this allowed us to run an upper house ticket. One of those on the ticket, Howard Byrnes, is also on the state management committee and so SA is not unknown. However, it was brave of the union to not only make a decision like this, but to also profile Susan and Howard in Unity, the CFMEU’s journal.
Art Resistance made a couple of short YouTube ads for the campaign. One was focused on the seat of Summer Hill and highlighted opposition to WestConnex and called for funding for public transport. The other was more general and focussed on our Legislative Council ticket. Members shared the videos on social media.
Election flyers are always a balance between trying to get as much politics on a small amount of paper and keeping the text to a minimum. The whole exercise of producing such a leaflet is a good discipline, and forced the campaign team to think through the politics carefully.
Having the flyers in colour meant they looked professional, too. We ended up printing 30,000 double-sided colour A5 leaflets and covering the whole electorate.
We experimented with A3-sized core flute signs on two main topics (although we would have done more if funds had allowed).
We went with the generic slogan: “Community need not corporate greed”, and one focussed on the main community campaign mobilising people in the inner west: “No WestConnex, Fund public transport”.
We also got a candidate core flutes done. We designed it in such a way that it could be reworked with a different picture for a future election.
We managed to get some core flutes up around the electorate before polling day. They were also essential items at our weekly street and campaign stalls as well as at pre-polling booths and on polling day at the booths we staffed.
At the last minute, we decided to organise a colour poster: these were a good alternative when core flutes were banned or pulled down.
We did the ‘How to Vote’ flyers in colour and adopted the same approach as we had to the flyer.
We wanted to ensure it was punchy but not too full of text. People don’t want to read a treatise, but we also need to remind them of our core political platform.
The number of How-to-Votes we needed was calculated based on: the number of polling workers, the number of booths we were going to cover and the number of people in the electorate. We decided to print 10,000, about one third to a half of the estimated voter turnout.
We letter boxed the whole electorate with our flyers – which included a brief reference to our upper house ticket. One member served as a coordinator, looked after the maps and reported regularly on progress. We letter-boxed over several months, and a range of comrades helped out (some trying doorknocking as well).
At its state meeting in October 2014, the NSW state committee decided to run an upper house ticket, and appointed John Rainford and Pip Hinman to refine a draft platform that had been presented and discussed at that meeting.
Initially, all NSW branches decided to put forward candidates — after having discussed it locally. Ideally, we wanted to include all branches in a ticket of 15 candidates or more (the minimum we needed to have our name above the line) because that had a better chance of fulfilling one of the aims of the campaign: to project SA across the state.
We needed several hook-ups of state representatives, and email discussions and calls, before agreed on the 2015 March platform.
But it took a little longer to decide on the candidates, and their order. That was because we wanted to involve more and less experienced comrades – if they were willing. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of opportunities for LC candidates to speak on platforms, however Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, our lead candidate, managed to in Newcastle.
We tried to construct the campaign to involve members who hadn’t previously been involved in such an election campaign. We asked several members to stand on the upper house ticket who hadn’t had a lot of experience in branches, but who saw it as their contribution to helping SA run and to do what they could to talk to their networks about our politics.
We used the discussions about the LC platform to talk through our political orientation with these less experienced activist members – at least one of which had been approached to run for the Greens in the same election.
The final ticket of 16 candidates encompassed a range of community and student leaders, the majority of whom were women.
We were proud to have Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, a descendant of the Wiradjuri and Dhurag peoples of NSW, agree to lead our ticket. The next four candidates combined youth and experience and union and campaigning authority. They were in order: John Rainford, Mia Sanders, Howard Byrnes and Pip Hinman.
The LC ticket included all NSW branches with the exception of New England, and some at-large members. Ultimately, the decision to run or not is a branch decision, and New England wasn’t able to contribute this time around.
Our vote in the Legislative Council came in at a respectable 8,489 votes, slightly down compared to previous years. This could be explained by the fact that we ran in only two lower house seats (Summer Hill and Newcastle).
We produced a full colour broadsheet to profile our upper house candidates. We also used the opportunity to profile our two lower house candidates, and Susan’s election launch.
The biographies allowed our candidates to present themselves (in their own words) while also profiling SA’s politics.
We distributed the broadsheets at all the rallies — including March in March — and letter-boxed some also (although they were not easy to fit into the older style letter boxes in Summer Hill).
We tried to keep the word count down, but could have done more. It still contained a little too much text to do justice to the campaign pictures we wanted to highlight.
We wanted to use the space to remind people of SA’s main political strategy — the building of radical movements and the promotion of mass action as a strategy for lasting change.
We put a lot of work into convincing and asking our members and supporters if they’d help out at pre-polling and on polling day.
Between 8-10 people helped out at the pre-poll booths in Marrickville and Ashfield. Some 30% of people voted before the official polling day. Some 90 people helped out on 14 booths on the actual day.
We calculated it was important to get good teams together for the booth work, rather than try and cover the whole electorate. We covered about ¾ of the electorate and generally had two shifts at each booth.
The polling kits for each contained:
We wanted to have the candidate free to move around the booths to talk to our booth workers, and take new supplies of How to Votes and refreshments.
Susan also helped boost SA’s profile at the booths so that people could see us well before they arrived at the booth to vote. Paying a lot of attention to profile is critical.
New policy matters were thrown our way during the campaign, such as our position on greyhound racing. We did discuss what a good SA policy could look like, but we resisted devising policy on the run. Instead, we used the opportunity to encourage members who were not happy with the lack of policy, or our existing policy, to work up drafts to be presented to the national conference.