I was walking the streets of Woodford, knocking on doors for Faiza Shaheen, Labour Parliamentary Candidate who hopes to unseat Iain Duncan Smith in the General Election. There are just over 2400 votes in it *.
It showed me that as well as a Labour Government we need to be building the society we need from the ground up. An election victory alone is not sufficient to heal the deep divisions across the UK, to change the course we have been charting for the last four decades!
And if we lose and are set for five more years of Tory rule, a hard Brexit and all that entails, then the groundwork will be needed even more.
Near Woodford Underground, there is a blue plaque commemorating one of the area’s most influential residents – Sylvia Pankhurst.
Sylvia was a suffragette. She campaigned for women’s right to vote. But she differed in her tactics from others in the movement (most notably her own sister and mother!) because she saw the vote as but one part of a much wider strategy.
She organised in the East End of London and knew the hardships faced by working women. So she built an organisation that sought to address those hardships there and then, whilst at the same time undertaking extensive political education work to shape the fight for change.
This organisation was called the East London Federation of the Suffragettes. It was created in 1914, when the outbreak of World War One led to widespread unemployment and food shortages. The ELFS marched through the streets of Bow and Bethnal Green – they continued the campaign for the vote. And they set up social centers called Women’s Halls. From these places, they organised milk distribution and children’s health clinics, nurseries, and canteens that served nutritious food at ‘cost price’. Through meeting the needs of the women in the East End they started to create better conditions. They even set up a cooperative toy factory where workers were paid a living wage and a creche for their children was provided.
Integrated into this much needed practical work was a political education project in which women sought to educate themselves and each other about the conditions of the society around them that had led to their domination. Through public meetings and the publication of a weekly newspaper – the Women’s Dreadnought – the ELFS worked to change hearts and minds, needed to organise for wider change.
It is the integration of these various approaches to political strategy that seem both important and timely. Building what is needed right now, on the ground, in our communities; undertaking political education work as an essential part of the strategy to organise and build power; demanding the vote as a mechanism to wield that power; and creating a movement that will form a structured organisation through which injustice can be challenged and a more equal world can be formed.
Some of this work is still being done by social centres up and down the county who offer low cost meals, bike repair workshops, self-defence classes, spaces to meet in and organise – these places might be a good place to start. But we need to go beyond the ‘activist’ base these centres often appeal to and build power across our communities if we are to create the scale of change that is required. If you know of any projects/places doing this work – do share in the comments below!
But what has all this got to do with the election? During the campaign, many of us will be having conversations with neighbours, with other canvassers and campaigners out on the doorstep, at trainings, at rallies.
The connections, the conversations and the communities we are building during the GE2019 campaign need to last beyond the campaign.
These connections can become the basis of an organising effort to build what we need on the ground right now, to continue the political education work that needs to keep happening around climate justice, racial justice, and the need for greater equality, and to grow the movements that are already doing amazing work in all these areas so that we can create long lasting change.
Imagine waking up on 13th December to find we have a Labour Government.
A chance for the majority of this country to gain access to services like free social care, free higher education, a chance to safeguard the NHS, a chance to prevent runaway climate catastrophe, to end the hostile environment and to reverse the damage done by a decade of austerity. This is something to fight for.
Over the coming few weeks campaign if you can – there are canvassing opportunities (knocking on people’s doors and speaking with them about the election) everyday and you can get trained up if you’ve never done it before. Let’s try and win this thing. And when it is done let’s keep organising to build power to make the world we want to see.
*Based on election results in 2017
Kat Wall is a facilitator, trainer and researcher who works with social movement groups and organisations to build power across difference for the long haul.