What does “community campaigning” actually mean?

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All kinds of Labor people are extolling the virtues of “community campaigning”. NSW Labor party activist and Leichardt councillor, Darcy Byrne, for example argues that:

For a party such as Labor, with the radical aim of creating a fairer society, our goals can be achieved only through personal persuasion on a mass scale. This requires an energised army of foot soldiers to knock on doors and reach out to their friends and neighbours. (My emphasis.)

Community campaigning is behind the recent change of heart amongst those most factional of Labor heavyweights, Sam Dastyari and John Graham (respectively, the Secretary and Assistant Secretary of the NSW Labor Party), who are promoting open primaries to choose Labor candidates for public office:

”The NSW Labor Party needs to change and one of the biggest changes needs to be picking the right candidates who are engaged in their community,” Mr Dastyari said.

The assistant secretary of the NSW Labor Left faction, John Graham, supported the move.

”I’d prefer to trust the residents of Sydney than the occupants of Sussex Street to choose Labor’s candidate.”

Community campaigning is such a watch-word, that we’ve imported the Wellstone Action campaign training group to Australia to teach us how to do it.

Historically, Labor has been a grassroots community organisation, with tens of thousands of members across each state and territory, who come out at elections to door-knock, hold community stalls and talk with neighbours about voting Labor. Since the 1980s, as Labor has developed its own professional political caste, campaigns have increasingly involved mass-media campaigns, run from central HQ. Professional marketing firms have been engaged to do polling, focus groups and election advertising. Federal campaigns have been command-and-control affairs, with local electorate produced media releases, brochures and direct mail requiring centralised sign-off.

There’s no doubt that the aerial war of television ads are important… but you can’t win an election (or a war) using mass-media “drone attacks”. This is where community campaigning comes in.

So what does community campaigning actually entail?

As it happens, an Oxford University research fellow at the Reuters Institute, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, has recently written a book on this very topic.

Nielsen examines the dramatic rise of personal voter contact in the USA over the last twenty years, and his book, Ground Wars, is based on ten months of ethnographic fieldwork on the Democratic side in two competitive Congressional districts during the 2008 elections.

He argues that community campaigning — that is, engaging volunteers to personally talk to voters — is now an essential party of modern campaigns:

engaging and cultivating volunteers is critical to building an effective field operation, and it requires a serious commitment of time, and the right approach from professional staffers. Only the best campaigns manage to mobilize enough volunteers to reach all of their targets. These volunteers are not leftovers from some earlier age of pre-modern campaigning. They are integral to the best campaigns in the 21st Century, and they can help your campaign win.

Both the Bush campaign in 2004 and the Obama campaign in 2008 invested heavily in volunteer organising many months in advance, and reaped what they had sown when literally millions of volunteers made their case on the doorsteps of voters and over phone lines across the country.

Labor’s approach to grassroots campaigning is an interesting case study of the tension between paid, professional practitioners of politics, and volunteers (party members and party supporters). Managing an “army” of volunteers is difficult for campaigns. Volunteers are messy, often aren’t disciplined, come and go as they want, can’t be ordered around, and may not have the same motivations as paid staff. Labor’s approach over the last two decades has been to reduce its reliance on volunteers. It has expanded the number of paid staffers during elections, relied on mail-houses to send direct mail and invested heavily in television advertising.

Instead of embracing volunteers and activists, training programs like the party-run Campaign Insight (which I did, as a paid electorate officer, back in 2004) are more of an afterthought, or primarily provided to electorate officers with little election experience.

Even recent campaigns (which I have been involved in) have been hollowed out, with the diminishing pool of volunteers coming from the rusted-on party membership; relatively few activists were not party members. Over the years, I’ve seen that the majority of tasks for volunteers were low-impact, relatively boring tasks, like stuffing envelopes or letter-boxing.

But most volunteers want more out of their experience than spending a few hours sorting letters into CCDs.

Nielsen argues that the best campaigns are those who “take time to explain to volunteers how field works and why it matters, those who sit down and make a few calls with them, and those who are ready and willing to shoot the breeze a bit. If the campaign makes people feel involved, it is more likely that they will stay involved.”

For Labor, this means making campaign volunteers as big a priority as television ads, investing in training and development, and ensuring there is fulfilling and valuable work with real impact for volunteers to do.

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