Jeremy Corbyn keeps describing Labour as a campaigning organisation (the usual subject of this blog). They have campaigned on tax credits, they have campaigned against the prison deal with Saudi Arabia, they are campaigning for better housing for poorer people. This is not election campaigning for political power, this is issue based and permanent. Just like campaigning voluntary organisations.
So what is it telling us if a party leader talks and thinks of the party as a campaigning voluntary organisation, albeit campaigning on a wider range of issues than many?
Firstly, a campaigning organisation is different from a Government, or a potential Government. Campaigners fasten onto their particular issues and enthusiasms and promote them single-mindedly. Although the good ones wisely show an understanding of other points of view and other interests, and adjust their campaigning tactics and messages accordingly, they have no responsibility towards those other viewpoints and interests, other than to get round and overcome them. They also ignore issues that are not part of their campaigning objectives. Governments and potential governments, by contrast, are responsible for the overall national interest, and all issues affecting it, striking a fair balance between different demands and viewpoints. Governments’ common currency is arduous compromise, because their responsibility is to the whole country, with all its conflicting interests. That is why they get so cross with self-righteousness of some campaigning organisations for whom life is simpler (see my blog Tackling the Arguments against Charity Campaigning, 13 October 2015).
Secondly, by the same token, campaigning organisations are principally responsible to their own members, supporters or users. They feed back news of successes to cheer their own troops, nurturing their enthusiasm and encouraging active participation and increased support. Their views are what matter, regardless of what proportion of the population they are or what other parts of the population may desire. Thus, it is very common for campaigning charities – think of prison reform, animal rights, social housing, refugees, victims of sexual abuse, organisations of gay people, those battling air pollution, and thousands of others – to represent a minority viewpoint, or those who are usually voiceless, spending years or even decades in the wilderness because majority opinion or those in power will not listen.
Now apply those key characteristics of campaigning organisations to a political party. In using that language, that party is signalling (without necessarily meaning to) that it is different from a Government or potential Government. And that its principal responsibility and accountability is to the minority that constitutes its own supporters, not to all the rest who may think and feel differently.
To think and talk like a campaigning organisation may encourage a bigger, more committed membership of those whose voices and interests have been excluded before. But it may not help Her Majesty’s Opposition to think and speak like a potential alternative Government for the many.