In the second part of tales from the sticks, Jim Scott explains the birth and growth of a movement in rural Wales over the last 5 years
In 2013, the Tories under Cameron and Osborne had taken the country by storm. A few of us travelled down to London for the inaugural conference of The People’s Assembly and we soon founded our own local PA group here in Pembrokeshire with around 30 people attending our first meeting. Rob Griffiths came down and supported this first meeting. It all looked good: we would unite, take on the Tories (not least our local MP Stephen Crabb) and expose the vicious austerity policies which were already causing widespread suffering among our communities.
A few of us even attended the People’s Assembly delegates conference later that year and heard inspiring stories of how other People’s Assembly groups around Britain were tackling the Tories head on. A delegate from Norwich People’s Assembly told the meeting of how they were making sure to greet any and all Tory ministers who ventured into their county with protests. He told us of how, as he spoke, his Norfolk comrades were mobbing Iain Duncan Smith who was visiting Norwich that day. "Yes!" we thought. "This is the kind of thing we will do in Pembrokeshire! Let’s get organised!"
Building a movement in the sticks
Sadly though, it soon became apparent that activism in rural situations, like here in West Wales, is a whole different story to that of places like Bristol, Norwich and even Cardiff, where activists are much more concentrated in numbers and therefore can organise meetings and collectivise far more easily. Here in Pembrokeshire, the will was certainly there. All 30 people who had attended our first meeting were passionate and driven - desperate to stand up and fight the Tories - but with people having to drive for an hour in each direction to attend meetings, and without an ‘existing’ activist base or network, we found our efforts thwarted by the realities of our jobs, lives and the rural spread of our activists. Before long, our meetings had dwindled and we were forced to stop holding meetings and to rethink our strategy.
Around a year went by and with an upcoming General Election, many of us put our efforts into electoral campaigning. The local Green Party was founded, and with Miliband’s Labour offering only austerity-lite many progressive types put energy into campaigning for the Greens and Plaid Cymru. But in 2015 this ultimately led to yet another Conservative victory and the promise of 5 more years of misery for many under the Tories.
Behind the scenes though, many of us had begun to get to know each other here in Pembrokeshire and those of us who were determined to put up a vocal opposition on the streets to the Tories' dangerous policies had begun to be able to pick each other out among the political crowd.
One thing that was certain was that if we were going to make waves in a large rural county like Pembrokeshire we were going to have to make some noise! We were going to have to use every tool available to us to hit the Tories where it hurts. We were going to have to be creative and imaginative with our activism. So we started dreaming up campaigns that we could organise without the need for everyone driving miles to meetings. Campaigns that we could run from laptops, utilising social media and the local press.
Importantly, while we were relatively low in numbers and very spread out, campaigns that would take the ‘minimum effort’ but have the ‘maximum impact’ is a doctrine that I now think is absolutely essential and key to the success of rural campaigning and making the most out of what you’ve got in a rural setting.
Sticking it to the Tories
Throughout the previous two years, we had made sure to keep in touch with key organisers at the People’s Assembly national office. People like Sam Fairbairn and the then People’s Assembly co-chair Romayne Phoenix; I had also been lucky to have had an auspicious chance meeting with Mark McGowen (The Artist Taxi Driver) at the People’s Assembly conference back in 2013 and had made sure to keep in contact with Mark too! Locally we had followed the national advice and contacted all the local existing campaigns and unions, we’d made ourselves known, even if we weren’t putting on that much activism at that point.
One of the groups we had contacted was CND Cymru asking for campaign literature from CND that we could take with us when we held street stalls. With brutal honesty, this was to bulk up our stall in terms of appearance and content! But of course we naturally supported campaigns like CND Cymru anyway so it worked for us. These little acts of networking though can pay dividends. Jon from CND Cymru emailed us back and offered us cheap printing for our campaign materials and invited us to a ‘Drape the Drones’ event. Before long we’d got talking about an idea we had for a ‘national anti-Tory sticker campaign’ that we’d had. ‘Stick It To The Tories’ was born, which would go on to distribute 170k anti-Tory stickers and 10k anti-Tory badges across the whole of Britain in just 18 months.
Meanwhile we were also turning our attentions to Stephen Crabb at home, and in particular, a campaign to try to force him to resign as ‘Patron’ of our local Mencap group following his vote to cut ESA for Disabled people by £30 per week. The key, we decided, was going to be making waves and networking with as many national campaigns and activists as possible in order to amplify whatever work we were doing here in the sticks in rural West Wales.
So we set to work! Before the launch of Stick It To The Tories we had contacted people like John Rees, Lindsey German, Romayne Phoenix and Amelia Womack and twisted their arms to persuade them to be official supporters of the campaign! We got in touch with Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC), both campaigns loved the idea and even agreed to work with us on sticker designs for their own organisations. We got in touch with Counterfire, The Morning Star and The Canary and managed to get all of them to agree to publish promotional pieces covering our launch. We just had to hit the ground running so we had to aim high!
Another stroke of fortune saw Stephen Crabb promoted to the toxic position of ‘DWP Secretary’ the same week we had launched the petition for him to resign as Mencap Patron, so our petition went from 2,000 to 10,000 over the weekend just in time for 9 am on the Monday morning when he officially started work as the DWP secretary. The petition was mentioned in all the national press so we jumped on this and organised a demonstration outside his constituency office in Haverfordwest too. The demonstration (in the rain!) was attended by a modest 40 or so protestors, but this was fantastic for a demo in the sticks! And the seeds of a movement here in Pembrokeshire had been born.
It’s not so much that local PA groups need to be hassling the National campaigns or The Canary for coverage of their events because let’s face it, this might actually end up being counterproductive. What I am suggesting though, is that existing campaigns and left wing alternative media outlets are almost guaranteed to be run by like-minded, dedicated comrades who will help wherever they can and will always support other progressive campaigns when they can. We took the slowly, slowly approach and made ourselves known to these key figures and organisations - hopefully without being too pushy! (ha!) But hey, if you don’t ask, you don’t get, and one thing that really is for sure is that you need a certain level of determination and self-belief to be an effective campaigner or campaign group!
So with an Artist Taxi Driver interview also in the bag for the Stick It To The Tories launch and the Canary, Morning Star and Counterfire promo articles, things went a little mental! Our website crashed in the first few hours and orders for our not-for-profit anti-Tory stickers came in in numbers we just couldn’t believe! Three of us, from laptops and a small print shop were making a difference to the national narrative, a small difference maybe, but a difference nonetheless and it felt good!
One other obvious but hugely important campaign tool was Facebook and other social media platforms. By joining every left wing / progressive Facebook ‘Group’ we could find, then sharing our new sticker designs from our Facebook page to 100, sometimes 200, Facebook groups we could surpass the algorithms and do the legwork ourselves! It’s a pain and I won’t say it doesn’t cause repetitive strain injuries but with every new sticker we launched, we would reach around 20,000 people in just 24 hours by posting it to all these groups manually! It really does work and is essential to make a small campaign achieve a ‘national reach’.
Later we’d go on to distribute 70k stickers in just 12 weeks in the run up to Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 General Election with the help of another Canary piece and back at home the movement was building, all attentions were turning to our now largely disgraced Tory MP Stephen Crabb, We crowdfunded £500 in just 24 hours to raise funds for an elephant costume which we took to all of Stephen Crabb’s election hustings as the ‘Tory Elephant in the room’, highlighting his voting record and UK poverty statistics created by Tory austerity. Crabb was marred by a sexting scandal but with a mere 314 vote majority at the General Election, he still shamelessly hung on to power with a claw-like grip! Maybe he and May have been comparing notes! We had seriously affected Crabb’s vote share though!
Another absolutely key factor in building the activist movement here was the all-encompassing approach that we took to encouraging all and any who wanted to get involved to join in and get stuck in. One of the most gratifying parts of building an activist movement is the amazing, inspiring and dedicated people we all meet along the way. One of our group members is a guy called Bob who has been on the right side of campaigning history for quite some time! Not only does he bring to the collective an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of every revolution that has taken place throughout history, he was involved in a demonstration that saw Enoch Powell seek refuge in the basement of a University Campus back in the late 60’s, and ensured that Powell never attempted to speak at a University campus again!
It’s people like Bob, who have been doing this all their lives who inspire us fresher faces as we come through and Bob often says; “The movement is about keeping the ideas alive!” From one generation to the next, and one activist to another, it’s from each other and by sharing our ideas that we gain strength. Not only that, but it creates a kind of positive feedback loop - the older and more hardened activists are encouraged by the fresh energy we bring and we are in turn inspired by their dedication and experience of activism, so each acts as positive feedback to the other. And here in Pembrokeshire we really were gaining in strength!
The Corbyn moment
2015…and along comes Corbyn. Or to put it more accurately, considering Corbyn had been steadfastly campaigning and supporting all the issues we stand for throughout his life, along comes the vehicle for a national movement that can get behind Corbyn in the form of an internal Labour Party leadership election. As People’s Assembly activists, many of us instantly recognised what this opportunity meant and immediately got behind Corbyn. Here in Pembrokeshire, even some long-standing ‘Old Labour’ members didn’t at first realise what was happening and instead bought in to the myth that a ‘left wing’ Labour Party would be ‘unelectable’.
But the Tories had inadvertently put in the groundwork themselves and had created a mass movement ‘in waiting’. The work we had been doing here as campaigners, even back when the word socialism was still a dirty word, meant that as a movement we were primed and ready. We had planted enough of the seeds of a movement that with the influx of pro-Corbyn activists we could now take a lunge at the Tory narrative and mobilise like never before out here - in the sticks - in rural Pembrokeshire.
Demos got bigger and better attended, where once a few of us had been fending off vile right-wingers on social media, now a new contingent of online debaters took over the baton and freed up our time as key activists to organise! We held cross-party meetings where all left of centre party reps agreed to unite efforts against the Tories' cruel and ideological austerity policies.
Some Comrades from Momentum West Wales got in touch about putting on an #UnseatCrabb event as part of Owen Jones’ Unseat campaign, so again we adopted the strategy of ‘build it and they will come’ activism! We billed it as an event that would be the biggest political rally Havefordwest had seen since the Suffragettes’ movement and so it became! We had not one but two Canary pieces covering the event! Bex Sumner (Canary UK editor) who lives in West Wales even attended the rally and covered it personally! We hosted a People’s Assembly comedy night titled ‘Stand Up Against Austerity’, Francesca Martinez helped us find acts for the event and Chris Nineham from Stop the War came all the way from London to speak at the rally and host the comedy night. Mark McGowen came and did a 20 minute stand up performance for us and many local comedians came and performed. It seemed everyone was supporting the day’s activity!
We also took an 8-metre #CrabbMustGo banner on a tour of Haverfordwest’s bridges and roadsides and hit social media by storm. Creative activism in action, minimum effort – maximum impact! It only took a team or five of us to do the banner tour but we were seen on social media pages all over Britain!
And now… progressive activists from across the political spectrum, Greens, Labour, Plaid and non-Party affiliates are all working together, we’re networked and ready to go at a moment’s notice. When May sent the bombs into Syria in April we mobilized a 200 strong demo with just three days’ notice. Then just recently, following a disgusting incident of homophobic hate speech where some fanatics were trying to hold a Transphobic hate meeting we joined forces with the new Pembrokeshire LGBTQ+ group and got 100 people on to the streets of Fishguard with just 24 hours’ notice, and we closed down that meeting! Filling the local press with coverage of our demo, showing that as a County and as activists we can now act and act quickly in the face of such discrimination.
We are going to hold a ‘Rural Activism’ & ‘Creative Activism’ training weekend in a few weeks from now, we have activists from as far afield as Cardiff, Bristol and London wanting to get involved and to support the event in solidarity. This could even form the basis for a ‘Rural Activism’ training roadshow that goes around the country. One thing is for sure, here in Pembrokeshire we have built a movement from the ground up. We can only get stronger, more unified and more organised as more and more activists join forces with us.
Keep on fighting
Getting Corbyn into power is an important objective, yes, we all want to see that and we’re all working towards it, but it will not be the end of the battle. It will actually signify the beginning, and as a movement that is when we will be needed more than ever before. As we have seen in recent weeks with the antisemitism campaign against Corbyn, the right wing within Labour will align with the establishment, will truly close ranks and will do anything they can to undermine and destabilise a Corbyn Government.
We have to keep building the movement like never before, we don’t just need to be ready, we will need to be one step ahead. The extra-parliamentary movement is going to be vital, in fact; essential in the uncertain times ahead if we are to keep making the gains that we absolutely must make in order to restructure our society for the benefit of all and bring down 40 years of neoliberalism.
Here in Pembrokeshire we can promise that we will be doing our bit, and playing our part in that struggle! So to all the activists out there in the Towns, big Cities and out in the sticks like we are, we send greetings and solidarity from Pembrokeshire with love!
Keep on fighting, keep on building and mobilise like never before for the times ahead!
Jim Scott is a Rural Activist & Campaigner.
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- Decarbonisation, jobs and justice
- Banksy: the shredding on the wall
- Tories out! Birmingham marches against austerity
- Austerity has broken Britain but the Tories are still committed to it
- The 'Heart of Darkness' does not 'smell of victory'