Monday, 23 March 2009

In Praise of Stalls

For the first time in a very long time, I ventured out with other comrades from Stoke Socialist Party on Saturday for a stall. We set our two tables and for a few short hours a couple of square metres of Hanley became our very own (degenerate) workers' state. I managed to have some decent conversations with interested passersby about the part-privatisation of Royal Mail (our stall's topic was a joint Youth Fight For Jobs-Post Office affair). Everyone I spoke to were incensed about the funds found for the continued bail out of the banks - it's been a long time since I last encountered this unanimity of opinion. There was one woman who seemed especially interested, and Brother A spoke to a few local militants who regularly drop by the stall.

On a Saturday morning we do have to compete with a 'scene' for attention. Without fail there's two
Big Issue sellers out - one bellows out while the other constantly ... dances. Then there is the tasty noodle man with his sign that points the way to stringy-dough paradise. The million balloon man, the charity hawkers, the Mormons, anti-vivisectionists are also occasional additions to the Stoke city centre scene. But my favourite competitors by far are the mobile street team of Park Evangelical Church. They turn up with a board and a group of seven or eight, and just stand there and deliver a sermon. Think less fire and brimstone and more CofE vicars with guitars. I recall one set of pictures they put up on the board - one was Superman, the other two ambulances and air sea rescue, and the last Jesus. What's the difference? they asked. In case you're stumped - it's that the first three save lives, but only Jesus can save your soul ... Still, mustn't complain. They set up not far from us and inadvertently increase the numbers coming by our stall as the public go out their way to avoid them. If Park turn out, we're guaranteed a successful stall!

Another regular fixture is Brother J, a long-time
Workers' Power supporter. Most Saturdays he drops by to sell us a copy with their eponymous publication and has a quick chat, often trying to tempt us with WP's ultra-leftist wares. Because the comrade hadn't seen me for a while he thought he'd break me from reformist-leaning Taaffeite centrism by launching an attack on our stance on the Lindsey oil refinery strike. I patiently explained to Brother J that WP's position basically amounted to taking out a checklist and refusing to get involved because they did not meet their standards of how striking workers should behave. I explained we shouldn't be too surprised if workers struggles do assume a nationalist colouration at times seeing how neoliberalism has had 30 years to grind down socialist ideas - it's not ideal but we have to relate to workers as they are, not how we'd like them to be. Luckily the comrade has none of the Spartoid air you often find on the ra-ra-revolutionary left and accepted my points, even if he didn't agree. But he's always worth talking to, even if to sharpen our politics up. Sometimes he can hit you with a curve ball - the one time he caught me out was tackling our position on nuclear weapons ... on a stall about the banking crisis!

As an added bonus the stall was visited by Sister C, a lapsed comrade who's looking to get back involved; and Brother C - a member who joined in Stoke but moved to London for work but will be returning to the Potteries in the next few weeks. So very good.

This is all jolly fun, but we're not really out there to experience the diverse fauna of Stoke's urban ecology. Stall work is among the basic activity carried out by the
Socialist Party. It's important for three reasons. It gives us a regular public presence that is seen by hundreds of people week in week out - we can justly say we're the only party in Stoke with the confidence to do this sort of activity. Secondly it's where we sell our papers and raise money. And lastly it's an opportunity to regularly test our ideas and make the case for socialism. Speaking to dozens of people over a couple of hours gives you an idea where popular consciousness in the city is at. The situation demands you vary your patter and arguments constantly but you are left with a broad understanding of the arguments that work and what large swathes of working class people are thinking, which becomes part of the collective experience of the branch. In short, stall work keeps the party's feet on the ground. If we didn't develop convincing politics or did stalls on hobby horses unconnected to the consciousness of our class, we would not sell papers or raise money. For this reason, stall work is something serious socialists cannot do without.

(Image of Birmingham comrades in action).

11 comments:

Infantile and Disorderly said...

I once had to complete with evangelist rappers while on a stall. "J-E-S-U-S What does it spell? JESUS!" It was bad.

Dave Riley said...

I've put together a few notes on stalls
here --Campaign stalls -- as part of the Activist Toolkit. I do one for about 5 hours each Sunday morning from 6am at a local market.

But here we run several stalls a week across Brisbane and stalls are a bedrock of our reach out approach. Without them you are not tested on a day to day basis.

It's politics one card table at a time....

People want to denigrate socialists for doing the stall thing as though it's a weird activity but as you say it's essential activity.

Our problem over the decades has been the commercial shift from ribbon retail development along public thoroughfares to privatised shoppingtown space from which we are excluded. This has made suburban stall campaigning very difficult.

On top of that every few years somewhere we have to defend the right to organize this way because such democratic rights are under constant threat.

Stalls are also the primary selling environment for the press and in these days where the far left has moved webside with abandonment, there's a false presumption that hard copy newspapers are no longer relevant to political organising. But the hard copy rag is the sine qua non for stall holding.

You'll note how Green Left Weekly publishes covers that are like posters. That's a product of selling papers on the street for almost 40 years. It is also why it is a tabloid and not in a magazine sized format. We also 'dress up" the back cover for the
same reason and planning what gets highlighted -- front and back -- is a key editorial decision each week.

Renegade Eye said...

I have a bus stop, where I sell papers. Yours is more fun.

Roobin said...

I've staffed stalls in better and worse places. The lairiest pitch was in a certain part of Hackney borough, where we were jammed inbetween a christian street exorcist and a man selling freebooksonislam!

Stalls teach you 3 things. (1) How to take the general public temperature. (2) How to deal with random questions and queries that anyone might throw up. (3) How to stonewall coppers.

Anonymous said...

A bit of an aside, but you use the term degenerate workers state. This is a term not used by the CWI, which classed the USSR as a degenerated workers state and Eastern European states (for instance) as deformed workers states. Degenerate workers states is a term that originally came from Workers Power/Irish Workers Group in their book The Degerated Revolution which rejected the term deformed workers state as it was tied into the Fourth International's analysis that Tito was an unconscious Trot so Yugoslavia could be reformed rather than requiring a political revolution. Hence as WP/IWG rejected this theory they also rejected the linguistics that came with it, and hence coined the term degenerate workers state, meaning degenerate from birth as opposed to degenerated from a healthy workers' state.

Phil BC said...

I'm in love with this beautiful piece of pedantry.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

At Christmas there was a children's brass band playing in Bangor. But usually there's a sole big issue seller, and the first saturday of every month the local evangelicals hit the streets with their pa system.

Phil BC said...

Ugh, Christmas. The local Rotary club come out with a massive steam engine thing that blares out ghastly seasonal songs. Make no mistake, they are the enemy.

Benjamin Solah said...

Interesting to hear that stalls are not unlike ones in Australia.

I happen to love doing stalls, especially if I do one after work and get to put my skills to some actual use.

Recently, we've had to compete with the various buskers for attention outside a cinema.

Dave Riley said...

"Big Issue's" presence shows what can still be done on the street. Over the past 10 years theres' been a massive and sharp decline in the distribution of the left press on the streets.

Outside GLW the left journals are at best monthlies and tend only to be distributed from campus stalls and at rallies with occasional city centre stumps.

Some outfits like the CWI franchise here doesn't produce a hard copy newspaper at all.

What used to be the WRP -- the 'Healyites' -- have now focused on the WSWS website.

A similar process has occurred for left bookshops and even independent booksellers such that without the stalls so much distribution of radical literature generally would have to be via the web if at all.

But the real magic isn't the sales rate, which has tended to decline over the past 20 years, but the 'in your face' exchanges. This means that the party activists are challenged or have their politics confirmed by the sort of interaction stalls set up.

Since we sell at many venues -- mosques, pubs, campuses, city ,cafes, malls, markets, concerts,rallies, strike meetings, etc -- we do get a measure of the broad working class response to what we have to say. We used to go door to door and may soon be trying that soon near where I live.

A mate of mine did one Hippie-fied rock concert selling newspapers in the nude!

Green Left Weekly though has a market share that transcends the distribution reach of the rest of the left press combined. It is a major political asset for the whole left in the country and it is a pity that other groups haven't utilised it more as a platform.

We have this mix and match situation where the periphery for the DSP and the periphery and membership of the Socialist Alliance are not as broad as the readership of Green Left Weekly. So while we can buoy up political ideas, and organise collectively through the publishing venture, we still haven't won the argument over the party principle across this layer.

Nonetheless the Alliance 's cutting edge is stall work and if we don't have a petition going we deploy a range of literature that focuses on the SA politics. And you'd think that this is stall keeping by DSP members alone but that's not the case. Our stalls are staffed by a range of SA members and even on occasion by supporters of the paper. So we've sort of engineered a culture of outreach driven by card tables.

Another activity we've utilised is what we call stumps. I'm sure they are used there too. A stump is a stall with a protest attached. Inasmuch as you can get away with these, you spruik on an issue on the footpath.Maybe you use a loud hailer.In the context of a major campaign this is a great way to draw focus and reach out at the same time.

This is also where A-frames come in so effectively.

Anonymous said...

hi dave
interesting comments

the sp (cwi in oz) do have a hard copy paper, i bought one the other day

thanks mate
paul