There is a lot of talk about the importance of political education on the left at the moment. Max Shanly has turned Tony Blair’s call to weapons of mass instruction on its head and demanded ‘political education, political education, political education’. Momentum’s strategy document ‘Socialist Organising in a New Era’ has political education as one of its three main objectives and the pandemic’s plethora of podcasts, zoom events and reading groups has shown an encouraging level of take up. More cause for hope is that TWT and other Transformed events will be enduring institutions as long they keep showing that political education can be varied and exciting.
Now of course, this could be because the left is not in a great place institutionally speaking. We are getting slapped up from all directions and perhaps we are desperate for some safety and dignity in this strategic retreat. Regardless, it’s an important thing to do. Labour members would not have been duped by Sir Kieth had they understood the contempt that so much of the Labour machine has for them. 40% of Unite members would not have voted for the Tories if they knew how much of employment law is not worth the paper it is printed on. XR members might have realised that the flawed social science of one egotist does not erase 100s of years of colonialism and oppression. And, most crucially for me, those essential workplace reps fighting on bread and butter workplace issues might win more often if they and, to be fair, their union apparatus, adopted an organsing model rather than assuming that their boss will be fair to them if they ask nicely for what they deserve.
With the notable exception of ‘The Way of the Activist’, there are not many people explicitly writing about how to run a good political education session.
Yes, not everyone in society is a teacher. (Thank God.)
Yes, things have come some way in being more inclusive (chairs trying to not just pick blokes to ask ‘comments rather than questions’) but there are still some top tips that this burned-out-husk of a hack educator would like to throw into the ring:
Encourage the audience to discuss points with each other. Don’t just make it a passive process. Include at least one part where feasibly everyone can speak and be heard by someone else. The breakout groups function in Zoom has really helped to encourage this strategy, let’s not lose it when we go back to our badly lit and badly heated rooms. Moving chairs around is a faff but there will be a way to do it if you think about it beforehand.
No one has ever left a meeting thinking “I really wish that had gone on for a bit longer” or “I wish the chair hadn’t cut that person off, I think they had more to say”.
We all have jobs and we are all busy with union or other responsibilities. Maybe people even have social lives. Meetings should stick to time and people should learn to be efficient with their communication. It’s good training for any media opportunities if nothing else. At the top of your session, the chair should admit that they are a bossy person who has no time for non-questions or speakers speaking over time. Give a warning of a couple of minutes when you need a speaker to wind up and keep to it. Tell the contributor that it’s questions not contributions that we are looking for. No one will hate the chair, everyone will think: “That chair was great and I enjoyed that meeting because it was pacy and didn’t drag.”
The limits of panels
I completely understand why there are panels at political events. You want some big names to bring people in. You want to give the platform to some rank and file as well. You want a bit of variation of opinion or perspective on the issue too. My feeling is that most panels are huge missed opportunities because really what you should be doing when you bring together a load of insightful types is to try and create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Most panels result in a couple of guests talking for too long and all guests mainly talking about their own projects with little interaction or chance to piggyback off each others’ ideas. If you’re not going to at least try to build or create something new then you might have wasted your time in getting all these people on the same stage at the same time.
My suggestions would be to perhaps ask panelists to bring questions with them to ask the audience. Maybe a panelist could be given a short time to interrogate another panelist. Maybe you put a discussion question up on the screen, the audience discuss it among themselves and the panelists run around listening in so that they can then feed back what they found the most interesting. Maybe the panelists should have a fairly tight time limit to speak and then they pick the next panelist to speak. There are lots of different ways that you could use all the resources in the room to make your event a unique experience which everyone goes away thinking that they’ve learned something fresh and exciting.
Just get it in there: leaky time and pedagogical smuggling
Leaky time is a phrase we use in our NEU events to denote the little bits of complete freedom that you have in teaching, despite all the pressures of the job, to talk about important things that matter. Even a maths teacher in the most authoritarian academy will still have spare minutes here and there while the kids are packing up their stuff or while you’re chatting to them on break duty. Leaky time can be when you ask them what they think about the thing that’s just happened in the news or ask them what that little #BLM they’ve written on their hand means to them.
In your union meetings, CLPs and conversations about the news with neighbors, it can feel like there is too much essential stuff to fit in. Explaining big concepts like ‘colonialism’ don’t really fit in alongside the discussions about how part timers are regularly short-changed and who’s going to write the awkward email.
But, I would say that this leaky time exists in all meetings. You’re not going to blow anyone’s head apart but you can certainly raise ideas, quickly define a concept or reframe a narrative. Put it this way, it’ll be much harder to do a longer section of education if you haven’t already made a start.
Try putting a slightly contentious definition or piece of history up as your first slide so that people talk about it as they walk in and settle. For example, for a members’ meeting about battling redundancies, put up an article about a recent strike victory somewhere else. For a meeting held in Pride month, put up a definition of patriarchy. If the last demo in your town was about police violence, put up a scathing quote from MLK about capitalism.
It’s really good practice that basically every event asks for questions from the floor. It is also very telling how events run by the Labour Right try to clamp down on this. However, some questions are better than others and forming good questions takes a bit of time. That’s why you get rambling multi-questions – there’s the gem of something in there but what sounded right in their head has come out garbled to a big room of people.
If you ignore the rest of this article as silly hippy nonsense that no one will buy into, fair enough, but this is the simplest point that will make a marked improvement: Before you ask for questions from the floor, ask the congregation to speak to each other for a few minutes about the kind of questions they might want to ask. This vets out the less important ones, raises the quality of the good ones and builds confidence in those people who wouldn’t otherwise offer anything up.
It is so, so, so crucial that the left encourages and empowers a wider variety of voices to speak in political meetings cos if it can’t, then it’s going to be very difficult to encourage anyone who isn’t a confident white cishet man to become a good socialist rep, branch secretary or councilor, let alone an MP or other national leader one day. There are far too many confident white cishet men taking up all the important roles and they are definitely not the people we need doing all the talking. You can see it starting in classrooms and you can see it solidifying in political meetings. An amazing question from a complete newcomer might be the first step in turning a clever but cautious person into a socialist firebrand in the workplace.
Social events can definitely count as political education as long as you use the leaky time. Get your union branch to pay for some food and drinks and bring people together. You might not have enough in common other than how much you hate management, so let it fly. The more varied your events calendar, the more varied the type of people you will reach. You will naturally hear people introduce each other as reps or on committees with X. Why not invite your non-unionised mates from other professions and show them what they’re missing out on? One question that’s easy to drop into conversation with a newbie is “What’s the main thing you would change about your work if you could?” Then you can suggest the cure: union gangsterism.
Bearing all this in mind, just remember that even though a lot of people learn through reading and listening to podcasts, Jane McAlevey would say that it’s easier for most people (especially the ones we need to reach) to learn through doing. You could have a thousand tea breaks trying to explain to your colleague why your lovely boss doesn’t ultimately have your best interests at heart. You could send them a great podcast about class (they will never listen to it). Or, you could provoke a reaction from your boss that clearly shows that their life is easier if they can make you work harder, with less pay and less complaining. As always, there is no substitute for some action to make people learn lessons they will never forget.