Inside the Victorian Socialists path-breaking campaign

Victorian Socialist candidate Colleen Bolger took time off the hustings to sit down with Red Flag’s Louise O’Shea to talk about the grassroots campaign that has surprised everyone.

A recent Guardian article pointed out that you can’t go anywhere in the north of Melbourne without seeing Steve Jolly's face. Can you give me an idea of the scale of the Victorian Socialists campaign in the Northern Metro area?

This is the biggest socialist election campaign in generations. Hundreds of volunteers have knocked on almost 100,000 doors. We have an army of volunteers at all the early voting locations and will be staffing every polling booth in the Northern Metro area on election day.

Our efforts are not limited to inner city areas where the Greens do well – we’ve gone out to working class areas further north, where people feel fed up with Labor. 

The volunteers have definitely been the backbone of the campaign. Their commitment is astonishing. 

Students finishing their exams have delayed getting paid work so they can spend 8am to 8pm campaigning. Workers have taken time off during the early voting period to staff booths. Retired people have turned up day after day to help.

Campaigners for the other parties – some of which are paid to be there – frequently comment on our campaigners’ commitment and staying power. 

Of course, people are welcome to help for just a few hours at a time too! We know that if people stop and talk to us, we’re a real chance to convince them to vote socialist – so even a bit of time helps achieve that. 

We’ve also changed the conventions of campaigning. Because we can’t rely on an established brand like the other parties, it’s imperative we talk to every person and make a convincing case to win their support. This has politicised things and put pressure on the established parties to justify their actions and policies, which is a good thing. 

Preference deals can be decisive in determining who gets elected in the Australian voting system. How are you navigating that?

For the last 15 years, we’ve seen new parties pop up and manage to get elected in the upper houses because of the voting system – almost all of them right wingers. The accepted wisdom is that to succeed, you have to be part of a complex preference deal among micro-parties, some of which are just vote-harvesting operations set up by preference whisperers trying to game the system. 

Victorian Socialists are the only party that hasn’t done a deal with the right wing micro-parties. We have preferenced the Greens and the various other progressive parties – Reason, Labor and the Animal Justice Party – ahead of all the right wing parties. 

We have promised never to do dodgy deals. We are willing to work with progressives, but we will never help right wingers get into parliament.

Because of this, there is a good possibility we will get beaten by a micro-party with a tiny vote, no campaigners and negligible active support. If this happens, it will be an indictment of the system and an affront to the democratic process. 

What has the feedback from all this campaigning been? Is there a resonance for the socialist message?

It really confirmed what you read in the media all the time: people are sick of the major parties. A lot of working class people feel they’re in a bind: they know Labor takes their vote for granted and neglects working class communities, but they’d never vote Liberal. They want an alternative, but they’re also sceptical about something new. 

When we have the opportunity to talk to these people, we almost universally get a good response. A politician who is committed to only taking a worker’s wage, someone who will speak out against privatisation and cuts and in favour of workers’ rights, has a lot of appeal. 

Our experience highlights there is not so much support for the neoliberal status quo as resignation to it. A campaign with integrity that is willing to challenge the accepted wisdom of politics definitely can get a hearing. 

A man who went to shut his door on me straight away in Thornbury, for example, stopped when he heard me say we’re trying to get a trade unionist into parliament. He then told me how as a butcher he’d been a militant in the meat workers union, and that it was one of the more militant unions at the time. Likewise, some older Italian, Greek and Turkish people are delighted that we are carrying on a socialist tradition that they were connected to before they migrated. 

Are there particular challenges involved with being a new party?

Yes – most people will not have heard of us yet. 

While we’ve knocked on all accessible doors in the four inner city electorates, there are many we couldn’t get to. We know that being able to speak to someone is much more effective than just picking up a glossy leaflet. 

There are older voters who will go to the polls expecting to keep voting Labor because that’s what they’ve always done. It will take time to establish ourselves with these people. Even for those we’ve had a chance to talk to on their doorstep, it’s a lot to expect people to remember that a month or two later. 

The other parties have connections with community groups going back years or decades. We have had an opportunity to meet with lots of different groups and have gotten fantastic support from various migrant groups – Lebanese, Hazaras and Tamils –but the reach of the other parties is much greater because they’re older and more established. 

Plus, the major parties are spending like crazy. They’ve got big donors behind them, funding billboards and TV and radio ads. It’s hard for a small party with no corporate backers to compete with that. 

Added to this, the campaign is the first experience of electoral campaigning for most of us. We’ve not known where the best areas would be to campaign, so we’ve turned up with over a hundred people and tested it out. There’s lots that we have learnt that will make us stronger next time. 

What sort of support has Victorian Socialists received from unions, and how important is this to the campaign?

The support from unions has been significant, both financially and politically. The Electrical Trades Union has contributed $50,000 towards our Northern Metro campaign and a further $60,000 towards the Western Region campaign. The Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association have given us thousands of dollars for T-shirts while the maritime union, meat workers, National Union of Workers and firefighters union have collectively donated more than $10,000. 

Financial support is crucial, but having union backing also helps to get word out and gives people confidence that we mean what we say about getting a working class fighter into parliament. A lot of people trust unions more than political parties. 

Is it too late for people to get involved with the campaign?

No! People can sign up to help on election day, 24 November, via our website – any and all help is much appreciated. This is just the first campaign for us. Win or lose, we will be using all we have learned to keep fighting for a principled socialist ticket in future elections.