Non-party political campaigning and organising

This post describes the different ways that campaigners can influence politics and political parties.

I’ve started with a few frameworks

  • Charity, advocacy, mobilising, organising
  • inside outside game/theories
  • Inside/outside strategy

I’ve then described some new political campaigning and organising tactics that have proved effective recently:

  • Distributed organising
  • Tea party/Indivisible advocacy approach
  • Tactical canvassing
  • Deep canvassing
  • Independent political platform in local elections

Charity, advocacy, mobilising, organising framework

These are all good opinions for the forces of good. The terms are defined here as if they were ‘pure’ and discrete organisational models. In reality, any group or organization may contain a mixture, may do different things at different times, and may think it is doing one thing when on examination it finds it’s doing another (eg an organisation might think it’s doing organising when actually it’s mobilising or doing advocacy work). For me, the important thing is not to get too hung up on what’s charity, advocacy, mobilising or organising, but to keep asking the question, ‘does this activity grow the base of people that are involved or not?’

Charity is necessary to plug gaps where systems to meet needs fail but is also very problematic because it causes dependency and doesn’t bring about social change. Indeed, charity can be anti-change in that it provides immediate support to people in need but does nothing to challenge the systemic issues which cause people to experience the problems they are going through in the first place.

Advocacy is a model for change, whereas charity is not. Advocacy is a ‘lone wolf’ version of trying to bring about change; certain individuals become professionals, experts or spokespeople for a cause, and lobby or negotiate with government and other organizations to try and bring about policy changes on behalf of others. On its own, advocacy tends to be a weak model for precipitating change because advocates do all the work behind closed doors, and it does not involve the large numbers of people needed to actively bring about change. Historically, the main strength of the left has been the engagement of large numbers of people.

Mobilising is a more effective model for precipitating change, as it has the capacity for getting lots of people to take action around a particular issue. Mobilising is the approach that the left/environmental movement has largely drawn on in the last decades to try and precipitate change. The downside to mobilising is that it looks more effective than it actually is. It tends not to have the capacity for transforming the way that people think; rather it can get people who already largely agree with a particular issue off the couch and into action. This means that possibilities for change are weakened, as movements do not grow and are reliant on more or less the same people to keep turning up and taking action, which lessens its impact. In addition, activists involved in mobilisation work tend to be over capacity, commonly leading to burnout and the need for replacement by others.

Organising is rooted in the labour movement and the civil rights movement, which deployed organising strategies that led to huge change. The skillset of organizing has been largely lost since this time, due to the systematic attack on the labour movement and the wider left/civil rights struggle. Organising has a very different approach to mobilizing. The key to good organising is to build relationships that develop meaningful solidarities, and this must be done with the aim of engaging majorities of people. It seeks to engage people who are currently undecided or actively disagree with leftist thinking. This is to expand the base of people which can then be mobilised, making organising and mobilising a two-part story. For profound change to occur, it is necessary for organizing to be ‘transformational’, which relies on grassroots leadership with a lot of training, education, support and leadership development.

See more on mobilising and organising here.

Inside outside game/theories

The Engler brothers describe two broad organising traditions that can be categorised as ‘inside and outside theories’. The inside theories are described as transactional and the outside as transformational. Transactional politics is the steady accumulation of small victories. Transformation change occurs in more dramatically punctuated cycles that focus on changing broad public opinion, rather than securing a series of incremental gains. [1]

Paul Engler describes some traditions in the inside and outside games. Under the inside game, there is the lobbying approach, politicians, and services approach. Under the outside game, there is structure approach, momentum approach, pre-figurative, hybrid – Momentum Driven Organising. [2] In their book, This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, the Engler brothers also discuss the structure tradition, the mobilising of movements and momentum driven organising. This video describes the structural approach (organising) and the whole webinar series of US training institute Momentum explains how to do momentum driven organising. I wrote more about momentum driven organising in this post.

Inside/outside strategy

The inside/outside strategy builds on the inside outside theories above to propose that both the inside and outside are needed to bring about significant social change. Here is a quote from Richard Moser on the Be Freedom blog.

“The inside/outside strategy aims at fundamental social transformation. To achieve this end all poles of opposition are necessary. In terms of tactics and ideas, the inside/outside strategy avoids either/or choices and prefers both/and solutions. A successful movement for social change must learn to use all the non-violent means at our disposal. Questions of theory and ideology are best resolved in practice and action — polemics and debate are secondary. IOS suggests we must learn from and leverage political positions we do not fully agree with. Coalitions are an example of the kind of coordination we need to win. Organizing projects and movement building are the best ways to practice this strategy. The IOS is an attempt to find a dialectical approach to practice and action.

The inside/outside strategy (IOS) is an approach to organizing and movement building that emphasizes learning from and coordination with resistance movements and political positions you do not completely agree with. By proposing a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ attitude toward ideas and tactics, the inside/outside strategy is a way to resolve the static binaries and false choices that divide us and waste our energies. The IOS is an alternative to the endless polemic and fragmentation that characterizes the conventional left-wing pursuit of the ‘right line.’ The inside/outside strategy is particularly useful in organizing mass movements, coalitions, big-tent political parties and revolutions.

The inside/outside strategy is a way to understand how the disparate currents of the labor and social movements could converge, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In particular, the IOS appreciates that negotiations with power holders are weak without direct pressure that disruptive actions bring to bear. Martin Luther King wrote:

‘The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.’” [3]

Here is a second more recent follow-up post from Be Freedom on the inside/outside strategy. Moser gives more details and some examples.

Jane McAlevey is an advocate for the inside/outside strategy and mainly focuses on the outside part. She describes an outside strategy to get US President Biden to tackle the many problems the US faces:

“An outside strategy would have looked like a “100 days rally” on April 30 in Washington, D.C., with over a million workers demanding that the pie available gets way bigger and they get a much bigger portion of it, too. An outside strategy would mean issuing a report card on the new administration and reinforcing our demands on the street, over strong objections and warnings not to do so by senior administration officials, and despite turf wars and petty—or even substantial—differences among union leaders.”

McAlevey explains at the start of this video how it was the LGBT community and immigrants rights community that got the biggest gains when Obama was President. The Obama administration removed access to any groups that protested against and criticise the administration and most did not want to lose this access. These two communities did not care about this as they wanted to win. The lesson she is trying to highlight in the video and related article is: “We’re not going to win things by being nice to the Biden people. We’re going to win things by out organising them. Building power, showing power and getting back to the work we know how to do it, which is holding politicians accountable.” She goes on to explain that the first things she learnt and was taught from a smart union when training was “when we elect a politician, the first things we do it put a test in front of them to hold them accountable to that demand. Because we need to teach a lesson to them early on that we have power and we are not going to just acquiesce to you.” And McAlevey then describes how this is the opposite of what the US national trade union movement is doing now. See more on McAlevey’s deep organising methodology here.

The inside/outside strategy is also supported by the US anti-Trump advocacy organisation Indivisible: “We understand systems of power – like how Congress operates – and we work inside them to get results. That complements our outside strategy of locally-based constituent pressure to demand elected leaders, regardless of political party, work for our democracy.” [4]

Sheldon Gen and Amy Conley Wright describe the inside/outside strategy from an advocacy perspective in chapter 5 of Nonprofits in Policy Advocacy Their Strategies and Stories. The chapter includes the ‘theoretical foundations’ of the strategy and some examples.

A really powerful example of an effective inside/outside strategy is how in 2000 the political group Otpor in Serbia against Milosevic applied pressure on the opposition political parties to unite to beat Milosevic:

“By the spring, Otpor was channeling much of the energy it had built throughout Serbia into the next phase of its strategy: uniting the country’s opposition parties behind a single contender who could successfully challenge Milosevic at the polls. Otpor was quickly becoming more popular than any political party, which granted the movement considerable sway over the perpetually bickering politicians. Although none of the party leaders could afford to publicly break with Otpor, the movement activists did not need to express loyalty to any individual politician. Instead, Otpor maintained its position that only a unified front could prevail against the regime. In early 2000, eighteen of the parties began forming a coalition that would ultimately be called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia. As Otpor pushed them to support a unity candidate, it sweetened the proposition with the promise that the movement could deliver five hundred thousand votes to whichever candidate the opposition settled on. But it also backed the challenge with a threat: activists pledged that a hundred thousand people would show up on the doorstep of any leader who went back on commitments to the coalition. After much internal debate, the parties ultimately decided on constitutional lawyer Vojislav Kostunica as their candidate.” [5]

Here is another example successful example from the UK by the union Unison:

“In 2015, a dispute arose among almost 400 home care workers in Birmingham who were employed by the local Labour-controlled council. These were some of the lowest-paid workers, who faced substantial cuts to their wages. Supported by the union’s regional secretary, the workers took 40 days of strike action over a nine-month period, yet this wasn’t sufficient to challenge the employer. The union realised the strikes weren’t sufficiently effective and the collective power of the workers wasn’t proving enough to force the council to back down (it simply did not seem to care if service users did not get their essential service). The council leader was adamant that the cuts would be imposed on these workers. It was therefore recognised that a different strategy was needed. By undertaking a power analysis, the focus shifted to accessing different sources of power.

The target now became the elected councillors. Having decided that what these councillors wanted most was to remain as councillors, the union needed to find a way to threaten that aspiration, and built strategic capacity by having high participation of its care workers, but also involved local electors in the campaign. The organising strategy was to threaten the hostile Labour councillors with the loss of their seats at the next election. By identifying its targets – the top three council leaders – and researching the specific self-interests of each of them, the union and the members concerned were able to put their political careers at risk. In effect, they used political and moral power to win the dispute, recognising that in this case, industrial power on its own just wasn’t strong enough. The campaign was effective at preventing wage cuts for the low-paid, predominantly women and ethnic minority workers. It was an important victory for a union that prides itself on its commitment to equalities, but it was more than that: the dispute transformed the union’s relationship with the local council leadership, which, following the dispute, no longer viewed it as an irritation, but now viewed it as a powerful player which could no longer be ignored.” [6]

Distributed organising

This is a great summary of distributed organising:

“Distributed organizing activates a network of self-starting supporters/campaigners in multiple locations, which can spread across geographical boundaries, interests and cultural groups. It draws on the initiative and energy of volunteer organizers to start groups and lead teams with varying degrees of autonomy. In comparison, traditional NGO-led campaigning and party-led political organizing tends to rely on more command-and-control leadership and paid staff and organizers to mobilize others to take action and raise awareness. Though more horizontal when compared to traditional command and control leadership, distributed organizing often relies on a central coordination group to launch the network and to drive it towards common goals and milestones. When done properly, it can help a movement or campaign scale rapidly and channel huge amounts of collective power. And you might also be familiar with recent Climate Strikes, Black Lives Matter, Women’s Marches, and Hong Kong #AntiELAB protest organizing. We think of these as falling more into the decentralized organizing category. Typically decentralized organizing doesn’t have a central body planning strategy. They’re usually self arising and trickier to plan ahead of time. Decentralized organizing is often sparked by a crisis or sense of urgency.”

Who is doing distrusted organising:

  • the Sunrise Movement,
  • Hollaback! – a global, people-powered movement to end harassment in all its forms,
  • the Bernie Sanders 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns,
  • undocumented immigrant rights campaigners Movimiento Cosecha,
  • Support. Don’t Punish – IDPC campaign for more humane drug policies,
  • Indivisible chapters organizing U.S. citizens to oppose the Trump agenda (see below)
  • the Australian Stop Adani campaign (blocking a massive coal project)
  • Campaign Together (see below)

This is worth quoting on why it’s effective:

“The main benefit of distributed organizing is that it unlocks significant amounts of people power. This is due to the fact that people want to participate and engage more actively in shaping the course of the campaign or cause that they are supporting when they have a say in strategy and execution. As technology enables people to engage in targeted activism previously only possible by NGOs and political parties, a wider group of people are now more self-sufficient and digitally savvy, which enables them to take on more important roles and responsibilities. When these currents are tapped, great things happen! To quote Becky Bond and Zack Exley, commenting on the explosion of supporter power during the 2016 Bernie campaign: ‘As it turned out, people were just waiting to be asked to do something big to win something big.’” [7]

The main form of distributed organising is ‘big organising’ which made a big impact during the 2016 Bernie campaign. To get a deep understanding of this I recommend ‘Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything’ by Becky Bond and Zack Exley.

There is also purpose driver campaigning, also known as local teams or the small group model. It is based on an evangelical church’s model: “Rick Warren focuses on five ‘circles of commitment’ – community, crowd, congregation, committed and core, and argue that it’s important to recognise where your supporters fall in these categories, and develop processes to move them from the outside in.” [8]

It has since been used by the Sunrise Movement in their Strike Circle Program. See this page with a video on the Strike Circle Program and loads of resources on purpose driven campaigning.

Tea party/Indivisible advocacy approach

Indivisible formed in 2017 in response to the election of Trump as President in the US. Some former congressional staffers put together a googledoc guide on how to hold Members of Congress to account and resist the Trump agenda. It was based on the success of the Tea Party against President Obama, who organised locally and convinced Members of Congress to reject the Obama agenda. Indivisible has been very successful and had a big impact. [9]

Tactical canvassing

This relates to tactical voting but goes further, where local campaigners canvass for the party (Labour or Lib Dems) that is in second place to the Tory MP. In the UK this has been pioneered by Campaign Together in the 2017 and 2019 general elections. Campaign Together identified marginal parliamentary seats and used social media to recruit progressives to join canvassing sessions run by the local party. Campaign Together ran training in canvassing and phonebanked those that signed up to encourage them to join local party canvassing. The project was inspired by the 2016 Bernie big organising campaign. [10]

“Campaign Together is a grassroots organisation — without party affiliation or big-money backers — whose only priority is to deny the Tories a majority government. During their first General Election in 2017, they mobilised 5000 canvassers and succeeded in 24 of their 25 target seats.” [11]

Deep canvassing

As I understand the leading organisation in the US on the deep canvassing technique is People’s Action, which set up the Deep Canvassing Institute. For them:

“Deep canvassing is a one-to-one conversation methodology that has been scientifically proven to be able to do two vital things:

  • Create lasting changes in how (or whether) people vote by shifting the underlying emotions and attitudes that determine our political views
  • Generate new trust and connections across difference or disagreement.

Deep Canvass conversations prioritize:

  • Non-judgmentally inviting people to open up about their real, conflicted feelings on an issue
  • Sharing vulnerably about their own life, and asking curious questions about the voter’s life (specifically the experiences that have shaped how they each feel about the issue)
  • Being open and honest about their own truth and beliefs” [12]

The Deep Canvassing Institute describe how deep canvassing brings several benefits:

  • Persuade at a Magnitude that is Rare
  • Persuade in an Unusually Lasting Way
  • Inoculate Against Fear-Based Messaging
  • Depolarize and Create New Connections Across Difference (

The deep canvassing was developed in response to Californians voting against gay marriage in 2008. The Los Angeles LGBT Center decided to talk to people who voted against same-sex marriage to understand them better. They had 15,000 one-on-one conversations and what they found had the biggest impact was when the voter told a story of theirs that had emotional height for them and seemed relevant to them to what the LGBT campaigners were talking about. Watch this inspiring video on this history and the power of deep canvassing. Adam Kruggel from People’s Action describes how deep canvassing is actually a return to traditional and basic organising principles, based on listening, focusing on stories, building relationships and helping people process their differences.

On the question of is deep canvassing effective, the answer does seem to be it is. See the positive impact of five examples in the US between 2015 and 2020 on different issues here. This page gives more details on the 2019 healthcare and immigration campaign. Also, see the deep canvassing Wikipedia page on its effectiveness.

For the nuts and bolts of how to do deep canvassing in practice, watch this video from 49-109 minutes. It goes into a lot of detail. There is also this deep canvassing scripts and examples page.

Finally, a form of deep canvassing has been practised by the Labour Party organisation Momentum. They call it ‘persuasive conversations’. Here is a guide for the 2017 and 2019 general elections. And here is a training video.

Independent political platform in local elections

There have been and are ongoing attempts to form independent political platforms in local elections. This relates to municipalism, see this previous post. Indie Town UK was active in the mid-late 2010s. [13] Take Back the City was active in the mid-late 2010s in London. [14] Flatpack Democracy is a resource to help independent local councillors work together and improve democracy and their local communities. There is the international No Party Political Movement which advocates voting for independent candidates.

Two examples of alternative political platforms that formed in 2019:

  • The Democratic Alliance was formed from an alliance of progressive councillors comprising Independents (The East Devon Alliance); and Lib Dems and Greens on East Devon District Council. They formed to take control of the previously Conservative controlled council and were successful.
  • The Portishead Independents formed to stand in the Portishead Town Council election, with the Greens and Labour not standing candidates. They won all seats except for one Lib Dem. In the North Somerset County Council election, the Tories lost 17 seats and the Independents Group became the largest group on the Council. Don Davies, an Independent from Pill, became the new Leader and a rainbow executive was formed.


  1. This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, Mark and Paul Engler, 2016, page 103;;;; Hackney Unites transaction and transformation organising p24
  2. 33m
  5. This is an Uprising, Engler, p77
  6. Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence, 2021, Jane Holgate p181
  9. Also see Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot p177-181