Banal activism, electioneering and the politics of irrelevance

This book is an ethnographic study of devolution and politics in Scotland, as well as of party-political activism more generally. It explores how Conservative Party activists who had opposed devolution and the movement for a Scottish Parliament during the 1990s attempted to mobilise politically following their annihilation at the 1997 General Election. The book draws on fieldwork conducted in Dumfries and Galloway – a former stronghold for the Scottish Tories – to describe how senior Conservatives worked from the assumption that they had endured their own ‘crisis’ in representation. The material consequences of this crisis included losses of financial and other resources, legitimacy and local knowledge for the Scottish Conservatives. The book ethnographically describes the processes, practices and relationships that Tory Party activists sought to enact during the 2003 Scottish and local government elections. Its central argument is that, having asserted that the difficulties they faced constituted problems of knowledge, Conservative activists cast to the geographical and institutional margins of Scotland became ‘banal’ activists. Believing themselves to be lacking in the data and information necessary for successful mobilisation during Parliamentary elections, local Tory Party strategists attempted to address their knowledge ‘crisis’ by burying themselves in paperwork and petty bureaucracy. Such practices have often escaped scholarly attention because they appear everyday and mundane, and are therefore less noticeable. Bringing them into view analytically has important implications for socio-cultural anthropologists, sociologists and other scholars interested in ‘new’ ethnographic objects, including activism, bureaucracy, democracy, elections and modern knowledge practices.

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In a referendum on devolution held in 1997, Scots voted overwhelmingly for a Scottish Parliament. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork grounded in the anthropological tradition of ‘participant observation’, this book explores how Tory activists in Dumfries and Galloway responded to these changes by embracing what it calls banal activism. This term refers to a set of practices that scholars of Western politics tend to overlook because they more often resemble the mundane activities of paperwork and petty bureaucracy. Put simply, local Conservatives reacted to their traumatic defeat at the 1997 general election by burying themselves in paperwork. Devolution has rendered Scotland one of the world's foremost laboratories of constitutional reform and electoral experimentation, and it could therefore provide an important resource for the anthropology of activism, democracy and statecraft. The book also explores the political struggle between local Tories and their opponents over an apparently banal form: electoral boundaries. Moreover, it discusses the local Conservative Party's planning for the 2003 local government and Scottish Parliamentary elections.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives

This chapter provides an account of the destruction of Scotland's Conservative Party at both the national and local levels during the 1997 general election, when Scotland became ‘Tory-free’. It begins with an historical overview of Conservatism in Scotland and, in particular, Tory opposition to devolution and the Scottish Parliament during the 1980s and 1990s. The chapter then explores the impact of the 1997 general election on local politics in Dumfries and Galloway, which continued to be regarded by many activists as ‘natural’ Tory territory despite the apparent ‘absence’ of Conservatives from local and national politics. These impressions were strengthened when two Conservatives from the area were elected via the mixed-member proportional system through the Regional List to the Scottish Parliament. Ironically, this was achieved despite their unsuccessful attempts to secure the region's two constituency seats. What is paradoxical here, then, is that the very electoral system and institution which they had opposed now helped Tories north of the border to reclaim some of the political ground that they had previously lost, allowing them to return to the proverbial political map.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives
Naming and the numbers game

This chapter examines the evidence presented to a public inquiry convened in November 2002 during the Fifth Periodic Review of Parliamentary Boundaries in Scotland, exploring the political struggle between local Tories and their opponents over an apparently banal form: electoral boundaries. Although this inquiry concerned proposals to redraw Westminster constituencies that would otherwise have had little (if any) impact on elections to local government and the Scottish Parliament, it became a major focus for political activists in the months prior to the Scottish Parliament elections. Local Labour Party activists and their allies, for instance, feared that through the Boundary Commission's strict application of the electoral quota, or by playing ‘the numbers game’, an identity neatly encapsulated in the name attributed to natives of Dumfries (Doonhamers) would be lost. The chapter goes on to ask what activists in the region meant when they described a proposed new parliamentary constituency in southern Scotland as ‘a hybrid unit’ made up of disparate parts that did not belong to the whole.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives
Building the political machine

This chapter provides an overview of the local Conservative Party's planning for the 2003 local government and Scottish Parliamentary elections, and explores how local Conservatives sought to build a political machine through the coordination of (limited) activist labour, Party bureaucracy and paperwork. This machine was ‘run’ by a Core Campaign Team, which oversaw the deployment of four ‘instruments’ that were vital to the local Party's discursive armoury: the leaflet, press release, survey and target letter. In particular, activists considered their In Touch leaflets to be both an instrument and a building block of their election campaign, as they sought to ‘catch up’ and overtake the superior, ‘well-oiled’ campaigning machine of the local Labour Party. Ironically, the In Touch leaflet betrayed an anxiety shared by many Conservative activists, which was grounded in the assumption that local people considered the Tory Party irrelevant in Scotland and that they were therefore not interested in what they had to say.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives

This chapter focuses on the apparent ‘crisis’ of irrelevance for the Conservative Party of Scotland, and, in particular, describes the ways in which Tory activists used press releases and letters to local newspapers to campaign on a set of seemingly ‘banal’ local issues. These included opposition to the closure of a local car park, increases in Council Tax and the removal of a roundabout at a busy intersection in Dumfries. The chapter suggests that Conservative activists were often less interested in the content of such issues than they were in problems of form. Local Tories became focused more on logistical and organisational questions – that is, activist methodology in the production of In Touch leaflets, press releases and letters to the editor – than on the issues which formed the content of their election campaign. These instruments were treated as if they were capable of generating electoral effects. Scottish Conservatives hoped that this would be achieved through the promotion of a ‘professional-looking’ campaign which would register in the memories of even the most casual and disinterested of observers.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives
Electioneering and the politics of self-knowledge

This chapter examines one important challenge for the Conservative Party's senior strategists as they sought to address their apparent ‘crisis’ of irrelevance: how to establish the voting intentions of potential supporters in what is otherwise an election by secret ballot. Working within various legal constraints, Conservative activists in Scotland developed a variety of strategies to render the Electoral Roll ‘transparent’ so that the political allegiances of thousands of local voters could be discerned (imagined). The chapter analyses two particular discursive artefacts – the survey and the canvass sheet – as performing a politics of self-knowledge for local Tories, and also considers the target letter, through which senior Conservatives hoped to achieve a positive outcome for local Party candidates in the forthcoming elections. Almost inevitably, however, Tory activists became preoccupied with the banal concerns of designing, producing and distributing these various discursive instruments, in addition to the most efficient bureaucratic means of managing the canvass and other data they generated.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives
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Polling Day and its aftermath

This chapter describes some of the methods devised by the Conservative Party's local strategists in Scotland for assessing their ‘progress’ on Polling Day and at the election count that followed in order to ‘audit’ their campaign. Senior Tories drew on personal experiences of business and management in the running of their election campaign and then mimicked new organisational elites, such as the bureaucrats and civil servants tasked with running the elections locally, as they sought to audit their own campaigning practices. The various strategies employed by local Conservatives to ‘read’ what was happening around them produced some surprising – and potentially unsettling – results. This was partly because they were unable to predict the outcome of the elections in the light of all sorts of diverse factors, such as the weather. The methodological failure of senior Tory Party strategists to anticipate and effectively account for their electoral failure in turn reinforced their marginal status by rendering redundant their attempts to generate knowledge about themselves and a local political culture they deemed hostile to Conservatism.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives

This chapter briefly sketches some of the incidents that took place in the aftermath of the 2003 elections in Scotland and examines whether the local Conservative Party had successfully addressed its crisis of irrelevance. The grounds on which activists made judgements about their own knowledge of local politics remained sketchy and uncertain. Senior Tories had to work hard at making political ‘change’ appear, locally and nationally. The chapter discusses the Tories' election campaign, along with banal activism and ethnography. The predicament with which the lesser-spotted Tory continues to be confronted confounds straightforward portrayals of contemporary Scottish politics. In Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Conservatives continue to face uncertainties and anxieties about the future. However, the sense of organisation that members of the Core Campaign Team achieved in 2003 gave many local Tories a new ‘spring in their step’, so to speak. It was with a feeling of optimism that they were able to approach a future in which they could now imagine one day winning the Dumfries constituency ‘back’ from the Labour Party.

in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives
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in Devolution and the Scottish Conservatives