*Disclaimer: This is an edited version of the full interview. For a full transcript ask James Preston (s2001663)
I recently had the pleasure of talking to Jackson Caines who is on the Steering Group for the Breakthrough Party as it gears up for its first democratic leadership election alongside being the Joint Strategy Lead for the emerging organisation. The interview itself is based around the process of running and campaigning for a minor and new political party in this politically turbulent time providing an eye-opening perspective on the decisions made in political parties.
Firstly, who exactly are the Breakthrough Party?
“The Breakthrough party is a new Democratic Socialist Party which has basically emerged as a response to the fact that since the demise of the Corbyn project there has been no political party that poses a real threat to the establishment that speaks unequivocally for the working class. [Post-Corbyn] I think lots of people on the left were sort of looking around and waiting for something to happen, because a gap had emerged for a party that would speak that kind of political language and eventually certain people just stopped waiting around and did it themselves.”
So, if the party was established out of the ashes of the Corbyn regime within the Labour party, where do they fit into the political landscape? And how can the party survive within a busy political system with multiple centre-left to left wing alternatives?
“The Breakthrough Party obviously catches people’s attention because it's filling this gap where an anti-establishment and radical Socialist Party needs to be. Well, we're not sure there is so much competition. Because, as we said previously, in the past five years you had a very unusual situation in this country where people who believe in changing society…. were represented in mainstream politics. They were represented by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party but obviously since he stopped and he stepped down as leader, Labour has vacated that space and we really didn't feel that anyone else was really occupying that space. You have some very small left-wing organisations and parties that have existed for some time but many of them don't actually field candidates in elections or many of them are not really trying to reach a broader audience.”
The party itself claims to be a party “led by the younger generations”. However, this youth focus may be a risky strategy as historically young people in this country do not turn out to vote in the same numbers as the older generations. The 2019 General Election saw a turnout of around 47% amongst voters aged 18-24, a decrease of 7% when compared to 2017. How do the Breakthrough Party try and appeal to the youth of Britain?
“[Young People] feel very passionately about politics and most of them are on the left because the current system is not working for them. They can see that in their lives, so they don't need to have studied politics to see that… the housing system is not working for them. They can't afford to rent privately, they can't afford to buy, the council waiting list for too long. They can see that job market is very tough, jobs are very insecure and don't provide us of stable living wage. We believe if we just speak to the hopes and fears of young people then we will reach them, and our message will stand out because there's no other party really putting it in such stark terms and speaking directly to people.”
This strategy has some factual backing. During the Corbyn era, the Labour party dominated the youth vote with its more radical policy platform encouraging a higher turnout. After the 2017 election, Corbyn’s first as Labour leader, one post-election poll suggested that turnout amongst 18-24 year old went up by as much as 16 percentage points. If Breakthrough can replicate this, they may be able to cash in on some of that vote share.
Young people however tend to be more engaged with civil disobedience and protest action than the older generations, as seen in the School Strike for Climate and the youth-dominated Extinction Rebellion movement. If these are the politically active younger generation the Breakthrough party wants to target, should the party have a place outside the electoral route in social movements instead of within the electoral system?
“I wouldn't put those two things in opposition like that. It’s a very interesting question: most mainstream parties have a completely Westminster-centric conception of what politics is, their idea of politics is some powerful people in suits in the halls of power making deals without any sort of role for the public. We take hope from what people do in their workplaces through trade unions, in their communities through renters’ unions and food banks and activism of that sort of kind. Also, on the streets through protest and we want to link up with these social movements and show solidarity with these social movements and give them a voice, but we haven't rejected the electoral roots. We are a political party competing in elections so that would distinguish us from some far-left groups or some anarchist groups or groups that completely reject electoralism. We sort of took a dual approach: we want to give people when they vote in elections a real alternative, something that excites… but we also want to mobilise people outside of the electoral system and stand in solidarity with the very exciting and urgent social movements that we've seen in recent years.”
The Breakthrough Party took its first swing at an election earlier this year with the Cheshire and Amersham by-election. Despite a relatively low vote total, it was their first campaign as a political party so were really building from the ground up. I spoke to Jackson Caines on the lessons learnt from the party’s experience during the by-election.
“You know virtually none of us have any sort of political professional backgrounds or experience, so we had to learn everything! We were really doing it for ourselves and learning on the spot and I think we made at least a decent effort in that respect. Some of the stuff that we had to learn was just completely mundane procedural stuff which is the nitty gritty of how by elections work. In terms of what forms you must complete before certain deadlines and how you make arrangements with Royal Mail to get electoral materials sent out within a certain time frame. Those are all the essential things to know so that next time we've got that knowledge. And other stuff that's more sort of strategic stuff about how you make an impact, how you reach people. We didn't have loads to work with, but it was very interesting to learn what was effective in terms of setting up street stores and what kind of messaging works with people. Everything involved in the by-election we were learning for the first time really and it was very useful, and it was very educational and part of the reason we stood in that by election was to get some of that essential experience.”
The by-election run by the Breakthrough party was not about coming first, it was about learning from the experience. “We knew we weren't going to win, and we weren't unhappy with our results considering we are a completely new party without big financial backers.” And it appears that the byelection was a small-scale success. “We beat two other parties that had existed for longer than us and we ran with this fantastic local working-class candidate has now become a very effective campaigner, so we weren't unhappy with the campaign at all and we're going to take that knowledge into future campaigns.”
Yet, as the party had quite a large social media following during the campaign, how did they manage to translate that into a both a traditional media presence and into an on-the-street presence in terms of local campaigners?
“Well, social media is very good for certain things and not so good at others. When we tweet, we're speaking to people all over the country, people that are probably already on the left or sort of interested in politics. Twitter is not so useful when you're actually trying to get the votes out of people in a certain constituency and we knew that, so we had to do other things. We got in touch with local media, Carla Gregory our candidate did lots of interviews with small local outlets and independent media. Facebook is a more targeted platform... within the party we have a couple of people who are very knowledgeable about how to use social media for targeting and marketing purposes.”
And it appears that social media is something the party sees itself as ahead of the game on. “Most established parties are not making very good use of it. We did one video that we are quite happy with which basically introduced Carla and she told her story, and she talked a bit about policies and what she would advocate if she was elected and that got that got lots of views on Facebook and generated engagement. We also had a little policy platform which did the rounds on Facebook as well.”
However, the conversion of this online success into feet on the ground seems to have been more of a challenge.
“In terms of translating it into volunteers on the ground I think one thing that we do quite well is, for our internal organisation and communications, is the innovative use of modern digital platforms which I don't imagine most other parties do. We were using slack software; now we use discord.”
At the time of this interview (15th November 2021) the party had received a defection from the Labour Party in the Bury St Edwards town council. So, I asked about any future defections and how gaining defected members effects future elections and the position of the party.
“I would just say watch this space because there may be some more news of that sort coming out soon.” Just the next day the Councillor Ben Munro defected from Labour in the Thorngumbald parish council and the party received another defection as recently as the 3rd of February and gaining the Mayor of Bangor via a defection on the 27th of January.
“We welcome it, these people joined the Labour Party and were elected based on their socialist policies or principles, they're honest about their politics and see that the Labour party is moving away from that so it makes sense for them to join the Breakthrough party and get involved in building alternative policies.”
Your targets at the moment seem to be areas that were where the Labour Party found success under Corbyn, where would you see as your best target seats or areas for the future?
“Good question! We have lots of debate about this strategy. Obviously we have to be quite deliberate in how we target seats because we don't yet have vast financial resources. We consider lots of criteria and some amazing work has gone on within the party and it's better speak about reaching who I was talking about earlier. We think that there are people who are renting in the private rented sector or in or in social housing, people who are working various jobs, people who are concerned about the environment, so people who are already consciously left-wing and socialist.”
Clearly this is a new force within British politics, and one that is growing in representation around the country. But breaking through the political system is always more difficult than it seems. Yet, considering the turbulent state of British politics in the past few years, nothing is off the cards.