On a Saturday morning we do have to compete with a 'scene' for attention. Without fail there's two Big Issue sellers out - one bellows out while the other constantly ... dances. Then there is the tasty noodle man with his sign that points the way to stringy-dough paradise. The million balloon man, the charity hawkers, the Mormons, anti-vivisectionists are also occasional additions to the Stoke city centre scene. But my favourite competitors by far are the mobile street team of Park Evangelical Church. They turn up with a board and a group of seven or eight, and just stand there and deliver a sermon. Think less fire and brimstone and more CofE vicars with guitars. I recall one set of pictures they put up on the board - one was Superman, the other two ambulances and air sea rescue, and the last Jesus. What's the difference? they asked. In case you're stumped - it's that the first three save lives, but only Jesus can save your soul ... Still, mustn't complain. They set up not far from us and inadvertently increase the numbers coming by our stall as the public go out their way to avoid them. If Park turn out, we're guaranteed a successful stall!
Another regular fixture is Brother J, a long-time Workers' Power supporter. Most Saturdays he drops by to sell us a copy with their eponymous publication and has a quick chat, often trying to tempt us with WP's ultra-leftist wares. Because the comrade hadn't seen me for a while he thought he'd break me from reformist-leaning Taaffeite centrism by launching an attack on our stance on the Lindsey oil refinery strike. I patiently explained to Brother J that WP's position basically amounted to taking out a checklist and refusing to get involved because they did not meet their standards of how striking workers should behave. I explained we shouldn't be too surprised if workers struggles do assume a nationalist colouration at times seeing how neoliberalism has had 30 years to grind down socialist ideas - it's not ideal but we have to relate to workers as they are, not how we'd like them to be. Luckily the comrade has none of the Spartoid air you often find on the ra-ra-revolutionary left and accepted my points, even if he didn't agree. But he's always worth talking to, even if to sharpen our politics up. Sometimes he can hit you with a curve ball - the one time he caught me out was tackling our position on nuclear weapons ... on a stall about the banking crisis!
As an added bonus the stall was visited by Sister C, a lapsed comrade who's looking to get back involved; and Brother C - a member who joined in Stoke but moved to London for work but will be returning to the Potteries in the next few weeks. So very good.
This is all jolly fun, but we're not really out there to experience the diverse fauna of Stoke's urban ecology. Stall work is among the basic activity carried out by the Socialist Party. It's important for three reasons. It gives us a regular public presence that is seen by hundreds of people week in week out - we can justly say we're the only party in Stoke with the confidence to do this sort of activity. Secondly it's where we sell our papers and raise money. And lastly it's an opportunity to regularly test our ideas and make the case for socialism. Speaking to dozens of people over a couple of hours gives you an idea where popular consciousness in the city is at. The situation demands you vary your patter and arguments constantly but you are left with a broad understanding of the arguments that work and what large swathes of working class people are thinking, which becomes part of the collective experience of the branch. In short, stall work keeps the party's feet on the ground. If we didn't develop convincing politics or did stalls on hobby horses unconnected to the consciousness of our class, we would not sell papers or raise money. For this reason, stall work is something serious socialists cannot do without.
(Image of Birmingham comrades in action).