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Opening up – Labour’s digital revolution must move on from its embryonic stage

<em>Image Copyright: <a href="http://www.123rf.com/profile_grandeduc">grandeduc / 123RF Stock Photo</a></em>I have a vague desire to explore the political worldI said, only a month ago. That very day, I happened to be going to meet Ben Soffa, head of digital for the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. But that feels like a lifetime ago now as since then I’ve spent the vast majority of my time volunteering for that campaign, doing everything from wrangling CSV files to being Jeremy’s bodyguard.

Yesterday, in case you missed it, Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership campaign with the biggest mandate from the largest electorate that any party leader has ever received.

I thought today, my one day off before I return to my regular paid work tomorrow, would be a good day to get some of my thoughts down.

Digital has, is, or will transform nearly every industry that exists. One of the advantages of working in computers is the ability to get work in whatever industry most interests me at the time. This is something I’ve taken massive advantage of. In my 9 year career I’ve been able to work in Music, Advertising, Media, Business Continuity, Design and the Civil Service amongst others. So how does party politics compare?

Put bluntly the Labour movement’s digital revolution is only in its embryonic stage. There are those who ‘get it’ dotted here and there, but the institution itself is still pretty oblivious. ‘Digital’ still means a website and a twitter account, those things understood by last generation’s most prestigious skill set; Public Relations. It certainly reminds me of the Civil Service when we set up Rewired State in 2009.

This isn’t surprising, and isn’t in itself meant to be an insult. The Labour movement was founded in the industrial age, and still has the structures of that time. Whatever the industry, organisations today have two options: radically modernise or be replaced. And it takes quite a push for radical change to happen in such established structures. I believe that Corbyn’s mandate is exactly that. Which gives me hope because the human cost of a slow, painful decline of Labour is so much higher than that of, say, Blockbuster. This matters deeply.

We now live in an age where:

  • The digitisation of everything is creating big questions about the future of society, as big as the ones that the were generated by industry that caused the Labour party to be setup in the first place; questions of identity, privacy, of hegemony by a few big online brands. No political party fully understands the implications of these for policy or for people’s lives.
  • People are both turned off and shut out by conventional political organisations whilst having the most spare time in human history.
  • The ability to organise large numbers of people, and to communicate with them, have approached zero cost.
  • The collection, analysis and distribution of information has become relatively trivial, using free, collaboratively built, software.
  • The prototyping and testing of policy in the real world is now possible using digital tools and agile methods.
  • People increasingly feel multiple political allegiances, at the same time the distinction between the various tiers of government, and wider civic society, need no longer be hard and fast.
  • People increasingly expect high quality, well designed experiences in their interactions, yet no political organisation has yet applied design thinking — understanding the needs of their membership, supporters and wider public — to answer the question: how could the best possible political movement operate today?

Corbyn’s victory gives us the opportunity to look at Labour’s core responsibilities and apply them to today’s reality. While the parliamentary party’s aim of gaining seats may stay the same, how we communicate the reasons for that has changed. Although ‘communicate’ is the wrong word. Our new and future members need to experience it.

It’s no use having politicians explain the importance of voting for them. This broadcast only model often ends up with the wrong content and always with the wrong tone.

So what is this new model? Well, that is what we need to build over the next few years. To say what that actually will be would be very, well, un-digital. We start by building small, learning fast, and iterating. But here are some first ideas.

Become open by default

We should instrument and publicly document our processes: dates of meetings, local groups, voting history of MPs and Councillors, campaigns, candidate elections. Everything should be available online, as structured information to built upon.

Understand what the best experience looks like for a member

Joining the party should be as simple as buying an app, but should just be the start of a journey. We should go back to first principles and redesign how members, supporters and union members interact with their party.

Beyond making joining easy, we should examine:

  • How best to understand the skills people have, and engage them in specific tasks relevant to their skills (eg asking events organisers to organise hustings, graphic designers to design campaign material)
  • Run experiments to understand how best to help new members progress their membership.
  • Alternatives to in-person meetings for decision making, which are are a high barrier to entry and limited by how far people can travel.
  • How best to engage people in the reality of campaigns.
  • How to communicate to new members how the power structure of the party itself works, beyond local campaigning.

Campaign and develop policy by doing

A campaign on energy prices should involve trusted tools that help people switch, a campaign on the future of our high streets should be part of a service that helps people club together to get their local pub listed as a community asset.

This will require putting technologists on an equal footing with those who have historically developed policy (much as successful digital journalism has done with coupling journalists and data scientists).

Every policy should be seen as a test, and published openly and versioned.

Enable networks based on more than the ward/constituency members live in

We should move away from an organisational principle based on constituency and ward membership. Members should be able to feel they belong as much to a groups based on their skills as they do to their local organisations, looking to organisations like W3C for inspiration.

All of the above is urgent and by no means complete, but will take time. I hope that Labour is able to make this transition, and I hope that I can do my part to help it do so. I hope that you can too.

This blog was previously published at James’s own blog

Image Copyright: grandeduc / 123RF Stock Photo

5 Comments

  1. stuart naylor says:

    James it would not take long at all.

    ward/constituency/council/region/westminster/eu

    All just partitioned views of the the whole entity.
    Group creation filters down but not up but you can create sub groups that post into a higher level group.

    It just one extra button on a FB like application where you select your current view and where you post is aimed.

    We could take oxwall.org or ellg.org and create a dedicated digital democracy.

    1st Phase
    Start with what is available and work on the democracy elements and run for a while.
    We could have something operational in a couple of months.

    2nd Phase have a look at what was wrong with the original opensource core and redesign for purpose no rush as we have the intermediary site running.

    British democracy has a vertical hierarchy with clear partitions that is perfect for a bottom up feed by peer review methods.
    Just change “like” to “for” and “against” with some clever but simple algorithms for voting (applying value) and we are off.

    Please stop saying this will take time or its hard to accomplish as the hardest thing is authentication and the Labour party just did that via membership verification of the election!

  2. Bazza says:

    Yes we need to harness new technolgy.
    But as educatinalists argue we need “blended learning’ – on-line plus face to face interaction.
    And perhaps we are all learning as we go through the great experience of Jeremy’s victory and face the negative onslaught from the Hard Right Wing Tories and Hard Right Wing media which they do to keep to try to keep power with the rich and powerful.
    If we can harness both to give people a democratic voice then we could win.

  3. David Pavett says:

    ‘Digital’ still means a website and a twitter account, those things understood by last generation’s most prestigious skill set; Public Relations. It certainly reminds me of the Civil Service when we set up Rewired State in 2009.

    I admit that I can barely follow the semantics and syntax of declarations of this sort. The sometimes dubious linguistic form of the argument is paralleled by the over-excited hype about digitisation.

    I consider myself reasonably well informed about the nature of digitisation and the potential of computers but I have never understood why talking about such things cannot be done in plain English.

    We are said to be in a “new age” in which “The digitisation of everything is creating big questions about the future of society”, and the claimed posing of “questions of identity, privacy, of hegemony by a few big online brands” and even “The prototyping and testing of policy in the real world is now possible using digital tools and agile methods”. This is the same digital froth we have been offered by a long line of commentators who think that their acquaintance with some of the undoubtedly impressive results of computerisation of information along with its analysis and manipulation, gives them an insight into the nature of society that enables them to get straight to the heart of the issues without the need to absorb the results of social science. This is pure illusion.

    What is “the distinction between the various tiers of government, and wider civic society, need no longer be hard and fast” supposed to mean? Has James Darling not heard about the dramatic changes in the relationship between central and local government of the last 60 years? Is he not aware of the constantly shifting relations between the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary? Apparently not.

    While the parliamentary party’s aim of gaining seats may stay the same, how we communicate the reasons for that has changed. Although ‘communicate’ is the wrong word. Our new and future members need to experience it.

    This is the worst sort of empty “digital” rhetoric. it has no real object and no clear concepts. It is just excited and ill-informed waffle. What is to “experience” the “reasons” for a candidate standing in an election? How do you “experience” a “reason”?

    So what’s the new digital approach? First, “We should instrument and publicly document our processes: dates of meetings, local groups, voting history of MPs and Councillors, campaigns, candidate elections. Everything should be available online, as structured information to built upon”?

    What is to “instrument .. our processes”? Apart from this bizarre English the rest of the statement sounds to me pretty much like what the less lethargic Labour movement organisations are doing already.

    The rest of the article continues with the same breathless waffle. It the stuff of IT presentations to managerial audiences.

    Last point.

    We should move away from an organisational principle based on constituency and ward membership. Members should be able to feel they belong as much to a groups based on their skills as they do to their local organisations, looking to organisations like W3C for inspiration.

    W3C is organised into functional groups. Constituencies and wards are functional groups based on our current processes of representation. Of course wider groups can also be useful although why they should be based on “skills” as opposed to political interests beats me.

    The Labour Party does indeed desperately need to up its online act but that is by analysing what is wrong with the current one, what the possibilities are and making clear proposals for rebuilding the Party’s online presence. Labour’s current online offering is truly pathetic. For example its news feed is often weeks or even months out of date. The Your Britain website is a joke – no real discussion can take place by means of it. The national website provides next to no political information and Membersnet is known to be a farce to everyone who has ever tried to use it. But those are very specific problems which can be remedied with a little serious thought and forming an expert group of Party members in order to take it out of the hands of the full-time officials who clearly have no idea what they are doing. What we do not need is the near meaningless wild talk with no analytical content of articles like this one.

  4. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Ah clearly a man on a mission?

    Frankly the above piece reads more like a piece of marketing than a serious a political article, also as someone who first encountered commercial IT in industry in the late 70’s, (first generation MRP,) and who 40 years later is still waiting to see even the basic system properly executed operationally and in a word where many, (SME’s particularly,) companies stubbornly insist on still using spreadsheets, (again which have not developed much in 40 years; but then again why would they,) to do everything, I’m skeptical.

    I think the evident confusion between broader IT issues and mere social networking tools, (which bores me rigid,) is evident and rather undermines the evident enthusiasm.

    Then there are all the well publicized, massively expensive and apparently continuing IT disasters from the now infamous NHS data base to Universal Credit etc.

    These have led many people, myself included, to surmise that government funded, (or for that matter even in industry,) IT is being run essentially as a set of rackets by unscrupulous and cynical service providers in conjunction with our shabby and frequently simply dishonest political, “servants,” who too often don’t have any technical grasp of the operational issues at all, (all those PPE’s,) or the faintest idea about what they’re throwing tax payers money at, with familiar and quite predictably disastrous outcomes, and this happens again and again.

    Also I have to question the validity, even the common sense, of a comment such as, ” In my 9 year career I’ve been able to work in Music, Advertising, Media, Business Continuity, Design and the Civil Service amongst others,” which fails on so many levels, (jack of all trades master of non,) and fails to make any serious distinction between the importance of representative democratic politics and commerce which I find poisonous.

    I seem to remember that in the 70’s we were all going to be driving flying cars by the beginning of the 21st century, now that we’re here; what with hugely expensive and bloody illegal wars, beggars back on the Streets of Manchester, our disabled and unemployed being bullied, cheated and exploited by the agencies to due that are suppose to support them and then left to die in their thousands, (likewise the patients at Mid Staffs,)a broken and seemingly almost wholly corrupt political system up for hire to anyone with as little £5000 to spare, an former banker and international criminal being a given senior government position and so on; it all looks rather less like, “the Jetsons,” and far more 1984.

    So forgive me if I somehow lack your enthusiasm.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Nonetheless and in the context of my comment above, (doubtless somewhat jaded as a result of my age and of 40 years actual experience of the, “real world,”) there are still some interesting ideas in the article well worth developing and exploring further.

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