James Aylett: Digital in a Labour age

Published at
Wednesday 23rd September, 2015
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“If you are hopeful about exciting innovations that are more participative, a general election campaign is the last place you should go looking. They will happen in a less partisan race, with millions being spent not billions, and where the political situation is much more strange” — Tom Steinberg, interviewed in 2012

Since his victory, we’ve started to hear little nuggets from inside Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become leader of the Labour party. It was already clear to many the value of the strong and often grassroots social media power the campaign attracted; and the phone bank system written by a volunteer reminds me of aspects of Dashboard, the online system for campaign volunteers built by Obama for America in 2012.

With the new Labour front bench including a number of MPs who’ve been strong proponents of digital thinking for some time, and with experiments such as crowd sourcing PMQs, it’s a good time to think about how digital technology can benefit the Labour party.

However it’s more important to concentrate on what the Labour party and movement needs to be, and then think about ways technology can help. That’s what is driving the thinking behind pieces such as James Darling’s Open Labour and Peter Wells’ Growing an open Labour Party, but in an age of 140 characters and continuous partial attention it’s easy to bundle this up as “Labour in the digital age”, a convenient moniker that can lead the conversation adrift.

Digital technology, the things you can do with computers, phones, tablets (and watches, and Google Glass, and smoke alarms, and washing machines, and…) and the Internet, is revolutionary, increasingly pervasive, and often wildly misunderstood. But it is at heart only a tool; use it right and it can support what you want to do. Tech can be transformative in that it enables transformation; but it’s also possible to apply digital technology in ways that reinforce a status quo, that limit transformation.

Talking too much about digital tools can make us focus on the way we’ll achieve things that might not yet be fully thought through, and the outcomes may then not be what we actually want or need.

There’s also the risk that by concentrating on the digital, we fail to consider non-digital approaches. Technology, as Peter Wells points out, can be exclusive: not everyone is online. Not everyone wants to be online; and not everyone who is, wants to engage with politics online. That’s another reason to focus on the ends.

Also, when people talk about “tech” or “digital” they are often bundling together ideas that happen to be common in those spaces. For instance, “digital” can become a shorthand for agility or for disruption. I’ve also seen it be used as a shorthand for evidence-based policy. Not all those ideas are equal, or even the same type of idea. It’s also unlikely that there’ll be equal support for every concrete plan that stems from them or from political avenues that become feasible by digital technology (such as rapidly polling an electorate).

Bundling a range of ideas together under one label may be valuable when campaigning. It isn’t helpful when discussing how we want politics and government to work, too easily presenting a false view that you have to accept or reject the entire package. That’s often used deliberately as a rhetorical and political technique to avoid debate, but we want the debate and we’re better than that.

Some concrete ideas

Just because we should focus on ends not digital means doesn’t mean it isn’t worth having concrete proposals. Here are just a few that occur to me.

A pool of people willing to help

There are always jobs that need doing in any campaign or political organisation, and some of those for some time have required digital skills. The Labour party already provides training in some of these, but sometimes more specific talents are required, such as building a web app, or taking really good photographs of a candidate; this is by no means specific to people who can provide digital experience.

With some (fairly simple) digital tools allowing people willing to volunteer to update their profiles with availability, skills and talents, we wouldn’t be so reliant on little black books of campaign managers, candidates and other supporters. Some skill-sets don’t require people to be geographically close to the people they’re working with, so if done right and with enough volunteers this should enable any group to find someone to help them, on anything they need.

A community of tool builders

If there are tools, someone has to build them. Whether this is done by explicitly paying people or agencies, or as in-kind donations to the party, the people working on them should do so as part of a wider community of tool builders within the Labour movement, avoiding duplication, and providing more people who can work on any given tool.

I’ll go further and say that this should be an open source community. There will be some who believe this is unwise, providing succour to opposing parties, to which I have some counter-arguments:

  1. The main party in opposition to Labour isn’t remotely short of money. If they want a particular tool they’ll get it. The effort of volunteers, or paid staffers, will in any case often outweigh the cost of particular tools. Conversely, for local campaigns within our movement, removing the cost of tools they need may be the difference between existing or not.
  2. Reducing the cost of running political campaigns of any sort lowers the cost of politics. If we want the political system to work for everyone, we should want it to cost as little as possible.
  3. While some tools will be specific to the UK, not all will. If we want a Labour government for our country, we should want similar for others. Tools we build may be able to help, and tools that others build we will benefit from.

Some policies, widely accepted

As Peter Wells touches on in his article, we probably need some solid governance of things like privacy and data usage policies. People need to be able to trust what will happen to any data they give to any part of Labour, so they can make an informed decision on whether to give it or not.

We also need good standards for ensuring people aren’t overloaded by emails, as Giuseppe Sollazzo wrote in his summary of “digital in the campaigns” in August. In fact, this is just the bottom rung of how to think about communication within the movement. James Darling, commenting on the work needed to embed digital thinking, points out:

Labour movement’s digital revolution is only in its embryonic stage […] ‘Digital’ still means a website and a twitter account, those things understood by last generation’s most prestigious skill set; Public Relations

While broadcast communication is still going to be important, it absolutely cannot end there. That’s going to be a process of experimentation and discovery, but in the meantime I’d settle for getting regular emails when there isn’t a campaign on, and not getting four a day when there is.

Central support

If digital tools are being provided by the community, there may be a need for some centrally-supported hosting of those tools, particularly for smaller campaigns and organisations that just want something that works, and don’t need to dip into the pool of talent. (Particularly if we build the tools right.)

There’s also considerable value, in a social media world, to using the better-connected within the movement (some of which are at the centre, some not) to amplify the voices of those doing interesting work but who don’t have as wide an audience. This is of course how social media works in general, but I suspect there are specific things that can be done, such as actively seeking out interesting stories of issues, campaigns and successes to shout about and inspire people everywhere.

It should be possible, for instance, to provide tools, time and even funding to create videos and articles for online distribution, looking at people working to supplement underfunded council services, or to campaign on local environmental, fairness or access issues. Merely knowing that someone else has had success can encourage others to try the same elsewhere, and these local but incredibly valuable efforts aren’t going to make national newspapers or the evening news. Digital processes give us a huge opportunity to connect people with inspiration and support throughout the country.

The party already provides training and other services centrally; there’s nothing special about digital. (To provide maximum value, the talent pool of volunteers would need to run on a tool provided centrally, for instance.)

I’ve been into elections for far longer than I’ve been interested in the politics around them, if I’m being honest. Polling numbers, the Swingometer, even the timings and logistics around constituency counts can all become fascinating to someone who enjoys nerding out on numbers and data.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the all-night, emergency food-fuelled election watch (if becoming older and more interested in other people can be called “funny”), and over a period of some years I’ve found myself caring about political outcomes, not just for the results, but for the impact they can have on our country, our society and our future.

For a long while I felt that there wasn’t a party political position that matched my views (one of my blogs over the last couple of decades was subtitled “unfashionable politics”), but tides turn, just as I’ve come to realise that being part of a movement where you mostly feel comfortable is better than refusing to compromise, leaving you sitting on the outside, swearing in.

The last few years have been a fantastically interesting time in politics for someone with a digital technology background. US presidential elections since 2004 have made increasing use of technology, and by 2012 both Mitt Romney for President and Obama for America went heavy both on “back office” data analysis and more visible approaches on social media. UK parties haven’t been far behind, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ use of Nationbuilder, through Conservative use of highly detailed targeting on Facebook in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. Meanwhile, organisations like MySociety and Full Fact have been filling in some of the digital gaps in both accountability and civic services, while people like Democracy Club have been looking at the same around elections.

Now, it feels like there’s an opportunity for many more people to help out in UK Labour. Maybe that includes you. Maybe that includes me. And maybe I’ll see you in Brighton, to throw some ideas around. Just as long as we keep sight of the ends.

This was originally published on Medium.