James Aylett: Digital priorities for Labour

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Tuesday 13th October, 2015
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Almost two weeks ago, Labour’s Party Conference was coming to a close in Brighton. Thousands of people, sleep deprived but full of energy, were on their journey home, fuelled with ideas to take back to their friends, constituencies and campaigns. A lot of talk over the four days had been about the future within the party, as much as about politics for the country, and I imagine lots of people were thinking about priorities as they went home. Getting ready for next May. Growing the membership. Local issues that can become campaign lynchpins.

When considering digital technology, it’s important to establish what Labour needs, and then find ways that technology can help (as I wrote before); so how could those priorities — winning in May, new members, and so on — be translated to “digital priorities”, tools to build and programmes to run?

This feels particularly important if Labour is going to move to digital in everything we do, because anything that is different to existing structures needs to be “sold in”. A new digital team, with either new actors within the party or existing ones with significantly redefined roles, will want to cement its usefulness, as or before it takes on any bigger, gnarlier challenges.

It’s easier to support something that has already helped you, so for any new digital folk within Labour it will be important to deliver some tactical support before, say, building a system to directly crowd source policy proposals to feed into the National Policy Forum.

Supporting what’s there

In Brighton, I heard from new members who felt isolated; who didn’t know what was going on; who didn’t know who to talk to, or were frustrated by imprecations to “get involved” without a clear idea of what that might mean, or where sometimes there was an assumption that involvement would always mean volunteering to knock on doors.

It’s not that the support isn’t there. The membership team has lots of resources explaining how the party works — but it isn’t all readily available or easy to find online. Some Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have terrific ways of welcoming new members, from the personal touch to digital resources helping people figure out where they want to fit and contribute. Much of the future of Labour is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.

This is something where digital tools, and the processes that lead to them, can help. I’ve probably encountered a dozen Labour branded websites; most of them don’t link to each other, and most of them aren’t linked from the main website. Many of them haven’t been updated since the general election campaign. Not all CLPs list events online, even within Membersnet (and it’s no longer clear to me if the events are actually in Membersnet and not yet another website). A proper clean up of these would involve finding places for all the information members might want to get online, including information that will need creating or collating for the first time. If you slip through the cracks for any reason (an email goes astray, or just the number of people joining means it takes time for your branch or CLP to get in touch), it should be easier to self-start; that will also help everyone else.

It could also make it easier for CLPs to cross-fertilise ideas. Anyone bristling that they already do this, consider that there are constituencies with no Labour MP, even no councillors, and perhaps only the rump of a CLP. But they’re still getting new members, and if those new members have the right encouragement, they can start to turn things around.

There are lots of other areas where digital specialists can help. Fighting the elections next May, for instance; I’m certain that Sadiq Khan will have no shortage of digital help where it needs, but among the hundreds of other campaigns there will be some that would like a little extra.

As the waves of digital transformation continue to change many aspects of our lives, people thinking through policy will sometimes need support in digesting the implications or latest changes in the technology landscape.

(I sometimes wonder what would have happened if there’d been a digital technology specialist in the room when David Cameron decided to sound off about protecting the security forces from the dangers of encryption; maybe someone could have explained to him the difficulty, not to mention the economic dangers, of trying to legislate access to mathematics. Labour is fortunate to have shadow ministers with the background and knowledge to talk through the different angles — but they probably don’t have time to answer questions from a councillor on how the “sharing economy” is going to affect demand for parking spaces.)

Of course, a few digital specialists working out of London or Newcastle cannot possibly support the entire movement. That will come out of helping members across the country to provide that support.

Networking the party

I wrote before about curating pools of volunteers in different disciplines, and it’s an idea I heard back from others in Brighton. It’s really only valuable if this is done across the country — so a campaign in Walthamstow can track down a carpenter in Cambridge who has a bit of time, or a constituency party in Wales can find the video editor it needs, even if they’re in Newcastle.

This is about strengthening and enabling the network within the party. Again (and this is something of a theme), it isn’t that there’s no network at all. Campaigns aren’t run in isolation, and people do talk to and learn from each other. The history of the Labour movement in this country is one of networks.

But networks are stronger the more connections they have. Internet-based tools allow networks to exist beyond geographic considerations (James Darling talked about this in Open Labour). They allow people to form communities that don’t just come together periodically, face to face. And they can allow other people to draw down the experience and talent within a community when they have a need for it.

Building the digital community

There are two types of digital assistance that people are likely to draw on: tools to use, and people to use them. In the highly tactical world of campaigning and politics, the people to use them — and adapt them, and build other things on top of them — are the more important. Nonetheless, at the heart of Labour’s digital work is digital tools. Right now with Nation Builder, CFL Caseworker and so on. In the future with digital tools yet to be built.

Digital tools are built by a digital community. Communities aren’t created; they grow. But you can foster them.

We need a digital community in Labour because there’s no monopoly on good ideas. We need a community because that way it can survive whatever happens within the Labour party. We need a community because, quite frankly, the party cannot afford to build and support all the tools we need centrally — because the tool used on a campaign in the Scottish Highlands may not be right for a group in the Welsh valleys, with different needs and priorities. They may have both started from the same idea, they may share code and design and history, but they may also end up in very different places.

We need a community of tool builders. And that community should welcome anyone who wants to get involved.

In the open source world, there are people thinking about how to encourage new people to get involved in their communities. Making it easy for people to contribute for the first time, and providing lists of suitable pieces of work to pick up are two recent examples. In the corporate world, this is called “onboarding”, an ugly word that masks an incredibly important function. I have, in some companies, expended more energy working on this than on anything else; it’s hard to overstate its importance.

(None of this is easy. The technology industry, and open source communities, are both struggling with inclusivity and diversity. That struggle is an active one, and any digital community within Labour can and must learn from them, both from the successes and the failures and problems. I don’t want to understate the difficulty or importance of getting this right.)

The Labour movement can go further than encouraging people to participate, by actively training people. Open source projects, and many companies, rely on pre-qualified people to turn up and want to start work. But the party, at various levels, already trains people to be councillors, and to run campaigns, and to analyse demographic data. It can also train people so they can join the digital community: to become documentation authors, and product designers, and software developers, and to support the tools we make.

A lot of this will rely on local communities and volunteers arranging and promoting sessions. There are initiatives such as Django Girls and codebar that can start people on the journey to becoming programmers; there are similar for other skills. We can help people become aware of them, and provide the confidence to sign up. And we can run our own courses, using materials that others have developed.

So much of the success of digital transformation depends on people. In the case of the Labour party it’s the local members, councillors, CLP officers, and the volunteers from across the country who are going to make it work. However there’s also a need for some people at the centre: balancing needs and priorities from across the movement, setting direction, getting people excited, and filling in the gaps where no one else is doing things. (You think management is all glory and bossing people around? It’s mostly helping other people, and then picking up the bits they don’t have time for.)

This will involve talking to people. It will involve getting out to constituency and branch meetings around the country and talking passionately about what can be done, and getting them excited to go out and talk to more people.

Whoever takes on these roles isn’t going to be stuck in London all the time, head down, squinting at a laptop. It won’t work like that. They’d better love talking to people. They’d better love learning from people. And they’d better love public transport.

This was originally published on Medium.