Open Labour

My hopes for the future of the Labour Party

September 13, 2015

I have a vague desire to explore the political world” I 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 Group’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.

For more content you can see all of my posts, or read about me.


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