“At an event yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn promised that Labour would deploy digital technology to mobilise Britain’s ‘most visible General Election campaign ever’. He said:
‘Labour have now lost two successive general elections…we will not win elections solely by relying on the methods and strategies of the past. And I’m pleased to say that our leadership campaign is leading the way in harnessing the advances of new technology so that we can organise political campaigning like we’ve never seen before in Britain…the challenge is to now take this forward to the next general election. Labour under my leadership will utilise the advances of digital technology so that we can mobilise the most visible, targeted and effective General Election campaign in British history.‘
While it is of some concern that Corbyn didn’t get more specific as to precisely how Labour can mobilise its massive and growing membership, nor how it can leverage new media for a comparative advantage on the ground and circumvent an often hostile mainstream media, as with much elsewhere, it’s clear that his offer is significantly more substantial than that of his rival, Owen Smith.
Let me be honest. As much as I like Jeremy Corbyn, fundamentally I don’t think that one person at the top of an organisation can make the difference between winning and losing. Nor can one person be sufficient to determine the future of what is now Europe’s largest centre-left party. What I do believe however, and this seems more sensible than anything I’ve heard about how Owen Smith could become Prime Minister, is that the Corbyn candidacy comes with a very unique dividend: a much larger membership – and with it more money and a potentially superior ground campaign – as well as the affordances of a social movement. More of that in a moment.
As I’ve written previously, it is this dividend which is Labour’s ‘get out of jail’ card. It might not lead to a parliamentary majority after the next General Election – after all that’s for the public to decide – but it is the answer to a decades-long crisis of social democracy more generally and the Labour party in particular.
What is the scale of that crisis? Well, Labour have lost seats at every single general election since 1997. That’s four elections and nearly two decades. While Cameron was a talented enough leader – after all he led his party for ten years – the rot set in well before he was hugging hoodies and riding huskies. Labour, under Tony Blair no less, lost forty-six seats in 2005. That wasn’t because the Tories offered anything new or because Michael Howard dazzled, he was only a slight improvement on his two predecessors, but because Britain was already tiring of New Labour. How else do you explain John Major winning more votes in 1997 than Blair eight years later? As I’ve said before, Labour dominance at the beginning of the century was probably more a result of Tory torpor than Labour talent.
Five million votes were lost between 1997 and 2010, and that was before the Scotland fiasco last year where the party lost forty out of forty-one seats – automatically rendering tragi-comic any future interventions by Ed Miliband regarding electability. People talk about Corbyn polling in the high twenties as a disaster, but they seem to have forgotten that’s precisely what Labour under Gordon Brown actually won in the 2010 general election. That was with a relatively united party and a mass media not perpetually beset by foaming wrath.
It’s clear that something seismic has shifted since the global financial crisis of 2008. Since then we have seen the same story that unfolded after the two major economic crises of the Twentieth Century: 1929 and 1971. A global crisis of capitalism has unravelled the prevailing orthodoxy, and with it how Labour understands the best way to run an economy and deliver rising living standards. As to when the party will find an answer and adapt this time round – as it previously did in 1945 and 1997 – remains unclear. I maintain you can see its outlines with the Corbyn project.
New Media is More Than Social Media
So, back to the Corbyn leadership and some of its unique advantages. One commonly hears the refrain that if Twitter was a decent indicator of public opinion, Ed Miliband would have won a healthy majority at the last general election. I agree. Twitter is no decent barometer of public sentiment – especially when age is an increasingly predictive indicator of party political preference. But to view this as what is meant by new media under Corbyn, and the opportunities it confers, is to disregard not only a rapidly changing area around media consumption but, put simply, how effective organisations now operate.
As Daniel Kreiss recently put it, ‘With digital convergence and technological change, all political communication practices, from advertising and field canvassing to direct mail, have taken on new technological dimensions and are now premised in some way on digital media, data and analytics’. There is no such thing as ‘digital organising’ or ‘digital activism’, just organising and activism. These are technologies that are now so fundamental to our lives that they have become ‘mundane’ – for some a new technology becomes transformative precisely at the moment it is taken for granted. To see the digital element of organising, persuasion and mobilisation as somehow distinct from the real thing is, in 2016, a misnomer. What is clear is that UK politics has significantly trailed events in the US over the last decade. Similarly, as Tim Ross identifies in his excellent book ‘Why the Tories Won’, Labour had trailed behind the Tories in deploying new media at the last election. With Corbyn as leader that gap, so the argument goes, could be overcome. That claim was repeated at yesterday’s event.
So, as someone who has researched this field for over five years – and as a response to yesterday’s digital media event – I’ve drawn up a list of proposals that Corbyn’s Labour should introduce focusing specifically on new media.
This list is informed by broader thinking about building left hegemony, not only within Labour but also in civil society more broadly. I’m speaking here to Owen Smith supporters as much as Corbyn ones. Some of you have asked me what I think needs to be done, so here it is. This, in part, is how we prepare to win.
1. Establish a Campus Recruitment Program: GradLAB.
This program would focus primarily on computer science departments, seeking out individuals who care about progressive issues and causes. The pitch to these young people, students but also graduates, junior academics and researchers, would be a simple one: come to volunteer and work for us so that we can build a set of technologies and processes not only capable of winning a general election, but changing minds and values across the country. Let’s engineer a new country. It can’t be left to serendipity that talented people in this field stumble across party politics and activism – and anyway, there aren’t enough of them – they must be actively sought out. These graduates would work on things like the party’s data and analytics platforms, data integration, APIs and field tools. They would also feed into the party’s ‘digital leaders’ program (see point 3) as well as a more digitally empowered Labour Students operation.
2. Re-establish an annual NetrootsUK Event.
Between 2011 and 2013 there were several ‘NetrootsUK’ events across the country. These were modeled on the annual political convention in the US, ‘Netroots Nation’, originally organised by a community orbiting the US blog the Daily Kos (the event was initially called the YearlyKos).
While NetRoots has proved an enduring success in the US, running every year between its inception in 2006 and earlier this month in Atlanta, Georgia, the UK equivalent failed to really get going. For me that offers, in microcosm, the gulf between what has happened in the US over the last decade in relation to progressive politics and the new media space, where significant advances have been made, and the UK. I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the first event at Congress House in 2011, but I think NetRoots would make far more sense in the present political environment, including not only anti-austerity groups and single issue campaigns, but also unions old and new, Corbynistas, Greens, and SNP activists. Politics has only got more interesting since 2011, and I think that would be reflected in the event. While the UK events had previously partnered with the likes of 38 Degrees, Left Foot Forward, Liberal Conspiracy and the TUC, this seems to have created an aversion to a politics of disagreement and persuasion (the only politics that matters). A similar event, jointly hosted by unions, parties and other third sector groups, should happen – and with the same intentions in mind. This time, however, there will need to be a space for politics and, yes, ideology. It would be fantastic if not only Labour, but the Greens, SNP and Lib Dems, as well as groups like Compass and Momentum could be partners in such an event. Ideally, more than simply an annual event in London, NetRootsUK would be something that happens on a relatively regular basis in every major UK region, if not city.
3. Creation of a Digital Leaders Program in the party.
If Labour is to establish a genuine advantage with new media, not only nationally but at the local level too, talented amateurism needs to be polished and professionalised. What we’ve seen in the last five years is the emergence of a layer of activists that are intelligent content creators, operating at the interface between increasingly mediatised politics and journalism. While journalists have always held political commitments, sometimes stated and explicit, for the new generation that is now more true than ever before. Is Milo Yiannopolous a writer or an activist? How about Owen Jones? Paul Mason? Laurie Penny? Cenk Uyghur? Molly Crabapple? This phenomenon, which spans both the left and the right, is less to do with a revolving door between media and politics – thats nothing new – but the fact that modern political journalism is increasingly hybrid: it aims to inform but also to act. When Owen Jones tweets a facebook event for a protest he is facilitating collective action in a way which, until recently, we thought only organisations could perform. That is not to say that organisations aren’t necessary – they are as important as ever for sustained, compelling action – but that the worlds of politics and media increasingly overlap.
Paul Mason understands such individuals, those already mentioned as well as politicians like Pablo Iglesias (who started his political career on the TV show ‘La Tuerka’ ) and Yanis Varoufakis, as ‘networked individuals’. I agree with that label and think it cascades all the way down to individuals operating in local and hyperlocal activist-media contexts. What holds for these people – just as with the likes of Iglesias and Jones albeit in a different way – is that they are able to channel resources and information in ways that suit them and their politics to an extent that is significantly higher than is true for the general public. While everyone’s personal bandwidth to communicate and broadcast is widening in the digital environment, there are now individuals whose bandwidth is bigger than organisations. This is new.
More importantly, these networked individuals aren’t just influencers who come laden with social and media capital, but everyday people who allow contemporary social movements – from Black Lives Matter to Oxi – to achieve rapid scalability. They are the modern day ‘bridge leaders’ that Belinda Robnett identified as fundamental to the US civil rights movement. They are creatives, writers, video and podcast producers, designers and developers. One of the most exciting things about the groundswell of support around Corbyn, and other UK-based events such as IndyRef in 2014, was how the networked youth (and I understand this to mean the under-50s generally, but millennials in particular) suddenly engaged in massively increased communicative output. More than just Facebook posts and tweets, they created videos, blogs, podcasts. They campaigned using new media, created apps and convened conferences. In the case of Labour under Corbyn much of this must be formalised, trained and empowered. That’s where the Digital Leader Program comes in.
Right now CLP branches and Momentum groups will be using generalists: people familiar with Photoshop, video editing and content writing. The problem with that is people who are competent with Premier Pro (video editing software) tend to be less able at writing copy or collecting and analysing data. What Labour must offer these activists – networked individuals operating in local contexts – is training and certification. Very quickly this will become a training program, with its own academy, where party members are trained in a range of new media practices regarding campaigns, persuasion, infrastructure, data collection and mobilisation. Here they will learn about things like analytics, web development, content strategies and production. And all for free. In the short term, given this will be an important undertaking involving a significant transfer of communicative power to everyday people, it will be limited to a digital leaders program (Labour DLP) with numerous individuals in each CLP offered the opportunity to undergo a prototype training course including video production and editing, Photoshop, crowdfunding campaigns and web development. Each of these will be modules with certification.
One element of persuading those presently critical of Corbyn, and the dividend the party as movement will bring, is to make clear that the opportunities of new media also extend to candidates ‘downstream’ from Westminster elections. This new, large cohort of digital leaders will help MSPs, AMs, mayoral candidates and councillors win elections up and down the country. They will also, as an ancillary point, empower other campaigns and activist efforts that Labour members choose to involve themselves in. This network of digital leaders will interact with the party’s graduate program as outlined in point one, although there would be an open – and easy – applications process that is open to members of all ages and backgrounds. Individuals from minority backgrounds would be favoured, this being a first step in getting more BME members, as well as those from working class backgrounds, into elected office.
4. Establish a new media and technology incubator in Labour party HQ: LabourLAB.
In 2014 the Republican Party announced the launch of Para Bellum Labs. While the name of that project was unfortunate, it was also the name of a pistol produced by Nazi Germany, the concept was an impressive and original one. Para Bellum was intended to be an autonomous operation that operated both within and apart from the party. This would allow it to develop a different culture and serve as the incubator of new technologies for the Republican Party.
Similar, then, to a start up, Para Bellum Labs recruits highly skilled staffers by claiming its work is of significant importance to American democracy. This would also hold true in terms of the core beliefs behind LabourLAB – a similar operation – and how it would recruit. What specifically would this incubator do? It would take data and figure out how to harness it in order to change outcomes in elections; work on tools that empower local party democracy; upgrade the digital infrastructure of the Labour Party; and create processes and technologies by which Labour activists could communicate better among themselves, with other civil society actors and with the electorate.LabourLAB would inject the party with a different working culture in relation to new media and the relationship between analytics, data, communication and mobilisation. It would help create many of the tools and processes necessary in any fundamental disruption of British politics.
5. Hire a party Chief Technology Officer (CTO).
This individual would, at the highest level, be accountable for the party’s digital media, data and analytics operations, as well as delivering on the architecture outlined in the rest of this article – from local digital leaders to LabourLAB, and, eventually, regional directors of new media. A world class technologist in their own right they would work closely with not only the NEC and party leadership, but also the New Media Advisory Council (see point 8).
6. Creation of a Head of New Media (Battleground Constituencies).
This individual would be one of several answerable to the party’s new CTO and, ultimately, NEC. They would be accountable for new media in fifty constituencies isolated by the end of 2016 that Labour would be looking to win at the next general election. They would work not only with the CTO and new technology incubator above them, but also digital leaders across the fifty relevant constituencies below them. Again, this would be the beginning of a bigger process with heads of new media operating on a regional basis that serve as bridges between a massively enhanced party headquarters and empowered, well-resourced local party operations. In the future ‘battleground constituencies’ would be only one of these positions, but it is sensible that it is the first. This individual would be responsible for implementing new media strategies in each constituency – starting immediately – delivering content strategies that are locally relevant. These strategies would ultimately be coordinated with digital leaders in each constituency.
7. Creation of a party donation site for crowdfunding and microdonations: BeRed.
ActBlue is a political action committee (PAC) established in 2004 that enables anyone to raise money online for the Democratic Party candidates of their choice. In spite of that, it is independent of the party and does not endorse individual candidates. Over the last twelve years, ActBlue has raised more than US$1.1 billion for Democratic candidates and progressive organizations at various levels of politics, making it the single largest source of funds in US politics.
The last twelve months have shown a pressing need for a similar platform here in the UK. While rules around party spending are different this side of the Atlantic, crowdfunding has already played a significant role in internal party elections (Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2016, as well as Tom Watson last year and recent NEC elections); paying the costs for a recent legal challenge by five new party members who chose to contest the NEC decision to exclude them – and 126,000 others – from this month’s leadership election; and by Momentum, most recently in paying towards some of the costs for their ‘The World Transformed’ event at Labour party conference. Elsewhere the recent Deliveroo Strike in London saw its strike fund entirely crowdfunded.
Just as the Democratic Party has ActBlue, Labour now needs BeRed: a crowdfunding and donation platform for Labour party candidates, projects and various efforts undertaken by allied organisations and actors in the party’s orbit. Each party member – in addition to enjoying a membership number – would also automatically get a BeRed number and identity as well as be added to its mailing list. Were the party membership to reach one million before the next general election this would be a huge, instant community for crowdfunding and fundraising. Not only would it pay for various electoral efforts at local, regional and national levels, but it would also help resource the kinds of projects which are now fundamental to Labour becoming a genuine social movement at the local level: food banks, literacy classes and breakfast clubs. How this happens – and where – will, of course, be up to local party members. The ability to create assets and content for local crowdfunding efforts would be one of the original modules on the Digital Leaders Program.
The platform would also be used by affiliated organisations such as the Fabians, Labour Students, LGBT Labour and the Coop Party, with this new, disintermediated network helping to finance a flourishing party ecology at every level. The platform would not be limited to party members, but would be open to any member of the public – whether that means funding a project or starting one.
8. The Creation of a New Media advisory board (New Media Advisory Council).
This would be drawn up from world class academics and practitioners who would discuss best practice from around the world and how it can be adapted and deployed in a British context. The New Media Advisory Council would meet once every two months and would liaise with the party’s CTO and LabourLAB to discuss and measure progress in the party’s new media operation, the potential prototyping of new projects, and potential obstacles and opportunities that are on the horizon. Those on the council would include people from both the UK and beyond. The likes of Andrew Chadwick, Manuel Castells, Tiziana Terranova, Francesca Bria, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Ada Colau, Daniel Kreiss, and Joe Rospars should all be extended invitations.
Already, the movement behind Corbyn is without precedent and has deployed new media in hitherto unseen ways in UK politics. In spite of that, the current trajectory doesn’t indicate a sufficient architecture to leverage the party’s growing membership, broadcast its message or circumvent – where necessary – an often hostile mainstream media.
What is now needed is the institutionalisation of what has been, so far, emergent and organic activism. The movement behind Corbyn now needs to create a discernible architecture for leveraging new media to not only win a general election, but transform civil society and dramatically shift public attitudes. I believe that with the institution of new actors at the national level (a new CTO, LabourLAB, regional CTOs), local level (Digital Leaders Program and ChangeLAB), with new technologies (BeRED) and new events (a revivified NetRootsUK) that process can be started.
All of the suggestions here, as well as being aimed at the Corbyn leadership and those who support it, are also intended for those backing Owen Smith or who remain sceptical of the possibilities that a party as social movement brings. It is now incumbent on us, as those supporting Corbyn, to visibly demonstrate the advantages of the party’s new direction, and, importantly, show how it confers new opportunities and advantages downstream to candidates seeking to win elected office at every level, from councillors to mayors and MPs. It is now incumbent on Corbyn’s team, and his movement, to advocate an architecture for the incipient energies his leadership bid has re-energised, and what the party can concretely achieve before, during and after the next general election.