‘Don’t mistake a mass meeting for a mass movement’
- -Mick McGahey, former VP of the NUM
It’s probably too harsh to invoke the ancient proverb that runs “a fish rots from the head down” when it comes to the Labour party.
But it is probably true that the difficulties in their leadership race is based on an attempt to handle the disruption of the new connective technologies that allow voters to talk through them and past them.
The key problem for everyone (ie, not just UK Labour) relates to how you adjust your traditional forms of governance (with with its culture, customs, memory and tradition) to take account of these very real changes in society.
Political parties may be the most obvious victims because the business world uses mergers, acquisitions, indexes and big data to move around some of these problems. Russell Yardley, writing in The Australian, notes of the world-wide proliferation of IT cock ups:
…the cause of most failed IT projects is found in how the project was instigated, shaped and approved. These causes of failure should have been identified by the board and executive team. [Emphasis added]
That’s pretty close to what led to Labour’s omni shambles of a leadership election. In the Guardian, Helen Lewis illustrates why conflating direct democracy with representative democracy is a nuts idea in an age of abundance:
In 2012, the manufacturer of the soft drink Mountain Dew ran an online poll to name a new apple-flavoured drink. Bad idea: within days, a well coordinated trolling campaign had flooded the nomination form with joke suggestions including Gushing Granny, Fapple and Diabeetus.
Unsurprisingly, PepsiCo declined to name its new drink after any of these appealing choices, and pulled the competition. But the example does show that there are good reasons why most public contests control the options on offer, and institute a bar to entry.
That is part of the reason we have a representative democracy, filtered through councillors and MPs, rather than a referendum on absolutely everything. Within a week, everyone would be totally knackered and we’d have brought back capital punishment.
Well, maybe. But she goes on…
Always keen to attract new members, under Ed Miliband the party decided to open up future leadership contests by giving an equal vote to members, affiliates and supporters. This last group included anyone who would pay £3, with the caveat that they had to support the party’s principles.
Crucially, it allowed these people to join even after the contest had begun. Both of these decisions have been much criticised in recent days, which is unfair. The first is not a bad idea; the second one is.
Labour needs new blood, and it needs to fire up its activists for the next five years as well as attract voters in 2020. In Scotland, for example, it must win back seats in which it used to have five-figure majorities.
That means that constituency parties – which could once have selected an angry beagle in a red rosette, and seen Mr Bitey surge to victory on a tidal wave of support – now have to find plenty of warm bodies to knock on doors, organise local campaigns and update voter contact details. Labour hoped that if it attracted new members and supporters, they might take on some of this boring, unglamorous work.
Unfortunately, it didn’t foresee that some people’s interest in the Labour party might start and end with it being led by Jeremy Corbyn.
…let’s not be too hard on some of these rejected voters. Perhaps they didn’t want to vote Labour when it was (as they saw it) a neoliberal, pro-austerity, pro-Nato party that was too soft on Israel and too tough on benefit claimants.
A Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn would be one they’d feel comfortable voting for. The trouble is that the entire current model of party membership and support is not set up to deal with people who feel a passing, rather than tribal, loyalty to Labour. [Emphasis added]
In other words, the party has contrived an unravelling from the committed to the consumerist electorate. That won’t be easy to fix, not just because of this unfiltered universal intake problem (discussed here previously on Slugger).
To quote Benkler (again) new platforms for shared political action must……
…synthesise the finely disparate and varied visions of beliefs and positions held by actual individuals into articulated positions amenable for consideration and adoption into the formal political sphere and by a system of government.
Interestingly, the big (
Super Pac Union) money is concentrated largely on just two candidates.
They also (ahem) happen to be the two lead candidates. Jeremy Corbyn and the experienced and former Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson. Unsurprisingly they’re also the only ones with enough cash to send election comms directly through the post.
Though to be fair the deputy leadership competition is far more competitive (and interesting) with the relative newcomer Stella Creasy challenging Watson hard on the need to throw some weight into the reformation of Labour as a living grass roots movement.
Whichever takes the deputy post, the first thing on their list is going to have to be to clear up the mess of this election somehow without losing too much of the recently enlarged footprint of the party in England and Wales.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty