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Socialism and Internet Warriors

Web 2.0Over at Progress, Labour’s attempt to set up an online community – known as MembersNet – comes under attack. The basic problem is that they are clumsy and little-used. Both of those points are easily confirmable. Like Miljenko, who also critiques these sentiments, I have maintained a blog on MembersNet. Miljenko discusses how we might improve MembersNet by allowing votes on various issues and enabling a more constructive interface between Party members, rather than just bickering between blogs.

The Progress blog outlines its alternative web strategy:

“I argue that the keys to online success are: first, omnipresence: utilising all available and appropriate channels to communicate with people; second, engagement: inviting people to speak back to the party, and demonstrating that those voices are being heard; and, third, clarity: using good design and writing to argue for our values and policies.”

I think both Miljenko and Progress are wrong in many respects. To begin with, it is all too easy to imagine the Progress strategy being implemented in such a way that does not challenge the broader organisation of the Party. In a manner that is quite sinister, it would be easy to utilize “omnipresence” and “clarity” to stifle debate. “Engagement” doesn’t present a bar to this – it’s easy to demonstrate ‘voices are being heard’ when those voices don’t have binding control of your actions, via a vote.

The problem with MembersNet is not that it doesn’t intervene in the “Engagement” part of the equation by, as Miljenko suggests, giving members the right to resolve policy issues. This ignores the fact that GCs can vote on resolutions pertaining to whatever they like without those resolutions becoming binding or even policy of any description. Yet this is the sort of “Engagement” which people of a Progress mind set could champion – precisely because a vote on MembersNet will never be binding.

Truly the only real shortfall in MembersNet is that it reflects a very narrow set of views. Leaving aside the number of new people who turn up there, the problem is that many of those who are well-established are themselves Party hacks seeking their rung on the ladder. There are also an enormous number of young-ish types completely convinced of their own political knowledge. MembersNet is the effectively the shallow-end of the pool, populated by those who can’t or won’t broaden their horizons.

Miljenko and Progress each support the concept of a more modern web strategy, reflecting the underlying consensus that senior Party decision makers of the old-style can’t quite grasp the possibilities opened up by Web 2.0. Such vaulting talk is unnecessary. The deficiencies in the Labour blogosphere that make it less well-read than the Tory equivalent are ultimately ephemeral. The sort of trolls all big websites attract are never going to be the stuff which political realities are built from.

What Miljenko conflates, perhaps by mistake or omission, and what Progress conflates deliberately are the two relationships which define the character of the Labour Party. The relationship between Party members, and the relationship between members and the leadership. The relationship between leadership and members can be all too easily controlled via the internet. The internet is, after all, still resource-based in its ability to distribute information and if the leadership view is omnipresent…

The relationship between members of the party via the internet needs to be hinged upon something – and that is their relationship in the physical world. To give one aspect of what I mean, think of the internet as the equivalent to the white page sitting in front of an author. Many bloggers have to assume some prior knowledge in order to write anything, and many of those that don’t continue all their days without developing a meaningful and critical narrative by which to challenge the mainstream media or government.

As there is no ready-made, postage stamp sized guide to the history of western philosophy, politics, history and culture, this makes grappling with the best the web has to offer very difficult. Also, such theory is meaningless unless it too is engaged in a struggle to change the world it describes. The connection must be made in the physical world, via real-time political discussions at real meetings where through the presence of activists in the same space, action can be given to words.

A leadership-managed internet communication strategy, however much it is subject to the plebiscites of internet democracy, will never be able to encompass minority opinion in the way that one person’s presence and argument at a CLP meeting can. Knowledge is conveyed best through argument and practice, when the two can be related to one another as they can when a CLP finds itself on picket lines conversing with striking workers about their grievances.

This sort of thing also puts a stop to the vacuum-extant griping about the closure of the London tube and how it badly reflects on Labour. At the very least it puts such arguments to the sort of litmus test they’ll never face online. Argumentation isn’t just an intellectual exercise, nor is activism merely a physical one – they have profound effects upon each other in ways that a new internet strategy can never encompass by virtue of being confined to cyberspace.

All the requisite resources exist for a very profitable system of debate and discussion between the thinking members of Labour. We have Labourhome and Bloggers4Labour to direct people towards different authors of different views; we have MembersNet for the less gifted or less adventurous. We have Liberal Conspiracy for the Left and Centre  of Labour and Harry’s Place for the Right. If someone designed a programme that would separate out the crap writers from the good, I might take notice.

Anything else appears as just another way for the leadership to stamp their argument on everything that moves.

  1. Mil
    October 19, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    I think this has to be taken in stages. There is now a broader slice of Labour positions reflected in the visible participation on Members Net than there used to be. It may not be what you’re looking for, Dave, but in terms of the history of the Party two years is still small beer. It does seem to have reached a critical mass though – there are far more new faces who stick around and blog than was the case in the past. And these things tend to be exponential. (I don’t feel obliged to continue blogging there to keep it going, for one thing – something many must be pretty happy about!) I agree with you that the issue of the relationship between the current structures of the Party (GCs, CLPs and so forth) and where policy-making power actually lies needs to be tackled head-on, in this case both for the good of the online as well as the real world.

    The two stages I’m thinking about in relation to online presences are as follows: first, create a virtual CLP with as many of the rights and responsibilities of a real CLP as possible. This could be on Members Net but if an alternative platform is judged more suitable, then so be it. I would, however, argue for that platform to be as open source and as programmable as possible – by potential volunteers and staff alike.

    Second, put into place a comprehensive infrastructure of intellectual discourse – not of consultation but of member-led debate. The data itself necessary for such an exercise could be gathered from the existing Labour blogosphere (Members Net, Labourhome and Bloggers4Labour), through content-sourced equivalents of tag clouds (ie not using tags to assess where the debate is going but actually analysing the text of each post and comment). A statistical analysis of the content of the 600-odd existing blogs and what they’re talking about could produce interesting results and could form the basis of a formal policy structure the Party could then debate and come to formal decisions on virtually. This would help to energise the existing structures (that is to say, Members Net, Labourhome, Bloggers4Labour and the Party itself) even more, tying them in to the wider non-virtual Party and its decision-making processes in an entirely unsinister and completely reciprocal way.

    Of course, you may also decide to say I am naive – and I would have to admit you are right. But it could work. And it should be given an opportunity to do so. If we have the chance to create something new, why start from scratch (again)? Why not – as I think you might be suggesting – reinvent on the basis of what we’ve already got?

    Marshalling and coordinating the existing warriors is surely the most efficient way forward. Especially if we can create structures which continue to allow everyone to be both generals and foot soldiers at the same time.

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