Towards a new Digital Labour Party

By Ewan Cameron

In recent weeks most of us have become acquainted with online meeting software. From book launches to book clubs, to pub quizzes, lectures, seminars and logistics, it almost feels as if lockdown has pushed us swiftly into a digital future that, present circumstances excepted, doesn’t feel too disorientating. Dare we say that for some, online meetings have felt liberating and not in the “I can do work in my pajamas” sense,  but in a way that enables us to reach out and connect with people in the blink of a mousestroke that we would have had to conduct arduous journeys to encounter in ‘meatspace’.

For those with mobility issues or home commitments or even just those who don’t outside of metropoles, multi-person platforms have given them a chance to participate.  An enforced virtual launch of Leo Panitch and Colin Leys’ new book Searching for Socialism turned what would have been a gathering of 50 people in London into a gathering of 500 socialists from all over the country, listening intently to the speakers and connecting with each other via the chatbox. At one point a speaker made reference to a future ‘post-zoom’ era, which was met with a few ripples of disagreement. This isn’t just a contingency, was the message: let’s do this more often.

With that in mind, we need to ask why the Labour party has been rather slow on the uptake. The rank and file self organise groups and certain grandees are keen to get involved, John McDonnell in particular has been a welcome face in socialist cyberspace. However, the institutions of the party have been characteristically slow to adapt. CLP chairs have been sensibly told not to hold in person meetings, but at the same time are forbidden from conducting ‘official business’ online. Given that virtual workplaces are at present a working norm for individuals and offices across the country, this seems bizarre. At the regional and national level, there has been little signs that the party may be moving to formally adopt new digital ways of communicating with its members

The biggest Labour story of the season has been the leaked document on disciplinary governance, which gave the regular subs paying members a glimpse at the inner workings of the party. On the left it generated a rightful fury at those in the party who were both strategically Machiavellian and politically moronic. However there is a wider picture painted about the party’s institutions one that the writer, themselves an insider on the nominal left, undoubtedly didn’t intend. The image of Corbyn as a principled fighter for justice battling the forces of the right in the party is appealing to those of us on the left, and it is a truthful one. On the other hand, we might ask why were we, the plebs of the party kept in the dark about all this? Is there not a case to be made that Corbyn was perhaps a little too loyal to the institutional norms of the Labour Party’s central command and should have been publicly talking about this? The writer of the document justifies the LOTO office’s involvement in disciplinary governance by noting that Milliband office did the same. We should also note that Milliband ran a campaign with ‘controls on immigration’ mugs. Imitation is a poor justification.

This isn’t a ‘both sides are the same’ argument. Indeed, given the same institutional apparatus, the right of the party were shown to be several orders of magnitude worse than anyone on the left. Nevertheless there is a need to examine how Labour’s systematic fetish of secrecy creates situations that reward bad behaviour from all actors. Wouldn’t it be better, for instance if Labour’s disciplinary process was both transparent and independent of political interference from anyone? Wouldn’t we prefer that the LOTO was devoted to policy and fighting the Tories than getting bogged down into disciplinary cases? There are too many examples in the leaked documents where suspensions feel like horse trading and lest we forget these are cases of real people to whom suspension from a party can be a devastating blow, both psychologically and materially.

Apart from a lack of transparency, the other major problem with Labour’s structure is the membership system in which the pseudo-militaristic hierarchy serves to insulate the central bureaucracy from its own members. It is patently ludicrous that their exist no institutional platforms that allow members from one CLP to connect with members from a neighbouring one without playing bureaucratic postman up and down the hierarchy. The party hierarchy’s relationship to it’s CLPs resembles Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a building designed so the warden can see all the inmates at once, but the inmates are prevented from seeing anyone but the warden. Of course there are many national factions one can join, However the organisational norms of central Labour filter down to these factions, and lead to much of the same democratic deficit and factions within factions replicating the logic as we move downwards like so many Matryoshka dolls.

Digital organising, though we should have known it all along, offers us a way forward. There is almost certainly a plurality of members who would like to see the central hierarchy reformed. Yet, as noted above, connecting with each other has been difficult due to the apparatus. Digital organising, with horizontal and semi-horizontal platforms for meetings will enable members who share a common policy goal to interact at distance. Instead of information being a jealously guarded instrument of social capital, online meetings will slowly but surely make information free. While that’s surely a long way of from constitutional reform, it will help to make transparency an normative logic within the party and thus make the current bureaucracy look even more ridiculous and out of touch.

While platitudes about empowerment are one thing, there are also concrete reforms we need to get behind:

  • Utilise Zoom or Teams-style software so policy teams can consult, involve and invite members to participate at all stages of the policy writing process.
  • Live stream NEC meetings for all members to observe and better hold to account this very powerful body.
  • Make the hiring process for all positions transparent and accessible.
  • Publish a detailed diagram of the internal bureaucracy of the party including the scope of all positions.
  • Widen opportunities for members by creating positions that can be fulfilled working remotely or at home
  • Allow CLPs to create virtual meetings for themselves
  • Facilitate neighbouring CLPs to digitally connect for regional organising.

Digital organising is not a magic bullet. Paulo Gerbaudo’s 2018 book The Digital Party observed that ‘online democracy’ in some European parties very quickly turned into uncritical digital mobs. The lesson is that parties can’t simply be run on strawpolls and need a framework of responsibility that ensures deliberation. Nevertheless, if the central hierarchy of Labour is to retain or regain the trust of its members, it needs to think about radically opening up the party to transparency and accountability. Digital tools can help do just that.