I was excited by the talk of opening up and modernising the Labour Party during the leadership campaign.
Both Stella Creasy, who has been talking sense about this stuff for a while, and Tom Watson spoke about it at length in the deputy leader campaign.
On Monday I got a little depressed when I saw the job advert for a new Director of Digital for the Labour Party . It looked like a marketing job for yet another centralised political party. But then a couple of things happened to make me hopeful again:
- Jeremy Corbyn got Labour HQ to run a crowd-sourcing campaign for his first PMQs. It’s not a novel idea but it is an important one and it’s always lovely to see someone turn talking into doing.
- James Darling, aka @abscond, who worked on the Jeremy Corbyn campaign published a great piece on what he learnt during the campaign and some ideas on how to build an open Labour party.
James’ thoughts aligned with many of my own.
I got involved in the Labour Party in 2014 as a volunteer working with Chi Onwurah, her team and a group of volunteers running an open process to review digital government. I’m not a policy wonk by trade, it was my first ever policy work, so it’s over-long and a bit dull in places but I did manage to sneak in a few easter eggs along the way….
I left a couple of thoughts on James’ post based partly on his writing and partly on my own thoughts and the discussions I’ve been having with various Labour and digital democracy people over the last year. Another James (this time James Smith, aka @floppy) suggested that I expand on those comments.
10.5 million UK adults lack the basic digital skills to go online. Lack of basic digital skills is most prevalent in the DE socioeconomic groups. According to the last census 138,000 people in England and Wales do not speak English with 4 million not having English or Welsh as their main language. I could go on with many many more exception cases.
The existing Labour institutions and processes may be old and creaking but, as difficult as they are to understand, and as much as they need to be simplified, they have grown to try and cater for this complexity. The processes are obscure but they do allow lots of people to get involved in and contribute to the party, its policy development and the campaigns it runs. There are accountability checks and balances.
So, whilst we need to modernise and give world class digital tools to people, we also need to be conscious of inclusion and inequality in all its forms.
In one of my own specialist areas, digital inclusion, due to the political choice of austerity the current Government has done little to tackle the issue. The challenge has been left to charities, businesses and volunteers. Even Parliament’s new petition system shows no awareness that so many people are not online.
Online meetings have barriers just like in-person meetings. The Labour Party’s crowdsourcing exercise for PMQs fell into the same design trap as Parliament’s petition system by not recognising that it provided no way for people without digital skills or access to contribute.
But the challenge of inclusion and equality in a party is so much more than digital inclusion, and if we modernise the party we need to recognise those challenges.
I want to see the Labour Party website supporting multiple languages. I want to see people able to contribute ideas and thoughts anonymously. I want to see Labour Party members and volunteers given digital training and helping others to get online. I want to see proper accessibility for disabled people. I want to see routes to contribute to policy that mix online and offline. I want to see a fully inclusive Labour party regardless of gender, sexuality, race, faith, age or skillset. I want to see everyone, no matter how shy or how loud, encouraged and supported to contribute to open policy discussions.
When rebuilding the Labour Party for the modern age we need to bake-in both inclusion and accountability. Sometimes the user need is democracy.
The Labour Party needs to work for everyone.
Local government and locally delivered services are important, so are our members, local parties and councillors.
Most people’s experience of the public sector is local. Cleaning up dogshit, emptying bins, cleaning roads these are all things that local government is doing for us every day. It is local government that administers many benefits and that is working with the NHS to integrate health and social care. Local government budgets have been heavily cut by Treasury. This will impact services.
Devolution is now happening with massive transfers of power and responsbility to local regions. Labour runs many of those regions. In some cases extremely well. The gap between the centre of the party and local government has been growing, it’s becoming increasingly urgent that we fix that problem.
In a smarter state many policies can be trialled and rapidly iterated. This approach can’t be used in every case, rapidly iterating foreign policy may be slightly counterproductive…, but there are many public services where these agile delivery and policy development techniques can be used.
If ideas developed through Labour’s open policy discussions can be trialled locally then even when Labour is in opposition in Whitehall it can continue to use the Labour movement to improve people’s lives.
To give some examples. Collaborative ways for teachers to develop lesson plans to reduce effort and give better outcomes for children. Practical ways for communities to tackle broadband issues so more people can get online. Testing whether a basic income gives better results than a new minimum or living wage. Rethinking mass transit. The possibilities are actually quite exciting.
Labour can innovate in local government when, because we are out of power, it will be difficult to do so in the centre.
If the policies work then the Labour Party should celebrate the local government success and help other regions to adopt them.
Members should be challenging local government, just as they should be challenging the central party, but an open and modern Labour Party needs to build a culture that can accept these challenges and that is open to ideas. A movement where ideas from members and the centre can be tested locally and where the centre of the party is receptive to ideas that emerge locally and are better than their own.
Open by design
We should go further than publishing data open-by-default. The Labour Party should become open by design.
Openly publishing Labour’s processes: dates of meetings, local groups, voting history of MPs and Councillors, campaigns and candidate elections is absolutely right but as we enter the world of open Labour we need to make conscious decisions about how we use data and when we publish it openly.
The crowdsourcing exercise for PMQs got 40,000 responses. With a well-communicated data usage policy the Labour Party could arrange to publish all of the ideas after PMQs. Or analyse them to discover common themes, perform sentiment analysis, understand whether they were from members (or not) and then publish the results as openly as possible.
There will be times when Labour should choose not to publish data but there was nothing exclusive about this batch. Other parties can gather much the same ideas. The more eyes we have poring over those ideas the more value we can glean from it and the better understanding we have of what people want. We can lead by example and challenge Government to do the same with the ideas it gathers from the public sector.
Labour needs to be open by design.
Work together to build a better politics
Finally when building an open and digital party we need to be careful not to imagine that we are creating a ‘minimum viable party’ and iterating from there. The Labour Party already exists and parts of it work pretty well.
Jeremy Corbyn and Jon Trickett used open policy to build the Northern Futures policy document. Angela Eagle and her team ran a massive open policy exercise, YourBritain, during the last Parliament. Stella Creasy helped people start and run campaigns during her deputy leadership run. Chi Onwurah publishes open data on her constituency visits and ran an open process for the 2014 digital government review.
There are party members, councils and councillors up and down the country who are doing similarly great stuff. Camden Council have openly shared their work on digital transformation whilst Theo Blackwell, the councillor in charge, engaged his citzens a series of articles on how the council was tackling its budget cuts. Elsewhere Newcastle Council run participatory budget exercises. There are vibrant communities of Labour thinkers and doers running campaigns, writing up ideas and getting stuff done up and down the country.
Whilst these are all good they do need to improve. Better use of digital design and modern technology can improve things massively but we need to work with people. Seeing them and their communities as building blocks that will help form an open Labour party.
As well as building some new services from scratch we should also research where bits of open Labour already exist. Understand who the communities are, what needs they and the people they represent have, what lessons they have learned and then collaborate with them to iterate and improve and iterate and improve and iterate and improve.
I’m excited about an open and modern Labour Party. It’s a cultural change, not a technology one, but it’s a change that the party can make.
A party that uses modern technology and is designed to be inclusive and accountable. One that thinks and innovates locally and rapidly. A party that is open by design and that works together to build a better politics.
If we all recognise the opportunity and work together to grab it we can both build and be part of this new kind of party. It will make Labour more responsive to people’s needs and make the country a better place for everyone.
Just like James I recognise the opportunity, I hope you do too.