I wrote this essay in March 2019, in the midst of the European election campaigns. The rise of the far right was largely blocked or reversed around the continent – with the exception of the UK. This piece was published in September, in the book “Corbynism From Below”. It has not previously appeared on the internet. In this moment after the landslide, when many in Britain are despairing, it sharpens grief over the road not taken. But it may also help to resurrect the manifold reasons for hope, which are always to be found more in movements than in men.
Our final Datapraxis report on the 2019 UK general election, “Tory Landslide, Progressives Split”, combined over half a million polling responses during the campaign with cutting-edge data modelling. We hoped and worked for a better outcome, but we were not surprised by this disaster. We anatomised how the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn crashed to its worst result since 1935, how liberals and Remainers’ hubris became their undoing, and how Britain’s first modern national-populist government under Boris Johnson achieved their devastating victory.
We worked with a dozen different campaigns in this election, mostly independent efforts. With a few notable exceptions, Labour’s headquarters, the Liberal Democrats and the various Remain campaigns paid little heed. They could not be saved from their profound strategic ineptitude and broken cultures. It was too little, too late.
On the Klee painting “Angelus Novus”, Walter Benjamin once wrote: “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”
This storm will not stop blowing, and our baggage-laden wings have trapped us until now. But no longer. After we have sifted through the wreckage, finding the pieces of the past and present that we can put to better use, let us turn our faces to the future again. Our adversaries have succeeded in their revolution. Its fruits will be bitter, but there is opportunity in this crisis.
Together, we can rebuild Britain. We have no alternative, for the status quo lies in pieces. Our contest now is with the Vote Leave revolutionaries in Number 10, who are more capable and more dangerous than Margaret Thatcher ever was. We are many, they are few. But to win again, we must lay the past to rest, think new thoughts, and build new solidarities.
In the Prague Spring of 1968, Alexander Dubček and his comrades launched an ‘Action Programme’ designed to liberate Czechoslovakia from the iron grip of the USSR. The document painted a striking and inspiring vision, one which appealed to revolutionaries all around the world: "Socialism cannot mean only liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations, but must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy”.
Embracing pluralistic ideas of multi-party democracy and freedom of speech, the Prague Spring insurgents started implementing bold reforms to decentralise power and move it into the hands of ordinary citizens.
Moscow could not allow this heresy to take root. By August of that same year, Soviet tanks were rolling in to crush the Czechs’ all-too-brief experiment in ‘socialism with a human face’. Appalled by the crackdown, Britain’s Ralph Miliband, whose father had served in the Red Army, wrote to the Belgian Marxist Marcel Liebman about it. He argued, “the democratisation of ‘revolutionary’ parties is essential... The internal life of a revolutionary party must prefigure the society which it wants to establish – by its mode of existence, and its way of being and acting. While this is not the case, I don't see any reason to want to see the current parties take power: they are quite simply not morally ready to assume the construction of a socialist society.”
While leaders like Dubček and Corbyn can open the door to transformational change, what they can never do is deliver that transformation on their own. Even the greatest of leaders will inevitably fall under the spell of that ‘iron law of oligarchy’ to which the left is far from immune – at least as long as power is hoarded by the few in their political bunkers, and until power is finally shared with the many.
‘Socialism From Above’ has gathered wide support on the left, and played a vital role in restoring faith in the possibility of a better politics. The idea of enlisting a rejuvenated state on the side of the people to confront the monsters of monopoly capitalism and degenerate markets is a potent one. But who will pull the strings of this newly muscular state? What will our new prophets’ blind spots be, if indeed they ever make it to government? How will they fall from grace, how soon? If all our chips remain on them and not on ourselves and our fellow citizens, the fallout of failure from above will not only be toxic; it will be nuclear for the prospects of twenty-first century socialism.
‘Socialism From Below’ was the most important principle of the Prague Spring. ‘Socialism from below’ was similarly a central principle of Salvador Allende’s Chilean movement and government, so cruelly destroyed by the US-backed coup in 1973, which left such a profound impression on the young Jeremy Corbyn. And ‘socialism from below’, or in Ralph Miliband’s words the “prefigurative democratisation” of the Labour movement, is the most pressing imperative of the new left in Britain. What will most determine our prospects of transforming our country for good? The stifling or empowering of bottom-up movement energies, the rotting or flourishing of an empowering political culture, and the question of whether and how we can truly share power with the many.
We live in volatile and unforgiving times, where politicians and movements can rise and fall in a heartbeat, where desperation is rising, where despair and abandonment are all too close at hand. With all this in mind, let us ask Ralph Miliband’s question unflinchingly of ourselves: is today’s British Labour Party morally ready to lead the construction of a socialist society that could genuinely liberate citizens to lead larger lives and manifest our dreams together? If not, why not? What must we change before it is too late? Before the window of opportunity closes again, for yet more decades we cannot afford to lose?
Our twenty-first century reality of networked social relations and the left’s abiding values of humanity and social justice both point in the same direction: toward new ways of organising our Labour movement, new ways of winning power and governing, and new ways of transforming and renewing all we hold in common. As the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci once put it “the old is dying, and the new is as yet barely born”. But a ‘socialism from below’ is growing in our movement. We could call it ‘Networked Labour’. This movement is ours to weave and grow; and no party apparatchik, of whatever shade of red, has the right to stop us.
How we grew the networked left
In February 2019, my friend Zack Exley came to the UK to meet with Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Clive Lewis, Rebecca Long-Bailey and other leading Labour figures. A new movement called Labour for a Green New Deal was launched during his visit, led by leading young Momentum organisers and climate activists. Zack shared some lessons from the meteoric ascent of the Green New Deal in the US, their plan to end net fossil fuel emissions within ten years.
The US Green New Deal had first been floated just three months previously. Immediately after the midterm elections, the youth-led Sunrise Movement organised a sit-in occupation of veteran Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi’s office to advocate the idea. It was immediately championed by superstar progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and like-minded new representatives. Like many of them, AOC had originally been recruited to stand by another movement, Brand New Congress, founded in 2016 by Zack with fellow alumni of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the Democrats’ Presidential primaries.
Despite fiery controversy and right-wing attacks, the Green New Deal – a plan that includes massive state-directed investment and puts social and racial justice at its core – almost immediately secured endorsements from most 2020 Democratic presidential contenders and support from large majorities of the American public, including most Republican voters. Interestingly, its content was modelled in part on a British initiative from 2008 led by the New Economics Foundation, socialist-economist Ann Pettifor and Green MP Caroline Lucas, which broke important new ground back then but to date has been much less politically successful.
I first met Zack Exley in 2005. I had been writing about and advocating for a more open, movement-powered form of politics, and had just launched Vote4Peace – a campaign supporting MPs who voted against the Iraq war with donations and volunteers. Zack had campaigned against the same war and other Bush-era atrocities as organising director of MoveOn.org, a progressive US movement, before advising Howard Dean’s insurgent presidential run.
Zack had been enlisted by New Labour to help them prepare for that year’s General Election. But privately he was unimpressed not only by the Blairites’ aggressive support for Bush and all that entailed, but also by their lack of serious big ideas. We compared notes on our respective top-down political establishments, and agreed that only movements and new leadership could transform the ‘Overton window’, the range of political ideas that are treated seriously.
In the following years, I helped build Avaaz and 38 Degrees, the global and UK equivalents of MoveOn.org, as well as more open campaigning platforms like Change.org and Crowdpac. I began advising many progressive campaigns and causes, and in 2011, I applied to be General Secretary of Labour on a platform of movement politics. I did not expect to be shortlisted then, just as I knew the job had already been earmarked for Jenny Formby when I ran a much more public campaign for the role in 2018. But on both occasions, I used the moment to share fresh ideas for building a stronger, more networked Labour movement. As I wrote in 2018, “The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it”.
Meanwhile Zack was experimenting with what he calls ‘distributed organising’ techniques which instead of relying on thin and extractive command-and-control campaign structures, centred on empowering networks of volunteers – for example with the American unions’ Fight For 15 movement (a campaign for a $15 minimum wage, which spread from city to city and state to state). Then, in mid-2015, he joined the Bernie Sanders campaign as an unpaid volunteer. In the following months, Zack, Becky Bond, Claire Sandberg, Alexandra Rojas and many others built an extraordinary ‘distributed organising’ effort in which tens of thousands of volunteers stepped up to take leadership, building support for Sanders across dozens of states long before the more traditional hierarchical field operation.
Meanwhile, the Sanders digital team based at Revolution Messaging (including Michael Whitney, a young Dean campaign star who ran our US email programme at Change.org), built a remarkable growth and fundraising operation. By spring of 2016 they were raising tens of millions of dollars a month in small donations, even outstripping Hilary Clinton’s legendary big-donor machine.
Back in 2005, one of Zack’s main projects for the Labour Party had been building a ‘Labour Supporters’ Network’, which had been dreamt up by Peter Mandelson and his allies – inspired partly by the successes of MoveOn. This email list swiftly grew to dwarf Labour’s membership, which was had shrunk to below 200,000. The Blairites’ ambition was that this circle of loosely affiliated supporters would provide them with a more sympathetic and tractable base, helping them to reconnect with the general public and, of course, to further bypass an increasingly recalcitrant party membership.
Under Zack’s guidance, the Labour Supporters’ Network was used fleetingly and constructively to recruit and organise campaign volunteers. But it went downhill from there; typically for New Labour, the rhetoric of movement-building and participatory democracy was only skin-deep. The network was neglected. Instead of organising people and campaigning for change, it was used for little more than publicising poorly considered and self-regarding screeds from cabinet members. It was clear that Labour’s culture and organisation were too broken to understand the depth and seriousness of its own failings, let alone why and how we needed to change.
The next faltering step towards a networked Labour party was the creation of a new category of registered supporters, as recommended by the 2014 Collins Review initiated by Ed Miliband in the wake of a controversy involving allegations of vote-fixing by the Unite Trade Union in the selection of Falkirk CLP’s prospective parliamentary constituency.
For the first time, crucially, these supporters were given the right to vote in leadership elections, but without needing to take the existential step of actually joining the party. At the same time, the Collins reforms theoretically shifted power from trade union general secretaries to the union membership at large; but far too little was then done by the unions and the party to actually sign up those members en masse as opted-in affiliate supporters with a say in Labour’s politics.
When against all the odds in 2010 Ed Miliband, rather than his brother David, was elected Labour leader, he seemed authentically open to transformative policies, curious, capable of listening, and passionate about movement politics. But Ed made the mistake of surrounding himself with a conservative and establishment Shadow Cabinet, reinforced by like-minded advisers and operators. The few experiments to build a more networked Labour movement were strangled before they even got started. Ed’s strategy to carry Labour over the line without doing anything to risk the 2015 election ended up with him scared of his own radical instincts, and failing to connect either with his own most passionate supporters or with the wider electorate.
In a hardly-crowded field, Compass, the soft left pressure group which together with the trade unions had helped elect Ed (and backed Jon Cruddas’s deputy leadership campaign too), did its best to provide him with a support network. But as a campaigning think-tank, Compass was never half as good at organising politically as it was at hosting intellectual policy discussions. Latterly, some in Labour have never forgiven Compass for its decision to embrace a more plural ‘campfire’ politics; but its 2017 General Election “Progressive Alliance” tactical voting initiative played an important role in helping Labour candidates to victory in many marginal constituencies.
Instead, throughout the Miliband years, political energy was flowing everywhere except into the Labour Party. Occupy, UK Uncut, student and anti-austerity protests and the People’s Assembly built overlapping networks of radical activists, young and old; they later became the initial backbone of the Corbyn movement.
A phenomenon less often linked to the revival of the political left, but which I believe was similarly crucial in creating a fertile context, was the rapid growth of 38 Degrees. This campaigning community, similar in many ways to MoveOn in the US, gave millions of ordinary progressives a simple way to get involved in campaigns against the Tory-led coalition’s austerity policies and for social and environmental justice, during a period when Ed Balls and other forces of conservatism were constraining Labour’s own scope for full-throated opposition. (38 Degrees also hosted the member-created petition calling for a left-wing candidate in the 2015 Labour leadership contest, which played a part in Corbyn’s decision to stand.)
Meanwhile in Scotland, the Yes movement lost the battle but won the war of the 2014 independence referendum. The Scottish National Party’s membership quadrupled. Scottish Labour, which had been in long-term decline, melted down completely at the 2015 General Election, losing an astonishing 40 of the 41 seats it previously held. In England, UKIP made strides in coastal towns and Labour heartland towns, including the ex-coalfields; they built a loose anti-political movement around festering resentment toward immigration, Europe, and the failings of status quo politics and economics.
On the left, a ‘Green Surge’ saw more than 40,000 new members pile into the Green Party, powering them to an unprecedentedly good result in 2015. This ended up splitting the left further under the Westminster first past the post system, one of the key factors which cost Labour victories in must-win marginal seats.
This new politics which had sprung up from all sides threatened the cosy Westminster parlour game, I wrote in the New Statesman in 2014: “Over the coming months and years, this new politics will shake the British establishment to its foundations. It has many faces but a common origin: the growing consensus that the status quo is broken and old politics is actively disempowering. The question is no longer whether change is coming but where it takes us.”
Without all this pre-existing networked activist energy looking for a conduit of political transformation, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader would have been inconceivable – and in an entirely different way, the same is true for Brexit. While in the end most of those new to Labour who voted for Jeremy went on to join as full party members, the opportunity to affiliate more loosely for the price of a cup of coffee was critical in enabling this left surge.
Left and progressive networks around the country played a critical role – first re-electing Corbyn again in 2016, then achieving the transformation of Labour’s fortunes in the 2017 snap election. Momentum’s role was vital. It led the offensive in many of the seats Labour ended up retaining or gaining against all expectations, mobilising an army of volunteer canvassers from Labour’s new mass membership, including many who felt excluded by the sometimes clannish old-timers in constituencies. Momentum also dominated social media with edgy, engaging videos, reaching almost a third of voters on Facebook with next to no budget.
A swarm of other networked campaigns played an equally crucial role below the radar in 2017. As I wrote in Prospect then, “it was a chaotic and delightful case study in democracy”. Irrespective of the scepticism and disregard coming from the “Only Labourism” tendency, powerful tactical voting campaigns – some anti-Tory, some anti-Brexit – created pathways which helped millions of voters sceptical about Labour decide to lend their votes to our party in constituencies where only we could win. This meant millions more progressive votes counted in determining the outcome, rather than being wasted under first past the post.
20% of people planned to vote tactically in 2017 – more than ever before. Labour was the overwhelming beneficiary, to an extent its leaders have never acknowledged. The anti-Brexit tactical campaign run by Best for Britain and Compass’s anti-Tory Progressive Alliance campaign deserve credit and recognition for this, with Compass playing a key role in persuading the Greens to stand down in dozens of constituencies for Labour (a generous gift unlikely to be repeated without some kind of quid pro quo). Strikingly, the most influential site which reached millions of people, Tactical2017, was a networked grassroots initiative set up without funding or institutional backing by Becky Snowden, a 28-year-old from Yorkshire.
I believe the extraordinary result of 2017 was attributable first to this networked movement, from Momentum to Tactical2017; second to Labour’s remarkable manifesto; and third to the terrible missteps of Theresa May’s campaign, which opened the door for many voters to rethink their vote. The fourth vital factor was millions in party funding and a backbone of organisational support provided by the trade unions, Unite first and foremost. Corbyn’s own performance was remarkable and impressive, and without him the movement and the manifesto would have been inconceivable; but he was lifted up on to the shoulders of others, by collective networked action – by ‘Corbynism from below’.
This account deliberately widens the frame from the canonical left narrative of how Corbynism grew, and puts the emphasis more on the bottom-up actions of citizens and movements which have made Network Labour’s successes possible. Now, a warning.
Labour leaderships traditionally disappear quite rapidly into the SW1 bunker, behaving as if the attention of the Westminster media, the circus of Parliament and the bureaucracy of the party are the unquestionable source of and testament to their power, and losing any sense of their own failings and blind spots. Disturbingly, a controlling, centralising, Labourite elite dynamic that claims to have all the answers is more present in the current leadership dynamics of Corbynism than is comfortable. This will be their (and our) downfall, unless the bad habits can be changed before it is too late.
How Networked Labour can grow strong enough to win
Rather than simply seizing the broken machinery of top-down control from the old right, the Corbynite left should be leading Labour towards a networked party. It is time to build a base of millions of active and empowered supporters, to fundamentally reshape our country’s culture as well as our politics. Only then will Labour grow strong enough to win; only then will Labour truly deserve to.
The surge in Labour’s membership to almost 600,000 gave the party the activist numbers to run the Tories close in 2017. But we still fell too far short then, and the membership growth afterwards first stalled and has now reversed. This must change.
It is time for Labour to commit its resources and leadership to a million-member recruitment drive. New members should be asked to pay just £3 for their first year. Labour should develop a much more attractive and imaginative presence online, making it easy to join with a click, and seeking more continuous feedback from citizens and supporters alike. We should organise face-to-face on a much bigger scale in our communities, and the party should launch huge campaigns with sympathetic trade unions to sign up tens or hundreds of thousands more of their members who support Labour’s cause. Most ambitiously of all, it should pioneer a more systematic engagement with the wider ecosystem of social movements and campaigns.
In the medium term, Labour should explore new ways for people with a rich and diverse range of worldviews and experiences to affiliate to the party and find their own place in our movement, without feeling like their identity or beliefs are being compromised. Labour should encourage the creation of a swarm of new movements as new ‘socialist societies’. Most of these are old and many are static or declining. Few have emerged to represent new and dynamic constituencies and networks of opinion; such new groups should be actively encouraged to affiliate to Labour.
One such movement, call it the ‘European Left’, could provide a pathway in for some of the millions of passionate anti-Brexit progressives who largely agree with the party’s domestic policy agenda, but who seek a more pro-European focus in the party’s outlook, fostering activist-led up with parties and movements on the continent.
‘Blue Labour’ already attempts to represent traditionally-minded and anti-European Labour, but has not effectively organised beyond a small core. Why should a larger-scale affiliated movement not be organised for these voters, who are also important in our movement and our dialogue? Such groups would provide an entry point for more such voters and activists who wish to engage with and influence Labour but may hesitate to take the step of signing up as members. And there is no reason why many of the millions of supporters of green campaigning organisations in Britain should not consider joining a Labour-affiliated movement, ‘Green Left’, to carry their ideas into government.
The existing affiliated groups within Labour which organise around identities are too focused on developing small elite internal networks and influencing internal party elections and policy debates, rather than turning outward to fellow citizens and communities outside the party that share their identity or interest. They should evolve into affiliated mass movements. Instead of meetings of dozens or hundreds at best, tens of thousands of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic origins, women, LGBT networks, faith groups and more could all be welcomed in more actively to organise around and dialogue with the Labour Party as allies.
Such an approach can call on a wide range of precedents, such as the social movements of Latin America, which provided the roots and energies that carried forces like Brazil’s Workers’ Party to power, or the networked movements of Spain which initially powered Podemos and more recently have given birth to the municipalist coalitions like Barcelona en Comu and Ahora Madrid.
What is more, I have watched over the last decade as friends in the US built a rainbow of movements with diverse identities and origins, which now often swarm together in a mutually reinforcing and supportive way. The rainbow coalitions of the 1980s often degenerated into zero-sum conflict. But we are seeing a new repertoire of intersectional collaboration emerge amongst the networked movements of the twenty-first century. Socialists from below cannot shy away from rich deliberation or constructively agonistic conflict; these things can make us stronger, and root us better in the real lived diversity of our constituencies.
Such a strategy of radical openness and welcome would make Labour more like the country, and the country more like Labour. It is not inconceivable that over time, millions of people might join this new network of affiliated socialist movements, in a journey of political discovery which would lead many more to work with Labour on national campaigns and local organising – on their own terms.
Some in the trade union movement might see these newly organised allies as a threat to their power and control over the Labour leadership, policies and selections. But this transactional critique would miss the far greater prize which is within our collective reach: an irreversible transformation of British society, shifting power into the hands of the many and away from the few.
The broader point is that it is long past time also to think radically about renewing Labour’s most important pillar, the affiliated trade unions. Their membership remains in long-term structural decline, despite recent signs of courage and tactical successes against SportsDirect, Uber and Amazon. Labour should help by making one of the central planks of its next manifesto a vision for universal union membership, delivered through an audacious policy of union auto-enrolment (meaning that every worker, and perhaps over time even every working-age person, would automatically be opted in to union membership unless they decided to opt out; this would remove the need to fight even to become organised, deny bosses the ability to veto workers’ organisation, and make unions the social norm again).
This shift would at a stroke massively increase the bargaining power, organisational resources and strength of the trade unions – not only changing our workplaces, but starting to reshape the reckless financial markets and how businesses and public services are run. Such a shift is essential, as inequality, automation and the fourth industrial revolution gather pace, and as monopoly corporate power grows ever more threatening to human interests. Like the new socialist movements, a trade union revival on such a scale, standing up effectively for workers’ interests, would also be a fantastic boost for Labour’s cause, providing an ever-expanding pool of voters, supporters and members.
Pursuing such an agenda of radical democratic participation and mass movement-building will challenge the Labour left constructively, taking us out of our comfort zone.
Ever-narrowing purity tests are a dead end, exclusive and self-defeating for any party which seeks to win a decisive majority and implement a transformational governing agenda. Instead, we will need to find authentic ways to engage in two-way dialogue with a much wider diversity of constituencies, to welcome and encourage a plurality of views, and to organise open deliberation to help surface and refine the best policies and strategies.
Any such mass movement must be genuinely empowered through a deepening of Labour’s party democracy, which despite a lengthy review under Corbyn remains fundamentally unchanged. Labour must urgently renew its democratic and decision-making processes, and start growing a culture fit for the twenty-first century.
The party should develop a mix of representative, participatory and deliberative democratic opportunities, bringing the mass membership, trade unions, MPs and party leadership together in constructive dialogue. Innovations such as citizens’ assemblies randomly chosen by lot and the online democracy platforms of Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid should be adopted to replace the National Policy Forum, which clearly does not work at all well. Instead of simply choosing new unrepresentative cadres and elites as the NPF does, or bypassing party democracy as Blair did, we need to find ways for ordinary members to get involved directly and share their views in twenty minutes or a couple of hours here and there, without having to become full-time policymakers.
Labour should start exploring experiments with closed primaries, in which thousands of Labour members and registered supporters (perhaps even loyal voters?) can participate more directly in choosing our parliamentary candidates. Yes, there would need to be some guidelines and checks; but provided these are adopted Labour has nothing to fear and everything to gain from more open and democratic processes of candidate selection.
The party should start viewing elected politics more as a form of public service, rather than as jobs for life for a professional political class, and ensure that elected leaders are more responsive to the grassroots. As part of this, I believe that before long we should ensure not only open selections for vacant seats, but also open selections for all sitting Labour MPs to check and renew their mandates.
These are all first and foremost questions of movement strategy, organisational culture, political philosophy, resource allocation and power dynamics. The best network technologies to support an organising vision fit for our networked society will change every year. They evolve as new approaches are trialled and proven, platform algorithms and affordability shift, and new infrastructure and networks are built.
One example of the technology which might be worth developing or extending to empower our movement is Common Knowledge, a formally non-partisan tech cooperative created by a group of Corbyn-supporting innovators. They are seeking to solve the problem of how people can better find each other, organise together and engage in political action and education in localities. Another exciting idea is Corbyn leadership campaign technologist James Darling’s 2017 prototype for a distributed membership organising model, in which power and initiative can be taken by members from the bottom up and they can be empowered to communicate and organise with each other without compromising data protection.
Labour’s new community organising unit under Dan Firth is rightly integrating a traditional Chicago-based “Saul Alinsky” model of organising, centred on community organisers and faith, labour or neighbourhood groups, with the accelerated digital Big Organising innovations of the Sanders campaign as outlined in Zack Exley and Becky Bond’s brilliant Rules for Revolutionaries book. Together these approaches open up opportunities to transform Labour’s traditional doorstep canvassing routine, turning it from a stale transactional exercise in gathering low-quality data into a rich democratic dialogue which is genuinely two-way, and through which our representatives and activists can gain richer and deeper insight into the communities we seek to serve. Both Momentum’s persuasive conversations and the “deep canvassing” approach recently pioneered in the US are models to draw on.
But there remains overall a lack of organisational boldness in Corbyn’s Labour. Too much focus has been placed on seizing the levers of a broken machine. Too much time is spent tinkering with small decisions, instead of transforming our movement’s capabilities and unleashing our mass membership’s talents and potential. Labour needs to change what’s broken and build for the future, most of all from the bottom up. This will require fresh ideas, fresh talent, and a deliberate process of organisational change.
How Network Labour can change our country for good
Just over two years after the crushing of the Prague Spring, Salvador Allende finally became President of Chile at his fourth attempt, after having been blocked in 1964 by a $5.6 million campaign financed by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Allende had a vision for socialism with a human face. He started trying to build a system designed to simultaneously liberate and empower individuals, and to bring them into a more equal, more joyful, more rooted set of communal and democratic relationships.
Allende raised wages, transformed public services, organised a mass campaign of popular education and took back control of national industries. He also enlisted the help of British cybernetician Stafford Beer to build Project Cybersyn, a communications network for the emergent management of economic and social systems. This ‘liberty machine’ was designed not as a tool of Big Brother surveillance, but as a way to give workers a hand in managing their own factories, and to empower citizens to provide continuous, transparent and anonymous feedback about whether things were working for them.
None of this was sufficient to prevent Pinochet’s bloody coup, aided and backed by the CIA. But the creative humanity and systemic rigour of the Chilean experiment, poetically explored in Stafford Beer’s Designing Freedom lectures and analysed in Eden Medina’s brilliant book Cybernetic Revolutionaries, provides a signpost toward a transformed future. As Beer wrote of Cybersyn and the coup against Allende, “Thus is freedom lost; not by accident, but as the output of a system designed to curb liberty. My message is that we must redesign that system, to produce freedom as an output. If we are inefficient about that, on the grounds that scientific efficiency threatens liberty, then the institutional machinery that acts in our name will fail to prevent the spread of tyranny, war, torture, and oppression. We speak of the growth of prosperity; but the growth of those four things throughout the world today is yet more real. Let us use love and compassion. Let us use joy. Let us use knowledge.”
A networked labour movement will help the Labour party to forge better alliances with the growing plurality of progressive and left forces. It requires moving decisively to harness technology in the service of individuals, communities and the common good, to fundamentally and irreversibly shift power into the hands of the many. This means pioneering twenty-first century forms of public and common ownership, from rail and transportation to distributed clean energy systems and housing, ideas being pioneered by McDonnell adviser James Meadway, the New Economics Foundation’s Miatta Fahnbulleh and Mathew Lawrence (founder of a new think tank called Common Wealth dedicated to this agenda).
It means democratising the economy and innovation, building a high-energy democracy and a common social inheritance, as outlined by a recent NESTA project from Roberto Unger, Geoff Mulgan and others. It also means decisive action against the new tech monopolies who are colonising and poisoning our mental and social landscapes, as the Freedom From Facebook campaign I co-founded in the US has been arguing (although our European partners may end up taking the lead on this first).
There is, clearly, still a great deal of work to do. But we can already say with clarity and conviction that the future we want to build looks very different from Harold Wilson’s ‘white-hot-technological revolution’, very different from Stalinism or the centralising left tendencies of the 1970s, and very different even from Clement Attlee’s Spirit of ’45. Wilson and Attlee might have been mostly right for their time, but not for ours.
Ours will be a party, and a politics, we can only build for our own times, together. It will take millions of us, with very different life experiences, perspectives and capabilities, to get it right. If we want to win decisively and govern transformationally, we must start living up better to Ralph Miliband’s warning that the internal life of a radical party must prefigure the society we seek to establish in government. The hard truth is that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party hasn’t yet fulfilled that ambition. But he opened the door and gave us the opportunity which only we can grasp. In the twenty-first century, socialism from below is not only possible; it is essential. It is time for our networked movement to embrace the hope and responsibility of building this more human future.