The internet presents problems, but also opportunities for Labour. What can we learn from our party’s history to guide us through current challenges? Nearly all online platforms are commercial – though free to use, they rely on revenue from advertising. That means they sell access to us, sell information about our interactions and compete for our participation in this ‘attention economy’.
At a fundamental level, this is changing how we relate to each other, fuelling a politics of division and hate. From hostile Twitter storms to the toxic comments that crop up below the line, time and again we see the impact of this in our own movement and in how we treat each other. In a world of Trump and Brexit, filter bubbles and fake news, it’s becoming much harder for us to engage with people who are different to us. Online divisions mirror divisions in the offline world and these are divisions Labour must heal if we are to win the next election. Yet the platforms that make up our online world may be undermining the very skills we need to do succeed.
How do we respond? In the era of the industrial revolution, a similar major change in our social fabric occurred, and arguably it was these forces that created the Labour movement. But there was no guarantee it would happen that way, and it wasn’t easy or inevitable. As with today, social shifts like industrialisation and urbanisation created new spheres and forms of human relationships. Workplaces, factories, pubs, coffee shops began to grow: a whole range of consumerist forces were awakened. We had to channel these forces and shape these new spheres once, and we must do so again now.
The Labour movement was not born – it was made. Historian E.P. Thompson argued that “the working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making”. For Thompson, collective participation was the engine of class consciousness. Working people and class identity was not simply the by-product of non-human abstracted historical or economic forces, but forged through the messy links and collective relationships between people and communities. Our consciousness of each other and our own power to change things came through the creation of new spaces, institutions and communities. The Labour movement’s identity was forged in the Chartist schools and the cooperatives, which gave people the space to collaborate, participate and create. While factories and workhouses sought to divide and commodify our relationships with one another, spaces like trade unions and working men’s clubs sought to unite and protect them.
But what of today? If we accept the need to once more embrace a “maker” culture in politics in an era of unprecedented access to each other, what are the enabling modern spaces, institutions and communities? From Mumsnet to subreddits to Facebook groups, new forms of community are being developed based around interests, experiences and values. Online movements such as #MeToo are the engines of a new consciousness. They are rendering us more visible to each other, highlighting the injustices we face and binding us together in a form of collective experience. These real communities are offering new ways of reaching out to each other.
The questions we should now be asking are how this translates into political action, and how these different emerging groups can come together to construct a shared vision of the society we want to live in. What kind of politics do we need to build that can facilitate this? For those of us on the left today, this is our challenge.
Together, we must create social software that will allow for collaboration, association and participation online. Just as we built the trade unions and the process for motions in our CLPs (which is now outdated and creaking under the weight of an increased membership), we must do the same for the next century. We are going to have to construct these new political structures – they cannot be simply conjured into existence. Just as the Labour movement first built its first associations, so we too need to build our own online infrastructure. When capitalism built the shop, we built the co-op, when capitalism built the pub, we built the working men’s club. When capitalism builds Facebook, Uber, Instagram… what do we build?
We must also think more deeply about our own party ‘software’ and how we are engaging communities new and old. While initiatives such as the democracy review should be welcomed, they barely scratch the surface of what needs to be a much deeper rethink of how our party operates. This cannot be achieved by tinkering at the edges. It must involve continuous innovation and thinking, and to do that we must be brave – experiment, reach out and engage with people who challenge us to think differently about how we operate. Labour must build networks, confront difficult questions and above all have the courage to embrace change. For our party to survive into the next century, we cannot let this moment pass us by.
Hannah O’Rourke is a Labour member in Vauxhall.
You can read her full paper published by Compass here.