Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning?


2:58 pm - July 2nd 2012

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contribution by Simon Alvey

For those of us attending Saturday’s Netroots event the major theme running through the heart of the day was the organic and independent nature of the majority of campaigns.

This is something that should deeply worry the mainstream political left – that the most passionate and dedicated political campaigners seem to see the traditional political parties as irrelevant to their campaigning.

Probably the most prominent success of the past twelve months, and certainly the most inspiring, the Spartacus Report, is indicative of this trend.

A report that grew out of the online support networks that sprung up as people’s right to much needed DLA and ESA was removed by the government.

It was a bold and spiky campaign that used a wide variety of tactics – with a particular focus on a highly successful social media campaign – to shift the debate on disability benefits. The most interesting thing about this campaign is the organic nature of its development from a social network to a formal political campaign.

As shown by the Spartacus Report these can be highly effective but they represent a radical change in the way the political campaigns are being carried out. There is no longer a willingness to assume the roles of leaders and followers, rather the relationship can better be described as one of facilitators and participants.

Organisations such as 38 Degrees and, it would appear, the trade unions, have begun to understand the benefit that can come from this change in role. As one worker for 38 Degrees said they have to spend their time trying to work like a surfer on top of whatever the biggest issue of the moment is.

And it is clear the unions, in hosting Netroots, have realised that they will gain much out of being able facilitate wider campaigns.

This new model for political engagement, of individuals getting involved in particular campaigns and seeing themselves as equal participants with anyone else – a model drawn from the horizontalism exemplified by the Occupy movement – does not fit well with traditional parties such as Labour.

They continue to have a more vertical structure that is likely to alienate campaigners, and therefore miss out on the passion that they have displayed.

If Labour are going to be able to take advantage of this new model of political engagement they are going to have to adopt a more flexible facilitating model that newer political actors have discovered.

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Reader comments


In a way this is similar to the impact the “new social movements” of the 1960s and 70s had on politics, organising themselves in a way that was wholly alien to the political parties and “old” social movements.

Where parties closely identified with the values and aims, if not the methods, they tended to become more or less identified with each other (like some parts of Labour and the CND).

Some of these movements found no natural home and so gave rise to new political parties, and some of those parties (like many Green parties around Europe) have gone on to occupy a significant spot in representative politics.

None of the old parties really adapted to the methods and culture of those new social movements. I doubt Labour will over the next few years. What’s more likely is that individuals and local branches find ways to work constructively with campaigns.

People do not know about these websites and don’t just think I will click here and up it pops. In fact you have to actually know where and what to click onto.

Example : 38 Degrees did an excellent battle and petition online regarding protecting the National Health Service. Thousands upon thousands of people donated money towards that and hiring legal advice. I signed their petition and donated money but I knew hundreds of people that did not know about 38 Degrees and their fight to save the NHS. I obviously told them about it.

My Point : To make these online campaigns known about/effective you have to get out there on the street, knocking on doors and set up High Street Stalls to tell the general public about these campaigns and particular websites otherwise they will not know about them. If 38 Degrees for example had of used these methods to advertise their campaign they would have gained massively more support. They should have not purely just relied on their website because many people did not know about it, they only had a captive audience of followers. They needed to get out there (on the streets & more) to have made their website known to gain an explosion of support. You cannot just sit there waiting for the odd few hundred, if lucky thousand or so people that are told about the website, or the few people here and there that stumbled upon it by luck or judgement. You have to get out there to make these campaign websites known about.

I’m not sure how parties can avoid having a *somewhat* vertical structure – and I think it’s a pity if the people getting involved in various campaigns don’t at least consider joining a political party. Unions have a pretty vertical structure too, come to think of it.

4. Planeshift

“38 Degrees did an excellent battle and petition online regarding protecting the National Health Service”

Such as advertising its campaign in Cardiff Bay without realising that:

(a) Health is devolved,

and

(b) there are lots of local campaigns in Wales against health service changes being undertaken by labour.

As it is, labour in Wales use ignorance of devolution to their advantage – they know that a sizeable proportion of the welsh public will watch TV footage of protests about these health service changes in Wales, and assume Cameron is responsible. It would be nice if campaigning groups didn’t help them.

5. Simon Alvey

Thanks for some interesting comments. A few thoughts on the interesting things people have had to say.

Tom, I think that you have a fair point that the new social and political movements of the 1960s did of course lead in some cases to new political movements. However they have, in Britain at least, made little or no progress because of our appalling electoral system. New political parties only really come through to positions where government appears to be a realistic aim in moments of massive social and political change, for instance Labour’s arrival on the political scene at the beginning of the 20th Century – which was a historical necessity caused by the widening of the franchise to include working class voters whose concerns the Liberals were unable to deal with (a parallel I couldn’t possibly draw with today!). With little chance of the new political parties breaking through it must fall to Labour to construct itself in such a way that it can work with a new activist base.

Mr Grunt: Although there is a value in getting campaigns out on the streets, and how to shift them from cyberspace to real space is a issue that people far more knowledgable than me are worrying about, I think the at clictktivism has a value in making politics accessible to those, who for reason illness, lack of funds or geography aren’t able to get the physical protests that are more traditional.

Sarah AB: I am not calling for political parties to adopt totally horizontal structures but they need to adopt an easier, and more participatory, model of political campaigning because with the wide variety of opportunties people want to have more involvement than just being foot soldiers for a candidate. Furthermore I, and many other people I spoke to at Netroots, are Labour Party members but that was only a sideline in their activism.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Netroots UK 2012: blog reactions | Netroots UK

    […] Liberal Conspiracy: Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? […]

  2. Brian Activist

    Liberal Conspiracy – Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? http://t.co/S6x7RSTp

  3. Steve Elsey

    “@libcon: Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? http://t.co/Hl4yjtF2”

  4. mushkush

    Yes. And bears wear funny hats. RT: @libcon: Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? http://t.co/WDWkvESP

  5. Mrs Angry

    post netroots: is Labour missing the boat re social media – and more local – campaigns?
    http://t.co/u7W6Mu1Q

  6. Simon Alvey

    For the evening people, my first ever piece for Liberal Conspiracy, how Labour can engage with a new form of activism http://t.co/myt2pFbM

  7. Simon Alvey

    @miksabiers a short piece I wrote for Liberal Conspiracy about how Labour can cope with the changes in activist culture http://t.co/myt2pFbM

  8. BevR

    Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/kj0KOK2g via @libcon

  9. Sue Rees

    Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/kj0KOK2g via @libcon

  10. Paul

    Think this piece about the need for political parties to have more horizontal engagement is on to something… http://t.co/82yTfjc4

  11. Simon Alvey

    @girlsteve also, not to brag or anything, but I'm on Liberal Conspiracy now, that's what happens http://t.co/myt2pFbM

  12. David Taylor

    Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? http://t.co/UkYWFLSq

  13. Chris Cooke

    Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/DrRdH8YD via @libcon

  14. Steve Doran

    may I recommend http://t.co/Ilc0eAO2 by the wonderful @salvey1

  15. Simon Alvey

    @unfortunatalie http://t.co/myt2pFbM, as always any feedback would be appreciated

  16. Simon Alvey

    @unfortunatalie http://t.co/myt2pFbM, as always any feedback would be appreciated

  17. Nat Guest

    RT @libcon: Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? http://t.co/olTr8KD6

  18. Simon Alvey

    RT @libcon: Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? http://t.co/olTr8KD6

  19. Simon Alvey

    RT @libcon: Is Labour missing the boat on the changing nature of campaigning? http://t.co/olTr8KD6

  20. Simon Alvey

    @haykirstin oh indeed its great to see a woman lead the TUC, who wants to work with other activists that I wrote about http://t.co/myt2pFbM

  21. Simon Alvey

    @shattenstone http://t.co/myt2pFbM, enjoy! (hopefully)





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