Chadwick, A. (2009) “Back to the Future: Organizational Values and Online Campaigning.” Written version of my speech to the Progress/Blue State Digital conference “Labour 2.0: Campaigning for the Net Generation,” Canary Wharf, London, February 28, 2009.

First, let me say thanks to Progress and to Blue State Digital for organizing this excellent event. It’s wonderful to be here at Canary Wharf. It doesn’t quite have the resonance of Farringdon Street, which is where the Labour Representation Committee was founded on February 27, 1900, but I think the WiFi here might be better. We’ll see.

It may sound surprising, but I don’t want to say too much about technology. There’s now no doubt that we’re living through genuinely significant change in the political communication environment. I have long argued that in order to understand where party politics is going, we need to understand how technologies shape politicians’ and citizens’ behaviour. But I also think we need to examine things from a rather different perspective — the other end of the problem, so to speak.

So I want to throw out some ideas on organizational values and their importance in shaping the future of online campaigning. To do this, I want you to join me in a brief “thought experiment.” On this historic anniversary, let’s consider the diverse mixture of organizational values that led to the foundation of the Labour Party, and let’s briefly consider how these have relevance for Labour’s approach to online campaigning.

The Labour Party is now well into its second century, but the historical traces of that famous meeting in Farringdon Street in February 1900 remain. As is well known, the Labour Representation Committee (as the party was first named) was pluralistic. It was, and still is, a federation of affiliates. Today it would probably be called the “Labour Representation Network”. But certainly it was a rather awkward blend of very different pre-existing organizations. There was the Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party, an obscure group called the Social Democratic Federation, some trade unionists, and some Lib-Lab MPs.

Each of these groups brought a distinct set of values to the new Party. The Fabian Society, then dominated by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, brought an emphasis on collectivism, regulation, order and control. They celebrated rational administration by trained experts and insisted that some element of hierarchy was essential for good governance. They saw the Labour Party itself as a compromise between a responsible mass democracy on the one hand, and enlightened authority, on the other.

Then we have the Independent Labour Party of which Keir Hardie was the most prominent figure. The ILP advocated a new morality based on voluntarism. They emphasized local community initiatives, the importance of fellowship, fraternalism, and individual and collective creativity.

The Social Democratic Federation believed in a rather curious mixture of radical libertarianism and revolutionary socialism. They were suspicious of the centralizing tendencies of the Fabians and tended to promote individual rights and freedoms rather than bureaucratic regulation. They were sceptical of claims to authority, highly critical of representatives and wished to see them replaced by direct democracy through ongoing public debate and decision-making by referendum.

Finally, we have the trade union movement, which steadily moved towards formal support for Labour over the course of the next two decades. The dominant ethos of the unions was based on pragmatism, collaboration, co-operation and solidarity in the world of work, but also in the sphere of politics.

Of course, much has changed since February 1900. The Labour Party’s ideas continued to evolve in all kinds of ways that can’t be covered here. But my point is that many of these founding values are still highly relevant to the contexts of twenty-first century British politics. And, more importantly, it is a combination of these values that ought to inform the Labour Party’s future approach to online campaigning.

The future of Labour’s online campaigning should be a matter of enshrining as many of these diverse values in the online spaces that the party constructs or, perhaps more importantly, the spaces and networks with which the party chooses to affiliate. Online campaigning ought to balance hierarchy, leadership and structure against voluntarism, creativity and initiative. It ought to balance individual freedom and scepticism of authority against collaboration, co-operation and solidarity. And it ought to be about local community activism as much as it is about the Westminster elite.

Though it’s evolving rapidly, the communications toolkit for the next election is already in place. After web 2.0, a term that I do think has substance, it’s now clear that the 1990s British political website model is finally dead. Initiatives like, for example, are breaking the mould. Any online environment that structures a range of opportunities for meaningful action by politicians and citizens deserves to succeed. But I wonder if Labourlist might not end up being too driven by the Westminster elite, especially as the urge towards command and control intensifies in the run up to the next election campaign?

So arguably the immediate challenge is this: can Labour design its online campaign so that it meshes with the diverse aspects of its organizational structures that it values and wishes to maintain. But can it also loosen and democratize its structures, to reach out to those millions of self-organizing citizens who now conduct their politics far away from the official party websites, in the fragmented spaces of blog comments, discussion forums, online petitions, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia, to name but a few.

In other words, can Labour learn from its foundation, and build new networks of democratic affiliation?