Labour Together 2019 General Election Review
Today marks the publication of the Labour Together General Election Review. We were glad to have participated as one of the commissioners.
Our work looked into two aspects of the Labour Party's 2019 General Election campaign:
- The ground game – activities at a local level such as canvassing, leafleting, persuasive conversation and the organisation of this.
- The digital technologies that attempted to assist these activities.
In addition, we looked at the general organisational structure of the Labour Party, its culture and the longer history of engagement with both community organising and technology.
Alongside the main report, today we are publishing two supplementary reports that the main report drew upon.
While the Labour Together report is a result of the collaborative effort of all commisioners, these are research pieces, commissioned by Labour Together, in our own voice. The raw material of this research fed into the review itself, as well as grounding our analysis and editoral work in collaboration with other commissioners.
In lieu of strategy
The first report In lieu of strategy, outlines our general approach and problems we faced in producing the report.
It goes on to examine the ground operation in the 2019 and the general organisation of the Labour Party.
It examines the mixed results of various attempts at bringing community organising to Labour since 2015. These mixed results are partly due to cultural and organisation problems with Labour understanding this form of organising and hostility to change.In lieu of strategy: ground operations and organisational structure
System updates required
The second System updates required, relates to digital technology and in particular the use of digital technology within ground operations.
It highlights problems of producing technology by the Labour Party and makes specific recommendations as to how these could be improved.System updates required: ground operations and digital technology
Labour Party Organisational Structure
We also publish an organisational chart that shows how the Labour Party is structured. This allowed us to navigate some of our work and make conclusions on how this structure, and the decision making it allowed, significantly weakened Labour's campaign.Labour Party Organogram
The topics of our contribution became so intertwined that at points it was difficult to cleanly separate them out. It might be best to consider them as elements of an interlocking whole: politics, organising, technology and social change.
These elements and their relationship is what Common Knowledge was specifically founded to address. The General Election Review allowed us an opportunity to explore how political organising works, how technology enables it and how organisations can best organise themselves to make political organising happen.
Our general approach was to:
provide a good-faith analysis of practical and organisational matters, from the perspective of researcher practitioners of digital technology and political organising including in a UK and international political and third sector context. In our work here we have attempted to perform a “no-blame” analysis, looking at systems, limitations and possibilities, rather than counter-productively focusing on persons and blame, a technique common in the software engineering industry.
To produce these we embraced a range of techniques.
We looked in detail at the online survey of 11,060 people conducted by Labour Together, taking a largely qualitative and exploratory approach, while others handled more quantitative aspects of the survey.
We then interviewed people from across the campaign. From Labour HQ, to members of the leadership team, to regional staffers, to members of the Community Organising Unit, to those who had engaged in digital work for Labour across many years prior to the Corbyn era.
We'd like to thank the review staff for being kind enough to commission us. We'd like to thank in particular Hannah O’Rourke for allowing us to follow our interests and instincts as far as anyone could hope for.
We'd like to thank the other commissioners also, if nothing else for their patience wth our continuous barrage of questions.
There are a number of aspects of the report we would have placed different emphasis on, or spent more time with. We have some disagreements with its conclusions - partly always the case with group writing. These are for another day.
Today, take a deep dive into these reports.
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Reflecting on our goals for this review
At Common Knowledge we like to reflect on the work we do and learn from it. This work was no different. What were our goals with the General Election Review and did we achieve them?
We were skeptical about whether we should involve ourselves in this review.
Why skeptical? Because Common Knowledge was set up specifically to produce technology that facilitates social change outside of electoral politics.
We want a politics that works beyond narrow electoral cycles and that builds real power in communities and workplaces. We are on the side of social movements that seek, as our vision states: "a world of abundance, free from oppression". There are fierce arguments in social movements around the strategic effectiveness of electoral work.
For us, engaging with electoral work is pragmatic on two counts.
First, since elections are the most widely recognised political events, it is a place where we often find our consultancy work - we have skills to bring to bear on it. This work is part of what funds our other activities and builds our capacity to support grassroots activists.
Second, there is much to be learnt from organising within elections that is transferable to other contexts. There is a healthy traffic between techniques used in electoral organising – for example, distributed organising techniques – and those used in more social movement and labour organising. This works in both directions.
As a cooperative we make decisions democratically and the decision to work on this review was no different. We decided to work on this provided we could make clear any skepticisms we felt about Labour as a means of social change, and we would not pull punches.
Our other condition was to freeze working with the Labour Party for most of 2020.
In our blog post introducing our work for this review, we set out three topics to examine.
- How the ground game was organised during the election.
- The experience of being a Labour member in general.
- The relationship between Labour and wider social movements.
Of these goals, we feel we did a good job of the first two, but we did a far less good job of the final one.
Part of this was due to time. We underestimated how long getting to the bottom of the organisational structure of Labour would take us, on top of examining the 2019 General Election itself. As we note in the first report, this was compounded by a general hostility towards our good faith attempts to establish the facts. Having interviews and analysing them absorbed most of our time. Trying to work out a opaque organisational structure from outside swallowed more.
The other part was due to attention. Early on in the process we tried to insist Labour’s relationship to social movements was an important element of the picture - particularly as this was the mood after the election result, where a return to the communities was mooted for Labour. This got truncated into looking at the work of the Community Organising Unit and prior attempts at community organising within Labour.
Labour and social movements
What then is the relationship between Labour and wider social movements?
More pointedly: was the Corbyn era good or bad for the progress of the social movements that it is our aim to support? There are two broad hypotheses.
First, the negative hypothesis: that Corbynism sucked time, attention and energy away from alternative forms of politics towards the Labour Party. If not campaigning for Labour, people spent time concentrating on internal disputes within it.
There was a disempowering function even perhaps of Corbyn himself – a spectacular leader in the sense of Guy Debord, who prevented people realising their own capacities for change.
In addition there was a critique of electoral politics more generally: that it is an ineffective means of social change, that it requires a blunting of radical demands for the sake of building electoral coalitions and reducing press hostility.
Ralph Miliband remarked that people
set out with the intention of transforming the Labour Party have more often than not ended up being transformed by it.
Second, the positive hypothesis: that what the Corbyn era attempted to do was take the causes of social movements and give them a platform on the national stage and in the policies of the major opposition party.
This is certainly how key figures in Corbyn’s immediate circles, including Corbyn himself, saw their role. This 2019 manifesto itself had extensive input from campaigning groups and thinkers from across social movements. Social movements could often rely on the backing of the Labour leadership for their cause. Corbyn even spoke of Labour becoming a social movement.
But there were tensions also: between Labour councils and communities and between that policy platform and electoral viability, especially around issues such as policing which have very recently come into sharp focus.
We wanted to use this report as an opportunity to explore these questions fairly and empirically. We are sorry we have not answered them. Settling this question in some way would have been of some use to social movements and their relationship with Labour and electoralism in general.
In microcosm, have we been victims of the same phenomena we outline? Perhaps.
Starmer’s Labour Party and social movements
Now the Corbyn era has passed, what of the relationship between Keir Starmer’s Labour Party and social movements?
During the leadership campaign Keir Starmer made much of his credentials as a supporter of social movements, during the miners strike and his legal support for, amongst other high profile cases, the McLibel trial.
However, his reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests has been lukewarm at best, even hostile where it counts on matters of sentencing. The same goes for his support for transgender rights.
This is also therefore an open question.