We can work it out, if we reject the comfort blanket

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Forgetting the branding war for a minute, there are a number of serious discussions we need to have on the Labour (and broader) left. It starts with an acknowledgement of where Corbyn’s victory came from: it didn’t come as the result of years of patient building on the Labour left in the lead up to 2015. If it had, we may have had more of a foothold in the Labour Party as a whole. It came about as a result of a ‘perfect storm’: a disillusion with establishment politics, both within and without the party; the ineptitude of alternatives on the right of the party; a union movement battered by austerity and looking for a fightback and a fantastic campaign which had learnt the lessons of the activism of the post-2008 era, including social media, digital campaigning, phone banking and volunteer activism on the ground.

Simply put, we overreached in that summer of 2015. We had ourselves a leader, a shadow chancellor and a handful of Parliamentary supporters, but little else structurally. This was a massive failure of the Labour left: for years, a tiny minority within organisations like the LRC and CLPD had been urging them to look outwards, beyond Parliament, to build regionally and locally, online as well as in communities. It mostly fell on deaf ears. There were reasons for that, of course, but nevertheless it was a fact that the Labour left was not in a good place at the beginning of 2015.

But in politics, you don’t get to choose the cards that you are dealt: through a frantic summer, we built on these circumstances, turning the disadvantages into advantages – and quickly adapting to that ‘perfect storm’. The biggest advantage of all was the huge numbers of previously unaligned supporters and activists who came into the campaign through the social media route. At the end of that summer, the incredible success of the campaign fooled some into thinking that the job had been done. Others saw it as a time of consolidation, a time to end the ‘guerrilla war’, as one prominent member of Corbyn’s team said to me. I disagreed. If anything, outside of that office, we needed to ramp things up, because this was a huge game of catch up.

On that day in September 2015, as Corbyn was cheered in the Sanctuary pub by a small band who had been at the very heart of the operation, two tasks lay ahead of us; two things we needed to do with the leverage we’d built via the Corbyn campaign.

Firstly, we needed to change the Labour Party, nationally, regionally and locally. This wasn’t just about a changing of the guard: it was about changing the whole culture of the party: in terms of it’s attitude to campaigning; its groundedness in local communities; its structures and its openness to new members. The Labour Party (nationally, regionally and locally) needed to become democratic and grassroots – a huge task seeing as the whole trajectory of the party in the last two decades has been in exactly the opposite direction, with only a slight move forwards under Ed Miliband.

Secondly, if we were going to enable a situation where an explicitly socialist Labour Party could command a majority, we needed to shift the political debate in this country by a huge extent – not just in the media, or using alternative, social media platforms, but in practical ways that would transform the debate right from the national stage down to the micro level of local communities. This was the big one: it was going to be like turning around a tanker. You don’t go from the margins of the political debate on Labour’s backbenches to dictating the “common sense” in the country at large without an enormous, ambitious and radical political project. In effect, we needed to create a movement capable of changing our society, step by step, year on year. There was no guarantee that this would produce electoral rewards in the short term, but if we were serious about this project, there was little alternative in the long run.

Both these aspects were boosted by Corbyn’s victory, but the transformation of the Labour Party already had a base (LRC, Red Labour, CLPD) which needed to be expanded and improved. The expertise was there, in the most part, but with the help of a new activist base (developed by the Red Labour project and expanded during the leadership campaign), it was possible to create a more dynamic version post-September 2015. That needed less fanfare, and more patient work behind the scenes, as our friends in Progress had demonstrated over the Blair years. The second, more ambitious task of building a movement, based loosely on Corbyn’s politics and the radical potential that had been released by his victory, had been given a jump start by the huge numbers that had surged towards the Labour Party during the campaign, but also a secondary group who might not interested in joining the Labour Party, but who were listening to Jeremy and prepared to pull in the same direction. The key was to harness this support, which was coalescing around social media, in community campaigns and in the unions, and to give it coherence as a movement.

These two strands should have been the central organising focus for the Corbyn movement in the immediate aftermath of the leadership win. Instead we had this confusion, this muddle. It was unnecessary and strategically inept to think that both parts of the project needed to be branded under one name. That wasn’t recognising the complexity of the Corbyn movement or the drivers behind his election win. The chaos that we are now faced with is a natural consequence of that poor decision: now the horizons are considerably narrowed again – at precisely the time when the clock is ticking on both halves of the project. The battle for control over the Corbyn movement was entirely predictable, but ultimately, it’s self-defeating. But the answer isn’t to go into a shell, to run for our bunkers. It’s that clutching for the comfort blanket that we need to fight, because actually, that’s a total failure of ambition. Somehow, we’re going to have to work it out.

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#JezWeDid: from Red Labour to Jeremy Corbyn – a tale from social media

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Ancient History

Ok, let’s start at the beginning. Well, not quite at the beginning. I should just explain that I’m not seeking to give some sort of rounded, academic history of the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. That will have to wait for another day, when the actual work has been done and we’re surveying from the top of a hill marked ‘Socialism in Our Lifetime’. For the moment, I can only offer a partial glimpse of how the campaign was constructed – and at that, only one aspect of it – the social media campaign. Of course there are a thousand other strands. I don’t deny that, but this is the strand which I have been almost totally immersed for the last four 14 weeks and, as it has been almost totally ignored by most of the mainstream media, I think it’s an important tale to tell. Of course, one of the reasons why social media is ignored by the mainstream is that there is often no single person to hang the story around. Social media campaigning is mostly a collective, anonymous enterprise – and where’s the story in that?

The story has characters, though. It begins in 2011 with a simple Facebook page, Red Labour, set up by Alex Craven – a Brighton-based socialist in the Labour Party. Alex is someone who recognised, at a very early stage, the power of Facebook to counter the continued Blairite dominance in the Party. The Red Labour page was initially set up in opposition to two colours of Labour which had come to dominate the Parliamentary Party – as well as the think tanks and party bureaucracy which buttressed the right of centre bloc at Westminster. The first, and dominant faction was Purple Labour, or ‘Progress’ as they tended to sell themselves. They were the bearers of the New Labour flame, a well-oiled machine with almost insurmountable power amongst the elected elite of the party and able to win parliamentary selections at a canter all over the country.

More recently, a new bloc had emerged, with nothing but a collection of ‘intellectuals’, a load of media connections and the odd MP. Blue Labour were closer to the old right of the party, but had rebranded with some anti-immigrant rhetoric and strange intellectualisations of the traditions of the party and the plight of the white working class. The key to Blue Labour’s influence was their connections to the leader’s office under Ed Miliband, rather than any pretence of building a movement, either within or without the party. If they had, I doubt they would have given themselves the toxic name Blue Labour.

Red Labour was originally set up as a ‘rapid rebuttal’ to New Labour / One Nation Labour spin which was a feature of both Purple and Blue Labour and the way they exercised their power. It chose the best contributions from Labour left social media activists, publicised critiques of the status quo and a displayed a hugely irreverent attitude to the grandees of the party. It was funny, sharp and relentless in its pursuit of hypocrisy within the upper echelons of the party. With it its use of graphics and snappy, shareable content, it soon took off. At a time when people were just discovering the possibilities of ‘mini blogs’ on Facebook, the Red Labour page gained 10,000 followers in short time. Suddenly, the unashamed socialist left of the party had an audience.

At that point, in 2011, the situation of the traditional left of the party couldn’t have been more different. Absolutely without influence, centred around the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) – the ‘red’ part of the party had been marginalised by the concentration of power in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A small group of MPs still organised with the grassroots left of the party, but they tended to be the equally marginalised Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. There was a further problem. The LRC was failing to gain any real traction in the party itself. The grassroots movement which we all knew needed to be built, wasn’t developing in the way we all knew it needed to if we were to challenge. With the heavily resourced Progress still trouncing the left in selections and Blue Labour whispering in Ed’s ear, the LRC, for all their commitment, didn’t look like breaking this vicious cycle.

A few younger LRC activists, including myself and Max Shanly felt that we needed to take radical steps and joined Alex in pursuing the Red Labour project. A bit laughably, some of the more excitable sections of the left positioned around the LRC called it a ‘split’ when it was nothing of the sort. It was just that, like Alex, we believed there was a huge opportunity to connect to a whole group that were beyond the reach of those traditional approaches to socialist politics. Though, like many others, we had criticisms of the LRC, it wasn’t fundamentally about that (I still have my LRC membership card) but we decided to target our efforts at building Red Labour. With more of us contributing, the page grew at a rapid pace. It became more creative, more diverse and more focused on changing the party. Red Labour, on Facebook at least, first became one of the liveliest spaces for the Labour left, and soon, at 20,000, the largest (with the exception of the official Labour Party page).

Inevitably, people soon started to talk about taking it offline. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to help people set up regional groups and the wider, more ambitious Red Labour project was starting to take shape, based not on a membership-style organisation, but a looser supporter network. This brought in a whole new group of activists into the Red Labour operation. In about the space of a year (from 2012 to 2013) it had turned into a serious group within the party. We continued with our staples – we had a particular penchant for Nye Bevan memes, for instance – but now people were meeting offline and organising locally and regionally. That made us stronger, but with more of a sense of responsibility.

The point is about Red Labour is that it was always seen a serious intervention into the party, but we weren’t prepared to play by the rules which seemed to have been set out by those on the left and right of us. It wasn’t quite so earnest as either – it was explicitly populist and accessible. As the 2015 election approached, for example, we presented a series of radical policy proposals, but in badge form. We sought out debate, sometimes controversy – and we tested things out, knowing we’d make mistakes occasionally. This was so radically different from the official output from the party, that it continued to attract a following, both on Facebook and Twitter. Occasionally, we’d post things that the whole team wouldn’t necessary agree with. The Scottish Referendum was a case in point. We didn’t have unanimity within the group, so we decided to post both Yes and No articles on an equal basis.

At other times we’d pull posts as dissent became obvious within the organisers group we’d assembled. Our attitude from day one was never to duck an issue. Let’s argue it out – on the page, through the threads. The philosophy was that, on everything from migration to welfare, we needed to win hearts and minds, even if that meant engaging in late night (and sometimes tedious) battles on the Red Labour page. Gradually, we found that regular visitors to the page would take on each other, normally in a fairly comradely way, but our approach was always an interventionist one. This made it fraught at times, but through all that, we stuck together, determined that we could work together and build this project together – and aware that there weren’t many chances left.

Pre History

When Ed Miliband resigned in the immediate aftermath of that calamitous General Election, our Red Labour group was generally sceptical about the idea of running a candidate from the left. During the election campaign, we’d done some analysis of the strength of the left of the party in Parliament (and as candidates) and even with a small group of union-backed new candidates being elected, the prospects weren’t good. We estimated 48/49 MPs who could be seen as either rebels or on the left of the party. Even this was stretching the meaning of both words to breaking point. We were fully aware that, as a result of the Collins Review, the bar for PLP nominations had been set even higher. The veto that the Parliamentary Party had was formidable. When Andy Burnham declared early and his team swooped on at least 20 of that list without so much as a blink of the eye, the prospects looked even bleaker. However, within the Red Labour group, the debate began – and we ran over the possibilities again and again. We wrote letters to some of the most likely suspects, even if it was just to put up a candidate so we could have a debate about the veto that the Parliamentary Party had over the choice of a leader.

At this point (in this no-mans-land between Ed resigning and the Labour left finding themselves a candidate) two important things happened which have been buried amongst all the other factors that have been cited. James Doran, a Red Labour organiser in Darlington set up a Facebook page, ‘We want John McDonnell as Labour Leader’. As we had contacted John already, we knew that he wasn’t likely to stand again, but James decided to go ahead with the page, because if nothing else the group would serve as a pole of attraction for those wanted a left candidate. That’s exactly what happened – with an enormous amount of early interest. It was obvious that we weren’t the only ones. Around the 20th of May, two activists, Chelley Ryan and Beck Barnes contacted us at the Red Labour page, saying that they were planning to write an open letter entitled ‘We want an anti-austerity leader’. They asked if we’d look at it and Naomi Fearon, a member of our organising group, suggested a 38 Degrees petition. She worked on it with me and we collectively decided on the right wording. When Chelley and Beck launched it, the petition got an incredible response. It was shared via Red Labour, but Chelley and Beck- along with Naomi’s help – also did an incredible job attracting interest through a wide range of networks. Within a few days, 5,000 people had signed the petition and then, just as it was about to be sent off to John Cryer, the chair of the PLP, we heard the amazing news that Jeremy Corbyn agreed to stand. We weren’t sure how this had happened, but later we heard that it was, ironically, John McDonnell who had played the biggest part in persuading Jeremy to stand.

The ‘little win’: the noms campaign

We raised a few virtual glasses to toast Jeremy Corbyn that evening. When the news filtered through (I believe it was Diane Abbott who broke the news first – through Twitter, of course), at first there was a sense of incredulity. For several weeks, we’d been desperately worried that the left would have no voice within the three month race. We’d even looked into the possibility of organising, at Owen Jones’ suggestion, ‘not the leadership’ rallies which discussed the alternatives to the ‘austerity lite’ narrative likely to be the theme of the leadership circus over the summer. When the news of Jeremy’s candidature came through, then, it felt like our first victory. Even if nothing came of it, we had contributed to laying down a marker – that the socialist left in the party hadn’t completely been routed, silenced.

The next morning I got a call from John McDonnell asking if I could co-ordinate the social media campaign to get Jeremy the nominations. Of course I agreed straight away – this was an incredible chance to play a small part in history. I discussed this with by fellow Durham Red Labourite Paul Simpson and we set up a little campaign headquarters in the People’s Bookshop in Durham and set to work on digging out articles, quotes and images of Jeremy. Both of us had cut our teeth with Red Labour and felt we understood the impact of really good, interactive and provocative social media content. Others across the country started helping out – MarshaJane Thompson and Max Shanly down in London, Adam White in Manchester and a host of others. We used the Red Labour page and our own contacts to kick start it, but the main thing was timing.  The Facebook page and Twitter account went live within 12 hours of the announcement – and that was crucial. That enabled us to take maximum advantage of the coverage of Corbyn’s surprise announcement and capitalise on the immediate surge in interest. Within 24 hours, we had a couple of thousand people on the page and had gained hundreds of followers on Twitter.

Once the initial building of the page and Twitter had been done, we determined to get to work on the MP nominations, one by one. Red Labour was a virtual campaign HQ. In amongst this burst of activity, we received a private message from a Labour councillor, which said simply #JezWeCan. He contacted us not long after asking us to not credit him with what we saw as a good pun at the time, and in the delay, another Red Labourite, Hazel Nolan, had tweeted the hashtag (apparently the very first to do so). We thought it was a good joke – a tongue in cheek reference to the Obama campaign slogan – but not for a second did we think it would become the political phrase of the summer. No matter, we posted a meme up on Red Labour with the #JezWeCan hashtag and a picture of Jeremy. That meme would later be turned into a t-shirt by MarshaJane and a load of grassroots Unison activists at Scottish Unison Conference. It was an electrifying buzz to find the left suddenly alive with creativity.

But there was less sexy work to get on with too. The Red Labour collective got to work preparing spreadsheets, we published email addresses and Twitter accounts, drew up lists and crossed names off the lists a matter of hours later. All the time, the possibilities were becoming narrower and narrower. Nevertheless, we carried on regardless – organising Twitter storms, petitions and mass letter writing campaigns. Of course, we didn’t realise how hard it would be, but a strange thing happened: the more resistant MPs seem to be, the more people seemed to want to get involved. People came out of nowhere and took responsibility for huge chunks of the campaign. At first, there was some apprehension – should we be taking a more centralised approach? But after deliberating for all of a few minutes, it became obvious that events had overtaken our plans – it was no longer ‘our’ campaign – it belonged to those who wanted to contribute. And this nominations campaign had become an issue of democracy.

The sum total of the online activity was just incredible – and relentless. This now was reaching far beyond our Red Labour group. Here came the Corbynistas! Some people gave over whole evenings to emailing everyone on the list. Others engaged their own MPs in lengthy debates over twitter. It was a genuinely spontaneous and collective moment. It was an intense week of activity. While we were organising the mass emailing and tweeting of MPs, a thousand activist flowers were blooming. One of the most significant was Stuart Wheeler’s change.com petition:  ‘We call on Labour MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn’, which gained over 7,500 signatures – which again was extensively shared on social media and featured in the press. Stuart, from St Blazeys in the South West, was known to us in Red Labour, but again, his petition was a perfect example of someone just getting off their backside and deciding that he was going to give the campaign his all. We weren’t going to bow down to the PLP and their accepted ways of doing things – the “common sense” which said that they knew best who should be on the ballot paper and how the debate should be framed. There was a real sense in which we were determined to have our voice heard, at last. And we did. That’s why, when the mainstream press decided that those nominations were ‘gifted’, it stuck in the craw. And it wasn’t true.

On that Monday lunchtime, on the 15th of June, we live tweeted the final hours of the nominations process. Sitting there, waiting for news from John McDonnell, refreshing the twitter account manically, was agony. I was personally quite confident that we’d done it – but I now realise that was partly wishful thinking: surely all that effort, everyone efforts couldn’t have been in vain? Well, they could quite easily have been. There was some cat and mouse games being played, and as John later revealed, a couple of MPs were waiting outside the lobby, not wanting to be the 35th MP to nominate, until they were virtually dragged in by John. When he quickly announced on his Facebook page that the threshold had been passed, we revealed the incredible news to the social media world instantly. If it had been a football stadium, the place would have erupted, such was the reaction. I sat there and stared at my computer screen and I’m not ashamed to say that I seriously welled up as the enormity of what we had done hit home. The PLP nominations were a massive hurdle – it had been their veto on real, party democracy and we’d beaten it.

The ‘big win’: the leadership election

So here we were. If getting a candidate was part one, and getting the nominations was part two, part three was the big one: how to get a 200-1 shot elected to the leadership of the Labour Party. This time, I took the initiative. I immediately contacted John and asked if I could carry on with the social media campaign role. It didn’t take long to wrap up. I contacted my PhD supervisors who were incredibly helpful – and I was granted a period of interruption in my studies to work on the campaign full-time. The decision to give me licence to develop an independent social media campaign alongside a Jeremy’s personal social media accounts proved to be one of the best decisions of the campaign. I enlisted the help of MarshaJane Thompson, who I knew mainly through the LRC and we quickly assembled a small group of volunteers. Right from the off, this group gave the campaign a massive shot in the arm – and it was constantly vibrant, creative, enthusiastic and absolutely relentless.

I’d argue too, that it was the driver for much of the most positive aspects of the campaign: getting across Jeremy’s central messages of respect and encouraging debate rather than a beauty contest; the popularisation of the policy interventions; pushing fundraising targets and encouraging engagement as volunteers, supporters and attendance at the huge events all over the country. Most importantly, it was able blunt some of the media attacks by relentlessly pushing a positive message and creating alternative sources of ‘news’ for our supporters (in a recent YouGov survey, 57% of Corbyn supporters stated that they saw social media as their main source for news for the campaign, as opposed to 38-41% for other candidates and 32% for the wider population)

I became more of a co-ordinator proper, asking the team to come up with memes, fishing out articles and quotes. In contrast to some of the other leadership campaigns, our social media campaign was completely organic and grassroots. We had assembled a team of activists around the left of the party: people who could design those memes, who understood Jeremy’s politics and who were in touch with the wider movement. There was deliberately no thematic line. It was creative and at times ad hoc, but it connected with people much better than the slick offerings of the other candidates. We had a constant supply of fantastic contributions from Andrew Fisher and the central policy team, and, gradually – a load of good news stories – not from the mainstream press, but from the website team; from those out with Jeremy at hustings all over the country; the enormous rallies that followed; the amazing volunteer operation run by Kat Fletcher and the massively professional phone bank operation co-ordinated by Alex Halligan.

This all fed into the next stage of the election campaign: the CLP nominations. This was being co-ordinated centrally via the ‘ground operations team’, but we used social media to not only raise awareness of the process, but also, crucially, to celebrate the successes. So when a CLP nominated Jeremy, they would get a little ‘thank you’ meme quickly produced by our design team. The response, especially on Twitter, was phenomenal. Throughout, the newly installed regional organisers, 12 strong, were running around, putting in the most incredible shifts to make sure we capitalised on this momentum and secured as many CLP nominations as possible – updating the regional Facebook pages when they could take time to draw breath. When the results started coming through, it was like an earthquake. This was so significant because we had expected to struggle amongst established party members. As those CLP nominations racked up, we realised that we’d underestimated our fellow party members. This was a genuine grassroots revival in the party. Of course, we could all claim we’d seen it coming and via Red Labour we’d always said it was possible, but nevertheless, this was incredible.

Organising ourselves around the phrase that would become emblematic of not just the social media campaign, but the campaign as a whole: #JezWeCan, the social media team – which was split over four cities from London to Durham – worked together in absolute, collective unity, mostly via a single Facebook thread. MarshaJane Thompson, my fellow co-ordinator,  was a fantastic ally throughout – totally reliable, she also managed the online shop which produced the #JezWeCan t-shirts, raised a ton of cash for the campaign and organised the huge Union Chapel fundraiser night in London. She carried the Twitter operation for much of the time, ably helped by James Doran in Darlington. I did most of my work from Durham, and when Marsha became officially part of the media strategy team down in London, the whole thing started really clicking. James did much of the Twitter grind of following accounts (even some which later proved not to be quite what they seemed at first sight). Paul Simpson, my colleague at the People’s Bookshop was one of the constants throughout, who built the presence of the Facebook campaign at the crucial stage before nominations and was relentless in publicising Jeremy’s proud history as an M.P.

Unison’s Andrew Berry was our eyes and ears for stories on the ground. The incredibly talented Leonora Partington gave us the most fantastic, fearless graphics – some of which were shared to millions. At times we were firing this stuff out at a rate of knots, so the help of Ruth Berry and Charley Allan was crucial in rebutting the nasty and cynical attacks from the traditional media. Jason Harris was the campaign’s brilliant photographer and captured both Jeremy and our events superbly, which helped so much when it came to producing the shareable graphics. Yannis Mendez’s videos were just brilliant – they really captured the diverse grassroots authenticity of the campaign and rightly received rapturous feedback. Finally, Jack Bond was the link between the social media team and the central campaign – a real team player who at one point drove through the night from London to deliver Durham Miners Gala leaflets, arriving at 3am. We worked so well together – with genuine respect, creativity and comradeship. Nobody even got upset over my pedantry about commas and colons.

The #JezWeCan social media campaign has been, by a long stretch, the biggest single campaign for an individual politician this country has ever seen. Sure, we had the raw material too. Jeremy was a dream candidate for the social media age: everything he said was clear, accessible and without jargon. Jeremy’s record could speak for itself, but he’d never had such a platform. Our Facebook page gained nearly 70,000 likes in three months, with our top post reaching 750,000 people. On a weekly basis, between 1.5 and 2 million people were seeing our Facebook posts (immediately following the election win, it topped 6 million). In terms of engagement (likes, shares and comments), the average weekly engagement was around the 200k mark, with a peak of 600k in late July, with another peak just after the result of 800,00. 18,000 people signed up to go to our virtual Facebook event ‘I’m voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election’. Our output averaged about 10 posts a day, which over the three months will be close to 1000 posts. On Twitter, we gained 64,000 followers, nearly 250,000 mentions were made of the campaign on Twitter and our top tweet was retweeted 1,800 times. We posted a total of 4,100 tweets (including retweets).  Our most successful Twitter storm saw the campaign mentioned 22,500 times in just two hours, but other Twitter ‘events’ saw our campaign trending at various times throughout the summer. At the last televised hustings in Gateshead, our campaign had 69% of all Twitter mentions, with Cooper and Burnham on 14% and Liz Kendall on 3%. Our top embedded video was Owen Jones’ speech at the Glasgow rally, with 97.1k views and a reach of 291,000. We have also experimented with Instagram, which has a much younger demographic and is focused on sharing images, gaining 1430 followers in a quick time, more than ten times any other candidate.

That’s the campaign in numbers, but it’s about so much more than the numbers – it’s about the democratic possibilities which are opened up by this new medium and this extensive reach. It gives us leverage where previously there was very little – and it has been the generator for the campaign on the ground throughout the summer. The extraordinary attendances at rally meetings were in part generated by the online campaign, which laid the foundations for the huge appetite for Jeremy’s ideas and our policy discussions by making sure that Jeremy was constantly in the public eye, with quotes, selected highlights from articles, ‘unity’ statements, interviews and some superb videos which highlighted the grassroots movement as it was being built. All of this generated its own alternative media – which counteracted much of the negativity and bile being poured out from the mainstream media. More than that, it generated a real sense that this was a movement everyone could be involved in, discuss, interact with, get answers from (we dealt with hundreds if not thousands of individual messages and enquiries to the Facebook and Twitter pages). If people felt like actors in this campaign, rather than ‘consumers’ of it, a large part of that was down to our social media operation.

This is a massive and significant sea change in the way we do our politics. When the over whelming 59.5% vote came through on that historic Saturday at the QE II Conference Centre, we knew that hundreds of thousands were poised to celebrate on Facebook and Twitter. When the first round results were announced, a few audible gasps were heard in the hall, but not from the social media team. We released the #JezWeDid meme – and it was shared to half a million within the hour.

For me, social media now needs to be seen as an integral part of what happens next. Although we rightly have scepticism about the Obama administration, there’s no doubt that as a social media campaign, they are still the model (though we also have a new model now being created by Bernie Sanders’ campaign). What the Obama campaign did was quite radical. They allocated equal resources to their social media operation as they did to their traditional press operation. I think we need to embrace this new, democratic medium and do the same. It’s important to have articles in the Guardian, the Independent, to have positive news coverage wherever possible, but it won’t be enough. If we are serious about winning in 2020, we need to engage in a mass education campaign, making our policy messages accessible and popular. We need to launch the biggest ever social media counter narrative to the storm that is coming our way. We have learnt important lessons over the last three months and we’ve run a great social media campaign, but we’ve only scratched the surface. The social media campaign has been an incredible experience, not just for those involved officially, but for everyone who has made a contribution – small and big. But all of us know that it can be so much better, so much bigger and so much more effective – if we are bold enough to take up the challenge.

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That’s one hell of an “echo chamber”: why I disagree with Owen Jones on social media

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I have the greatest of respect for Owen Jones. Quite honestly, I think he’s made a huge contribution to turning the tide in favour of the sort of ideas that are now being debated all of the country as a consequence of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party leadership: public ownership of the railways; a £10 living wage; putting an end to tax loopholes; stopping the demonization of welfare recipients and investing in decent public services. While these ideas have been around forever, it is through Owen’s columns, speeches and incessant activity that many of them had a foothold already. Not only that, I consider Owen a mate. I’ve known him for nearly 10 years now, as a genuine, thinking activist of the left. Very recently, though, I’m not nodding along as much I have in the past. It’s like buses. You spend five years agreeing with just about everything Owen Jones has said or written, and then you find yourself disagreeing with him three times in a matter of months.

The first time was over Jeremy Corbyn’s candidature. As someone who was involved in the nomination campaign from day one as the social media co-ordinator (I was convinced enough to part with a £5 free bet at 100-1 and that’s all the proof I need!), Owen was one of the voices who poured cold water on the idea that any anti-austerity candidate might be conjured up from the Parliamentary Labour Party, never mind Jeremy Corbyn. Fair enough, Owen was hardly the only one and has recently held his hands up as being a fairly late convert to Corbynmania. Secondly, I disagree with Owen’s idea that we need to “love bomb” UKIP supporters. I’m with Jeremy’s instincts on this one. We will not win over Kippers by bending to their agenda, but by challenging xenophobia – directly, bravely and honestly. I absolutely agree with the idea that it’s about how we do this: sending them to the ideological Gulag isn’t the way – but we have to show that there is a principled, strong and positive alternative to the politics of fear and hate, and that involves engagement and challenge, not love bombing. Thirdly –and it is this which I really want to deal with in this piece – I think Owen is absolutely wrong in his assessment of social media as an “echo chamber” of the left.

I’m slightly confused by Owen’s downbeat assessment of social media as a campaigning instrument. His own social media presence has been a tremendous catalyst for a number of left projects on the ground – as well as his own career as a media commentator. Both have been hugely important in countering Tory ideology. As someone who has been centrally involved in two very successful social media operations – Red Labour and the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign, it’s my opinion that the left would be nowhere without social media. Again, it’s about the “how” rather than the “what”: it’s about how we use social media. Do we use it to put out information, essentially as a website does, or do we use it to genuinely engage with people? Do we use it as a publicity tool or an organising one? If it’s the former, social media has obvious limitations. And that’s the point. Owen talks as if we’ve reached the summit and now it is time to “get real”, when in fact we’ve only scratched the surface. As he says:

“Let’s be honest, though: if social media were as politically invaluable as the left would like, Labour would now be in office with a majority of 150.”

But actually, the Tories won the social media battle in the last election, particularly on Facebook, where their reach was considerably larger than Labour’s. Ok, they might have paid for it, but it’s not true to say that the left has dominated the medium. To be honest, though, I’m less worried about those kind of contests, which are fundamentally about advertising rather than democratic, political engagement – and that’s where I think Owen is really missing the point.

Globally, there are 968 million daily active users of Facebook alone, with around 31 million of them in the UK. Twitter has around 10 million daily users. It is no longer, as it once was, a preserve for the young, or the metropolitan, or the middle class. Social media has been likened to a very large pub, with everyone talking at once – tens of thousands of conversations at once. That’s not a bad analogy. The key to making sense of it, of how to create some movement out of all those disparate voices, is about how it’s organised. That’s always been the issue for the left and our biggest failing. So it’s not about online vs offline, it’s not about packed out meeting halls vs Facebook events, it’s about whether we can rise to the challenge of genuinely harnessing the many weapons at our disposal in a democratic and meaningful way.

Owen says: “We can’t just want retweets and packed halls, after all, but to change the world”, but change starts with getting people in the room first, doesn’t it? The real world packed halls are impressive enough – anything up to 3,000 people came out in all weathers, in all parts of the country and at short notice. But even they are dwarved by the numbers of social media. Our regular weekly ‘reach’ (those who saw the page) during the campaign hovered between 1.5 million and 2 million for three months. Since Corbyn has been elected, those numbers have reached up to 6 million. Those who, on a weekly basis, engaged in the page actively averaged around 200,000, but again rocketed as the election result was announced, to 700,000. On Twitter, there were 250,000 mentions of the campaign during the summer, with reach hovering again at the 2 million mark. These are phenomenal figures – and yet still it’s not the real point. The real power of social media compared to the mainstream media is as an organising tool. To build, we need to value and develop activism on the ground – and the traditional, liberal media just does not have that relationship with the grassroots. It’s always been its function to be somewhat distant, making judgements on these movements, rather than being immersed in them.

So what of the “echo chamber”? Owen says:

“The left, and supporters of Corbyn in particular, are often accused of retreating into a echo chamber. That is an obvious danger for any individual or movement that operates almost exclusively via social media: tweet something sticking it to the Tories, start watching the retweets piling up, and it can seem as though society is cheering you on.”

Except, that 6 million people is a pretty big echo chamber – and even that 700,000 who are actively engaging is considerably bigger than even wildly optimistic assessments of the left previous to the campaign. Also, it isn’t what we have been doing. Anyone who has been paying attention to the official Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader operation will know that almost everything we have put out in over three months of campaigning has been a provocation to debate – outward facing, trying to get people to share and to engage the uninitiated in argument. Because of our experience of other social media campaigns, including Red Labour, we’ve realised that trotting out a line, whether sticking it to the Blues or cheering on the Reds, is unlikely to get much traction. It absolutely has to be interactive: asking people for their views, their comments and ideally their action. It has been about building people’s confidence by showing them that they are not alone. It has been about showing them examples of other activity around the country, and encouraging them to take action locally.

This has spread far beyond the ‘official’ output. What we have seen is a massive flowering of people’s creativity, of people showing solidarity for each other – and reinforcing each other’s determination and strength in very trying circumstances. In turn, by the simple act of sharing, those examples of togetherness and the ideas that go with them have spread to a much wider audience, even to those UKIP voters who Owen talks of. That’s how you build Facebook and Twitter as an organising tool. The principle is the same as in the outside world. You can have as many star-studded, platform-heavy meetings as you want, but if you don’t do the groundwork of listening, engaging and nurturing the activists on the ground, you’ll still be doing the same thing in five, ten years and wondering why nothing solid has been built. So there’s no magic to it.

There’s a top down way to do social media (releasing news to your followers) and a grassroots way to do social media (using it is a forum for an activist-led movement). Used openly and with strategic sense, social media isn’t an echo chamber at all, but the most enormous consultation exercise the Labour Party and the movement around it has ever seen. It’s instant feedback on our ideas, our strategies and the way we do politics. Social media is about creating an alternative source of news and information which cuts out the vested interests of the established media, but it’s also, potentially, so much more than this. When Jeremy talked about the “enormous democratic exercise”, he wasn’t just talking about the act of voting in the leadership ballot, but the whole piece. Are we perfect? Of course not, but does anyone believe that we would have had a selectorate of 550,000 without the influence of social media? Far from being the end of the story, this is just the beginning, because social media offers us the most enormous opportunity to engage people we’d never have had a chance with even 5 years ago – people who have never voted before, those who walked away or have rejected the party for a variety of reasons as well as those who have voted differently, right across the spectrum. Even Kippers. Can’t happen? It already has.

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