Robin Wilde on winning in a world where digital is standard
Those of us who work in the engine room of politics – in Westminster, in constituency offices, or as officers in our local parties – don’t live glamorous lives. Our day to day work consists of ignored emails about the CLP barbecue, and Facebook appeals to leaflet a huge estate in the rain, behind which lies a quiet battle between exasperated officials and the software they use.
As political parties go, Labour has a relatively strong digital offering for its activists. Its web app for producing, entering and recording voter data, contact creator, has served us well for a decade (although it did only work on Internet Explorer until around 2015).
Tom Watson’s 2016 launch of MyLabour, a digital campaign hub, was more than skin deep, although replacing the aging MembersNet was a priority. With it came a digital team, who have been doing invaluable work making Labour a digital-focused party organisation.
Until this year, most Labour members of parliament had websites which were outsourced to NationBuilder, a piece of campaign software developed in the United States, which acted as a one-stop shop for web pages, blogs, surveys, petitions, event hosting and email blasts. All of this sounds fantastic, until you consider that this emphasis on quantity hit quality hard.
As any long-standing apparatchiks will testify, the email builder was cumbersome and produced layouts which in the limited range of basic to hideous. Its survey options were extremely limited compared to free alternatives like Google Forms and SurveyMonkey, and actions as simple as installing fonts often required technical knowledge beyond the reach of most staffers.
Now, possibly forced by the realities of GDPR, officials and local parties are being offered a new site, hosted by the party as part of the new Labour WordPress network. Those not familiar with the name will almost certainly know it in action – WordPress is used by tens of millions of sites worldwide, available for nothing and almost endlessly customisable.
This move not only acts as a cheap, simple and easy to learn alternative for the party’s representatives, it presents an opportunity for dramatic improvement in potential workflow and users can pick up the basics in minutes, not hours.
The party has made great strides in recent years, but the reality is that compared to other campaigning organisations, political parties still lag far behind in their digital output.
Although our national social media offering has high production values, this level of quality and expertise does not extend far down the chain into the constituency parties. Many don’t have active social media accounts, and those who do are still often more comfortable on the doorstep or distributing leaflets than making waves where people spend much more of their time looking – their social media feeds.
Part of this is down to a lack of practical experience. Those who work for representatives or stand in internal elections are not in it to hone their skills in graphic design or search engine optimisation – their primary interest is politics, and this leads to a tendency for hard working activists to become jacks of all trades – impressive, but inefficient in the division of skills. Because we think the issues we rightly care about are vital to the country’s interests, we can also easily fall into the trap of assuming the public cares just as much as we do, neglecting the importance of communicating effectively about them.
Unlike in the private sector, political organisations do not invest as much in its human capital – but the opportunity cost is so much greater than the comparative small change of proper digital training could provide. Even steps as simple as producing training documents on the effective use of social media, to issue to CLPs and branch officers, would go a long way towards improving our reach and campaign effectiveness. Adobe Spark is a free tool to produce high quality shareable videos, graphics and web pages – there is no reason other than a lack of visibility and central strategy for these tools not to be used.
It’s also time to improve the quality of our printed material. Although the party does provide templates, there is still inconsistency. This might feel like a negligible issue to many hardworking local party activists, but it prevents us from spreading a unified brand message to the electorate.
It is a truth borne out by history that Labour succeeds when it owns the future – we are proud of our history, but it’s only when we look like the party to fulfill people’s hopes for themselves and their family that we can seize the public mood. This is not empty rhetoric. In politics perception is often reality. It is not enough to have the policies of the future – we must look like it and feel like it at every level, this means fully embracing the digital revolution. We have a long way left to go.
Robin Wilde is a freelance graphic designer and communications officer for a Labour MP. He tweets @Robin_CG
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