A post on the Fabian website tonight reminds me of something I wrote a while ago – and a thought and idea I’ve been harbouring for far longer than that. First, the Fabian post, one of whose paragraphs runs tellingly as follows:
Recent Labour party membership data gave “To learn more about politics” as one of the top five reasons people gave for joining the Labour party. Yet none of the practices the party have seem designed to meet this need. From the perspective of the party, both locally and nationally, new members spring forth into the membership list as fully-formed political animals, with a Guardian subscription and Newsnight series linked on Sky Plus. They are also, rather helpfully, leafleting automatons, ready to distribute 2,000 dog-eared tabloids to their neighbours.
The author of the article concludes, quite rightly, thus:
There are just shy of 200,000 people in the Labour party and each of them has the ability to be more than Leafletron 5000. If we can communicate and educate about the big, motivating political ideas of the day we can make our members interpreters and advocates in every community for what the Labour party is trying to do.
This isn’t about harking back to the past. I think the era of charismatic, socialist didacts haranguing painters and decorators in Hastings about the evils of capitalism is probably over. But that doesn’t mean the Labour party should abandon its historic mission of education. A politically educated and motivated membership is not only a huge campaigning asset, it is vital if we’re to live up to our ambition to be the people’s party.
So then. The clarion call is “Education! Education! Education!” – and I wonder where we’ve heard that before.
Essentially, having stumbled across the technologies and approach of the music website Last.fm in 2007, I began to turn around in my head the idea of using the same technologies to replicate a two-weekend Labour Party seminar on socialist thought – a seminar I had attended a couple of years before in the city of Salford and under the auspices of Hazel Blears. Conceptually, it was certainly an excellent introduction to political ideas – especially as I had recently returned to England after having spent most of the previous sixteen years disconnected from the British body politic.
As the Political Innovation article suggested, a Last.fm of thought would work in this way:
Last.fm allows us to passively recommend music to people we have never met, and the site also calculates what suggestions will be met favourably. But the interesting possibility Last.fm offers to consumers of written content is that it moves listeners, little by little, from the known to the moderately unknown, using a series of automatic and manual tools – thus expanding the users’ knowledge of their chosen area of content. Imagine if every newspaper article or blog-post that we read contributed to a similar system that sought to find new interesting material that was able to fill our knowledge gaps?
Last.fm creates a kind of musical inkblot which broadens in an entertaining and educational way and creates objectively better and more intelligent listeners. What’s more, by being able to “ban” or “love” content that users listen to, interactivity with future recommendations is maximum – as is the ability to influence and mould such recommendations.
Let us now apply the above to political blogging and commenting. If we could do for articles what we Last.FM does for tunes, we could potentially have a tool that promoted self-learning. We’d be creating a self-educating website of political DNA, the like of which we have never experienced before. Except, that is, to date, in the field of music.
In times of difficult economics in the field of political endeavour, education often gets left behind – or simply ignored. But imagine if we were far-sighted enough to develop an online academy of political thought which could do some or all of what the Fabian article suggests most people who join the Labour Party these days are actually looking for.
It’d be a quite remarkable step forward in implementing that famous trio of “education, agitation and organisation”. And it would certainly help to stem accusations that leafleting fodder was the necessary destination of anyone who decided to join the Labour Party for something as supposedly irrelevant as a political education.