Inventing the Future

In this article, James Gill considers the possibility of conducting labour movement democracy online. James is a member of Unite, Labour and Momentum, and serves on the Central Council of the Socialist Health Association.

How do you combine the views of thousands of people? Momentum is trying to figure out its answer to this question in time for its conference in February – should the process be face-to-face, or online? Should it involve delegates, or all-member voting?

The traditional labour movement answer goes like this: form local groups, have meetings, write motions, and elect delegates. Send the delegates and the motions to a conference. The delegates make speeches and vote on the motions, and that’s your party line. Labour decision-making looks much the same in 2016 as it did in 1966 or 1916 – slow, opaque and boring, and only accessible to those with time and money to devote to the process.

But we aren’t the only people who have ever tried to solve this problem. Over the last twenty years, the cutting edge in consensus-building systems has been online, on websites like Wikipedia, Stack Exchange and Quora. Thousands of hours of engineering, design, and user experience expertise has gone into tailoring these systems for high-quality output. The labour movement has lessons to learn from the most successful examples.

It’s impossible to talk about online collaboration without mentioning Wikipedia – hero of many last-minute essay crises. Anyone with an internet connection can sign up to Wikipedia and start to edit a page. The vast majority of edits to Wikipedia are entirely uncontroversial, you can view the most recent changes here (click “diff” to see what changed). However, arguments do arise, especially on pages like Scientology, homeopathy, and cold fusion. So over the fifteen years the site has operated, the community has developed a sophisticated set of norms to resolve disagreements.

These rules are laid out in a network of guidelines and essays (a good place to start is Wikipedia:Five Pillars). These determine which subjects are worth an article; lay out standards for sourcing of facts; and determine procedures for resolving disputes. They also lay out expected behaviours, often in the form of a slogan: “Assume Good Faith”, and “Be Bold” – both good pieces of advice for everyone in the labour movement.

Adherence is policed by users with additional powers, called administrators, elected by the community (see WP:RFA for details). But what makes it all work is that the “anyone can edit” rule applies the the policies, just as much as to the rest of the site. This self-determination by the community is a very modern example of democracy.

So what are the lessons? There was no guarantee Wikipedia would work – similar sites like Everything2 and Citizendium were less successful. But the careful design of the software, the hard work given to the development of co-produced community norms, the trust placed in anonymous users, and the breathtaking ambition of the project make it a success.

As successful as Wikipedia is, successful wikis edited only by the members of organisations seem to be rare. Fortunately, there is a closely-related format that does seem to work in smaller-scale, more focussed applications: the format used by Stack Exchange.

Stack Exchange began as a question and answer site for computer programmers, but the format has rapidly evolved and is now used for dozens of topics. It is a particularly good fit for organisations because it typically produces very high-quality, focussed, accurate and complete results. Several companies now sell similar tools to companies for internal crowdsourcing, e.g. Clever Together.

It is easy to imagine how a labour organisation could use a platform like this to form policy and make decisions. Voting, on a one-member-one-vote basis is integral to the system, and it also includes opportunities to comment, network, and edit collaboratively, wiki-style.

Running a process like this is risky and expensive. It’s unreasonable to expect Momentum to take this approach in its first year, but the direction of travel, with an online vote of the whole membership, is promising. Online scales better than a physical conference; makes the most of members’ expertise; is very difficult for any small group to control; and removes participation barriers such as travel costs.

It would be a powerful statement about the way we listen, our attitude to technology and our optimism for the future. Momentum should show the way, not get bogged down in processes invented before the television, microwave, or fridge, so that Labour can follow safely in the years to come.

James Gill
James Gill


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