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Q&A

How renegade political operators adopted startup culture

The tools and methodology used to challenge incumbent businesses have appeared in the world of politics. Sam Tarry (Momentum) and Paul Hilder (Crowdpac) untangle what’s been going on.

14 Apr 2017

Courier: When people talk about disruption in politics, what do they mean? 

Sam Tarry: It comes in ebbs and flows. Maybe 10 years ago disruption was considered people voting for a shock party like the BNP. Last summer it was Brexit and the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn.

The interesting thing is it’s getting easier to disrupt at scale, with more people.

Is there something structural going on, or is it a more fuzzy idea about finding ‘authentic leaders’?

Paul Hilder: I think it’s due to the intersection of several factors. One is the gradual decay, collapse and complacency of the established status quo – a political professional class who weren’t being challenged – combined with a revolution in communications. The internet, social media, mobile phones and platforms make it possible to organise [movements] more rapidly and effectively than ever. Finally, there have been really entrepreneurial movements, candidates and campaigns that have seen these gaps and presented real opportunities for change to the electorate.

ST: Two events stood out for me over the last few years. One is the situation in Iceland; the pirate party, following the economic crash, very nearly took government. Then the Scottish independence referendum that spawned not only the destruction of the Scottish Labour Party, but the birth of a pro-independence movement in Scotland. For both, there was a hard point after which something disruptive could emerge.

In the business world, disruptors often find and exploit inefficiencies. Where are the inefficiencies in politics?

PH: There are three things you need to be successful in politics. One is permission. Like, how do I get to be a candidate? Votes are another, and money is a third. Money is one way you get to the point of being a credible, serious campaign. Historically, money came from a relatively small number of sources; the unions for the Labour Party, hedge funds for the Tories. It creates a disconnect between the politicians and the people they claim to represent.

An approach like crowdfunding can disrupt the power of the old gatekeepers and give it back to citizens. It was big in the campaigns of Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Trump raised more money as a percentage of his campaign from small donors than Obama did in 2008.

Are unions and hedge funds worried about losing influence because of crowdfunding?

ST: Absolutely. In Corbyn’s campaign, tens of thousands were coming in per week, meaning he wasn’t beholden to anyone. I think we’ll probably start to see outsiders punching through more regularly.

The difficulty though, is it’s not just about money. It’s about staffing and expertise, too. One of the things we often offer at the trade union I work with is to run a campaign. So instead of a cheque, I’ll get donated as a campaigns expert. That isn’t something that can be directly replicated by crowdfunding.

In terms of ‘permission’ and who gets to be a candidate, that feels pretty locked up.

PH: Most front line politicians of the last 20 years are people who were trained and developed as professional politicians. Those people slide out of touch quite fast.

Politics for too many people feels like a miserable version of an extreme sport where you have to go into a whole bunch of long, boring meetings with people that you don’t like. So people engage, have a look at it, then think it’s not for them. It’s like a system of antibodies, keeping people out and preventing renewal.

People from different walks of life should be able to flow in and out of politics. With Crowdpac, we have a tool that enables you to nominate anybody for any role in the country, from a local school board to leader of the Conservative Party.

ST: The thing is trying to work out how to encourage that to happen so parliament is more representative. We’re not good enough at doing that. Like Paul says, a lot of people think it’s alien and, frankly, a lot of the people involved are oddballs.

What about votes? There’s something anachronistic about getting a piece of paper and crossing it with a pencil.

ST: Both here and in the US we’ve got systems that are hundreds of years old and throw up results that don’t reflect the will of the people. If you’re able to force change on that you can certainly get better satisfaction levels from voters.

PH: I’m still sceptical about electronic voting because it looks to me too easy to hack. There’s something traceable about pencil and paper.

It’s less about process and more about the fact you actually need to connect with people. One of the very interesting contrasts between the Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns, and also the Brexit and the Stronger In campaigns, was that in both cases the winners paid much more attention to the feedback they were getting.

To what extent was the media deployed to the success of these campaigns? 

ST: Bizarrely, on Corbyn’s campaign, the more we were attacked in the ‘old media’ the better it was. The more people joined and donations went up.

That’s not to say old media is irrelevant. Clearly, if we hadn’t had 20 years of tabloids pushing certain messages around immigration and the EU, would the referendum have played out the way it did?

PH: It’s the same as with Sanders, who was written off by the establishment, but his supporters connected horizontally through social media, technology, and face-to-face. They organised a remarkable campaign that very nearly beat the Clinton machine.

Lots of politicians must be having this same conversation around communication.

PH: There’s a trend for moving away from directed movements towards self-organised movements. With Sanders, there was a central plan, but there was also a huge amount of people organising their own local events; a very lovely web coming together. One of the things we’re trying to do with Crowdpac is use big data to inform and empower citizens.

ST: Over the summer we developed an app specifically for the Corbyn campaign, made hundreds of thousands of phone calls to other Labour Party members and people eligible to vote. It got to the point where, in all honesty, we weren’t in control of all the events and campaigning that was happening; they were mushrooming all over the country.

Is there a risk politics becomes obsessed with data and tracking?

PH: You can’t ignore data and tech because it’s a reality of the landscape now, and it enables huge empowerment if it’s used in the right way.

ST: One thing I’ve seen with the young organisers we worked with over the summer is they’re very good at using social media and having an impact, but have no clue about going into a community and talking to someone on their doorstep. Conversely, all the Labour Party does is knock on someone’s door, ask how they’re voting and that’s the long and short of it. You need to find the sweet spot.

What about the parties, and specifically Labour, right now? The relationship between the MPs, the members and the voters seems dysfunctional. From a disruption point of view, it seems ripe for someone to rip it up and start afresh. 

ST: If you were setting up a vehicle to empower people on a collective basis, you would not come up with the institution of the Labour Party in its current format. That’s a huge obstacle.

PH: One of the problems with the way democracy works in this country is that in a whole bunch of seats it isn’t much of a competition. Stick a red or blue rosette on somebody and they’ll win. That lack of real competition has created enormous laziness. I believe it’s entirely possible the Labour Party as we know it will not exist in five years’ time.

What’s happening abroad that you’d like to see over here? 

PH: The Bernie Sanders movement, distinct from Sanders as a candidate, was just transformational. The most exciting thing is it’s not dead; the people who did that are now leading the resistance to Trump.

The key learnings from that movement are: one, don’t be shy of setting big transformational goals. Two, trust people, empower them, believe in their ability to do huge things. And three, connect the dots between the technology and the human face-to-face stuff. If you do those three things, you’d be potentially unstoppable.

ST: In Ecuador, there’s a generation of government ministers saying they’re going to transform the economy from one heavily dependent on fossil fuels to one reliant on green technology. It’s as if the Sanders and the Corbyn people are running the country in a progressive and dynamic way.

PH: The movement behind Emmanuel Macron in France has borrowed some of the Sanders tactics. People are learning and connecting. Maybe we’ll get some better options now.

This is a condensed and edited version of a conversation that took place on 3 February 2017.

This story is taken from Courier Apr/Mar 2017.