A few years ago, former WA Labor leader Eric Ripper gave a speech to Swancon, Perth’s SF convention, explaining how science fiction had informed his politics, by opening him up to new ideas about what’s possible and what’s worth fighting for.
He singled out Ken MacLeod as his favourite author, joking that it’s because he writes of a world where politics means different parts of the left arguing with each other, while the right exists somewhere far away, mostly irrelevant. Ripper’s speech serves as a reminder of the importance of complexity and imagination in politics.
We don’t need to look to science fiction to see that politics and technology are linked. How technology works and what we can do with it inform many of the core assumptions we rely on during election campaigns. I want to focus on two ideas in particular to demonstrate the link between technology and current campaigning techniques.
The first is the idea that voters can be divided into two distinct categories: rusted on supporters, and unengaged swinging voters. Campaigns are primarily about harnessing the power of supporters, and fighting for the attention of swinging voters.
Before broadcast media, town hall meetings were the primary campaign medium. Supporters and opponents would turn up to cheer (or heckle), while undecided voters would turn up to be entertained, and hopefully persuaded.
They were raucous, and they were time-consuming, and campaigners didn’t like how they looked once broadcast TV came along. Campaigns in the TV age are more tightly controlled and more expensive. They are targeted more specifically at swinging voters while generally excluding supporters. Supporters can letterbox, but they can’t participate in television campaigning.
The second idea is that it’s possible to know what swinging voters are thinking, and that we must constantly seek to know. Techniques such as polling and focus groups arose in the broadcast age, when audiences became invisible and unknowable in a new way.
It’s easy to get a sense of who your audience is at the opera or at a town hall meeting, but difficult to know who your audience is when you’re performing for radio or tv. Broadcast media gave us a new sense of what a mass audience could be; then computers gave us new ways to collect, store, and use information about those audiences.
As with many technological advances, the ability to do something inspired new demand for it, creating a context in which continuous campaigning became the norm. The increased collection of data, and increased reporting of it through daily, weekly, monthly published polls, has in part helped campaigns to more precisely target those swinging voters, not just during elections, but every day.
These two aspects of campaigning are so entrenched that they are rarely questioned. They’re why you will generally hear campaigners say that the primary benefit of the internet - social media in particular - is that it allows parties to more easily harness supporters to help reach swinging voters.
Supporters are for cheerleading, or heckling, in order to win the votes of the unengaged. To this end, party members are taught campaigning techniques, while at the same time suggestions for party reform primarily involve new ways of campaigning: primaries, direct elections. We are all campaigners now.
The trend towards teaching all party members how to campaign is empowering and worthwhile. But we sell ourselves short if we only think of digital technology as simply a means to campaign more easily, and more cheaply.
As party members, we should refuse to accept such a limited view of politics. Yes, we must win power before we can exercise it. But as campaigning becomes literally continuous, the party becomes nothing more than a campaigning machine for creating more campaigning.
We are not just campaigners, we are also citizens. The internet provides us with unprecedented opportunities to debate, create, to make connections that were almost impossible in the pre-digital age. It allows us to access information and points of view that were previously inaccessible.
We are justifiably concerned about the increasing use of focus groups to initiate, rather than just sell, policy ideas. We worry that policy decisions are often made with little thought or depth, always with one eye on the polls.
Party members engaging in public debate and having passionate conversations about ideas can be a powerful counterbalance to this problem, and digital technology makes this easier than ever.
As Albo said, we’re here to fight Tories. But when we beat them, it’s our duty to replace them with the best alternative. Whether it’s polls or primaries, they’re just means to a more important end.
Members of the Labor Party don’t just exist to share infographics and retweet slogans. We must engage with people on the left and the right - argue, fight, refine our ideas, and shift the terms of public debate.
We don’t just want to fight Tories, but to maybe one day send them somewhere far away, mostly irrelevant.