How institutions like Progress can make the centre left relevant again

Thomas Mauchline
Aug 20, 2018 · 9 min read

Why bother?

The centre left has had a difficult few years. Decimated across Europe and marginalised within the Labour party in the UK. It’s traditional operating model has found it hard to breakthrough in an era of anti-politics and mass mobilisation. More broadly it feels our part of the Labour movement is out of ideas.

Some feel that a new party is the answer - but a perfect storm of lack of finance, no set piece elections like President to build momentum, FPTP and loyalty to the Labour brand makes this a non-starter. (Also personally I wouldn't want to but yeah worth saying why it wont work as well as some people keep boring on about it)

For me the answer lies in institutions like Progress. Politics may be driven by personality and ego but institutions help make it effective. The lack of an institutional infrastructure has meant the many small victories and policies that could have built a vibrant movement have dissipated.

The centre left has tried to win with top down MP led campaigns, by finding loopholes and lawyering processes — all have failed. It is now time to think longer than the next news cycle and build the institutions that can have a real impact on the Labour party and importantly the country.

Challenges centre left organisations face

There are currently five main challenges faced by organisations like Progress:

1. Lack of relevance both in the Labour party and the country. The centre left feels like a Star Trek convention where people too young to remember why the original series was popular at the time cosplay in campy caricatures of Balirism and Brownism. In a world of anti-politics, stagnant wages and shrinking budgets, Progress and the centre left seems out of step with the current mood.

2. Unable to scale their expertise. Matt Faulding and Stephanie Lloyd (former and current Deputy Directors) are some of the best organisers in our movement, and they have had some great victories in the past couple of years. However they lack the infrastructure to scale their campaigning knowledge that would make national change possible.

3. Diminished brand. Progress (like many centre left organisations) have great name recognition but many within our movement are sceptical of its impact or worse down right hostile to its existence.

4. Brexit has pulled the focus of activists and donors — meaning there are very few people creating the ideas and organisations to help the left win on issues other than Brexit or plan for what happens after Brexit.

5. There is just so much to do. The centre left is intellectually and organisationally nowhere. This has led to mission creep with well meaning organisations scrabbling around trying to do everything, rather than concentrating on specific areas they can have a positive impact.

So what should Progress’ strategy be?

The objective of an organisation like Progress — be that Momentum or Fabians — is simple:

1. Have a positive impact on the direction of the Labour party

2. Make it easy for anybody to get involved in all levels of the Labour movement

But that is easier said than done. There will be no silver bullet for the challenges they face.

Progress’ strategy needs to be to get people to look again at Progress by (1) building a useful platform to make it easy for people to get involved in Labour politics and (2) saying interesting things about the future of the Labour movement.

What should Progress stand for?

Right now it is almost impossible to say clearly what Progress stands for. You could probably work it out on specific issues by looking at the personalities who support an idea but currently it seems relatively ad-hoc.

To cut through in a contested political environment they need a clear point of view — a prism to see the world through. To be effective that prism needs to:

1. Link with the history of the Labour movement

2. Be future looking and broad enough to remain interesting over a number of years

3. Fit with the current political mood of anti politics and mistrust in institutions

For me this means Progress should stand for “giving working people more power in their day to day lives”

This links with the Labour founding mission of giving working people a voice in politics whilst also hinting to Progress’ more individualist history, it also puts the public in the driving seat not institutions and especially not politicians — which should help it chime with the public mood.

On a day to day level what does this mean as a policy platform? I have no idea and it doesn’t matter. We are the opposition wing of the opposition party. We have the time and space to think up solutions. We don’t need a thirty point plan for government. It’s just a direction of travel.

If something gives working people more power it’s probably good if it gives them less it will likely be bad. Sometimes the mechanism for giving that power will be government in other places it may be trade unions or civil society and in others it will be business. Progress is lucky in that it has in Editor Conor Pope one of the great writers/thinkers on the left at the moment who can flesh out the detail with help from contributors in the coming months/years. For me they should start with something counter intuitive for Progress to help get peoples attention like radical thinking to increase trade union density in the private sector or a big intervention in the housing market.

In the long run this viewpoint could also flow through to the visual brand — which is at the moment polite and relatively corporate. By simplifying the Progress’ look and feel — taking visual cues from activist movements and historic leftist movements Progress could get people to look again at what they are saying. Also in the modern media landscape where people come to a site or article via social links rather than bookmarking the homepage a memorable brand is useful for building a relationship with readers/supporters.

Tactics to put Progress back at the centre of the Labour movement

This is a difficult time for the centre left, to be relevant we need to be bold. Progress should make a number of additions to their online presence, it’s editorial offer and the work it does offline.

Everything outlined below will either be useful to people in the Labour party or help support interesting editorial. If it is not supporting the strategy or if someone else is doing it already Progress should not do it — it is a waste of time and resource.

They are set out as products for two reasons; first to help with project management and second as products are a great way of encouraging fundraising (donors — either HNW or crowdfunding — like to point and say my money brought that thing).

Additions to the online platform

  • User generated petition hub added to the site using the Control Shift Labs product. This would allow anyone within the Labour movement to set up a petition on their own and start a campaign. This not only gets people proactively campaigning in their community but also grows Progress’ data base, gives them a connection to the grassroots, will drive donations, can be linked into editorial easily (imagine an article on tory cuts with a petition at the bottom) and will help reveal great campaigners to build relationships with around the country.
  • Crowd funder tool to make it easy for campaigners and candidates to set up online fundraising pages. There are some tools online that allow people to fundraise but they don’t have the campaign knowhow of Progress which can boost the amount raised and don’t always offer the correct access to data to report properly to the electoral commission. Not only would this tool put Progress at the heart of campaigns within the Labour movement they could also use the tip method (where donors are asked to tip the platform after their original donation) to drive revenue. Whilst a full bells and whistles version of this would be very resource intensive a simple but secure MVP could be put together relatively quickly.
  • Automated email training courses on everything from “How to set up a Labour club in your uni in 4 weeks” to “How to run to be a Labour councillor” or the “New member challenge: Grow the Labour party in 5 weeks” These would split all the ways you can get involved in the Labour party into a series of steps which would be emailed to you over a period of time. What is great about these is that they can be automated and they aren’t time sensitive so they continue to be a useful resource to the movement and grow Progress’ email list. Progress could encourage people around the movement to tweet along with them. I have done something similar with a religious campaigns group and they worked a treat and Vox did them as well.

Editorial

  • Daily action email which summarises the days events and gives people a single action to get involved. The daily round up email is fine and it will drive traffic but the email newsletter space is crowded and Progress’ is currently not shaping the debate. Making it focused on action gives the Progress email a purpose, helps shape the agenda and gets their members into a more active relationship with the organisation. The single action could be everything from tweeting at a minister, to donating to a campaign or signing a petition. You could even run partnership campaigns with organisations (it would be great to get members tweeting in support of strike action for example to really pile pressure on rogue businesses).
  • Reduce the number of magazines a year and theme each issue around a societal problem to cut costs and increase quality. The quality of the magazine has skyrocketed since Conor has taken the rains. Theming issues has given them direction and could be built on by looking to find solutions to a problem that faces society. With the right mix of contributors, policy ideas, data and punchy opinions they could really help shape the media and political debate. It will also make it easier to sell adverts — opening up opportunities with people who may not be interested in politics in the abstract but are interested in their niche area. They could also be used as the bases for op-eds etc in traditional media outlets.
  • Build a social advertising war chest using some of the money saved by reducing the number of magazines. Progress could use it to drive traffic, email sign-ups and votes for Labour in elections etc. Having a war chest allows it to be quickly deployed at important times or when content is working organically.
  • Build a Facebook messenger chatbot to drive people to articles and encourage them to take action at key moments. ChatFuel makes it easy and cheap to build a bot which can suggest articles on a users interest or allow people to opt in for broadcast messages at big campaign moments. This will not only drive engagement but could also drive income through donations and new members.

Offline activity

  • Young Labour/Labour Students/Campaign Day/etc in a box to make it easy for people to be proactive where they live. The box would give people everything they need to set up events plus some fun Progress branded merch. This is a great way to scale the Progress’ teams knowledge across the country and builds a relationship with activists in our movement. It has worked brilliantly for GiffGaff.
  • Monthly informal meeting in Westminster where Progress brings three or four people doing things that are working from around our movement to present what they have learnt. The meeting would be pitched to MPs, staffers and policy wonks but would be open to anyone (digital collateral could accompany it to make it truly open). This helps share knowledge around our movement, breaks Westminster types out of the bubble (whilst not actually having to leave) and helps Progress build relationships with people making positive change around the UK. This works well for the Republican party in the US although Progress’ version would be less grubby.

All of this is easier said than done. This post is meant to be helpful — some of the stuff will work and some of the stuff might not. Progress and organisations like it are needed to make positive change. But they can only do that if they are bold — building useful tools for the Labour movement or saying interesting things to cut through in a contested campaign landscape.

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Thomas Mauchline

Written by

Builds digital campaigns around people and data, suburban progressive, vest aficionado, Wilde, Lauper and Russell T. Davies fan.