Bleak dramas, the new Newsnight and what CEOs can learn from terrorists

Julia Hobsbawm's diary.

Comrade. Colleagues. Conference. I used to spend the early weeks of autumn listening to the three Cs, initially at Labour and then briefly at the Conservatives (somehow I always missed the Lib Dems: although what did I actually miss?). Not any more. Marriage long ago put paid to my bar-propping seaside days. Plus, conferences are for tribes, unless you are a lobbyist or a journalist, and I prefer political polygamy. So, now I follow everything on air and online instead. BBC Radio 5 Live is the best way to hear a party leader’s speech uncluttered by anything but the words. Richard Bacon and John Pienaar always do a pithy analysis against the backdrop boom of diehard applause and anthem-pop cringe.

This year, felled by back-to-school flu, I watched a lot of Labour while lying down. Not a bad thing. Something called “Composite 4” was repeatedly called for from “the floor”. The Tories are a bit better in the jargon department but social media has made everything slightly indecipherable for the uninitiated: do they hashtag #cpc13 in the shires?

You schmooze, you lose

You would think that because I’m a professional who teaches networking for a living, the political season would be unmissable for me. All those receptions. Parties. Late-night drinks. Well, I have a secret to share. Conferences and, indeed, cocktail parties are actually the worst places to network. Too dependent on see-and-be-seen schmoozing and less on what really oils the wheels of good connections: curiosity and conversation. This happens less in big cliquey groups with people hurling business cards at each other and far more in small gatherings.

Publishing philosophy

Publishing is awash with tremendous zeitgeist thinking: Malcolm Gladwell, Jane McGonigal, Noreena Hertz. But when it comes to the philosophy of networking, avoid the cheery how-to books giving you “tips” and focus on the sociologists and scientists, not the salesmen. Charles Kadushin of Brandeis University and Barry Wellman of NetLab at the University of Toronto understand that tomorrow’s world won’t be an old-boy network of tight, self-reinforcing elites but one that is distinctly plural.

In 2007 the political analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing in Foreign Affairs, predicted that supranational governance would hinge not on hierarchies but on lateral networks. Today, terrorists and criminals are ahead of governments and commerce in their understanding of how to transfer knowledge effectively through their groups.

Talking about a revolution

When I took the youngest member of our family away from playing Minecraft on the Xbox to marvel at the Science Museum in London, we learned that early industrial machines of the 1800s were invented by millwrights, “jacks of all trades” who created connections between the workers with skills to build everything from power looms to machine tools. As the Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási puts it, networks are everywhere; you just have to look for them. Social network analysis is less than a century old but the politics and economics of human capital will dominate over the next one.

Central Park and Highgate

After visiting the shop (the Science Museum’s biggest manufacturing output these days is its own-brand inventions) we had a gorgeous walk by the Serpentine, past the new Zaha Hadid-designed gallery. Central Park, eat your heart out. I used to go to New York for a cosmopolitan and cultural energy fix, and specifically for the nail bars and gourmand coffee. No longer. The Vietnamese have perfected fortnight-lasting gel nail techniques all over London and you cannot move now for the New Zealand bean aficionados running artisan workshops about crema depths on espressos.

I will return to Manhattan next month for a memorial for my father, who died a year ago. This week, the Daily Mail took issue with him in a venomous editorial about Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, calling them both “useful idiots” of communism. As an avid Daily Mail reader, I can’t complain too loudly, although it hurts hugely. My father would have shrugged. He was a historian, not a politician.

Disgrace for Damian

He would have admired and enjoyed our friend Simon Schama’s magisterial Story of the Jews on BBC2 all month as well as Peaky Blinders, the 1920s gangster drama produced by the TV genius Caryn Mandabach. Television is having such a good moment.

I like the new Newsnight edited by Ian Katz. It could perhaps be dubbed “Guardian TV”, as it all screams “Very Now” – although have I missed the memo abut Chris Huhne? Is he as “back” as Damian McBride? To me, being discredited politically should be for life, not just for Christmas.

Methed up

Our household also watches masses on Netflix. Most recently we started Breaking Bad. This had two effects. One, we were joined on the sofa for the first time in two years by our teenage son, and two . . . I am waiting to be as wowed as the rest of the world. Give me Nordic Noir angst drama, not crystal meth with bleak jokes. I’ve watched only one episode. I was not, so to speak, hooked.

Appliance of science

Peter Bazalgette was on Newsnight last week declaring Breaking Bad to be superb. He and 60 other luminaries spent a morning at the Wellcome Trust to judge this year’s crop of entries for the annual commentariat prize at our Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. I’m pretty sure the turnout was high because everyone wanted to meet each other. Better than a conference, as more politically eclectic. You could say it’s premium networking.

Julia Hobsbawm runs the networking company Editorial Intelligence and is Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at Cass Business School in London. She tweets at: @juliahobsbawm

Gourmand coffee is now readily available in London. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.