Did an app get Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour leader?

The remarkable story of one man - and the invention that changed Labour forever. 

NS

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The campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party was won in part thanks to the staggering number of volunteers he and his team energised. What held the campaign back was that the Corbyn campaign, unlike his rivals’, lacked infrastructure.

In Birmingham, I oversaw a small team phone banking in Unite offices during the few hours between secretaries going home and the cleaners locking up; there were phones and call-sheets, but also the worry that whoever answered had already been contacted by someone else in another office, wasting everyone’s time. It was not well organised.

That was until Ben Soffa developed the Canvassing App, a website that allowed volunteers to set up a phone bank anywhere with an internet connection, so long as they were signed up to the Corbyn campaign. It contained the details of every Labour Party member in the country, with one person at a time’s name, constituency and phone number appearing on the screen, along with simple instructions for volunteers: what to ask and how to record the person’s views. Once the data was input and fed back to the central system, the volunteer’s screen would refresh with a new person’s details, and the canvasser unable to go back and contact the last person again, protecting their privacy.

Corbyn supporters are often portrayed as entryists sneaking into the Labour Party in the 11th hour to rig the election, but Soffa joined in 2003, back when Tony Blair was halfway between his second and third election victories. I doubt that Soffa joined because of Blair; he was in the anti-war campaign. He tells me that he joined Labour, in part, due to seeing it as, “a political vehicle that can create change in parliament.” This is someone who has campaigned for Labour at every election for over a decade, during which time there have been five different leaders, if you count Harriet Harman. In 2015, his partner, Cat Smith, was elected as MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood. It’s safe to say Soffa is committed to the Labour Party, whoever is leading it.

He currently works as Communication Manager for the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. Amongst other volunteer work, he’s Secretary of the Palestine Solidary Campaign. So perhaps it’s predictable that he supported Corbyn when it came time to vote for a new leader.

But what was surprising to Soffa was that Corbyn ran at all. For over a decade he has worked with Corbyn at various events: from constituency work to issue-led campaigning, and clearly Corbyn commands Soffa’s respect, but Soffa strikes me as a pragmatist, supporting Labour as a, “broad church,” and as a result didn’t anticipate anyone from the party’s left being guaranteed a place on the ballot, partially because potential left-wing candidates kept ruling themselves out.

At one point he considered backing one of the other candidates, if no one who shared the majority of his views emerged. Interestingly, as Soffa also works as a web designer, he was approached by the Cooper campaign to set their website up.

These skills proved invaluable when he got a text saying Jeremy was going to run, as he had the foresight to secure all the domain names before anyone else could. But even at that point Soffa says he would have, “laughed out of the room anyone who suggested there was any realistic prospect of Jeremy winning.”

But Soffa was involved, “from day one,” when the feeling was that it would be a short campaign, focused entirely on getting Corbyn on the ballot paper. What he and his team wanted was, “to give the membership a choice.” It looked hopeless at times, but even if Corbyn failed to get on the ballot, his running would force the others to consider his point of view, if only to sweep up the Corbyn’s leftover supporters.

Corbyn did get on the ballot, just, and Soffa recognised it would be a tough campaign, but nonetheless felt Corbyn’s team had a clear advantage.

“One of the differences from some of the people involved in Jeremy’s campaign,” Soffa tells me, “is people are used to doing these sorts of campaigns on a shoestring … maybe the other campaigns didn’t have that kind of experience.” He certainly didn’t see the lack of resources as hugely problematic, and even jokes that my experience in the summer was, if anything, enviable, because at least I was indoors: sheltered from the wind and rain and not in some draughty church hall.

I told Soffa that, in my view, his app created a digital infrastructure that facilitated the canvassing process to be as effective as possible. It put an end to duplicate calls; it eliminated the delay between gaining information and the data being centralised; most importantly, it enabled new volunteers, showing up at borrowed spaces like mine, to become part of a campaign with little to no previous experience, hoping that they might just help to push Corbyn over the victory line.

Soffa however, saw nationwide data every week; he was well aware of Corbyn’s overwhelming support amongst registered supporters, and as a result knew to direct efforts to canvassing the full members, something that clearly worked for Corbyn.

As for the future: the numerous elections in May 2016, Soffa will continue to do anything he can for the party. He says the massive nationwide membership increase could be utilised through an app that allows for volunteers all over the country to canvass specific target seats, rather than a safe seat they might happen to live in, something no other party can do, due to their smaller memberships.

In my view, the Canvassing App was the turning point in the grassroots effort to elect Corbyn, empowering volunteers to cut through endless media spin as soon as it emerged. I wonder if the Labour Party understands its potential to do the same now Corbyn is leader.