A few weeks ago at a meeting in London, one of the Labour Party’s best known bloggers literally snorted at me when I said that Labour had much to learn from the Pirate Party. But I’m undeterred by that, and having spent the last week in Germany, I’ve been looking in depth at the Pirate phenomenon, and its effects are interesting – but not in the obvious ways.
The highlight of the week was speaking on a panel at the re-publica conference with Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party in Sweden. Falkvinge at first sight does not exude positive feelings. His slightly hulking frame and features that express an almost permanent frown mask an inner optimism about the Pirate Party and its values that’s optimistic and forward looking. He’s a thoughtful and very engaging person, someone I wish more mainstream politicians would engage with.
Just prior to the re-publica panel I asked him about the internal culture in his party. “We just took our culture into politics” he said, essentially meaning nerd/programmer culture. A simple phrase, but that is the essence of the Pirates and why their movement so fascinating.
How would Labour look if we just took our way of behaving as people, and behaved that way in the party? Because we absolutely do not – we self-censor in order to conform.
The problem of course is hierarchy, and how that applies to how a political party functions internally. The Pirates are, in essence, the first post-hierarchy party which, if you think about it, is an obvious way for a political party to go. In the same way as social networks have helped to flatten hierarchies in news reporting or journalism, why not apply the same principles to a political party? Indeed the two overlap – as a new political movement denied traditional press coverage, blogs and social networks are the way to overcome the lack of coverage.
The advantage of German politics is that the proportional election system allows a party like the Pirates to break through, in the same way as the Greens did three decades ago. The UK election system, at national level at least, prevents this, and so the problem is masked – declining election turnout, and declining trust in representative democracy instead. The old systems, and the people chosen within those systems, may be presiding over a declining base of support, but it still functions more or less in the UK context. Change is not really what Ed Miliband is advocating in his statement today; instead he is calling for just a slightly better version of the status quo.
The Pirates, as I see it, are most important just now as an embodiment of the non-hierarchical networked age and how that applies to politics. They take the internet’s capability of allowing anyone to be consulted on anything and place that at the heart of their approach. This is much more important than the actual policies (in the traditional sense) that they advocate, important though those are. The party makes the very way of doing politics its core appeal. From that we all have a lot to learn.