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Labour shenanigans and metric power

David Beer opens Metric Power by recalling that, in the mid‑1990s, he ‘worked in a panopticon of sorts’, a call centre; Foucault ‘would have had a field day’ observing what must now seem quite primitive methods of surveillance as employers started using workplace networks to track what employees were doing.[1] Well, one imagines Foucault would also have taken more than a passing interest in recent stories about the leaked Labour Party report, The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019 (hereafter LPGLU, first covered in the news media here). For this report is a fascinating case study of an organisation becoming more effectively neoliberal, more securely bound by the logics of metric power: what we might now call ‘new’ Labour here has discovered the virtues of number-crunching to distance itself from what we might call ‘old’ Labour. LPGLU constructs this version of old Labour as an organisation where those disgruntled Blairites who make up the bureaucracy can safely subvert the party’s aim to elect a Labour government because no one is tracking their behaviour. On TyskySour (here) Aaron Bastani suggested that revelations concerning secret WhatsApp conversations, far and away the most interesting part of the story at that point, must have been downloaded to one of the participants’ work email account, an observation echoed subsequently by Shehab Khan for ITV (here). So – if we do know what happened, it’s because someone transferred data from a medium that allows actors to evade employer scrutiny (WhatsApp) to one that gives ownership to the employer (email). The workplace has come a long way since the 1990s.

There are two aspects to be discussed here: firstly, the management (and self‑management) of workplace performance and, secondly, the trusting faith placed in metrics to measuring something supposedly worth measuring. Unfortunately, Labour is no closer to a strategy for dealing with the propaganda offensive that has sought to discredit it as an electoral force.

Guerrilla warfare in the workplace

Thinking about the management of workplace performance in the WhatsApp age first brought me to this example of the kind of legal advice solicitors might give to employers, not least problems arising from the private nature of WhatsApp communications: can employers intervene to moderate or even prevent the use of this technology? Clearly there’s a tension between employees hoping to evade surveillance and the employers looking to exert workplace control, as also discussed in a somewhat prescient Financial Times story from 2017 (here). According to LPGLU, Labour’s WhatsAppers, at the time of the June 2017 election, thought they could evade scrutiny; a few months later, in October, the Financial Times was pointing out that workplace cultures should take on board the dangers of technology that, promising privacy, might encourage ‘gossiping and bitching’ or even ‘bullying’.

Understandably, revelations of anti-Corbyn factionalism drew a lot of attention.[2] Also of interest is the way this story has exposed good, old-fashioned workplace resistance as an example of what, borrowing from the sociology of education, might be called guerrilla warfare, doing what you can get away with, doing it because you can get away with it. Notwithstanding the puerile humour on display, if LPGLU is anything to go by, Labour HQ’s anti-Corbyn brigade cannot pretend they were naughty schoolkids subverting classroom authority, but their group identity was based on doing what they did in order to get away with it. An Independent story (here) includes, as an example of anti-Corbyn factionalism, ‘hostile staff creat[ing] a chat so they could pretend to work while actually speaking to each other, with one participant stating that “tap tap tapping away will make us look v busy”’. Well yes – you do it, and then you record what you have done for someone else to read later. A message relayed in a helpful episode of Panorama, Is Labour Anti-Semitic? (July 2019), is that they were ‘trying to do the job properly’ but were handicapped by the leader’s office.

Media reports of factionalism and a canteen culture among party bureaucrats that can only be described as unsavoury, even evidence that officials attempted to sabotage Labour’s 2017 general election campaign – there is little here that should come as a surprise to anyone following Labour politics since 2015; but the content reported is, at times shocking. One might compare the Independent story already mentioned with one in The Guardian (here); the former is rather more sensitive in redacting names, while the latter, having noted Len McClusky’s call for a redacted version of the report to be published, goes on, a few lines down, to share with its readers quotations about people who are, indeed, named. In the quotation above from the Independent story, note the reference to ‘one participant’: even the accused should remain anonymous.

But we’re so much better now – and we have the numbers to prove it

It is unfortunate that LPGLU has come into the public domain in the way it has. Nonetheless, it is the way new Labour has focused on the measurement of difference that might continue to make it vulnerable to attack, even when it boasts of improvement. A gleeful Guardian attack on the Labour leadership (here), ahead of the Panorama broadcast in July, ends with a spokesperson saying: ‘Our records show that after these officials left and after Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which antisemitism cases have been dealt with, increased fourfold.’ This programme now functions as an introduction to LPGLU, and there is nothing in the leaked report that does not corroborate the party’s earlier statement regarding performance. Labour wants to be able to say the GLU has upped its game; criticisms you might have made a year or two years ago are no longer valid because we are now working so much harder, so much more effectively. However, implicit in this defence, is the assumption that there has always been a serious problem, defined in quantitative terms, to be addressed; and yes, Labour is institutionally racist, only now starting to put its house in order. Ignored is the possibility that, considering the size of the party membership, there has been an increase in cases and expulsions from one small number to another slightly less-small number, and what we have witnessed is, as demonstrated many times, a propaganda offensive based on the weaponisation of antisemitism.[3]

What Beer calls ‘the data imaginary’ is those processes exposing what has been hidden: perhaps, depending on your point of view, evidence of antisemitism within Labour’s membership or evidence of GLU performance.[4] This is the way the neoliberal organisation works, all is reduced to the kind of data analysis that claims omniscience. In LPGLU the language of data analytics has been adopted to imply modernity and rigor. One might just as easily argue that what should be visible, anything but hidden, has been obscured. It is difficult to see how new Labour expects to benefit in the immediate future.

Back to metric power

The validity of statistics is easily challenged: do they measure what they set out to measure? What is measured is either the number of members punished for antisemitism, or the party’s increased efforts from April 2018 onwards, not necessarily the same thing. Understandably, Labour wishes to be able to show it is doing something, it is conforming to expectations; that is, not just acting but being seen to act. However, that strategy means accepting as given the scale of the problem to be addressed; and the impression of a party ‘taken over’ by antisemitism, after all, has been reinforced by media story after media story.

Beer makes the point that what is measured (for example the performance of Labour’s GLU before and after Formby replaced McNicol) is only part of the story, metric power ‘is also reliant on certain pathways of circulation and how these metrics become part of everyday and organisational lives’.[5] For example, Labour’s erstwhile not-schoolboys, their attempt at guerrilla warfare rumbled, have discovered they are now data, that is, evidence. That first Sky report quotes Iain McNicol hoping to mock the idea of someone ‘trawling 10,000 emails’, to which the simplest response is – why wouldn’t they? The party is being investigated by the EHRC, and any serious investigation is going to laugh at the idea that individuals can opt out, decide what to share and what not to share. An email you cannot remember sending has now become part of the you being scrutinised.[6] The logic of McNicol’s criticism, however, lies in the juxtaposition of the number (big!) and the items studied (emails are trivial), a value judgement; not so long ago Labour HQ was busy trawling social media to find evidence that would justify the suspension and/or expulsion of Corbyn supporters, producing another big number you might approve or disapprove of, find meaningful or scoff at.

The concept of metric power, then, reinforced by an understanding of the data imaginary, is one way of understanding why new Labour, having allowed itself to be backed into a corner by complaint-as-measurement, will struggle to extricate itself from this mess by playing the case-as-measurement card.

Old and new Labour – really?

To speak in this way of a transition from old to new is quite flippant, and I ought to apologise (I won’t, of course). What I am left with is the thought that changes to the way the party as a bureaucratic organisation goes about its business, surely recognisable to people in most workplaces, remind me of the ‘data-driven’ reform of education, begun by Thatcherite league tables, happily embraced by Blair and Blunkett in 1997, carried on by Gove when he emerged to trash state education after 2010. Doubtless other areas (one thinks straightaway of the NHS) could tell a similar story. And now, given that we always do something because we can, we might even anticipate, as an example of affective measures, league tables comparing CLPs …

[1] Metric Power (2016, 1). Chapter 3, Circulation, begins by suggesting that ‘[a]ny mention of [this book] on Twitter or in a blog post will potentially contribute to its almetric score and its relative impact ranking’ (77). Well, if anyone bothers reading this blog post – unlikely, I know – it has been a pleasure.

[2] A good example of the left’s early response to the report is Bastani’s account for Novara Media (here).

[3] In the light of LPGLU, Jonathan Cook (here) and MediaLens (here) provide important summaries of the political context for this propaganda offensive. See also an earlier MediaLens article dated just ahead of the 2019 general election (here). And there is no shortage of important texts tracking the recent weaponisation of antisemitism against Corbyn’s Labour Party – those published in 2019 include: Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Philo, Berry, Schlosberg, Lerman and Miller), Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality (Edwards and Cromwell), and Antisemitism and the Labour Party (Stern‑Weiner, ed).

[4] The Data Gaze (2018).

[5] Metric Power, 71-72.

[6] Metric Power ends (210-212) with a brief discussion of affective measures (a topic picked up in The Data Gaze) – the way in which individuals are encouraged to improve their performance. As already indicated, Panorama and LPGLU are linked by the way they focus on individual – that is, not just party – performance. The engaged worker, after all, is central to the functioning of neoliberal organisations. But more on that later.