A group largely comprised of techie nerds sitting in a treehouse may not sound like a mainstream political party meeting (it’s the season for them) but that was exactly the scene at the initial public meeting of the newly-incorporated Pirate Party UK. Andrew Robinson, party leader, declared that ‘the law isn’t keeping pace with technology’ and that the party, recently acknowledged as such by the Electoral Commission, was there to bring this fundamental issue to the top of the political agenda; he hoped that this would be achieved by winning a sizeable proportion of the vote in the contests in which it could afford to run. With the general election fast approaching, the size of the mountain they have to climb became quickly apparent; they have a lot to prove, and quickly. But they want to get their policies right first.
In the last month, the Pirates have come a stone’s throw away from becoming more popular on Facebook than the Labour Party. They’re barely up and running but already have 500 paid members and are growing very quickly. There was definitely a sense that, unlike many recent attempts to form new political parties to challenge the ‘big three’, reluctant politician Robinson’s party had formed organically, that certain specific issues close to the heart of a sizeable, young, technologically aware generation of largely young people, were not being addressed by the other parties, and there was a gap that the Pirates could fill. Their meteoric rise has meant much of the detail is still being worked on, but they are determined to be positive. This is a party which is happy to assert what it stands for, rather than what it opposes.
What excites them most of all is the question of copyright reform — don’t call it ‘intellectual property’ — and the way in which, since its inception, copyright has moved from lasting a simple 14 years to a staggering 90 after the death of the author of the work. They are incensed at the idea of locking up culture forever and, unlike Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems, talk a great deal about communities; largely virtual ones, of course, but it fits in with their technological background. The government and the law haven’t kept pace with technological change? Robinson and his audience most definitely have.
According to the party the principle is the sharing of knowledge and enhancement of cultural life. They point to studies which show that, when it comes to music filesharing (‘try before you buy’), the music industry can enchance its profits; that copyright theft has nothing to do with ‘illegal’ downloading but, rather, everything to do with artists signing the rights to their own work away to record companies in return for access to the mass market. And, therefore, it’s these corporate entities, with their objective of maximising profits, they maintain, who are responsible for the real theft. They don’t submit artists’ work into a free market but artificially determine the market themselves, and therefore reap the majority of the rewards. It’s a surprisingly Marxist analysis of the music industry, which Adorno himself would be proud of. Will the Pirates need to sell an anti-capitalist argument in order to effect the change they insist is needed? Robinson claims the party exists outside the traditional left/right split, yet it exists in a society now dominated by a neo-liberal paradigm which has no interest in compromising with the Pirates. Small in number, they run the risk of being defeated by being outnumbered and outgunned by an opposition which holds financial cards they currently can only dream of.
Where does the party go from here? If the numbers are anything to go by, and if the speed of their upward trajectory continues along the same line since the Telegraph announced their arrival, then they are as uniquely poised to capture the votes of disaffected, technologically aware youth as their Swedish counterparts. There’s the sense that the attempts in recent years to form parties to capitalise on dissent have failed: arguably because they didn’t know how to walk the line between protest movement and political party. However, this closely-knit and highly intelligent group seems to have its head screwed on far tighter. It’s about more than just protesting against Peter Mandelson’s suspiciously abrupt volte-face from the Digital Britain report’s recommendations; it acknowledges that the social shaping of technology is real, and that the internet has moved issues such as copyright, surveillance and privacy on. Gone are the days where politicians could get away with claiming to be experts in such subjects; now the Pirates are coming to prominence because politicians have not kept pace with the technologically advanced, virtual lives and sophisticated communities of young people. If the Pirates really do successfully keep the issues which motivate their supporters in the mainstream and prove, even through saving just one deposit in the general election (a stated objective for the next year), that there’s a wellspring of feeling here, then they really could be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.