After more than a decade of electoral failures, the Pirate Party UK (PPUK) is holding a ballot to dissolve. It seems likely that, when voting closes on Sunday 4 October, the party will be scuttled.
Speaking to Sky News, current and former members described a party which perhaps lacked political will and professionalism (in one infamous incident, members of its national executive faced being summonsed to the High Court), but a party which also lacked the toxic internal conflicts that can tear idealistic movements apart.
“A serious party with a silly name,” as former members describe it, the Pirate Party was never a truly significant political insurgency in British politics. At its height in 2015 the party had 766 members, six of whom ran in the general election, collecting just 1,130 votes. In comparison the Monster Raving Loonies – a silly party with a silly name – ran 27 candidates, receiving 3,898 votes.
If the Pirate Party is to sink as a political entity it will do so having fallen well short of the shores of electoral success, and without leaving much of a ripple in the turbulent seas of Westminster. But its demise is a reminder that at some point over the past 10 years a particular era of the internet quietly passed away too.
It’s hard to imagine today, but a decade ago the general sentiment regarding the internet was that it was a fundamentally democratising force. From the Arab Spring through to the open-source-software movement, there was an optimism that the self-propagating values of an open society would spread anywhere that information technology would allow them access to.
The Pirate Party even crowdsourced a general election manifesto on social media, without any fears of astroturfing from hostile trolls. It campaigned on a platform of radical copyright reform – reducing copyright terms to 10 years so society could enjoy its own cultural products. It demanded internet access for all, an infrastructure question which major parties have subsequently adopted.
In particular PPUK was formed in response to the last Labour government’s Digital Economy Act (2010), a law that introduced controversial powers to disconnect individuals’ internet connections if they were suspected of downloading copyright-infringing material.
Loz Kaye, who served as the party’s leader from 2010 to 2015, told Sky News that the Digital Economy Act was what “galvanised me to act politically, rather than just writing a letter or appearing on a phone-in on the radio,” something he laughed about doing.
If the party’s core supporters were easy to stereotype as nerds hunched over laptops, Mr Kaye couldn’t have been more different. A handsome and outgoing professional music composer, active in Manchester politics, he brought a focus on social justice to a party which was generally focused on technology issues.
“Loz is not the person anybody expects when you’re talking about the Pirate Party,” Andy Halsall told Sky News. Mr Halsall, a British Army veteran turned IT professional, served as the party’s campaign manager during the first three years of Mr Kaye’s leadership and its greatest growth in membership and finances.
Mr Halsall, who joined the party because his brother-in-law was standing, told Sky News how the leadership team pulled information on how to run a political campaign “from Wikipedia and everybody else’s election manuals” and then attempted to convince activists they needed to put in work on the ground instead of just building websites.
“It’s very hard when people have the expectation that a digital-only campaign will sway people to actually vote for you – when they think that having the right ideas and the right position can win an election, when obviously that isn’t the case,” he said.
The party itself was essentially pluralist and a few former members who remain active in party politics are now members of the Conservative Party, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. “We were generally anti-authoritarian,” said Mr Kaye.
“What united us all was not feeling very comfortable in the demonstrated political clothes. I hate the socialist cosplay of Corbynites, I abhor the flag-waving numptyism of the current Tory party. I think all of those ways of demonstrating politics or political place are just fatuous,” he told Sky News in a phone call.
Despite this growth PPUK never quite matched the successes of pirate parties in Germany, Iceland and the Czech Republic.
In a way PPUK’s pluralism stands in contrast to the most successful pirate party, the Czech Pirate Party, which retains the third largest presence in the country’s lower house of parliament and functions as a liberal third party to the country’s populists and eurosceptics.
“I think if we were honest with ourselves, we never particularly saw becoming an MP as a short-term prospect,” Mr Kaye said, attributing this to the first-past-the-post system in Westminster, noting: “It’s not like say the Netherlands, where you can have a Party for the Animals and get into parliament.”
For onlookers such as Jim Killock, the director of digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, the Pirate Party failed to focus on the limited number of chances it had for electoral success – specifically the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London, and two seats in the European elections in the southeast England and London.
“In my own view, I saw too much political naivety for them to really grasp the chances that they had,” Mr Killock said.
Andy Halsall recollects: “Standing for elections was what political parties did, so there was a default position of ‘if we’re a political party, that’s what we do – otherwise we’re just a bunch of activists talking about it’.”
But converting its geographically dispersed support into votes in a national campaign was difficult on such a small policy platform.
As Mr Kaye recollected, voters who he met on doorsteps and at debates often expressed an appreciation for the party’s copyright policies, but had other issues too: “What are you going to do about the bins, Palestine, and all the rest of it?”
Despite the struggle to establish itself as a national entity on par with the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, or Labour, for a six-month period the Pirate Party website was not only the most popular political website in the UK, but one of the most popular of any at all receiving more than 50,000 hits every hour.
Nobody who spoke to Sky News remembers who really started it, but just before Internet Service Providers in the UK implemented a court-ordered block on the website Pirate Bay for copyright-infringement, PPUK began to host a proxy service allowing people to access the site.
“I don’t know who kicked it of, at some point we simply had a proxy running for the Pirate Bay on party kit that we were managing, and that was it,” said Mr Halsall, who described the incident as one of the issues with professionalising the party and ensuring that when actions were being made and decisions taken they were overseen.
“We wanted to change the law, not circumvent it,” Mr Halsall added.
Loz Kaye, who was leader at the time, told Sky News he’d talked very little about the incident before. He said: “Essentially the point was if you start blocking sites you start out on a slippery slope and hand powers that perhaps you might want to think twice about to governments.
“The question was also about free access to culture, so that was the thinking – but it also then proved ridiculously successful.
“Because it was linked to our website, the Pirate Party website became the most popular political website in the country. We were in the top hundred sites in the country, ahead of major banks, so not surprisingly this came to the attention of the BPI.”
He added: “I don’t mind admitting we were a little bit naive, but I think we were all surprised by what happened.”
What happened was this: Six months after the proxy went up, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the trade association for record companies, targeted the individual members of the Pirate Party’s national executive committee (NEC) with legal threats to take the proxy down. They initially said no.
“Behind the scenes it was very hard for us to get legal representation,” Mr Kaye said. “It was hard to find lawyers, even though some were keen, but any firm with any knowledge of intellectual property would also potentially have conflicts of interest as they may have acted for potential litigants.
“We were days away from being summonsed to the High Court and the lawyers we had pulled out. That was possibly the most stressful thing that has ever happened to me,” he said.
Eventually replacement lawyers were found, but the proxy was taken down.
Although the party membership generally considered that the proxy was justified, as NEC members were being personally targeted by a potentially very expensive court case, Mr Kaye said: “I didn’t think it was fair to push it too far.”
It was an ignominious end for an action driven by a political cause that was sincerely believed in, but without the political will to be seen through. Many years later, a similar fate looms over the party as a whole.
In its proposal to close Pirate Party UK, the current leader and the chairman of the board wrote it was “with great sadness that we have reached the conclusion that PPUK has run out of steam”.
Members who are considering voting “no” to dissolving the party were instructed to only vote that way if they themselves were determined to help run the party, and not simply because they thought that somebody should do so.
In the case the ballot concludes that the party will be dissolved, members’ personal records will be destroyed and the Electoral Commission will be notified that the party has ceased to be.
Outstanding debts will be settled and any remaining funds will be split between two charities, the National Museum of Computing and Privacy International, fitting locations for the vestiges of PPUK.