I paraphrase, but variations on this canard are repeated quite often, sometimes with an addendum along the lines of, “we need to engage with the real world”.
We do need to engage with the real world but moral injunctions about branch meetings are just the opposite of such engagement. Revolutionary socialists advocate direct discussion and open voting against closed meetings and secret ballots, but this fine, hard won principle is not being applied intelligently.
Any medium is by definition is exclusive. You’re either online or not. You can either attend a meeting or you can’t. There are plenty of reasons why someone might not be able to make regular meetings on a Wednesday or Thursday night, too many to list. It certainly doesn’t make you lazy or devious or your opinions invalid. It can equally be said that electronic communication provides an invaluable resource for people not able to meet face to face. In fact it allows a far greater pooling of experience and information than a geographical branch.
But there’s more to it than this. There is an unacknowledged bias that has been hardened by the misapplication of the idea of direct democracy. Why does a branch meeting count as the real world (when quite often it’s a group of ardent left-wingers agreeing with each other then arranging a paper sale) when online discussion does not?
It is, in part, a residual prejudice of 20th Century thought. Using terms of Marshall McLuhan, under print media the written word is dissociated and cool, whereas the spoken word is involved and hot. The written word had elevated status because it was recorded, for all time. The printed word was a clearly defined commodity from the beginning, very bourgeois, whereas the spoken word was not even remotely enclosed until the advent of sound recording.
Thanks to electronic media the written word can unfold as fast as spoken conversation. There is no going back to the old ways of thinking. The internet not only has an idiom of its own (idiom being a sure sign of intense involvement not cool dissociation) but is affecting language and communication in general. The sectarian anxiety about the internet (that discussion will get 'out of control') is not so dissimilar from the bourgeois fear that the journalism will be subsumed by citizenship, that a large part of the ideological apparatus will simply fall apart.
The party must come to understand electronic media and incorporate them as part of a democratic mix, including print media and public meetings, or it will become irrelevant, and all for the sake of principles transformed into shibboleths. To put it another way, if you don’t like what people are saying online don’t hide away in your branch meetings, get out into the real world, where two-thirds of UK citizens are regularly online.