The sorry state of Labour on the internet
by Jack Thurston
It’s taken thirty-six years but last week it finally happened. I found myself – however I might wish for it to be otherwise – agreeing with an article in the Daily Mail. It was a stingingly accurate critique of the Labourlist group blog which has been online for a while now but was ‘launched’ last Thursday.
Labourlist is not something that I would normally spare much thought about. I’ve been happy to drift away from the day-to-day dogfights of British politics since I stood down as a Special Adviser at the 2001 General Election in an effort to reclaim my life and start up some of my own projects. But I have found something sickly compelling about the way Labourlist has unfolded into a tragi-comedy that reveals more than it should about the troubled relationship the Labour Party has with the internet.
Although marketed as an “independent grassroots e-network”, Labourlist must have been given more than one nod from on high, probably at Cabinet level and possibly within Number 10. You don’t start a blog like this and instantly secure the participation of John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, James Purnell, Douglas Alexander, Liam Byrne, Ed Miliband, Alistair Campbell, Pat McFadden and Philip Gould (the list goes on and on) unless its been sanctioned at the top.
And the motive is an attempt to tackle the dominance of UK political blogsophere by sites linked (more or less) to the Conservative Party like ConservativeHome, wannabe MP Iain Dale, and the libertarian insurgency of Guido Fawkes.
British politicians like nothing more than to look to the US for the next big thing. The success of liberal blogs like the Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, TruthDig and the Daily Kos and the Obama campaign’s masterful use of the internet for mobilisation and fundraising has made a lot of Labour people fear that losing the internet war could be a real problem. And they would probably be right. But they should be careful not to confuse the dream of a reinvigorated centre-left blogosphere with a successful electoral e-mobilisation campaign. The big political blogs might occupy the minds of the political classes and very occasionally break new stories but they don’t turn elections. The vast majority of people who read political blogs are as far from being floating voters as it’s possible to be. I’ll concede that blogs might have some marginal value for “mobilising the base” but in terms of winning votes they pale next to traditional political activities plus a well-executed e-campaign, but which I mean simply building a big email list and using it to stimulate non-virtual political engagement (fundraising, phone banks, getting out the vote etc).
As a party-approved intervention into the blogosphere, Labourlist strikes me as a particularly ham-fisted way for Labour to energise its existing supporters and reach out to new ones. In the week of its launch the site has been dominated by a series of slanging matches between Derek Draper, the Labourlist editor, and Iain Dale and then Paul Staines (who blogs as Guido Fawkes). It’s all sub-student union stuff kicked off by Draper and in which he has come out the worst. As a party member, it is downright embarrassing to witness Draper’s hissy fits and mock outrage taking up screen inches ahead of posts from the Labour people who are responsible for running the country (with a few exceptions their contributions are not an awful lot better as examples of good blogging, though it’s early days and everyone has to start somewhere). Of course I wouldn’t care if it was Draper by himself in his own unhinged corner of the internet, but Labourlist has received so much high level party buy-in that there can be no doubt it casts a reputational shadow on the party itself.
Clearly looking to pick fights with leading Tory bloggers (possibly deliberate to up his profile) Draper became embroiled in a silly row with David Hencke, the widely-respected Wesminster correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, over whether or not Draper had been giving the impression had used his time in exile from British politics to pursue an advanced degree in clinical psychology at the prestigious University of California at Berkeley, when in reality he’d received an MA from somewhere else nearby. I happened to go to graduate school at UC Berkeley and I’ve got a lot of time for the place but I couldn’t care less if the editor of Labourlist is an emeritus professor from Harvard or has a part time diploma from the local college of further education. You don’t need letters after your name to be a good political blogger. What you do need is some honesty and the good grace to admit if you get been caught out doing a bit of the Jeffrey Archers.
So what’s to make of it all? First, you just have to wonder who entrusted this Labour blogging effort to Derek Draper, a notoriously hot-headed character with a profound lack of tolerance for people whose points of view differ from his own. And on a more practical level, as far as I can see he has absolutely zero track record as a political blogger (or any other variety of blogger). Such is Draper’s reputation as a loose cannon that those senior people who entrusted him ‘deliver for the blogosphere’ (and I’ve little doubt that’s what was promised) then they must be utterly clueless about the internet or so desperate that they’ll go along with anyone vaguely plausible and familiar.
There’s no escaping the fact that as things stand, Labour is really bad at the internet, whether it’s Gordon Brown’s Youtube Question Time or the awkwardly penned and utterly unengaging emails that as a party member I receive from time to time. During the US presidential primaries I signed up as an Obama supporter (with a made up ZIP code) and I so also received the emails from his campaign and was able to compare and contrast. The difference? Chalk and cheese. However much it woud play to his delusions of grandeur, it would be quite wrong to blame Derek Draper for everything that’s wrong about Labour and the internet. After all, Labourlist has barely been running for a month.
As for an explanation, I’d begin by saying that there are far wiser sages of the blogosphere than me who I am sure will have a better analysis, but I can pick out at least three things that are going on. First, being in opposition is a much better place to be when it comes to creating interesting and exciting blogs. Recalling my time in the mid-90s working for the Parliamentary Labour Party in opposition, we’d have totally dominated the blogosphere if it had existed then. Think back to the Scott Report on arms to Iraq, all the Tory sleaze and infighting and the endless stream of fat cat utility bosses. Those issues were emblamatic and were handled brilliantly by Labour at the time. The effect would have been magnified by the internet if it had existed then in the way it does today. Now that the boot is on the other foot Labour is the party looking sleazy and divided, pursuing some distinctly unethical foreign policies and defending the fat cat City bankers it spent the last ten years worshipping and is now spending the next ten years’ budget deficits bailing out. Maybe that’s what just happens when you get into power but a good part of me prefers to think it could have been different.
A second reason is that the Labour’s younger generation in Parliament are just that little bit too old and/or just a little bit too stuck in their ways to be able to take to the medium as naturals. After 1997, Labour’s door for new talent beyond the usual power-hungry hacks narrowed quite a lot and pretty much slammed shut after 2001. There are people out there who could do a much better job but they are not part of a project that looks increasingly closed and dependent on recycled ‘old stalwarts’, no matter how tainted and unfit for purpose.
A third factor is how the current Labour hierarchy (and wannabes) just take themselves too seriously. Derek Draper’s shrill hectoring on Labourlist over the past week is an extreme example, but there are a number of young Ministers who are just as lacking when it comes to an ability to strike the right tone in public. The fact is that since 1997, when a serious-minded and capable Cabinet took office, the Parliamentary Labour Party has not had enough turnover and the turnover it has mostly seen has been at the service of parachuting almost en masse the researchers and SPADs of the 1997 Cabinet into Commons seats and rapidly into ministerial office. Deep down many of them know they are over-promoted and they lack the ballast that comes from a substantial career of their own (in politics or elsewhere) and the anchor of a genuine political base. The Tory high command is little better, with Cameron and Osborne direct from Conservative Research Department via jobs as advisors to Minsters with a little PR flim-flam along the way – both exemplars of what Peter Oborne decries as the new Political Class.
There are a few Labour people who do communicate well on the internet and they were doing it already and have wisely steered clear of Labourlist. David Miliband began a thoughtful, ambitious and genuinely responsive blog while he was responsible for local government, continued it at Defra and has sought to keep it going at the FCO though it’s waned somewhat. Tom Watson is a quality blogger and has reached out to the UK’s booming ecology of civic hactivists. Tom Harris’s blog is genuine and good value, as is that of Paul Flynn. Labourhome has its moments I’m told.
So where is all the talent that Labour could be drawing on? The way I see it, most of the kind of people who would be making the internet work for Labour are devoting themselves to non-partisan democracy and civic engagement sites like those of the mySociety stable or truly non-aligned and less parochial blogs like openDemocracy. They are repelled by the command-and-control politics favoured by the Millbank tendency and which still prevails in Labour to this day and they see disciplined political parties as part of the problem, not a solution. They are turned off by the social authoritarianism that has revealed itself in Labour’s second and third terms and they will probably never forgive the invasion of Iraq and British complicity in state-sponsored kidnapping and torture in the George W. Bush’s “war on terror”. I share a lot of this outlook myself and over the past three years have been working hard on a project that is truly non-partisan but a natural cause for a progressive internet activist: revealing the gross injustices and inefficiencies of European Union agriculture policies and trying to get people thinking about how things could be done better.
So, what’s to do? The bad news is that I don’t think it’s likely that Labour will get its blogging groove on in time for the next election. The good news is that it probably doesn’t matter much. Labour should forget about trying to win the battle of the blogs. It’s probably a lost cause and anyway I’m not convinced it matters in terms of winning elections. What really matters is something altogether less glamorous. And that is a really coherent and responsive email-driven supporter mobilisation strategy. Even at 30 per cent in the polls, Labour does have millions of supporters it should be communicating with, many of whom have email. It’s not about technology. John McCain had all the same e-mobilisation tools as Barack Obama he just didn’t use them nearly so well. If the next general election is close (and looking at the polls, that’s a big IF) this could turn out to be an important difference between the parties. In the meantime someone should either pull the plug on Labourlist or at the very least ditch Draper and limit the damage.