Friday, July 13, 2007

The Perils of Political Blogging

Dizzy of Dizzy Thinks has a very interesting piece entitled "Is the Tory Internet about to turn on itself?". In it he discusses a new Tory site called Platform 10:

"The word is the site is to be an antidote to ConservativeHome which some have said is far to critical of the leadership and is causing them headaches".

He concludes:

"Frankly, I can hear the word "split" echoing around the TV studios of talking heads already. There is indeed it seems a battlefield forming. The problem is it looks to be a battlefield where the same side is preparing to look in on each other".

Much has been made about how Tories "dominate" the blogosphere, and how "lamentable" Labour's efforts are. But I guess "success" depends on whether you are intending to get talked about a lot in the press and on the net, or whether the aim of the blogging is to actually win you elections.

The press understandably love ConservativeHome. Journalists in search of stories of dissent and division among the Tories need only trawl through the articles and comments on that site for their story. Add into the mix the site owner who fancies himself as a bit of a "guru" and alternative power source, and who is willing to be interviewed on television to tout his "surveys" of the Tory membership (which are usually critical of the leadership), and of course Cameron and co feel a little queasy about it. Other Tory bloggers like Iain Dale and Guido Hawkes also seem to exhibit the same publicity-seeking vanity to the point where if it was a crunch between burnishing their own profiles and the needs of their party, they'd put themselves first.

The LibDems have a similar problem with the site Political Betting. This is actually a very good site (though most of the people who post comments on it tend to be Tories), with many insightful articles, and it is especially good at covering elections. But when Mike Smithson the site owner talks about Lib Dem issues, he packs a particular punch as he is a LibDem member and indeed has stood for election under their banner. When he writes about Tories or Labour it is generally understood that this is his opinion of them as a LibDem. When he writes about LibDem matters, the assumption is that his is an Insider view. This can cause unforseen problems. For instance last year when Ming Campbell had a few bad PMQs, Smithson kept up the pressure with several articles exploring whether Ming could survive this, and with a killer article in May 2006 asking "What about a woman to follow Ming". This merely months after Ming was elected. Of course the press followed up, and poor Ming has been struggling with "who will follow Ming" questions ever since.

Why did he do it? Unlike Tim Montgomerie I don't think Smithson suffers from the same vanity and desire to seek publicity. I think he just thought he was being "impartial" from a journalistic and betting point of view. But if journalists or political betting pundits are to be truly impartial, they can't be members of political parties. If they are party members, anything they say about those parties will be amplified and used against those parties.

Labour bloggers are a different animal - much more low-key, none pretend to be "impartial journalists" and none aspire to be Press personalities on television. LabourHome is a web 2.0 operation - unlike Conservative Home, the articles and editorial are not written by a few people based on a particular "faction view" of the party. Rather, the members of the site write the content, posting articles on whatever they want. Site members include some Tories and LibDems as well as the whole Labour spectrum, so you never know what will get posted as it depends on which member has the time that day and what the particular bee in their bonnet is. As a result, the site has the feel of the general low-level chatter that you get at branch meetings. Most of it is friendly and most support the line the leadership takes (Labour has a very strong sense of the collective). This has been a great disappointment to the press who were hoping to find powerful people posting juicy factional anti-leadership stuff in the manner of ConservativeHome.

The other Labour website Bloggers4Labour aggregates the feeds of some 300 Labour bloggers. Unlike LabourHome, there are no Tory or LibDem voices here. But here's the thing - it turns out that Labour bloggers spend more time blogging about football, Dr Who, science fiction, pop music, cookery, abstract graphics of snowflakes, photos of flowers, butterflies, cats and architecture, and stories about obscure goings on in Argentina and Kazakhstan (and apologies if I've missed off some obsessions from the list), than they do about UK politics. To hear Tory bloggers, you'd think this was a bad thing - but in truth it contributes to building an online persona for the party that is every bit as warm and fuzzy as that the Labour party enjoys at street level. And one of the reasons people have always liked the Labour party more than the Labour leadership, and certainly way more than they like the Conservative Party, is because of this warm and human aspect. If a member of the public stumbled across a Labour blog, they'd conclude that here are a bunch of likeable people. If they stumbled across a Tory blog like Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale or ConHome, they'd recoil in horror, especially at the demented venom you find from Tories in the comments. And no one ever puts scary demented types into government.

Those of us Labour bloggers who do write about politics do so in order to play our small part supporting the party and the Labour government. Our aim is mainly to correct the Tory distortions and fibs and to make Labour's case. If we want to be movers and shakers, blogging isn't the way to do it - the locus of power in Labour lies at Westminster especially as we're in government. If you want to carry influence, you have to go through the trouble of putting yourself up for election to parliament, or work as an aide to government ministers.

When they come to assess which web effort aided their party's fortunes best in the next election - the unlikely answer might be that it was Labour's that did the business, because so low key, supportive of the Labour government and because crucially we don't foul our own nest.


Hughes Views said...

Another couple of reasons to consider:

The amateur psychologist in me blogged last June about ‘why right wingers blog so nicely’ considering their personality traits. Generalising widely I know but they tend to favour individual endeavour over the collective and to believe that life is very simple. Thus they are more likely to be attracted to sitting at their lonely computer screens bashing out certainties than, for example, going off to the local Labour club to discuss life’s many intriguing complexities.

Secondly, and possibly more significantly, all the potential leading Labour bloggers have got jobs with at least a hint of real power and are therefore not as frustrated as their Conservative or LibDem counterparts are in perpetual opposition.

Maybe I’ll have to add another chapter to my alternative history of Britain. In it Neil Kinnock wins the 1992 election with a tiny majority and Labour are unceremoniously booted out in 1996 after the ERM debacle. Michael Portillo is now entering his twelfth year as Prime Minister. Perhaps Iain Dale MP and Tim Montgomerie MP have both got minor government roles; Alistair Campbell and Tom Watson have become the supreme British bloggers...

Aaron Murin-Heath said...

Excellent article, Snow.

I think Iain Dale is quite open about the self-promoting side to his blog. He is a media tart - love him or loathe him.

Dale is also much more "on message" now, and he's feeling the heat from the right of the party. The Tory split is enormous, but as far as electability goes, Cameron would be better shedding the hard right faction.

If people are going to love the Tories again, the intolerant right must go. I hope the split is as bloody and as public as possible. :o)

I also think you make a great point about Labour blogs. The Poor Mouth and Labour Humanist are both much better than the tosh most Tories post. But in fairness to Dizzy, I like his blog - a good mix.

Archie said...

I've taken your advice and written my first non-political piece for a while, on Daddy Long Legses

jams o donnell said...

An excellent post as ever, Snowflake. I've got to admit I don't often visit sites like Conservativehome et al so I tend to find out about the squabbles in the tory blogosphere at second hand.

I can't understand why not being 100% on politics is seen as such a bad thing. I have always been very impressed by the range of topics on labour blogs. As a result they make far better reading than they would have if the were politics, politics, politics 24/7. Other interests don't make a labour blogger any less committed to the party.

Oh thanks Tyger.. you're too kind!

Anonymous said...

'Those of us Labour bloggers who do write about politics do so in order to play our small part supporting the party and the Labour government. Our aim is mainly to correct the Tory distortions and fibs and to make Labour's case.'

You obviously haven't read 'Recess Monkey'which is pure bile and lies.

JRD168 said...

Good post Snowflake, I can spend many a happy hour following links from bloggers4labour reading about other bloggers' interests. I am fairly sure this is because many of them would be well rounded, interesting individuals to meet.

Two of the most read topics on my blog are the posts about where I live, and where I grew up (and kind of wish I still live!).

The political stuff comes second to that, which either tells me that my political writing is rubbish - could well be! Or, perhaps, that people read blogs for other reasons.