Douglas Carswell's open politics

Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has been a key player in the historic Parliamentary events of the last few days, but his view of its implications goes far beyond the Speaker’s handling of expenses claims. I wrote before about his challenging views at a recent Hansard Society event; he talks, very convincingly, about the need – or perhaps more accurately, the inevitability – of more open politics. Tellingly, in interviews yesterday following his Big Moment, he talked about ‘the era of YouTube’ (although that’s another story altogether).
He points us to an article in today’s Times by Danny Finkelstein, which articulates the Carswell thesis particularly well:

For what we are about to discover is whether, after this turbulent fortnight, MPs really get it. Or whether they simply don’t have a clue what has been going on… Mr Martin’s departure should be seen as the pivot between two very different ways of conducting politics. It should be seen as the final moment in the long, slow death of closed politics and as ushering in a new age, one that will grow slowly and from small beginnings. The era of open politics. The cause of this new era, and the need for it, is the information revolution… Large centralised political parties were created because of the existence of the mass media… But whether this system has advantages or not is irrelevant – because the information revolution makes its continuation impossible. The replacement of the monolithic mass media with a much messier, much freer market in information changes everything. The media is fragmenting and taking Parliament with it.

Of course, both Carswell and Finkelstein are long-standing bloggers: Carswell in particular did some interesting experiments (now abandoned) with (archived) and a discussion forum as far back as 2006. But it’s been fascinating to see online now being proposed instinctively as a solution to the current crisis. (And full credit, by the way to the Conservatives for their rapid creation of a Google spreadsheet, presumably with a nice and easy input form, for the publication of Shadow Cabinet expensesnot the first to adopt it as a publishing platform of course.)
We’re some way away from Carswell’s vision, as described in his book The Plan (co-written with YouTube star Daniel Hannan). But you’d have to say, the wind is blowing in his direction.

Creative Commons: 3 MPs on blogging

A shock conclusion emerges from the Hansard Society’s latest research into MPs’ use of new-fangled technology: they are normal people. Well, ‘kind of normal-ish’, Labour’s Tom Harris clarifies. We’re here at Microsoft’s relatively new London offices to hear from three MPs, one from each of the main parties, on what they put in, and what they get out of blogging.
As things kick off, I’m feeling mildly subversive. Partly because I’m using a Linux laptop on Microsoft’s patch. But mainly because I’m the only person in a room of 50, here to talk about technological matters, with a laptop in front of them.
Tory MP Douglas Carswell is first up: he’s in a rush off. He makes, on the face of it, some provocative statements. Technology is ‘having a transformative effect on the disadvantaged’, he says, citing a specific example of local parents of special needs kids, who got information from similar support groups around the country, and used it to take him and the local authority to task. Westminster will need to adopt open source politics, he says, or new entrants will take market share; and it will ultimately lead, he suggests, to more grown-up politics. And with that, he makes the dash up Victoria Street to obey a three line whip. To be fair though, he did blog it up before I did.
Next it’s LibDem MP Lynne Featherstone: a blogger since 2003, but – she insists – she’s so not a geek. For her, it’s a way to prove she isn’t ‘lazy’ like ‘all the rest’; she extols the blog’s value in local campaigning. ‘I pay no mind to the dangers of blogging,’ she says – although, she admits, she does have someone check her stuff for anything ‘politically suicidal’.
Finally, at the top table anyway, it’s Tom Harris – who, he reminds us (to my own surprise), has been blogging less than a year. Straight away, he confronts the ‘received wisdom’ that he lost his ministerial job because of his blog: he genuinely doesn’t know if that’s true, and he hopes it isn’t a signal that ministers shouldn’t blog (or at least, shouldn’t be worth reading). He rejects suggestions that he’s some kind of maverick – in fact, he says, he takes ‘the party line’ very seriously, and assures us you won’t find much in his archives that deviates from it.
He started blogging as an outlet for the opinions which didn’t otherwise get a platform; and as a conscious effort to balance out the right-leaning dominance of the ‘blogscape’. As a former journalist, he finds the writing very easy: but interestingly, he reveals that he spends more time moderating comments than writing posts. (Andy Williamson tells us the majority of MPs’ ‘blogs’ don’t accept comments, incidentally. Hmm.)
Several times, particularly in the concluding Q&A, Tom speaks in favour of a liberal, almost anarchic position. It’s probably inevitable, he says, that every candidate at a forthcoming election will have a blog; it’ll be impossible for the parties to control centrally – ‘and that’s great’. He has a bit of a dig at ‘an unnamed individual’ displaying control-freak tendencies – but doesn’t name him. Whoever could he have meant?
I’m struck by Tom’s and Lynne’s differing routes into blogging. Lynne isn’t being too self-deprecating when she talks down her technical skills; but she’s astute enough to see the value in it all, and is surrounding herself with people whose skills complement hers. It makes her such an interesting appointment to head up the LibDems’ online efforts: she’s a campaigner at heart, and she’ll ensure that the party doesn’t get carried away with tech for tech’s sake.
Tom meanwhile comes across as ‘one of us’. Over a glass of wine afterwards, he expands a bit on the control freakery, naming a couple of names which I won’t repeat here. He isn’t too bothered how many of his blog’s readers are local constituents. Even if his blog cost him his ministerial job, I don’t hear any regret in his voice when he talks about it. He’s blogging for exactly the same reasons I do.
I leave feeling we’re in quite a happy position just now. Those MPs who are blogging (properly) are doing it because they want to, and/or because they want to get something constructive from it. We haven’t yet reached the point where all candidates need to be seen to do it – as, say, with tedious printed constituency newsletters. But there were signs tonight that it’s starting to happen… and that, fundamentally, is a bad thing.