The lady's not for YouTube-ing? Says who?

With the long Bank Holiday weekend behind us, Sunday’s Observer piece by Hazel Blears already seems like a distant memory. ‘YouTube if you want to,’ she wrote – somewhat provocatively, on the weekend we recall Margaret Thatcher’s ascension to Downing Street. Quite a soundbite, especially considering her reflection in that same piece that: ‘No government after 12 years in office can compete on slick presentation and clever soundbites.’
Having finally read the piece, it seems much more reasoned and balanced than the coverage would have you believe. The opening clause – ‘When Gordon Brown leads Labour into the next general election’ – wasn’t sufficient to stop ludicrous leadership speculation. Nor were the words ‘I’m not against new media’, nor indeed her previous statements on the subject, enough to prevent people seeing it as anti-YouTube per se.
Blears’s fundamental point, surely, was this: ‘Labour ministers have a collective responsibility for the government’s lamentable failure to get our message across… We need to have a relationship with the voters based on shared instincts and emotions.’ She does not say that YouTube – or any other new media/social tools – aren’t part of this. What she says, correctly, is that they are ‘no substitute’ for proper, face-to-face politics.
‘We need to plug ourselves back into people’s emotions and instincts and sound a little less ministerial and a little more human,’ she writes. I couldn’t agree more. Talking to people in the street is certainly one way to do this. Talking to them online, via a blog or Twitter, is another. Talking down a camera lens can also work. But some methods will work better with certain audiences – and for certain politicians. Not all politicians are gifted writers, or on-camera performers.
Hazel Blears is hitting the nail squarely on the head here. In a year’s time, presumably, we’ll be asked to give this government another 4-5 years in office, on top of the 13 they’ll already have had. Why should we? They need to find a good answer to that very simple question, fast – and then get it out via every channel at their disposal.

Hazel Blears, Twitter-holic

At 11:30 this morning, Hazel Blears burst onto the Twitter scene. Six hours later, and we’re already up to her tenth tweet on the microblogging service. I feel as if my entire afternoon has been punctuated by the latest update on what Hazel is doing. Or indeed, not doing.
I’m all for departments experimenting with Twitter… especially the department whose specific remit includes ‘communities’. But there are a few fundamental problems with their assault on Twitter, which we need to rectify sharp-ish.
For starters, who ‘is’ CommunitiesUK? It reads like it’s Blears’s PA: all ‘Hazel is this’, ‘Hazel is that’. First person stuff, all personal and a bit touchy-feely, but written in the third person. As others have also noted, it feels really weird. And it doesn’t sit too well with the account’s ‘Bio’: ‘The official 7 day empowerment twitter channel for Communities and Local Government.’ Does the capitalisation imply that it’s the Department’s channel? (What exactly is ‘7-day empowerment’ anyway?)
And frankly, there’s just too much of it. Ten tweets in an afternoon, all one-way, even on a big day for the Department, is a lot. I don’t need a before, during and after tweet about every public engagement. I don’t want to know if ‘Hazel is excited about writing her first blog post‘. Just tell me when she’s published it.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not against experimental use of new channels like this. I’m just keen to see it get off on the right footing.
I get the feeling they’re consciously following the example of @DowningStreet. But their third-person approach – ‘The PM is…’ – works because 10 Downing Street is the Prime Minister. The relationship between DCLG (with its 5000+ staff) and Hazel Blears is completely different. This has to be either Hazel’s personal channel; or the department’s corporate channel. Unlike @DowningStreet, it can’t be both.
PS: In case you missed it… some very positive words from the Washington Post this week about No10’s G8 efforts. ‘Gordon Brown is stealing the G-8 show online,’ they wrote. ‘[@Downingstreet] has more than 3,000 followers, and is part of the prime minister’s ongoing Web-savvy operation.’ 🙂

Blears backs wider use of online petitions

Writing on Comment Is Free, Hazel Blears reckons Labour’s problem is that it has become distanced from its voters. ‘The problem is the powerlessness within the system for the majority of people,’ she writes. ‘People feel that their views disappear into a black hole, without the slightest echo.’
Hazel’s solution is ‘a healthy dose of direct democracy’: more directly elected mayors, a reinvigorated co-op movement, and online petitions. ‘Petitions, especially on-line, should be used to guide the deliberations of local councillors and ministers,’ she says. ‘Petitioners should be able to press for debates in council chambers and even parliament.’
If that inspires anyone to set up their own petitions system… don’t forget that the Downing Street petitions system, built by MySociety, is ‘open source’, meaning you can download and use it free of charge.