Who says Labour people can't do web?

A couple of (broadly) Labour-related online developments of note late last week.
One was the relaunch of LabourList, just in time for conference. Alex Smith has done great things editorially since taking control of the website in the wake of Drapergate, and entirely deserved the recognition of a high ranking in Iain Dale’s annual poll of the top political blogs. But the website has always been a bit, well, ugly (or indeed, well ugly) – like it was trying too hard.
The new look is a big improvement, primarily because it accepts the reality that it’s really just another multi-author blog. You get a straightforward two-column layout: content plus comments on one side, a site-wide sidebar on the other, with header navigation based (I guess) on tags. It isn’t spectacular in design terms, but it doesn’t need to be. (Mind you, I’m not sure about including everyone’s ‘gravatar’ on every page: that’s going to slow things way down, for everyone.) It’s still powered by the same mysterious Tangent Labs platform as other Labour output; I’m wondering why.
The other was the news that Sarah Brown, the PM’s wife had passed uber-geek Stephen Fry in terms of Twitter followers. As I write this, Mr Fry has 773,000 followers, Mrs Brown has 791,000.
With no great fanfare in the conventional media, Mrs B has built quite a profile around her Million Mums campaign against ‘the needless deaths of women in pregnancy and childbirth around the world’, and other similarly lefty causes. It’s pretty clear she’s writing her own tweets personally, and gets actively involved in terms of replying, re-tweeting and hashtagging. It’s working, and she is often (rightly) used as a best practice example for public figures.
She also did a bit of blogging from last week’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh, again at wordpress.com – although I’m told there has been talk about bringing it properly ‘in house’; and has been contributing to the influential Huffington Post for some time.
Her activity is rarely Labour-branded per se… but of course it’s exactly a year since she sensationally appeared on-stage at the Labour conference to introduce her husband. (It’s quite amusing to look back at the BBC’s live text commentary from the day: ‘It’s almost time for the pre-speech video. Sarah Brown is in the hall. At the lectern. What’s going on? It looks like she is about to address the Labour conference.‘) Now articles are being written, describing her as ‘arguably the most admired and powerful woman in Britain… She might even be the last hope for Labour.’
Don’t underestimate the role her new media activity has played in this.

Draper's defiant departure

draperbookI must admit, I thought he’d gone already. But finally last night, the formal resignation of Derek Draper from LabourList. It’s very revealing.
‘Of course I regret ever receiving the infamous email [from Damian McBride],’ he states in the opening paragraph – placing the blame squarely on the sender of that email, and casting himself as the victim of the piece. If that nasty man hadn’t sent poor Derek an unsolicited email out of the blue, and if someone hadn’t (allegedly) hacked into his private emails, none of this scandal would ever have happened.
And it was all going so well up to that point, wasn’t it? ‘On a much smaller note,’ he continues, ‘I also think I got the tone of LabourList wrong sometimes, being too strident, aggressive and obsessed with the “blogosphere”.’ Much smaller? In my (professional) opinion, Draper shouldn’t be resigning for his part in the Red Rag ‘scandal’. He should be resigning for his truly appalling handling of Labour’s much-needed social media push.
So what next? Deputy editor of LabourList Alex Smith takes over, and writes a magnificent – nearly perfect – piece heralding the site’s rebirth. His opening gets straight to the (entirely correct) point:

It’s easy to forget that as the parties compete with each other for support, they all share a common responsibility to prevent public disenchantment with politics in general. 40% of those eligible to vote chose not to do so at the last election – more than the number who chose to vote for the winning party… Public trust in politicians of all parties is worryingly low, and disillusionment ultimately leads to disenfranchisement. Everyone involved in politics – including on websites like ours – has a responsibility to try to arrest this decline.

The response is a sensational U-turn in tone, including the following commitment: ‘we will positively engage with – and not antagonise – the right-wing blogosphere, starting with an interview with Iain Dale and a reader debate on policy with ConservativeHome.’
I can’t applaud this enough. As I’ve said many times before, that which unites the political blogosphere is greater than that which divides it. It takes a certain kind of person, and a certain kind of perspective, to put your opinions ‘out there’ for people to analyse and criticise. Political bloggers want to put their views across, but (generally speaking) they also want to listen to others’ responses.
If LabourList does engage directly, maturely, constructively with ConservativeHome – plus, let’s hope, LibDem Voice and others too, everyone wins. All sides can offer their opinions on the great issues of the day, under Queensberry rules (one hopes), and We The Electorate can observe and decide. Isn’t that what politics is all about?

When two blogs go to war

In the red corner, fighting out of Berkeley, California, the challenger – Derek Draper. His opponent, heavyweight champion of the Blogosphere, Paul ‘Guido’ Staines. Your referee for this afternoon’s contest is Mr Andrew Neil.
When the BBC’s Daily Politics finally brought two of political blogging’s most inflammatory characters face to face, sparks inevitably flew: see the full five minute interview here. It wasn’t especially enlightening: really just a chance to reheat the old, and frankly embarrassing playground spats of the past couple of months. That’s fine for a self-proclaimed ‘anti-politician’ like Staines; but not for someone like Draper, who’s supposedly trying to do something more edifying.
I was bemused by Derek’s continuing efforts to present LabourList as independent of the party, particularly this exchange on funding:

AN: Who finances you?
DD: Well, we publish every year who finances us…
AN: Who does?
DD: Well, we haven’t published it yet.

Or this remarkable about-turn:

DD: The blog is a collection of individuals…
AN: You don’t have a collective view?
DD: No, of course not! LabourList sometimes posts as LabourList…
AN: So it does have a view?
DD: Yeah, it has a view.

Then, as the interview approached a conclusion, Derek tries to turn the funding questions back on Staines: ‘When you set up Order Order, you were just out of being bankrupt, or a bankrupt. So where did the money come from?’ What, to set a rudimentary blog at Blogspot.com, Derek? To buy a domain name? And a Skype account? Actually, that statement probably reveals a lot about the Labour Party’s approach to internet activity. I’ll say no more.
Meanwhile, on the respective blogs, it’s getting very ugly. LabourList chose today to publish a dossier on Paul Staines, detailing ‘a shocking story of bankruptcy, law-breaking and friendliness towards the BNP’ – at least two of which, I’d have said, are totally irrelevant. Meanwhile, Staines has been out to California to do some dirt-digging into Draper’s educational background, with disappointing results both in terms of the lack of a confirmed allegation, and the quality of his video. Interestingly, for the first time I think, Staines has cast aside the Guido persona for both today’s TV slot and his YouTube video… continuing his journey into the mainstream media. One wonders where he’s heading?

Cabinet ministers to blog on LabourList

Much excitement over the weekend at the launch of LabourList, describing itself as ‘the must read online forum for Labour minded people’. Edited by Derek Draper, taking three days a week (he tells the Mail On Sunday) out of his job as a psychotherapist, the site is keen to stress its independence; but nobody’s doubting its official endorsement, and it’s built and hosted by Tangent Labs who handle all Labour’s official stuff.
Back in September, I was an observer at a fringe meeting at the Labour conference, addressed by Draper. As I wrote at the time, the discussion highlighted the fact that LabourHome was neither able to match ConservativeHome head-on; nor was it trying to. ‘With no disrespect to the many valiant amateurs, in the room and on the web,’ I wrote somewhat presciently, ‘there’s nobody of sufficient prominence taking on the Dales and Montgomeries, and fighting Labour’s corner.’
LabourList pretty much delivers on that score, anyway. Looking down the left-hand column, it’s like a who’s-who of the left: household names like Piers Morgan, Ken Livingstone and Peter Mandelson; up-and-coming figures like David Lammy; insiders like Draper, Charlie Whelan, Philip Gould and Ben Wegg-Prosser; blogging veterans like Luke Akehurst and LabourHome guys Jag Singh and Mark Hanson… impressive stuff. Although of course, barely 36 hours after its launch, most of the content is still ‘not published yet’.
Most interesting for me, perhaps, will be the involvement of two Cabinet ministers – Mandelson from BERR, and DFID’s Douglas Alexander. Will they be able to touch on any aspects of their day jobs, in any substantial way, or can it only be party campaigning stuff? Of course, if Mr Alexander wishes to blog about his day job, there’s a first-rate blogging platform ready and waiting. 🙂
Draper is quick to tackle any perception that LabourList will try to undermine the (occasionally troublesome) LabourHome. ‘I want to make it clear that I don’t see LabourList and Labourhome as being rivals,’ he writes; ‘quite the contrary, we should be comrades.’ It could work out to be quite a useful double-act, actually – and at least it’ll put a stop to the never-flattering comparisons with ConHome.
I’m inclined to share Jon Worth’s suspicion about the choice of the Tangent Labs platform, though – ‘proprietary software that was not designed for blogging’, when WordPress would have done the job perfectly. On a functional level it’s fine, I suppose; but visually it’s pretty awful – and the URLs are just horrible. There are RSS feeds a-plenty, although most people won’t spot most of them. And I wouldn’t have shown all those comments on the homepage, pushing the second story way out of view.
One substantial plus point, though, is their up-front approach to moderation. You need to register as a member to comment, although you don’t need to be a Party member. And once you’re in:

If your comments are deemed to be offensive, they will be removed completely. [But…] In order to ensure an insightful, engaging debate we will also place other comments judged to be grossly unintelligent or obtuse or trolls in our trash can. These comments can however still be viewed by users by clicking on the “include trash comments” button under each post. We encourage anyone who has had a comment denied to repost their thoughts on their own blog, and leave a trackback instead. Although we might think a comment is inappropriate for our conversation that does not preclude you making your point elsewhere.

However, I’m really not sure about the inclusion of the ‘Latest News from the Prime Minister’s Spokesperson’ on the homepage: the divide between Government and Party is difficult enough, without drawing attention to it like this. And I’m genuinely a bit shocked to see a prominent promo for FixMyStreet – alongside similar promos for the TUC, Unite, and a couple of other Labour Party initiatives. What’s the MySociety line on that, I wonder?
Mandelson’s opening piece is very significant, with implications beyond party politics. ‘The Labour party itself is now moving to the forefront of new media and online campaigning,’ he declares – er, OK, go on. ‘The world has changed since 1997. Now, no-one has been more identified with message and campaigning discipline than myself, something that makes me rather proud… But when it comes to new media we have to recognise that the days of command and control are over. Instead we need to learn to embrace and engage.’
[I’m assuming, by the way, that the Second Life thing was solely to give the newspapers a pretty picture to print; otherwise it’s a screengrab of a half-empty site. And yes of course, I fell for it too. But I can’t believe the party is seriously converting its minimal funds into Linden dollars.]
So, let battle commence. Last week, the LibDems announced the formation of a New Technology Board ‘to oversee the party’s online campaigning’ ahead of the next general election; it’s to be chaired by blogger and Twitterer Lynne Featherstone. Plus of course, the Tories under Cameron have been trying to mark out this territory as their own for some time. Is this a win-win-win situation for those of us trying to evangelise to government?