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.

Ed Miliband wants your email password

Today’s big event on LabourList is Ed Miliband’s piece on the launch of He writes:

Today I am launching – the Labour Party’s campaign social networking site. I hope it will provide a unique home for organisations and people to host and promote their campaigns – and to bring their ideas to the attention of Labour ministers and the wider Party.

Before anyone writes about this great new initiative: I direct readers to this piece I wrote in March last year, on the subject of ‘Labourspace: great idea, awful execution’. This site has been around for at least nine months, possibly longer – and any tweaks since last March have been minimal. Its domain was registered as far back as August 2006. So we shouldn’t be judging this site by its potential: we should be judging it by its impact over those nine months.
It isn’t pretty. The most popular campaign on the site is ‘Proud of the NHS at 60’ (in 2008): a massive 16 people appear to have endorsed it in the last 4 months. And when you click on ‘Labourspace winners’ to see which campaigns have been ‘brought to the attention of senior Labour politicians’… you see a promo graphic. Ouch.
Jon Worth wrote something on this last week, wondering: ‘Is anyone except a party hack going to use the tools that offers? Sadly I think that the answer to that is a no.’ I (still) agree. And in these days post-Facebook’s explosion, the exponential growth of blogs, and everything else – surely it’s less likely now than it was a year ago.
Worst of all… the ‘tell your friends about this campaign’ feature still works the same way: it wants you to hand over your personal email account login and password, so it can bulk-import your contacts, and help you spam them. I couldn’t believe this back in March, no matter what ‘do no evil’ promises they wrapped it in; and I’m stunned they haven’t had a rethink on it. Just insane.

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?

Labour: new website, same old story

Conference season is as good a time as any to refresh a political party website. The LibDems did it last week; this week it’s Labour’s turn; and we’re already hearing details of a new Tory site for next week.
So is this finally the recognition of Labour’s previous online under-performance? Er, no it’s not. It’s bright, it’s red, and it seems (finally!) to have settled on a consistent logo and typeface. The homepage concentrates on latest news and ‘calls to action’. There’s a box of ‘local news’, and a feed from its Labourspace social network. All good stuff in theory, but the execution – editorially and technically – is frankly awful.
Let’s look at the news side first. Look at the appalling use of headline and (remarkably limited) summary space:

So in the week of Labour’s big showpiece public event, with a lovely stage set and lectern and everything, we get a series of ultra-boring file photos. Headlines which tell us precisely nothing that we hadn’t already guessed. And – unbelievably! – nine word summaries, which repeat the anodyne headlines, word for word. (The ‘Happy Mondays’ reference is an honourable exception, especially given the conference venue.)
And to make matters worse… the site’s RSS feed repeats exactly the same content. Even if someone took a design decision that short summaries were cool, why on earth wouldn’t Labour be putting out full-text RSS? It’s not as if they need to attract eyeballs to the site to satisfy advertisers. (It doesn’t validate, either.)
The ‘local Labour news’ is getting its headlines randomly from local Party sites -most, or possibly all, built on the Party’s official web platform, provided by TangentLabs. Except, more often than not, something doesn’t quite work. Quite often, I’m seeing stories with no summary. This shouldn’t be happening on a high-profile homepage; and certainly not if it’s sites created by the same company.
And as for the ‘call to action’ stuff? OK, let’s give it a try. I enter my postcode under ‘EVENTS NEAR ME’ – and get zero events in return. I enter my postcode under ‘LABOUR IN YOUR AREA’ – and it tells me where I live, and who’s standing in next year’s European elections.  No mention of any local Labour Party. There’s a tantalising reference to ‘Area Map’… but no map. I enter my postcode under VOLUNTEER – and it gives me a lengthy form to fill in, with (mercifully, at least) my postcode pre-entered.
To be honest, I can’t face digging any deeper. The site simply doesn’t look finished.

Talking '2.0' at the Labour conference

There’s a slightly odd atmosphere in Manchester, and I don’t just mean the sunny weather.

The Fabians' fringe meeting at Manchester Town Hall
The Fabians' fringe meeting at Manchester Town Hall

I’m paying a flying visit, to sit in on a fringe meeting at the Labour conference, to talk about ‘web 2.0’, blogs and all that. Just round the corner from the Town Hall is the main conference venue, surrounded by a ring of steel. It makes the countless ‘welcome’ signs seem a bit insincere. We’re here to talk about using new media to bring the public into politics; meanwhile, outside, the steel barricades and patrolling policemen ensure the public don’t get too close.
I consciously claim the seat in the very back corner of the room: the fringe of the fringe, if you like. I’m here partly out of personal curiosity, partly for business development. I’m not a Labour member; and in my work activity, I’ve always been deliberately apolitical. I work for the government, not the politicians. A meaningful distinction? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
On the panel we have Liberal Conspiracy‘s Sunny Hundal, and Mark Hanson from LabourHome – representing arguably the two leading leftie blogs, but neither of which exists to promote a Labour message to the electorate. Derek Draper represents party HQ, and the FT’s Jim Pickard covers the view from the Lobby. A few familiar faces in the rather modest audience, and it must be said, a few notable absentees. Very few laptops on show, and as it turned out, almost no mention of technology (per se) all afternoon.
Thanks, Sky News
Derek Draper’s opening remarks set the scene. Labour came to power in 1997 courtesy (largely) of a ‘command and control’ approach to media. But on the internet, you simply can’t control the message.
Recognising this new reality would win the party increased respect, credibility and engagement. But a Party that was serious about winning elections would have to be disciplined in its communications – a tactful reference to the week’s front-page story in the Independent about the grassroots demanding Brown should go, based on an unscientific LabourHome poll. (Followed soon after, it must be added, by a much less tactful and more colourful reference to the same.)
From the floor, David Lammy cemented his visionary credentials, saying the old Labour structures simply wouldn’t cut it in the 21st century, and wondering how to engage the younger crowd who took leftie positions on ‘progressive’ causes, but didn’t identify with Labour. He was backed up by Fabian chief Sunder Katwala, asking what exactly Labour’s previous ‘big engagement exercises’ had achieved.
Then, from the back row, blogging MP Tom Harris brought things into sharp focus – basically, could Labour ‘do a ConservativeHome’? It was a point I picked up myself, when handed the mic. The meeting framed Labour’s problem quite nicely, I felt. LabourHome isn’t trying to be ConservativeHome, but comparison is inevitable, and is inevitably unfavourable. It wants to be an open forum for frank debate within the party, not a platform for pushing its official messages. Meanwhile, Sunny Hundal sees Liberal Conspiracy’s mission as undermining the Tories, without building up Labour (or the LibDems, or the Greens…) – with the risk, surely, that politics as a whole will be pulled downwards.
With no disrespect to the many valiant amateurs, in the room and on the web, there’s nobody of sufficient prominence taking on the Dales and Montgomeries, and fighting Labour’s corner. And besides, the problem goes way beyond who’s writing what on which blogs. Communication strategy may be the symptom, rather than the illness.
Even in a few short hours in Manchester, I sensed an air of fatalism. One way or the other, they know the next General Election will be pivotal for the Labour Party. If they don’t reinvent now, they will have to reinvent later. Significant people are asking significant questions, but it may all be too late.
Other write-ups, when/if I find them:

  • Sunder Katwala at the Fabians’ new Next Left blog (with more swear words than I took down in my own notes).
  • Tom Harris MP liveblogging (well, kinda). I’m inclined to agree: Draper was definitely good value. But was it ‘well attended’? It makes me wonder how many empty seats you get at other fringe events.

Lammy's lessons from Obama

Labour MP David Lammy’s speech to the Fabian Society on Monday wasn’t the first to say ‘we need to learn lessons from the Obama campaign’, and it won’t be the last. But it’s a well-constructued speech, and well worth a read.
He notes the eventual success of two ‘outsider’ candidates, prepared to take risks – on policy, on debate, and in campaigning. And there’s some interesting reflection on the online element:

It has put together a web strategy premised on connecting activists and supporters to one another, not just pushing out tightly controlled messages from campaign HQ. Suddenly in the US the web is being used to connect people with politics again – at a time when people are using it to circumvent politics in the UK. And the huge lesson for us is that the technology is neither particularly complicated, nor especially expensive or labour-intensive to run.

Timely remarks, of course, given the supposedly perilous state of Labour finances. But he’s absolutely right: the tools are cheap, often free, and easy. It’s not whether you can do it, it’s what you do with it. It’s also quite interesting to see him talking in terms of a ‘fightback’. It’s often said that campaigning is easier when you’re in opposition: by pre-emptively accepting defeat, could that kickstart Labour’s online efforts?

Playing party politics with hyperlinks

From the ‘you can’t win’ department… Guido today picks up on a piece by Shane Greer last week, claiming that ‘Brown uses Downing Street (web)site to promote Labour’. And what incendiary partisan material are we talking about, precisely? An external hyperlink.
The No10 site has a page of Gordon Brown’s speeches. Or strictly, as it states in the page’s first line, non-political speeches. If you heard that Gordon Brown had made a speech, it’s the logical first place to look. But what if the speech had been made in a party-political capacity? It would be wrong for No10 to carry that speech on their website. And nobody’s suggesting otherwise.
So what do you do – present people with a dead end, or try and be helpful? It’s not as if they don’t (or rather, didn’t) make clear that you’re crossing the line from government to politics. As Shane’s screengrab shows, the link stated: ‘political speeches at the Labour Party website’. And in keeping with the site’s approach to external links, it opened in a new window. Hey, there’s even a page explaining why they have to be selective about the material they carry, with links to both the Ministerial and Civil Service Codes.
Shane asks: ‘What exactly is the justification for using taxpayer (sic) money to drive traffic to the Labour Party website?’ Well, there are two.

  1. Good customer service. If you walk into a shop to buy something, and they’re out of stock, you expect the salesperson to suggest somewhere else you might try. It costs them a sale, but they do it because of plain common decency.
  2. More efficient use of taxpayers’ money. If you don’t tell people where else to look, they will contact you to ask. They will call the press office, or send emails. It’s much more time-consuming, and hence much more expensive, for a civil servant to have to respond personally to those calls and emails.

The link has now gone. Party politics 1, common sense 0.
But let’s not pretend this is a Labour thing. I worked in government comms as far back as 1995. People would call up, asking for speeches by Conservative ministers – notably during the party conferences, but not exclusively. We either produced a transcript scrubbed clean of party-political material; or we gave them the number for Conservative Central Office. It was the right thing to do. Were we using taxpayers’ money to help promote the Tory Party? By Shane’s argument, yes. Sorry.
Disclosure: Although I’m doing some work for/with the No10 web guys, I don’t have any inside knowledge of this matter. I haven’t spoken to them about it, and was not involved in this decision in any respect.
Disclaimer: Although I’m linking to their websites in the text above, I do not endorse the views expressed by Shane Greer or Guido Fawkes. My company, Puffbox Ltd, is not using its proceeds or resources to promote either Mr Greer or Mr Staines. Just so we’re clear.

Anyone see Gordon Brown's live webcast?

Did anyone log on to the live Labour Party webcast last night? Or indeed, did anyone know about it? The party claims 3000 questions were sent in by text (or via the web, I believe?), to be put to the PM by comedienne Arabella Weir during the 30-minute Q&A session. The Labourhome website appears only to have posted word at 2pm, which doesn’t exactly ooze engagement with the grassroots.
In principle, it sounds like a clever use of a Party Political Broadcast, as an immediate call-to-action. But I didn’t see it live… and disappointingly, there’s no recorded footage on the Labour site, or on YouTube. All I’ve found so far is one blog posting, which talks of a ‘ghastly problems with mics’. So if any of you were among the ‘thousands’ who apparently logged on for the event, please, tell us more.
Update: it’s now been posted on YouTube. Thirty-three minutes long, I notice. Whatever happened to the 10-minute limit??

Tories hit Twitter; where's Labour?

It really is Twitter week in Westminster. Barely ten days after the first MP began tweeting, and only a week after Number 10, the @Conservatives have launched an official channel – although so far, it’s precisely the one-way Twitterfeed-powered channel we all expected @DowningStreet to be (but wasn’t).
Likely to be more interesting is @conhome, the Twitter feed of the influential ConservativeHome website. It’s being written as a joint effort by the look of it, with identified authors: not a normal way to run a Twitter channel, but more likely to generate two-way tweeting, I guess.
Meanwhile there’s no stopping LibDem Lynne Featherstone, who started all this: she’s even been tweeting from the benches of the House of Commons chamber. And of course, her LibDem mates first tweeted back in May 2007, with an experimental election night service. The account is still active, with occasional alerts.
All of which brings us back to the age-old question of the Labour Party‘s general underperformance in new media. @Labour does exist, but it’s the Irish Labour Party. I’ve guessed at a bunch of possible Twitter IDs which Labour HQ might use; and all are still coming up as unregistered. Hey, even a basic Twitterfeed-powered channel would be a sensible starting point, and a defensive claim of the best ID.

BREAKING NEWS: Looks like there’s movement on the Twitter front. @uklabour is now pumping out Twitterfeed-powered updates from various sources. Thanks to Paul in the comments (below).

Instead, Labour seems to have been putting its efforts into a special homepage for its local election efforts. It has a campaign blog whose RSS feed doesn’t know what character set it’s sending, and thinks an appropriate story description is the first four words. There’s a box to make an online donation, which asks for your name and a donation amount, then seems to do nothing sensible with them. It’s terrible.

Labourspace: great idea, awful execution

Relaunched* (presumably?) at the weekend’s Spring Conference, is the Labour Party’s campaign-based social network. Ed Miliband’s welcome message calls it ‘the place where those of us who share Labour’s values come to discuss how we want to make Britain a better place to live.’ There’s much to like about it, but they get some things stunningly wrong.
As the name suggests, MySpace is the role model. You’ve got pictorial lists of friends campaign supporters, and a campaign blog (with comments, but without RSS). There’s a simple one-click process to support or oppose the campaign in question, as well as a curious ‘revoke’ option (?). But it’s the addition of the pro-active viral aspects which make it interesting. The campaign’s ‘top recruiter’ gets their picture on the campaign profile, and there’s a competitive element to the site, based on the number of supporters recruited each monthly (?) ’round’. There’s a big button to ’email a newspaper about this campaign’. And there’s an ’email a friend’ option too.
But, er, hang on. The ’email a friend’ option wants me to supply the username and password for my personal email account? Are they serious? I imagine they want to scour my address book for people I might want to spam about my campaign… but come on guys, did you miss the recent news stories about data security?
That’s far from the only downside. There’s very little explanation of how the site actually works, apart from a Flash movie on the homepage (which nobody will sit through)… not even an ‘About’ page. The registration process is very intrusive, with address and postcode mandatory. You need to be a registered member to do almost anything, including comment on the blogs. They’ve given zero thought to SEO, judging by the lack of sensible page titles or URLs – and frankly, it looks a bit ugly.
Plus, I don’t believe ‘bringing your campaign to the attention of senior Labour politicians’ constitutes an adequate ‘prize’. If Labourspace is going to get any kind of traction, senior Labour politicians will have to take notice of it regardless. (See ConservativeHome, for example.) Offering attention as a prize doesn’t bode well.
This site could have been absolutely fantastic: e-petitions taken to the next level. But they’ve gone out of their way to make it difficult to engage with. With David Cameron talking today about making it easier and less onerous for people to connect with his party, this seems completely the wrong approach.
The Spring Conference date was known well in advance. So, what would I do with it?

  • Lose the ‘hand over your email password’ thing immediately. Unforgiveable.
  • Write a few pages telling me what the hell is going on. Dump the Flash intro.
  • Lose the Labour brand. Make me want to engage with the site, its community, its campaigns. Then let me be pleasantly surprised that it’s a Labour-backed initiative.
  • Don’t make everything ‘registered users only’. Encourage outsiders to participate.
  • Improve the design, and give campaign owners some freedom to design their own space.
  • If you’re going to do blogs, do them properly. RSS feeds would be a start.
  • Consider adding a spellcheck. It doesn’t give me great confidence in Labour’s education efforts if site members can’t spell.
  • Where’s the ability to take campaigns outside – to my own blog? my own Facebook profile?
  • Think about SEO. Start with proper page titles.
  • And clean up the source code: what’s with all the commented-out ‘lorem ipsum’ on the homepage?

Someone is eventually going to build the ultimate political campaigning platform. This could have been it. It isn’t.
*Update: sorry, just after I first posted this, I discovered it’s been around for a while. It looks like this is a relaunch rather than an initial launch, rebuilt on a new platform.