LibDems relaunch website

There are quite a few surprises in the new Liberal Democrats website, launched today. First of all, and quite a relief, is that it’s not predominantly yellow / gold / orange for once. Secondly, curiously, is that it’s been built – and is apparently hosted – in Belfast. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
I rather liked the old LibDem site: it was a bit cold, and a bit ugly, but I felt it laid the groundwork for some interesting things going forward. For its replacement, more effort has clearly been put into the aesthetics, hitting you with a big and brutal image carousel at the top of the homepage. Unfortunately, it seems to have come at the expense of the features which made the old site interesting. Gone (as far as I can tell) is the collection of data from external sources such as MPs’ blogs, TheyWorkForYou, or Flock Together; and you’ll need to dig into the ‘media centre’ to find any outbound RSS – no autodiscovery on the homepage, tsk tsk.
Mark Pack recently wrote a spot-on piece about reviewing political websites, stating that you should only judge them on whether they meet the objectives they set for themselves. So how does this one measure up? Well, according to the site, here’s what the party stands for:

If you want things to be different, really different, choose the party that is different – the Liberal Democrats. There is hope for a different future, a different way of doing things in Britain, if we’re brave enough to make a fresh start.  Change for real, change for good.

Does the website communicate these values? Is it ‘really different’, ‘brave’, ‘a fresh start’? Hand on heart, I can’t say that it is. The design feels dated, and whilst it’s built around a solid enough core structure, there’s nothing really inspiring. In fact, as redesigns go, it’s rather conservative (small ‘c’).
And then there’s the Northern Ireland thing. On the homepage, there’s a map of the British Isles (plural) highlighting the site’s postcode search function: rather curious for a party which doesn’t actually stand (directly) in Northern Ireland, never mind the Republic. And if you enter a Northern Ireland postcode into the search box, it responds with a (polite) error message. Yet there’s an explicit reference to ‘N Ireland’ in the footer, which links directly to their sister Alliance Party’s site – without obvious reciprocity. Er…? Now I admit, I’m from that part of the world, I notice these things – but I’d have thought their Belfast-based design agency would have too. (Of course, it’s quite a coup for a Belfast agency to win the contract for a party which has barely a token official presence locally.)
The LibDems have a lot of work to do presentationally over the next six months. They need to differentiate themselves positively from the competition, in a climate where ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ (regardless of what the evidence says). They need to manage the transition from ‘rural’ to ‘urban’, as the Tories reclaim seats they’d lost, and Labour lose seats they’ve held. They need to claim the mantle of ‘the party of real change’ (although that’s going to be a tall order). And like all parties, they need to enthuse their supporter base. And I’m afraid this isn’t the website to do any of that.
Update: The party’s marketing chief, David Loxton explains the changes in a post at Lib Dem Voice. The primary objective seems to have been simplification – and I’d agree, it probably achieves that, although I stand by my comments last night about it failing to match the party’s stated core values. The prospect of ‘new social action network site’ sounds interesting though, and not a million miles away from

Presenting the new website for Lynne Featherstone MP

We’re proud to unveil our latest creation: a new website/blog for Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone (or try this link if the DNS hasn’t rolled over for you yet). It’s taken a good few months, and has thrown up challenges on a scale I haven’t had to tackle before. But equally, it presented several opportunities for cheeky innovation, and as you’ll know by now, I can’t say ‘no’ to those.
A bit of background. Lynne started blogging in October 2003, making her one of the first MPs to do so – although she wasn’t an MP at the time. And in fact, she specifically credits her website as a factor in her winning the Hornsey and Wood Green seat in 2005 (on a 14% swing). She was also the first MP to use Twitter, more or less. And she’s in charge of the LibDems’ online campaigning strategy. No pressure then.
We had five and a half years’ worth of blog posts in Blogger, with over 2,000 user comments, to be migrated to WordPress. Oh, and 2,000 hand-coded press releases from the local party branch, to be integrated too please. Plus accounts on Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. And what about her contributions to other websites? Not to mention her activity in Parliament?
LF lifestream
So the grand concept of the site is the use of a tabbed ‘lifestream‘ as the homepage. The initial view lists her last 10 actions, no matter where they happened – including Early Day Motion signatures, which required me to write my own scraper. Then, if you want to see her activity on one of those specific areas, you just click the appropriate tab. It’s all driven by RSS; the tabs are powered by ajax; the lists are generated by a cron for obvious reasons.
We’ve also made some first steps into Facebook integration. If you’re going to comment on the site, you can sign in with your Facebook credentials: this will pull your name and profile photo into the comment, and give you the option of adding an entry to your Facebook news-stream. I’ve used the official WordPress plugin, but it needed more tweaking than I probably expected, and didn’t always work reliably on all browsers. Let’s just say I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.
lf-osI’ve also used Ordnance Survey’s OpenSpace API to create a clickable map of the wards which make up Lynne’s constituency, with the precise boundaries marked, and map detail down to individual building outlines. I shouldn’t need to explain why this might prove to have been an – ahem – interesting move. It’s ready, but we won’t be activating it immediately.
The effort that’s gone into the issue and ward pages probably won’t be evident on the front end: you get a short summary, plus the latest posts tagged accordingly, plus any ‘blogroll’ links, plus – where relevant/available – the latest posts from other related sites or blogs, again pulled in via RSS. But crucially, all of this is done using standard WordPress functionality, in such a way that Lynne and her team can create new pages instantly. No (deep) tech knowledge required.
Naturally, it’s got all the sorts of functions you’d expect from a WordPress blog: sidebar widgets, paged comments, RSS feeds, decent SEO, etc etc. We’ve done pretty well in maintaining addresses from the old site: 50 to 60% of the URLs, at a guess, accounting for the vast majority of site traffic. And if you ignore the issues with Facebook’s custom markup language, everything (I think) passes HTML validation. Hooray!
There’s so, so many people to thank on this one. Jonathan Harris, who happens to be a constituent of Lynne’s, for the design work. Matthew Somerville for tweaking something for me within TheyWorkForYou, plus a couple of people within Parliament who tried to help me with EDM RSS through the proper channels, but ultimately couldn’t. Ex-LibDem tech supremo Mark Pack. Lynne’s staff and councillor colleagues for their early feedback. And Lynne herself for trusting me in the early stages, and encouraging me in the later stages when I didn’t necessarily trust myself.
Every site I do, I always try to do something innovative. This time, there are just so many things that I’ve never done before myself, or that I’ve never seen on a website in the same field. It’s been exhausting, occasionally terrifying, but great fun to do. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Nick Clegg's off-the-shelf redesign May09 500
There’s a new look to, ‘the official Leader’s site for the Liberal Democrats’, powered – as noted previously – by WordPress. And it isn’t yellow, not in the slightest. In fact, it took me quite a while even to spot the party’s bird logo, concealed in each instance behind signatures or other graphic elements.
This isn’t like any Liberal Democrats web design you’ve seen before… because basically, it isn’t a LibDems web design. It’s an ‘out of the box’ installation of the (free) Revolution Office theme for WordPress… seen here in its raw form.
Of course, on one level, this is another reminder of the power of WordPress. Redesigning your entire website is as simple as finding a theme you like, downloading it, and pressing the ‘activate’ button. A few minutes tweaking the settings, and you’re done. So quick, so easy, so cheap. Plus, depending on the theme author, a guarantee (of sorts) that your site will keep working, no matter what changes happen in forthcoming WordPress upgrades.
But I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with ‘off the shelf’ design like this. As soon as I understood how, I stopped using third-party themes, and started coding my own. Several reasons for doing so, I think:

  • A need to understand what’s happening under the hood… in case something goes wrong, and you’re called on to fix it. I don’t think you can get that from ‘plug and play’ theming.
  • Something instinctive about branding. Your brand identity is meant to be a representation of you, what you do, and why you do it. Deep down, I don’t really believe it can be ‘you’ if you’re just pouring yourself into someone else’s mould. It can’t have soul unless it started from scratch.
  • Total customisability. No matter how good an off-the-shelf theme might be, I can’t believe it’ll cover every possible requirement a client might throw at you. So you’re going to end up getting your hands dirty with code anyway; and if it’s your own code in the first place, it should be much easier. (See point one.)
  • Fraud risk. Yes, you use off-the-shelf because it makes it much easier for you. But equally, it makes it easy – far too easy – for someone else to grab a ‘lookalike’ domain, download the same theme, and build (in effect) a ‘phishing’ site.

(The only exception is the production of sites based on Steph’s Commentariat theme: as I’ve described before, I personally think it’s important – for now at least – that these sites look deliberately similar, to make a point about code re-use in HMG.)
Maybe I’m being too precious about this. On low-budget, low-ambition projects, an off-the-shelf theme will probably be more, much more than adequate. You can have a website with top-notch functionality up and running in, let’s say, an hour. Client is happy, designer is off to the pub.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to how you see your business. Companies make money by selling lots of something cheap, or a few of something expensive. You can churn out lots of identikit sites for lots of people: that’s a perfectly valid business model, albeit pretty intensive on the sales side. Alternatively, you can try to make each one special. Puffbox opted for the latter. And so far, we’re doing OK out of it.

Reality check: democracy inaction

Every now and again, you come across something which reminds you that, for all our great progress in e-politics, we still can’t do some of the absolute basics.
Tomorrow there’s a by-election where I live: the Thatcham South and Crookham ward of Thatcham Town Council. It’s not a big deal, perhaps, but it’s another chance for democracy to get some exercise. I received my polling card, and I was interested to find out what I could do with it.
To their credit, the Lib Dems have made a serious (offline) effort. We’ve had a couple of badly DTP’ed newsletters, a quite convincing pseudo-handwritten letter from the outgoing councillor, and a couple of knocks on the door in the very recent past. Plus, they’ve picked a candidate who rejoices in the name Marvellous Ford. A name you won’t forget, although not ideal for search engine optimisation.
But that’s all we’ve received, from anyone. So, who else is standing? I genuinely haven’t been able to find out. Nothing on the award-winning local paper website, or on the BBC site, or (that I’ve seen) in the various freesheets we get through the door. Nothing on the local Tory party website: I’m not even sure they’re putting anyone up. (There’s nothing on the local LibDem site either, actually.) Nothing on the town council website, apart from a PDF telling me there’s going to be an election. Nothing on the local authority website, under whose auspices the election takes place. Nothing coming up on Google.
Tomorrow I’ll do my civic duty. I’ll make my way to the polling station, and cast my vote. I will be doing so in complete ignorance of the choice being offered to me. And that, folks, is a bad bad thing.

All the LibDem news you can consume

I’ve often written in glowing terms about the Liberal Democrats’ approach to the web; for a good few years now, they’ve been doing some remarkably innovative stuff which, for whatever reason, was always overlooked. So it was a real pleasure recently to meet the party’s wonderfully-titled Head of Innovations, Mark Pack; and it led to a little Puffbox project to pull together some of their disparate material.
The Lib Dems run a number of blogs on very specific policy areas: defence, home affairs, the Al Yamamah arms deal. There’s the main party website, of course. And Nick Clegg’s personal site. Plus sites for the party’s representation in the Lords and the European Parliament. And the stuff they do on YouTube. And Delicious. And Twitter. That’s a lot of different RSS feeds to subscribe to; and no one place to look for an overview of what’s happening today.
So I’ve built them a new WordPress theme to sit at the top level of their blogs’ server, aggregating all this stuff into a single homepage, with a single RSS feed, and a single ‘blogroll’. Well, I say ‘theme’: it really only amounts to managing the blogroll, and a single paragraph of text. The rest is just stand-alone PHP.
It’s deliberately designed to match the main Lib Dems site, with a few tweaks to make it work better cross-platform. But I’ve also done an ‘iPhone version’, using exactly the same HTML, but calling a different set of CSS styles depending on the ‘user agent string’. We abandon the multi-column layout of the ‘normal’ version, to show it in a single column: it just works so much better with the smooth scrolling of the iPhone interface.
It’s our first piece of explicitly ‘party political’ work; and given our Whitehall focus, I had to think hard about (a) taking it on, and (b) talking about it here. But I concluded that it simply shouldn’t be an issue: being brutal, we’re a business, it’s legitimate work, there’s a recession on, and my mortgage won’t pay itself.
And since this isn’t a blog about politics per se, that’s where I’ll leave it.

LibDems' Featherstone on tech & politics

I mentioned the other day that MP Lynne Featherstone, a long-established blogger and the Commons’s first Twitterer had been announced as chair of the Liberal Democrats’ new Technology Board. In an article to be published by the New Statesman, she talks a bit more about her (considerable) experience with technology in politics. It’s a balanced, pragmatic and insightful piece.

First, you don’t have to know how to do the technology – you can get other people to help with that – but understanding what you want out of it and the new opportunities it offers is vital. Second, it helps bring political success – I wouldn’t have got elected an MP without it. And third, as much of the technology has got easier and easier to do, getting the technical details right is – while still important – becoming less important compared with getting your mindset right.

I couldn’t agree more… particularly with that final point. For all I bang on about good technical execution here, the fact remains that substance beats style. You could have the ugliest, most ancient-looking blog in the world – but if you’re filling it consistently with good stuff, all such functional and aesthetic sins can be forgiven.
Even so, it’s great to hear that Lynne is preparing to move off Blogger, in favour of – well, guess… 🙂 (To be fair, WordPress has been the LibDems’ platform of choice for some time, with their various subject-specific blogs running on WP MU, and Nick Clegg’s personal site on WP solo.)
So what’s this Technology Board all about then? Lynne explains…

There is work that needs to be done to continue improving and expanding the party’s use of technology, and in particular the internet, which falls into the category of getting more and better tools. There is a key job of work in tapping into the pool of expertise amongst our members and supporters in writing, improving and supporting our tools. But above all, it is a matter of changing the way we think and act, so that we more fully embrace the more open, more collaborative, more sharing outlook that is about engaging – not lecturing – and is, for an increasing number of people, an instinctive part of the way they lead their lives, and they expect others to also.

I’m watching with great interest.

Two new LibDem websites (Clegg on WordPress!)

What are political party websites actually for? We’ll see which way the wind is blowing over the next couple of weeks: the LibDems unveiled a new party site earlier this week, ahead of their conference in Bournemouth; and they’ve just opened they’re on the verge of launching a new site for leader Nick Clegg too. The Tories will be relaunching their site before gathering in Birmingham; most of the attention has focused on plans for a new group blog as a complement (or competitor?) to ConservativeHome etc. No word on anything significant from Labour, although that won’t come as much of a surprise.
The new LibDem site is, I’m told, built on Ruby On Rails; there’s also a bit of Prototype-powered Ajax functionality. It plays things fairly straight: if you’re looking for party news or facts, it’s all there for you. The feel is unquestionably ‘bloggy’, with plenty of RSS icons, a prominent ‘tag cloud’, and (generally) chronological presentation. But it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to inspire, persuade or otherwise stir your emotions.
Instead, the thrust is towards the local dimension – including nice integration with their excellent Flock Together site of local events, a database of LibDem People (including inbound feeds from their blogs and They Work For You where applicable), and a selection of posts on other LibDem sites/blogs. I note with particular interest the page of Online Tools to help party activists build their own sites, including specific widgets for Blogger and WordPress, as well as instructions for Mambo/Joomla sites.
On a functional level, I think the site’s a success. It’s easy to take in, with things in logical places. The chronological presentation is becoming a given these days. I love the widespread use of inbound and outbound RSS; I look forward to seeing how this gets used. And subjectively, I like the visual approach. On the down side, there’s a lack of warmth, of personality to it: but there may be a good reason for that.
Complementing the new party site is a new personal site for LibDem leader Nick Clegg – powered by WordPress 😀 (using a customised version of the Revolution theme, and yes, they do credit it). It’s immediately warmer and more friendly: first name terms, bigger and more smiley imagery, comments enabled on the site articles (written, sadly, in the third person), and so on. There’s a prominent ‘Meet Nick’ button, listing his public appearances: a nice touch, although it does invite comparisons with the Tories’ impressive Cameron Direct.
I note the Flickr, YouTube and Twitter links on the Clegg site are all to ‘libdems’-branded accounts (although not his Friendfeed account: the exception proving the rule, I guess). It’s surely a conscious decision to put this ‘warmer’ material here. And with politics increasingly dominated by the leader’s personality rather than his/her party, it seems like a smart move; I always felt Clegg’s promise to go to court in defiance of compulsory ID cards hinted at a conscious strategy to brand the party strongly in his youthful image. (Clegg’s constituency site remains separate.)

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.