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 anĀ 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.

Signs of life on the left

There are growing signs of life on the left of the blogosphere. An article a few days ago in the Independent (now displayed inexplicably as a photo gallery?) describes the ‘dramatic impact’ of Sunny Hundal’s Liberal Conspiracy site, launched late last year. (See, I told you.) We’ve had the sale of LabourHome to the New Statesman’s new backer; and conversely, the selection of LabourHome front-man Alex Hilton as Labour candidate in the new Chelsea & Fulham seat (although with the Tories theoretically 30% ahead on 2005’s votes, he needs a miracle). LabourMatters is an interesting attempt to ‘provide Labour news from the grassroots upwards’, aggregating press releases (sic) from ‘councillors, MPs, MEPs, etc’.
But what’s been particularly interesting in the last few months has been a growing self-assertion. Sunny Hundal led a boycott of Iain Dale’s now annual survey of the top political blogs, calling it ‘at best … an ego-massaging exercise which will inevitably push their own narrative that left-blogs are useless.’ Labour councillor Bob Piper opted out because he felt ‘there have been a few occasions when Iain Dale has been rude and derogatory about the standard of ‘left’ blogs.’ (The boycott wasn’t universally observed, of course.) LabourMatters, a blogger at LabourHome, dismissed the poll as a means of boosting Dale’s own Google ranking, and called for a policy of refusing to link to Tory bloggers. There has been active discussion about LabourHome’s ‘open door’ policy on site membership.
I guess this is a reflection of the wider political climate. After a long period of broad consensus, there are things worth arguing about. After two rather dull general elections, we’re looking at a real scrap next time. Blogs have earned their place in the political world, and with the stakes higher than they have been in a decade or more, perhaps it’s inevitable that they should become more tribal.
So it’s especially gratifying to see remarkable things like this: right-leaning Matt Wardman contributing an article suggesting (quite radical) improvements to LabourHome, with a contribution even from Guido Fawkes. In theory, these are precisely the people who should be wanting to see it fail.
That’s what attracted me to the political blogs in the first place. It was almost there was more that united them than divided them. Opinions naturally differed, but there was a shared belief in the value (or necessity?) of better reporting and debate. Your readers could learn from your great wisdom and insight, and equally, you would probably learn a lot from them too. (I think back to David Miliband’s New Statesman piece 18 months ago about ‘the politics of I Can‘.)
The left of the blogosphere unquestionably needed to raise its game, and I’m glad to see that happening. Better product on both sides (and in the middle) will lead to better outcomes. As long as it doesn’t result in the loss of the optimism and openness which make it such an intriguing medium.
(I see there’s an event at the Labour conference ‘to discuss how the ‘Labour blogosphere’ is developing’. Should be interesting.)