Declining trust in politicians

The Committee on Standards in Public Life has published its latest survey of public attitudes towards public servants; and if anything, there’s a slightly more negative tone to this set of results, compared to previous surveys in 2004 and 2006.
For those of us who see engagement as a key area, there are some interesting numbers. 59% say it’s extremely important for public office holders to be in touch with what the public thinks is important; but only 28% said most/all MPs were, with Ministers faring even worse at just 20%. Three quarters say telling the truth is extremely important; but only 22% think most Ministers do, and MPs don’t do much better at 26%.
I’m surprised at the relatively low importance placed on MPs and Ministers explaining the reasons for their actions and decisions; but even in these days where Ministers have infinitely greater capacity to state their case, the survey shows a trend of increasing dissatisfaction. Then again, the same data shows we’re less likely to believe them anyway.
The survey also asked about news sources, with a whopping 70% saying they never look at websites with a political focus. However, as the report notes, among regular internet users, it was actually the 65-and-overs who were most likely to look at political sites (22%). You’d rightly expect readers to be more likely to be men, have degrees and read broadsheet newspapers; but there’s something intriguing about ’13 per cent of those with a political party affliation [reading political sites], compared with 9 per cent of those without one’.
You can download the full 130 page report from the Committee’s website; there’s bound to be some data in there to enrich your next PowerPoint presentation.

Political engagement with June Sarpong

June SarpongI never ‘got’ June Sarpong MBE as a TV presenter – she always seemed (at least) half-asleep to me. Her elevation to the status of Question Time panellist wasn’t met with universal acclaim. But to her immense credit, she does seem genuinely passionate about bringing young people, specifically young women, into politics – as the piece she wrote for Channel 4’s 25th birthday demonstrates.
Now she’s launching a website called Politics & The City. A quick glance at the homepage reveals a site that’s a lot more Sarah Jessica Parker than Sarah Teather. I’m not personally over-keen on the design: too much Flash, not enough clear visual direction. And although it’s not immediately obvious amid the supermodel namedropping, I’m assured there’s political content in there, somewhere.
An interview in today’s Independent tells the whole story. Content is being written by ‘two political journalists and two glossy magazine journalists’. There will be regular contributions from June’s celeb chums. You get the picture.
Apparently the site’s had ‘rave reviews from test audiences’. Maybe I’m too old, or too deep into politics already, or too masculine… but I don’t get it. Then again, as I said, I never ‘got’ June. However, since it’s been built using WordPress (by the Liverpool-based Interconnect IT), I’m obliged to love it. 🙂
Frankly, we’re at the point where any attempt to engage people in politics is to be welcomed. A poll quoted in this morning’s Times (and referenced on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog) showed – unsurprisingly – that people generally ‘like’ David Cameron at the moment, and ‘dislike’ Gordon Brown. But when they were asked if either man ‘means what he says’ or ‘says what you want to hear’, both party leaders scored equally badly – almost identically so. Depressing stuff.

Big test for single-issue politics

Like everyone else, I’m trying to make sense of David Davis’s decision to resign his Commons seat, and fight a by-election to win it back. He says he’s trying to start a national debate on ‘one of the most fundamental issues of our day.’ But when it comes to the vote, assuming he wins, he’ll only get a mandate from 1/643 of the country. In a seat he was already safe in, with his nearest challengers (the LibDems) not fielding a candidate. Result: we’ll end up exactly where we started, with a Conservative MP representing Haltemprice and Howden.
Nick Robinson offers a list of ten solid reasons why it’s potentially nuts. By any conventional measure, he doesn’t have a lot to gain… which leads me to think of something else.
We’re constantly hearing about general public disinterest in politics, but a continuing – and growing? – interest in ‘single issues’. Taking him at his word, David Davis is attempting to redefine himself as the nation’s Mr Liberty, effectively abandoning – or certainly, putting on hold – a successful conventional political career.
If Davis is to really pull this off, he needs to position himself at the heart of a national grassroots political campaign, crossing traditional party boundaries. It’s hard to imagine how he can do this without some kind of ‘politics 2.0’ initiative – joining up with existing online-led campaigns like NO2ID, perhaps, and confronting big hitters like ConservativeHome (who got a mention at PMQs on Wednesday, and are now voicing some regrets). Yet at the moment, his personal website ( has been subsumed into
At the other extreme, there’s the ‘playing chicken’ theory, which suggests that if Labour are so sure they’ve got public support on 42 days, let’s see them prove it. Except that in 2005, Davis got 47.5% of the vote, versus just 12.7% for the Labour candidate: hardly a level playing field. And it would be odd for a senior Shadow Cabinet member to lead such a ballsy party-political initiative (apparently) unilaterally.
One other cynical thought crosses my mind. With the Tories under Cameron riding high in the polls, there’s really no prospect of Davis ever getting the Ultimate Prize now. He might have nothing to gain by doing this; but perhaps he’s got nothing to lose either. Worst case, he bows out in glory, a hero, a man of principle.
If nothing else, the next few weeks will make for a very, very interesting spectacle. If single-issue politics really is the order of the day, here’s its big test. The implications could be staggering.

Puffbox's onepolitics site relaunched

A few months back, I built and launched onepolitics: an automated website which pulled together the latest blog postings from the ‘proper’ political commentators. It wasn’t ever meant to be a mass-audience website: I built it for myself, but if anyone else wanted to use it, they were welcome. As I wrote at the time:

I’m finding myself looking at onepolitics during quiet moments through the day, purely to see what’s popping up. I’m kind of interested in this sort of content generally, but not enough to want to be disturbed by every new item popping up in my RSS reader.

I’ve found it really useful, so much so that I wanted it to give me more than the fairly restrictive content it offered. I was also noticing the limitations of the initial build, based on WordPress and the FeedWordPress plugin; and at the same time, realising the awesome power of pure RSS. Plus, with more political content going into YouTube, I wanted to add a video element.

So in the last day or two, I’ve rebuilt onepolitics, dropping WordPress – see? it isn’t the answer to everything! – and driving everything through RSS feeds aggregated using shared labels in Google Reader. It now includes full representation of MainStreamMedia and ‘true’ bloggers. It should be faster to update, with the latest items appearing within five minutes of publication. It also includes an Ajax-style ‘video player’, showing the latest video clips from the parties’ official YouTube accounts. There are a few cute new design touches. The only flipside is, I’ve dropped the archive aspects… but looking at the usage stats, nobody was using anything other than the ‘latest’ list anyway.
The code is almost embarrassingly straightforward: it even relies on an old-school FRAMESET, for goodness sake. But it made things much easier to put together, particularly from a cross-browser perspective, and I’ve used a few presentational tricks to smooth the usability.
As before, it’s there if you want it. It helps me keep on top of what’s happening on the political blogs, and if it helps you too… great.

On the political parties' sites…

I’ve been looking at the various political party websites today, planning a possible enhancement to my onepolitics website. A few nuggets you might be interested in…

  • Plaid Cymru are on Twitter. Only a token effort, and only 9 mates. But it’s a start. (And its bilingual.) To their credit, they’ve also got presences on YouTube, Facebook and Flickr (details here).
  • The SNP don’t seem to have a YouTube presence. Seems odd, when they were among the first to get into it. (Anyone know of it?)
  • One thing the SNP do have, and it makes me a little uncomfortable, is a News Aggregator on their main party site. Why uncomfortable? Because it’s effectively just republishing an RSS feed from (using Drupal’s built-in aggregation tool, by the look of it). Yet another blurring of the line between government and politics… and very awkward, where independence is an important characteristic (eg National Statistics stuff).
  • and most worrying of all… if you look for the site of Ian Paisley Peter Robinson’s DUP, and you happen to be running Google’s Desktop search app, you get presented with this.

Visiting this site may harm your computer!

PoliticsHome: overwhelming and soulless

‘Staying on top of modern politics has become a full time job,’ declares the long-awaited PoliticsHome on its About page. ‘Things move too fast: it is too much for any single person to track.’ Unfortunately, the same can be said about the site itself: load up the homepage, and a torrent of headlines hits you head-on.  It’s overwhelming, and it leaves me dazed. I complained that the new Foreign Office site didn’t guide the eye: I take it all back.
There’s no doubt that, if a political story is out there, PoliticsHome has it in here, somewhere. Most of it is well-intentioned: the whole ‘live reporting’ aspect, a few ‘ticker’ areas, a nice grouping of the various sources’ coverage of the day’s big stories, a diary, a bit of story categorisation. A couple of ideas look familiar – the ‘newspaper front pages’ is a direct lift from my work at Sky News, for example.
But it looks like an ugly big database, more like a stock market terminal than a ‘super blog’, or an online magazine / newspaper. It’s hard to imagine a less engaging design; maybe they don’t consider that a priority. But having brought some famous faces on board, such as Andrew Rawnsley and former BBC man Nick Assinder, I’m surprised not to see them making more of the faces and their original material.
The idea of scrolling 100 items horizontally, in the window at the top of each page, is ludicrous; it’s utterly unusable. I’ve got a few issues with the technicals too: some page elements seem to refresh randomly, then there’s a brutal full-page refresh if you leave it five minutes. Quite simply, there are better ways these days.
I fear PoliticsHome has miscalculated. Politics is increasingly about personality, warmth and engagement. That’s why the blogs’ visitor numbers are growing (regardless of the accuracy of the specific figures). But PoliticsHome feels cold, functional and soulless. I don’t expect to use it.

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.

Cameron's online challenge

David Cameron takes his ‘be my friend’ campaign to the Guardian’s Comment Is Free this morning, with a piece about the internet ‘transforming our political culture’, and how young people are more political than ever – just not via the old-style channel of political parties. As I noted last week, he’s presenting this new concept of being a ‘friend of the Tories’ as membership-lite:

We understand that for many, the idea of signing up to a party as a full “member” doesn’t fit with what they want. For example, they might support us on some issues, but not others. By becoming a “friend”, they can campaign for action on what they really care about.

I’m still to be convinced: it’s still just party membership, albeit with fewer strings. But the most interesting aspect of the article is its final paragraph, a naked challenge to the PM:

I don’t think Gordon Brown understands the changes that are happening in our world. He’s still too attached to the old politics – where power and decision-making lies in the hands of a few at the very top. My generation, however, instinctively understands these changes. And I’m proud that it’s the Conservative party that is leading the way.

And whether you like or dislike him and his party, you have to agree with that statement. Over on the red side, what’s Labourhome’s top story?

In a move brokered by Amicus Unite Deputy General Secretary Tony Dubbins, the Grassroots Alliance has agreed to back Mike Griffiths for General Secretary, having secured the withdrawal of “wildcard” left-wing NEC candidate John Wiseman, the Labour candidate in Westmoreland & Lonsdale.

I feel engaged already.

New report on politics and internet

Provocative stuff from Mick Fealty over at the Telegraph’s Brassneck blog. He highlights a report by the Centre for Policy Studies which suggests that ‘the internet could offer MPs an unmatched opportunity to create a niche for themselves, and to re-empower local politics.’ And echoing the Economist’s point about government in competition, he notes:

The most subtle, but perhaps most powerful, change, will be to the public’s mindset. As we grow used to the instant availability of information online, we will no longer tolerate delay and obfuscation in getting similar information from government. The individual, and not the state, will be the master in the digital age.

A weighty 60-page document landing on your boss’s desk may give you some useful extra leverage, but regular readers of these pages can probably skip the first half: it’s a rather predictable mix of stuff you know already, mostly from across the Atlantic. The good stuff starts at the half-way point: I particularly like the notion of a continuing dialogue between MP and constituents, in good times and bad. As author Robert Colville points out:

MPs traditionally hear from their constituents only when they are angry or in need – whether that be by post, or email, or at a surgery or public meeting. Most normal people will never contact their MP, due to constraints of time or motivation. This, naturally, promotes a rather jaundiced view of humanity among our elected officials. Yet by inhabiting the same online spaces as their constituents on a day-to-day basis, MPs will interact with them in much more normal conditions – when the MP is not the privileged voice of authority, but merely one member of a conversation among many. In doing so, perhaps they will get a much more realistic idea of what their constituents actually think.

The thrust of the report is undermined, sadly, by the curious formatting issues on the press notice announcing its publication. The link to download the full PDF is at the very bottom, behind an almost undetectable ‘click here’ link.