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.
One of the few international set-pieces between now and the next general election is the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in mid-December. And the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is trying to drum up support among the population for – er, well, let’s not dwell on details. ‘A deal’ of some kind.
He’s launched a website, EdsPledge.com asking people to declare their support for his campaign, and spread it round their social networks. It’s a pretty modest affair… too modest, arguably. An imported feed from his Twitter account, lots of calls to action – but in terms of substance, only a 67-second YouTube video.
But you’ll need to be looking relatively closely to spot that EdsPledge.com (registered at the end of July) is actually a Labour Party website – which, in fact, sits within www.labour.org.uk. The Labour logo is in dead space in the bottom corner of the screen, and the footer text declaring the site’s ownership is light grey text on white. There’s literally zero reference to Labour in that 67 seconds of video – other than the choice of font, and who’s going to notice that? (Well, apart from me.)
Meanwhile, in the gov.uk domain, we have ActOnCopenhagen.gov.uk – proclaiming, would you believe it, ‘the UK Government’s ambition for a global deal on climate change’, a joint DECC/FCO production, hosted by FCO but ultimately using a DECC subdomain. (Hey… Miliband and Miliband. Hadn’t thought of that until now.) And guess what? It too has a clock counting down to the conference, a bit of Twitter and YouTube, and a ‘100 days’ message from Ed Miliband – plus, it has to be said, a lot more detail.
Of course it’s obvious why Labour should be trying to maximise the political potential of Copenhagen. And likewise, it sits perfectly within FCO’s wider public diplomacy remit, as well as the DECC portfolio. Nobody’s doing anything wrong per se, from a selfish perspective anyway. But I can’t help feeling we’re straying into dangerous territory here.
For decades, centuries even, the Civil Service sat as a buffer between politicians and the populace. Mass communication required budgets and infrastructure which the political parties couldn’t readily lay their hands on, or afford. But just as the music and journalism businesses have seen their previously cosy arrangements challenged by the disappearance of those barriers to entry, are we now seeing the politicians challenging the authority of their own departments for their own purposes?
There’s now nothing to stop a minister setting up his/her own website pushing his/her own line – beyond the control of The Department. In many cases, it could be much cheaper and quicker to go outside, rather than rely on the internal processes. And free from Civil Service rules on dispassionate discourse, it might be more effective too.
Now, whilst there could be tension between these two web initiatives, I suspect there won’t be in practice. Wearing my cynical hat, the Labour site seems to have two objectives – visibility for Miliband, and harvesting the contact details of potential Labour sympathisers/voters. There’s no real duplication of functionality or content, nor any inherent clash with the weighty objectives of the DECC/FCO site.
But this is the first time I’ve seen such an obvious attempt by Labour to mirror departmental responsibility; and it’s easy to imagine how other similar activity around other departments’ areas – let’s say Health? Defence? Treasury? wider foreign affairs? – might get a little more juicy. Keep an eye on it, folks.
Today I am launching Labourspace.com – 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 Labourspace.com 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.
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?