05 November 2008

Scottish Labour and the Blogosphere

Following on from last month's post about the SNP in the blogosphere, and with Hazel Blears attacking bloggery tonight, I thought I'd consider Labour's role in online politics.

Firstly, the obvious point to make is how few regular Labour blogers there are: with Kez's retirement, and the death of Elizabeth Maginnis, the core of the Labour blogosphere in Scotland is reduced to five: Ewan Aitken, Andrew Burns, Yousuf Hamid, Tom Harris and, unfortunately for the party, Terry Kelly. There are others but their contributions are fewer and further between. And Councillor Kelly's status as a pariah of the blogosphere notwithstanding, only Tom Harris comes close to the 'star' status that Kez had online. Yousuf is definitely the one to watch: his posts are readable, thoughful and respectful, but most importantly, he's the first Labour blogger I've seen who more often than not puts across the case for Labour, rather than falling back on "Alex Salmond/Steve Cardownie/David Cameron Ate Your Hamster".

But that's the thing. The blogosphere has started building him up as the next big thing, which is probably right and ought to be encouraging, but it's also dangerous. Kez emerged as a sort of Leader of Labour in the Scottish Blogosphere and as such became something of a lightning rod, no doubt encouraging the fellow travellers but also attracting the critics from the other side, in massive numbers. And of course, it's the critics who are more likely to speak up - that's a fact of life.

And with Kez leaving the blogosphere, that left a vacuum at the heart of Scottish Labour's online presence. But nature abhors a vacuum (that's why my dog attacks the hoover) and so the spotlight has shone on Yousuf. He gets the readers, he gets the following, but in time, he'll have to put up with the headbangers as well. And that might, understandably, put him off. We might build him up (though his own growing reputation as a reputable blogger will help as well), and we may well do so with the best of intentions, but round the corner are those who'll want to knock him down again. (And why does a political movement need an online "Leader" anyway? Doesn't that miss the point somehow?)

Perhaps it's a reflection at how few Labour bloggers there are that we get all excited when one arrives on the scene. But perhaps it's the treatment that was meted out to Kez that discourages others from getting their keyboards out. Maybe we need a little less fanfare when we see new Labour bloggers, so they feel like they're joining a community that's at ease with itself, rather then being placed in a zoo enclosure.

I wish I could answer that one, but I've been considering it for a few weeks and haven't found one yet.

But there's another point: the top of the Labour establishment seems to have a contempt for bloggery which must surely discourage members from getting involved. This is Hazel Blears:

There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

Let me take a look at that: some blogs are written by the cynics, but most of those involved are fascinated at the political process. Some get overly excited by it, including yours truly. And if bloggers get wind of a scandal or conspiracy, of course they're going to post about it. That's what happens, and it's not a new phenomenon, that's grown up with Web 2.0. People have been able to write about things like this for as long as they've been able to write. And they've been able to speak about them for as long as they've been able to speak.

And the thing is, the blogosphere is all about new, disparate voices and new ideas. It's all about legitimate protest, debate and challenge. And this is the odd thing about what Blears has said: she's blaming us for talking about scandals, conpiracies and hypocrisy. She's saying that our discussions on those are why people are cynical. Here's a wacky thought - maybe it's the fact that there are scandals that's the problem! When we see Peter Mandelson (and, indeed, George Osborne) on a yacht with Oleg Deripaska, and ask what's going on, the source of the failure isn't Guido, or whoever is posting about it. The hit to the political process takes place the minute Mandelson or Osborne boards the boat. Reporting a conspiracy doesn't devalue the political process, the conspiracy does that. Complaining about a politician being hypocritical doesn't create cynicism, it reflects the cynicism created by that politician's hypocrisy. So the blogosphere's cry of "O tempora, o mores" isn't the problem: it's a reflection the time of cynicism that we live in, and a lament at the customs in political life. But Blears has decided that rather than blaming the person who's hand has been caught in the till, she'll attack the person who catches them.

And when you get a Labour Government Minister slating blogs just for being, rather than noting that the anti-Labour online majority needs to be counter-balanced by a strong Labour presence, is it any wonder that Labour members aren't overly willing to head to the keyboard?

And while I'm here, one more thing about Blears:

And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers.

My, my, haven't we got big for our boots? What are us proles thinking, believing that our opinions are just as valid as Cabinet Ministers? Good grief, how can we possibly think ourselves in any way equally capable of coming to an opinion on world events than the übermenschlich Geoff Hoon? Don't get me wrong, I'd like nothing better than to see Jon Gaunt or Jeremy Clarkson treated as toxic waste, encased in concrete and buried underground for 10,000 years, but there's a dangerous principle woven into the choice of words used by Blears: she is arguing that someone's views (i.e. hers) are automatically superior to someone else's, and that your opinions don't count for toffee until you've been elected to something or appointed a minister. Never mind that our opinions determine who gets elected. Never mind that her argument actually makes the opinions of Baroness Royall (the Leader of the House of Lords) leass valid at the Cabinet table than Yvette Cooper's.

No, the idea that the valiity of your opinions is determined by the job you do or the background you have, as opposed to the principles you apply and the reasoning behind your opinion has gone out. It belongs to an age that is no longer with us. But still, Blears holds on to the concept of a stratified society that we were supposed to have left behind in 1997.

We are all human beings, with the capability of independent thought. And Blears claims she wants to see exactly in the blogosphere, which is dominated by the right. But not if you think something she doesn't want you to think, it seems.

Has this way of thinking crept into Labour? Is the fear of appearing presumptuous, or suggesting that it's OK for us plebs to speak out, what's putting off the Labour bloggers? I hope not. I hope this is just the brain of Hazel Blears at work, not the ethos of Labour and its members these days.

So Labour members, let Hazel think her thoughts of a class system at which she's at the top and everyone else just has to shut up. But think your own thoughts, and put them where we can all see them. We all have a right to Hazel's opinions, but we have a right to mine and yours as well. What do you think? Start up a blog, and tell the world!


Holyrood Patter said...

If yousuf is the Labour leading light, and I do agree, hes a charming chap, who are the leaders in all the parties blogs, from big to small

Ideas of Civilisation said...


I really think this fundamentally (although not exclusively) boils down to who was in power when blogging started up. As you say in your post people with a gripe are more likely to motivate themselves to do something.

It's unavoidable that the establishment party becomes the focus of attacks. Equally other parties will tend to have activists that are more motivated, the longer one party is in power.

Thus Labour being in the ascendancy in Scotland and the UK during the rise of blogging meant that they were not at the forefront of this movement. However when this begins to change I suspect blogging will too (although it won’t happen overnight).

Thus if in five years the Tories are in power down south and the SNP still in control in Holyrood I suspect that large parts of the Tory/SNP blogs (although not all) will have declined whilst Labour blogs will be on the increase.

It isn't instantaneous though. The SNP still have a honeymoon of sorts so their bloggers are still happy to make the case for them. So it will go for the Tories whenever they get back in. But eventually I suspect people will just find it harder to defend a government’s record the longer they’re in power, thus leading to a blogging decline.

Still I do think there is a peculiarity of sorts with the online SNP presence. Whilst much of it is due to the factors mentioned above the sheer scale and volume of ‘cyber nats’ must owe itself to other factors; you only have to read the deluge of, frankly, madness which appears below any online newspaper story featuring the SNP or even Labour. That of course isn’t just about blogging – and in fact is largely separate from it. But the issue of sheer scale is a genuine curiosity, which I don’t have a simple answer for.

For my part I have no real interest in reading those blogs which are overtly party political. There is of course nothing wrong with anyone expressing a preference but if all they ever do is rehash their party’s latest press release (i.e. we’re wonderful, our opponents aren’t) then what’s the point? Instead they would be as well just having a link straight to their party’s website.

That’s my main reason for blogging ‘pseudonymously’, it hopefully allows commentary and discussion on genuine issues rather than partisan bickering, which I suspect helps no-one (because it doesn’t change minds but it likely puts off any genuinely impartial people that stumble across these blogs).

northbritain said...

I wrote a large comment on Ideas of Civilisation's blog regarding this, if you're interested. I don't want to cover old ground!

So on different points:-

Whilst it is probably true that the establishment party might become the focus of attacks as IOC says, in my view its only a partial reason for Labour's lack of online presence.

The main problem I see is that the Labour Party don't have a clear vision of what they are about anymore. Without that vision just how can people become enthused?

Until Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came up with New Labour, the Labour Party was comfortable with its left-wing nationalising agenda. Maybe not electable, but comfortable.

The New Labour vision changed all that. At a stroke the Labour Party lurched to the right. While this won them elections in the short time, New Labour's lack of real roots; the lack of depth in party members that believed the new project; created the problems seen now as the party struggles for a narrative that will lead them through to another election victory.

So without this narrative its no surprise that there are less Labour bloggers.

As you say, Hazel Blears comments are hardly going to enthuse would be Labour bloggers to start!

This is a shame. (And I say that as a nationalist!)

Because she is wrong about bloggers. Bloggers aren't in disdain of the poltical process, they add to it.

And new voices, even new bloggers are essential to the continued wellbeing of political parties in shaping thought and policy in our changing world.

Without these new voices just how is Labour going to find its new narrative?

Should it undertake 3 terms of soul-searching like the Conservative Party before a David Cameron-like figure finds a new narrative?

Wouldn't it be better for Labour, if it was pro-bloggers, and these bloggers could energise the base and provide new thinking for the party?

If Hazel Blears views on blogging really are widespread among the Labour Party then it deserves all its time in the political wilderness come next election.

stuart w said...

Although I agree in essence with the criticisms of Hazel Blears, perhaps she does have a couple of points of sorts, but perhaps hasn't made them too well.

First, she's probably right with regard to the more extreme muck-raking side of blogging, a la elements of the MSM.

Second, perhaps her point about the commentators related to the "Jeremy Clarkson for PM" kind of thing rather than saying that the commentariat shouldn't..er..commentate.

Drew said...

As a Labour supporter who generally finds the Scottish blogging scene to be quite interesting, and mostly intelligent enough, and one who has gently toyed with blogging but never got motivated to actually get into it, here's my perspective, with apologies for the length.

The biggest reason is I think probably the incumbency factor which you rightly identify. When your party is in government, politics and issues often seem to be a lot more complicated than they should be and I think this does reduce the chance of some supporters engaging in some of the short and sharp comment of the blogoshphere. No doubt this will change once the Nat's have had a bit longer dealing with the tribulations and contradictions of power and Labour, at least in Scotland, renews its traditional campaigning focus.

That said, I think there is also a whole range of other lesser reasons which are quite specific to the left in general and Scottish Labour in particular, mostly tied up with the idea of discipline within a movement. By this I categorically do not mean control from the centre, or above, but rather a sort of self-limiting censorship which many activists see as being about protecting our still relatively vibrant internal democracy.

For my own part this was also closely related to the fact that I previously worked for a politician and was very reluctant to be seen to be speaking for someone else when I was in fact just rambling incoherently. As a general rule, which I can apply to my own party only, I personally do not think that researchers and other party support staff who spend more time promoting themselves, and less time promoting their employer - the party and the people the party represents - is a good thing. But I am aware that this is probably considered to by quiet old fashioned, or even rude, and it is maybe stuck a little too much in the mode of being the government party rather than the opposition.

Finally, while I enjoy reading some of the more informed partisan and independent writings I do also have a desire to see more detailed debate among relatively like-minded people on the issues which I am most interested in. However, so far using a public space to move a debate on within your own party is still somewhat uncommon on all sides - certainly most SNP blogs are pretty tame in this regard. Which takes you to a conundrum, do you try to balance some of that desire to provoke discussion with other more partisan (I dislike the term loyalty/disloyalty in this context) posts which are likely to attract the attention of your ‘opponents’ and move your scribbling on to a more adversarial footing.

One point which is also largely ignored is that Labour has quite a large internal network of blogs and other communications tools which are open to party members but not the public. A safe space for debate if you like, or, put another way - a bit of a sausage factory of policy discussion. One of the blogs I'll link to below started here and built a huge following.

Anywho, my own reasons for laziness in this front are primarily that, laziness, oh and awful spelling.

I am aware that the above is a trifle confused so perhaps I shall try and set it out a bit more clearly by blogging on it sometime!

PS, for an intelligent Labour read check out http://notavillageinwestminster.blogspot.com/, and for a CFS perspective, http://somerosesarered.blogspot.com/.

James Higham said...

Blears leads to tears.