How the Left Can Use the Internet

The very fact that you are reading this on the Interweb shows that the New Media have reached you personally; and following the impact of the campaigning tools developed by Blue State Digital for Obama’s elections campaign; and first brought to the UK by Searchlight for use against the BNP in last year’s Euro elections, there is no doubt that new communications technology will play a major role in the next General Election.

The panel at last weekend’s Progressive London Conference to discuss New Media and Winning the Argument was very well qualified to discuss this, including as it did Clifford Singer, Alex Smith, Helen Gardner and Sunny Hundal, alongside myself.

Alex, who is the editor of the very good Labourlist website has very helpfully developed his views in this article.  Alex points out that the Labour Party has made great strides towards getting its act together:

At Labour HQ, a dedicated and expanding team of tech-savvy staff have been deployed, and has quickly got to work developing new ways for Labour supporters and sympathisers to connect. MembersNet provides a space for activists to organise; single issue campaigns have been launched to oppose, for example, the Tory-proposed repeal of the fox hunting ban and to capture a deep email database; and, most effectively, the virtual phone bank – an online access point for members to find voter ID information and canvass from their own homes in their own time – has been an instant success, with 1,083 members making 16,000 calls to voters in its first 90 days. In February, that phone bank will go mobile, with the launch of Labour’s new iPhone app

He also points out that:

mainstream media journalists are increasingly looking to blogs to inform their own journalism. In the autumn, Andrew Marr asked the Prime Minister about his alleged use of anti-depressants after it was trailed in the blogosphere. More infamously, one of the PM’s closest advisors, Damian McBride, was forced to leave Number 10 after Guido Fawkes discovered his intention to smear Tory opponents. It was a Lib Dem blogger, Mark Thompson, who initially discovered a correlation between the level of abuse of MPs’ expenses and the relative safety of their seats – which helped shape the news agenda and may even have been significant in the current momentum towards electoral reform. And LabourList’s publication of MPs’ emails attacking Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon after they called for a ballot on Gordon Brown’s leadership helped kill of their chances of success within a few brief hours.

Indeed Helen Gardner of BorisWatch explained that her scrutiny of the record of the Johnson administration, especially over transport issues, has helped inform the mainstream debate, not only with transport nerds, but with London Assembly members using her blog as source for their own questioning of Boris Johnsons record – so it is helping to frame both the mainstream political debate and the media narative

Clifford Singer is the genius behind the www.MyDavidCameron.com  phenomenon, and he also runs the Other TaxPayers’ Alliance. Making David Cameron a figure of ridicule is very politically damaging for the Tories.

 As Clifford explains

“But MyDavidCameron has gone much bigger. In the three weeks since it launched, it’s received 160,000 unique visits and, more significantly, its reach has extended beyond the usual politicos into countless discussion forums such as Mumnets, all sorts of football supporters networks, music and clubbing websites, and mainstream entertainment sites like Popbitch.”

The important distinguishing feature of www.MyDavidcameron.com is that it went viral, by engaging its audience: an audience which grew through twitter and facebook. Clifford makes the very good point that there is a “the glaring online gap between the populist satire of MyDavidCameron and those sites with a more politically committed audience, such as Liberal Conspiracy and Socialist Unity. We wanted to ensure that www.MyDavidCameron.com  included links to more overtly political sites for those who wanted to find out more. But those sites had to be clear and accessible to a relatively mainstream audience, rather than aimed at activists or academics. We had trouble finding any.

“This is not an either/or debate: we need sites dedicated to serious political analysis, discussion and theory. But we also need to think much more about how we get our message across to that elusive, wider audience”

This is a very pertinent point. In the left wing blogosphere there are few writers who have the touch and talent to write to a mainstream audience; paradoxically, the most obvious person who has the talent, and does sometimes pull it off triumphantly is Dave Osler, but he spends far too much time being cynical or hostile towards the left, instead of tackling issues from the political mainstream; and his comments threads include a lot of unpleasant bile.

My view is that politics takes place at three levels: the day to day interaction with voters; the discussion and organising of activists; and the strategic debate. The Internet affects all three domains of discussion.

An illustration of how the Internet changes the speed of communication is to consider that last March I published an advert for the new e-book edited by Jon Cruddas MP and Jonathan Rutherford of Soundings magazine. The response was very interesting, there were over a thousand downloads of the book from this website alone within 24 hours, and 4000 downloads from here within a week.

In total over 30000 copies of the book were downloaded, a significant slice of those coming from www.Socialistunity.com

In contrast, when there have been similar crises and needs for reorientation in the labour movement in the past, it has take long time for new ideas to percolate through small readership, specialist journals, such as the way the right wing Socialist Vanguard group used the magazine “Socialist Commentary” to popularise the ideals of Hugh Gaitskell, Evan Durbin and Peter Jay – which laid the foundation of the revisionist challenge that remoulded labourism in the 1950s.

Today the possibilities for strategic debate are encouraged by the way the Internet break down the barriers, and also makes control of information very difficult for leadership cliques; and of course allows people to explore their ideas non-attributively.

At Socialistunity we have been able to report both the debate and the activity of the political activist community in the left and the progressive movements. For example, ,we almost alone reported the massive protests in solidarity with Gaza in January in 2009, particularly in northern towns like Blackburn; we were able to explain the argument to a layer of union activists why the construction site strikes last year were not racist, clarify the positive role played by the UNITE union in the victory at Visteon, and helped to popularise the dispute at Vestas.

One area of difference that I think did emerge is that some bloggers, and I think Sunny Hundal falls into this category, think that the blog world is a significant battleground in its own right, with its own cast of heroes and villains.

Whereas I think that the change we need to see can only be assisted by the Internet providing the arguments, the debate and the information; but influence comes from the power to effect what people do in the real world; whether that power comes from economic and financial control, public office, ability to turn out enough votes to win elections, diplomacy and alliances; or indeed industrial and trade union muscle.

The Internet has changed the way politics is done for ever; and the changes are almost all for the better; but it is not a magic wand.

6 comments on “How the Left Can Use the Internet

  1. GBS Larking on said:

    Andy, I’ve been working out of the country for the past few weeks and can I just say that the SU blog has been my first reference in all sorts of ways. It has been excellent. If it had sufficient resource it could become the left wing daily that is sorely needed.

  2. Profound article……Blue Shit Digital achieved great success against the BNP in the European elections….not!! Har, Har, Har.

  3. My david cameron have said they wont be satirising the next tory poster, knowing its had its day. Still, this hasnt the tories from making their own p-poor fake poster sites. What will be next? The posters have already been turned into a 3d game (http://www.politicalgaming.com) and other copy sites are springing up.