Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#Twinge - Twitter's potential for politics

At Labour's Conference last night there was an interesting debate on the use of Twitter, interesting because it showed in many ways the full range of attitudes to the use of the Internet and social media within Westminster. The debate was blogged live on Channel 4 news website and via Twitter (appropriately). Of the bits they showed, Tom Watson came over as the advocate. Not surprising really, given his history as a pioneer of new media and blogging in particular. For him though, social media is a way of connecting with like-minded people and given them opportunities to discuss issues of importance. For him, social media enhances democracy; possibly Kerry McCarthy (Labour Twitter Tsar) would agree. Caroline Flint rather sat in the middle on this. She was concerned about the time this kind of interactivity could take but also made what is actually a very good point that social media cannot be used to substitute other forms of interaction. But she also offered the typical political line: "at least you can get your version of the truth out there". So for her it has some uses but possibly more for propaganda and persuasion than connectivity or interactivity. Ed Balls made an interesting point about proving authenticity, and the fact that when you are a Minister people are sceptical that it is really you sending the tweets; absolutely true. He also commented on the fact it is hard to be interesting all the time, yes accept that too. But his comments also showed that his use lacked any real strategy and he was being taken somewhere through the use of social media. So he is led by the bandwagon perhaps, but is perhaps being drawn to communicate in different ways because of that. If anyone wants to seek hope from this it is perhaps in the approach of Tom Watson, the man who wants to bring people closer to politics. However, he may not be alone. Users like Ed Balls may become drawn towards a more inclusive style due to the nature of the communication and the use by one section of the Twitter community. So it may have potential for democracy after all, though still some like to announce what they had for breakfast - fancy boiled eggs now!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Forging a Progressive Alliance

One the day of the start of the Liberal Democrat Conference the Conservatives have launched a rather interesting tactical video. The video depicts a meeting between David Cameron, Eric Pickles and eight Liberal Democrats who have defected to the Conservatives. The message seems to be that if you are serious about politics, and about wanting a more progressive government then you should join the Conservatives. Indeed, in the email to publicise this, Eric Pickles is explicit in stating "I'm asking them to help form a progressive alliance to get rid of this failed Labour Government. An alliance built on our shared aims of personal freedom, a commitment to the environment, and a desire to protect the most vulnerable at home and in the rest of our world".

The featured defectors include Chamilo Fernando the youngest person to have been short-listed by a mainstream political party to be a mayoral candidate for London; Tarik Mahmood, former candidate for Rossendale Council and the seat of Uxbridge in 2005; Norsheen Bhatti, PPC for Chelsea and Fulham who recently courted some media attention for outspoken comments about Clegg's leadership; and Jeff Clarke who stood for Wirral West in 2005. They are an interesting group that, due to their backgrounds and ethnic origins, demonstrate diversity and openness. They are very much the embodiment of the concept of a progressive alliance, as are the reasons they give for their switch.

On a more critical note, beyond questions of the extent to which the video is scripted and more of an advertisement than a record of an event which are expected of such a promotional tool, this raises many questions about the state of British politics. It demonstrates the weakness of ideology, the fluidity of party loyalty and, perhaps, the hunger for having proximity to power as opposed to a party coalescing around an idea. It is leadership that matters to some, to others it is broad policy priorities; though this perhaps reflects broader society than just those within politics. It also perhaps indicates a further key theme for the Conservatives at the forthcoming General Election. While questioning the record of Labour they also seek to undermine the Liberal Democrats' support and attempt to reclaim the supporters they lost to the party in the South while also winning over previous Labour supporters who now lean towards the Liberal Democrat. This could actually be quite successful, particularly as the arguments are presented not by recognisable Conservative figures but by Liberal Democrat activists. Is it appropriate to ask for switching, well it has been done by all parties in marginal seats using derivatives of 'XXXX can't win here, so vote for... US'; this is a slightly More advanced version that may have resonance with those not fully sold on Clegg as Liberal Democrat leader, who recognise a sense of futility in the fact that the Liberal Democrats will not (or may never) form a government, and who buy into the compassionate, progressive Conservative project!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

We Have More To Offer

Is the translation of 'wir haben mehr zur bieten' the caption of an ad by the Christian Democrats in the current German election campaign.
While there are various readings and interpretations of the phrase itself, juxtaposed with the picture of party leader Angela Merkel and her colleague Vera Lengsfeld suddenly there are other readings and interpretations that may or may not be intended (though it is hard to imagine the pictures are chosen in a random way). Looking at the ad one wonders exactly what it was that the producers, and indeed Merkel herself, wanted to convey and if this is the sort of image and brand connotations Merkel and the CDU want or not. Interesting definitely!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I have heard a lot of discussions about the use of the Internet in relation to political engagement in one form or another. Political science approaches at the ECPR are becoming attuned to the new 'communicative ecosystem', in particular that it is no longer sensible to talk of a politics as usual when participation at some level is unavoidable - and if initiated by the political actors and organisations or not. Equally, discussions at the Web Metrics symposium organised by Royal Holloway University of London largely centred on understanding the users and fitting that to the strategy of either the research or the organisation.

In terms of political communication what seems clear is that organisations have a choice of whether or not to develop a Web 2.0 strategy, and in considering this the organisation has also to consider what benefits and threats exist. Parties and governments may see open access as a threat, as individuals contribute and so distort the message and make communication unmanageable. However individuals and other organisations see only opportunities. I noted this example from Greenpeace's use of Facebook. Canadian activists have seized two giant dump trucks and a shovel at the Albian Sands open-pit mine north of Fort McMurray and have vowed to remain chained to the equipment until their message was heard. It has received widespread news coverage; however Greenpeace are reaching a global audience via Facebook also, posting pictures and receiving 'likes' from their audience (see screenshot). The reason they may do this is that this might target their supporters better, mobilise support online and gain greater interest in this and their other campaigns. While 155 likes and 14 comments may seem paltry, one has to remember that all the friends of those 155 have been informed of their friends' endorsement. Some may look at the link out of curiosity, and thus the reach increases. Such tactics seem increasingly common and a part of the new networking ecosystem that social networking facilitates. Electoral politics, Obama aside, are behind the curve on this but activists are showing the way in reaching wide audiences quickly and cheaply.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conservative conundrums

Is it really six weeks since I last posted, how time flies. Summer is for holidays though, and the trouble with holidays is catching up afterwards, hence silence for a while. But it has also been somewhat dull in British politics. Dull because there is a lot of care being taken as all parties prepare for a general election. The most fascinating struggles seem to be taking place in the Conservative party. While there seem to be a constant stream of rumours surrounding behind the scenes machinations within Labour circles (for example); the Conservative power struggles are very public. The substance is also fairly revealing.

Alan Duncan's off message argument in favour of expenses was dangerous for the new compassionate Conservative brand; thus he was eventually dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet. Interestingly Daniel Hannan's rant against the NHS was simply dismissed as opposed to any form of censure against him. Perhaps this is because he is not a lone voice, given others also spoke out in support of him, but also because there is a groundswell of support for his stance within Conservative circles. However Edward McMillan-Scott is less lucky, he has been expelled for his opposition to the Conservatives' new alliance in the European Parliament and his decision to stand for Vice President against one of the party's new allies.

Perhaps what this suggests is that the party is struggling with certain policies that are extremely close to Conservative hearts. The party is clearly distancing itself from the duck houses that Tory grandees were buying to feather their nests (sorry, couldn't resist). They are perhaps not closing debates on the NHS, though are keen to marginalise them without fully extinguishing those voices. However the position on the EU is irreversible. The party wishes to be clear about its opposition to federalism and will not have that questioned. Perhaps the aim of all of this is to firm up the party's traditional support and amass it behind Cameron. Perhaps there is research that suggests he has more appeal among the floating voter than his own core support, an issue that dogged his early period as party leader. Perhaps what the party is doing is sending subtle signals to their core voters, supporters and activists that the party may have changed but certain values and positions remain.