Beware the power of the tweet

Political parties need to leave the old command-and-control structures behind

The purpose of holding the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war in public was to ensure transparency. But with the frenetic pace of today's media, the truth often gets mangled, as time for serious analysis is replaced by instant judgement. The advent of 24-hour news channels, blogs and Twitter (which is often the first place where stories break) has placed a premium on shock headlines.

Take the attempted coup by Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. Chatter about the plotting dominated the news for days, but it transpired that it was supported by only five other MPs. Or the furore Islam4UK caused with its plans for a march, which garnered huge coverage despite this being little more than, according to one expert, a "tiny group of extremists".

With so many media outlets, the purveyors of news are desperate to catch your eye. The usual news cycle is being replaced by what Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, calls "news streams". One lobby journalist told me that writing blogs can be liberating for someone used to working with sub-editors, but it can also become a distraction. "You have to remind yourself to go and talk to MPs," he said.

But while the digital world that we live in has its downsides, it has provided an exciting new arena for exchange of information between the government and the governed, or between one activist and another.

Since it launched in May, the online campaigning organisation 38 Degrees has attracted more than 60,000 members. Based on the successful model of the five-million-strong Moveon.org in the US, 38 Degrees is urging people to petition John Chilcot with what they see as important questions for Tony Blair.

This kind of activism -- largely unreported by the mainstream media, but uniting those with a desire for substance over sensationalism -- is typical of what many see as a yearning for greater engagement and accountability in politics. Last November, I attended the annual assembly of London Citizens at the Barbican Centre, where representatives of 50,000 people debated the living wage and other critical economic issues, as well as danced and drank and socialised. James Purnell said that the evening would have felt "quite familiar to Keir Hardie and the trade unionists and churchgoers who founded the Labour movement".

Or what about Power 2010, a new body funded by Joseph Rowntree that has already attracted 25,000 votes on its long list of proposed reforms for British democracy? Each of these organisations is bypassing conventional party politics, building a pluralistic movement and effecting change.

These developments are taking place while the main parties have been sleep-walking into the 21st century, haemorrhaging members. Labour membership is down from 400,000 in 1997 to 170,000 today, while the Tories have lost a quarter of their membership since David Cameron became leader. Little wonder when the big decisions have been taken in small cabals, with little sense of the membership's point of view.

The respective party headquarters on Victoria Street in London are trying to learn from this grass-roots activism. "The internet challenges a lot of the assumptions that established organisations are based on," says Sam Coates, deputy head of new media for the Tories. "What political parties do day to day will increasingly merge with the activities of interest groups and media organisations."

Both major parties were obviously inspired by Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Labour has harvested tens of thousands of email addresses from voters who care about the environment through Ed's Pledge, a website dedicated to action on climate change. Similar sites encourage activism for development aid and the ban on fox-hunting, and help the party meet people in their own space.

Labour has sent out 20 different versions of an email from Harriet Harman asking for donations to find out which approach worked best. Meanwhile, the Tories have put their draft manifesto to the test by inviting questions and comments through Google Moderator.

The Conservatives -- with their vibrant blogosphere and snazzy website -- were quicker to adopt the lessons from the US, but Labour appears more adept at responding to the latest innovations. Twitter didn't feature in Obama's campaign but has quickly become Labour's mode of choice. Tweetminster, an aggregator of political tweets, published a report this past week showing that the Labour Party has more activity on Twitter than the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats combined.

"We are providing the tools so that people are able to mobilise of their own accord," one Labour insider told me. The Manchester-based activist Grace Fletcher-Hackwood took up the challenge and has used Twitter to encourage Labour supporters all around the country to spend their Monday evenings speaking to voters through an application on Labour's website.

There is a warning, however, from the Labour blogger and activist Luke Akehurst. "Blogs, tweets and Facebook are actually more likely to be what loses a party the election than what wins it," he says. "As the Damian McBride affair showed, one ill-considered email, tweet, blog post or Facebook status upset by a candidate or campaigner can provide a lot of ammo for the old-fashioned media to shred a party's campaign with."

Once campaigning starts in earnest, party leaders will find themselves balancing these concerns. But if political parties want to emulate the new movement politics, they will need to leave the old tribalism and command-and-control structures behind.

Will Straw is editor of Left Foot Forward

This piece originally appeared in the 1 February issue of the New Statesman

 

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Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage