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