Alex Smith: Ed Miliband’s master of cyber-spin

Alex Smith, Labour’s first dedicated online communications specialist, will take the fight to the Tory blogosphere.

Ed Miliband's new spinners Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts are rightly raking in the plaudits. Almost overnight, his bland, labouring statements have been transformed into a streamlined and effective critique of the Tory-led government. Where once Miliband opposed in prose, he now does so in tabloid poetry.

But there is a third member of the Milibyte media machine, one who shuns both the limelight and the shadows.

Alex Smith is the new leader's cyber-spinner. Residing in the fourth dimension, he occupies an electronic netherworld. Where old-style comms officers operate with sharp press releases and speed-dial mobiles, Smith's weapons are delicately nuanced Twitter hashtags and fiercely compacted URLs.

If the battleground of the new politics is to be the internet and the blogosphere, Alex Smith is Ed's cyber-warrior. Nicknamed "Cylon Smith", after the race of machines from Battlestar Galactica that turned with ruthless efficiency on their human masters, he is attempting to bring the discipline of modern press management to the chaotic arena of online politics.

He first came to the Labour leader's eye after his LabourList website became one of the first on the centre left to challenge the well-established Tory "blogemony". Building on experience gleaned from the inevitable secondment to the Obama campaign, he was poached by Miliband, for whom he successfully recruited young Labour supporters, and bloggers, to the cause. At the start of this month he cryptically announced he had "taken up a permanent post in the leader's office in communications".

The role of cyber-spinner is a difficult one. As one of Ed's more senior advisers once told me, "The trouble is we're still not sure how to engage with the blogosphere. We understand it's important, but when we deal with the lobby we know what we're dealing with. Bloggers are an unknown quantity. They play by different rules."

Risky business

Smith is the man charged with getting some ground rules laid down. Soon after Ed Miliband's leadership victory he hosted a meeting with a number of leading Labour bloggers to try to find ways of co-ordinating the left's online output. A number of ideas were mooted, from a collective "blogging hub" to a co-ordinated fundraising drive.

However, Smith's role has evolved beyond structural planning. Even before he accepted an official position with Team Ed he was putting in place a concerted programme of cyber-rebuttal. Initially, negative stories would receive a short, sharp response on Twitter. Posters would be advised that issues were a "non-story". Recently, more formalised responses have appeared. Earlier this week it was Smith who was first to attempt to rubbish reports that Charles Falconer had been offered, and rejected, the position of Ed Miliband's chief of staff.

This attempt to manage the blogosphere is unusual and risky. But even veteran bloggers acknowledge that Smith has demonstrated a sure touch in engaging with a difficult medium. "I think he's done a pretty good job," said one seasoned online scribe. "He's out there pushing messages, but he's doing it in a straight way. I work pretty well with him."

Other observers point to how he has nurtured a stable of supportive high-profile bloggers, including Sunny Hundal, Will Straw and Sunder Katwala. "He pulled these guys together during Ed's campaign, and he's kept them tight," said one insider. "They're all bouncing off each other very effectively."

Bobby dazzler

The proof of his success was highlighted towards the end of last year with the publication of the Total Politics 2010 Blog Awards. Left-of-centre blogs took up four of the top ten places and seven of the top 20. The previous year there was only one left-wing blog (Tom Harris) in the top ten and four in the top 20. Iain Dale, the Bobby Moore of the political blogosphere, heaped praise on the "strides made by left-of-centre bloggers".

Not everyone regards Smith's arrival as positive. Some Labour officials say there is poor co-ordination between Miliband's online and mainstream communications strategies. Others regard Smith himself as too inexperienced for a front-line communications post.

"He cleaned up the mess left by Draper [as in Derek, the former editor of LabourList], and got lucky with Ed. But he's not a communications professional," said one source.

May 2010 was supposed to have been the first "internet election". In the end it was the debates, the Duffy gaffe and old-fashioned grass-roots organisation that defined the campaign. But it is widely agreed that, as more of the mainstream media disappear behind paywalls, more and more broadcast output becomes available on the internet, and the army of political activists seeking to shape the political debate directly grows ever greater, the influence of the blogosphere will only increase.

As it does so, the influence of the virtual communicators will grow as well. Alex Smith is Labour's first cyber-spinner. And he has a plan.

UPDATE: The beauty of the blogosphere

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era