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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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred