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

Getty
Show Hide image

The surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496