Politicians need to engage not constrain bloggers

by Peter Watt

I had an interesting conversation this week with someone who still works inside the political bubble. They recounted how they had been trying to persuade a member of the shadow cabinet (I was going to say “senior shadow cabinet”, but everyone always does) on the merits of the Labour blogosphere. The shadow cabinet member was irritated that they were suddenly expected to take bloggers seriously. Why, they contended, should they have to take this self-appointed group of experts on nothing seriously? After all, all they seem to do is moan, criticise and complain. Of course, the same thing could be said of many journalists.

I have some sympathy with this Luddite shadow cabinet member. The rules have changed, suddenly we are all experts and commentators. Stories break and are commented on faster and faster. Trying to manage a story or maintain message discipline is increasingly difficult. The internet, Facebook, Twitter and the like have all meant that even if you wanted to run a command and control political operation, it would be pretty bloody difficult.

There is a problem here though. Political parties still want to operate as if they can control the message, in the same way that they did five or ten years ago. On the whole it worked then after all. Decide what you are going to say, and then say it often without deviation. As Ed Miliband discovered recently, it can occasionally sound a bit odd. But sound bites are only a manifestation of the truism of the goldfish like attention span of the average voter after all. Well, when it comes to listening to what politicians say that is.

But the rules have changed. Now analysis of almost every word, almost every mannerism of politicians, is scrutinised and broadcast by an army of armchair political pundits via the internet. Cynicism about politics is rife and trust is low, and their analysis reflects this. Message discipline alone is not enough.

But the demands of the media, of the blogs, online chat and so on, mean that most politicians remain most worried about saying anything “off script”. Inadvertently causing embarrassment to the party is not good for the career after all.  Politicians are now so adept at saying nothing, that to a large extent much of the debate in politics is now taking place without them in the very forums that they fear. Interviews are stilted and rarely shed any light. If anyone, beyond terminally committed voters, is listening or watching, then the interview often just confirms the view that politicians are basically slippery. “They never answer the question” and all that. It is pretty difficult to sound sincere, let alone be sincere, when you are just repeating a script. Even more so, if people suspect that you are not saying what you really think.

This culture of sticking to the script is so pervasive that most members at the party conferences, even after a few drinks, will not stray from saying much more than “everything is fine here, nothing to see, move on”. Or, “the others are really bad, it’s all of their fault”. Even when it is blindingly obvious that everything is far from fine. All too often political interviews or discussion can seem to come straight from the Comical Ali school of PR. Looking stupid is preferable to rocking the boat.

You can even see people trying to stifle debate on the political blogosphere, in the name of managing our message. People are condemned as being disloyal for writing things that the leadership allegedly might not like, or that our opponents might. Certainly expressing concern about directions of travel can invite abuse. I can understand this; after all I used to be a part of a party machine that prided itself on imposing discipline after the dark and anarchic days of the 1980s. Shutting down debate and ensuring message consistency was a key skill for the party, and it helped make us electorally successful. Fear of returning there is understandable.

But times have changed. You can no more stop discussion and debate taking place on the internet, than you can stop any inevitable analogy you can think of. If people are expressing concern in conversations in the pub, at work or even in party meetings, then it will end up being reflected in a discussion somewhere online. To pretend otherwise is folly. And so, in response, political parties need to change as well. Simply using sound bites and obviously sticking to a script looks wooden. People can see through the charade. Debate and nuance is expected in other spheres of life and honesty can be refreshing. But not yet it seems in politics.

It is all a balance of course. It can’t be a free for all, there has to be a coherent message. Just look at the debacle that was the so-called privatising forests policy. No, clear reason was articulated, opponents of the policy were allowed to define the arguments and rebuttal was absent. No, it is not message discipline that is the problem; you will always need to determine what you want to say and why. It is message delivery.

Politicians and political parties need to stop telling people things. Instead they need to learn new skills, like how to discuss things assertively without taking or giving offence. And real discussion requires demonstrable listening. Politicians need to learn to broadcast empathy, rather than just preach sympathy. Learning to nuance argument, admit mistakes and minor disagreements with colleagues and the like will take time. But learning these things is essential, if the quality of political discourse between political parties and voters is to be improved.

So back to the Luddite shadow cabinet member. If you are reading this and you know who you are, some advice: if you are struggling to interact with broadly sympathetic bloggers, who occasionally irritate, disagree and don’t do or say exactly as you would want, then that is probably the least of your problems.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.


Tags: , , ,


10 Responses to “Politicians need to engage not constrain bloggers”

  1. Nick says:

    And still politicians carry on pilfering.

    The problem is that you’ve lost control. All of you. The reason is very simple. Debt. You’ve spent and borrowed so much, you can’t solve it.

    For example, lets take public sector workers. In effect politicians have taken their pension fund and spent it. It’s all gone. There is no fund. 1,300 billion of debt, on top of the borrowing.

    So in part you are correct, you have no control. People have realised and read through the lies. Since the lies have been pushed so often, and even here, you’ve basically said the same. People will lie for their party.

    Note that last bit. Politicians priorities are themselves and their promotion etc.

    Note your entire post. Nothing about what’s good for the electorate. You might give the sham of ‘listening’. Action? Nope.

  2. Didn’t Tom Watson say something like “if you can’t deal with a bit of heckling from Guido”… well I’m probably, as you say, the least of your problems.

  3. swatantra says:

    Luddite wouldn’t be Ed Balls by any chance?
    But Peter makes an important point. Parties must never get complacent but must keep their ears close to the ground and pick up ideas, fresh ideas from their members and suppoorters who are the best sources because they are the ones most affected by Govt policy.
    During the Blair years the Party got a bit too complacent and stopped listening to its grass roots. Hence the decline. There should be a special unit in the organisation to challenge policy and pick it to pieces and see if it is stron enough to stand up to scrutiny.
    Most Party members are loyal and want to see the Party win through, apart from the usual suspects, but they do want to be heard. And dissenting voices are good because they pose challenges.
    Thats why blogsites like Labour Uncut and the now defunct Labourhome are so important. You won’t get oriiginal thinking on the official LP sites.

  4. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Peter,

    That is precisely what I was doing….alone 😉

    Thanks for this article.

  5. Heaven forbid that the electorate, that “self-appointed group of experts on nothing”, should voice an opinion in a blog. Let’s leave all opinion to politicians, that self appointed group of experts on everything. That’ll work right enough.

    Does the shadow cabinet minister ever stop, even for a second, to wonder why oh why so many are so disillusioned with so few, for so much?

  6. Ralph Baldwin says:

    oops one last comment on this site…..its hilarious that an Mp, any Mp is worried about people complaing and moaning. Compared with the serious reality of what thousands have lost, their businesses, homes and jobs and an Mp is worried about etiquette….says it all.

    Mind you if I had been part of a Government that had left the kind of legacy the last and current one have and will i would be totally and utterly ashamed……if you were this crap at your job in the military they would send you to Colchester Military prison lol. Add to that no conceptual understanding of people and a refusal to engage with people and with reality and you can see how little progress has been made despite all the stupid and awful things the political elite have “acheived”.

    I guess its really something to be “elite” lol and a laughing stock of any walk of life with no regard of consequence or even a basic sense of responsibility that any child would be given by a reasonable parent.

    I think its best MPs do not engage in blogs as we are asking them to do something that is beyond them and will reveal to the public who and what they really are…..which is ordinary typical people with all the flaws that go with it who have inflated their “profession” to a ridiculous level they cannot ever aspire to, I think they would prefer hiding in Westminster where they can continue to flatter each other and play at being important and like Peter Pan never grow up and remain in Westminster Never Never Land.

    Leave the blogging to people with real professional backgrounds and experience and where real politics can be discussed beyond party generalist rhetoric and where the economy can be discussed, the real economy that people see and experience around them in their daily lives and not a blind faith in the latest puny GDP figure and dodgy Government stats.

    Lets keep the quality and ditch the party line and those people who are currently redundent in our democracy except as a badge of shame and embaressment to us all with only a few exceptions.

  7. Mil says:

    This is brilliant. Measured in tone. Understands the needs of both parties involved. And provides a potential way forward. Sympathy is for people whose pets have died. Empathy is real 21st century dialogue.

    More of this please.

  8. Stephen says:

    One day (hopefully soon) the politicians will realise that the popular politicians are those who are able to speak for themselves, who do not feel that they have to stay on message all the time and make the occasional gaffe. Yes those in parties should agree on more that they disagree upon but most people are sensible enough to understand that differences can occur and that they are an endearing characteristic of human nature. When people get scared of disagreeing and speaking for themselves that is usually a warning sign in any organisation and not just political parties.

    I’m not entirely sure that I agree with the point about politicians going into listening mode – I suspect the public want politicians that have something to say that is relevant, and many are sick of those who adopt a friendly listening approach and then go off and do something totally different (which seems to be the modern way of imparting bad news).

  9. Les Abbey says:

    Swatantra – and the now defunct Labourhome are so important. You won’t get oriiginal thinking on the official LP sites.

    Alex has just reopened Labourhome.org.

  10. Les Abbey says:

    Guido – Didn’t Tom Watson say something like “if you can’t deal with a bit of heckling from Guido”…

    Well here’s a bit heckling for you Guido seeing that you don’t answer it on your own blog. What is your relationship with Gove? Why are you acting as his attack dog? You could drop by Labourhome.org to give an answer if you like.

Leave a Reply