Why we should keep on blogging

by Rob Marchant

During 2011 a number of people, often well-meaning, sometimes not so, have questioned the choice of some bloggers at Labour Uncut and elsewhere to analyse dispassionately, and sometimes brutally, not just the Tories and the Lib Dems, but the Labour party under Ed Miliband. The inference being that, as loyal party members who want a Labour government, bloggers should make only supportive comments (which, by the way, those same people often do), and not critical ones.

Some history: at the beginning of the New Labour government in the late 1990s, the UK political internet was in its infancy, and there was really no such thing as blogging in the UK. The only real outlet that party people had was through the traditional media, and largely the only people who could really get arrested in the traditional media were MPs (and with the local press, councillors).

Many of our present-day Labour bloggers were, around that time, part of a machine which had become obsessive about its control over these outlets and for the very good reason that the Tories were good at it. In that world, the party with the most discipline over what went out, and how the other side’s views were rebutted, had a real chance of winning the battle for influence. In the end, taking their lead from the Clintonian  Democrats, it was a battle that Labour won conclusively.

And discipline still matters: it is necessary for elected representatives to temper what they think personally with what their party leadership thinks and what is politically acceptable for them to say to the party, constituents and country. That is the normal way of politics, and probably always will be.

However, there is a flip-side. Not only in the process did Labour become unduly obsessed with the need to control everything, but that need has also now become diluted. The multiplicity of media channels means that it has become harder to control what goes out, even for elected representatives. This information overload means the public is less bothered about each piece of news from a party. Finally, they are also increasingly looking for authenticity, rather than identikit politicians toeing the party line.

What about the internet? Well, the big change there is that suddenly not just elected representatives can get their stuff “out there”. This changes things, for the obvious reason that party members, who lack the constraints of elected representatives can be heard, either directly or through being picked up by the national media. And, crucially, it changes things for a second reason: unlike elected representatives, who still need to sing from the same hymn sheet up to a point, the party has no realistic control mechanism over what bloggers say anyway.

There are two ways we can react to this new world. We can embrace it for what it is, a way to get real debate going in the party through activists unconstrained by the realpolitik of party office (although the normal, reasonable constraints, of avoiding being insulting, overly personal or otherwise unpleasant still apply). Those activists, in almost all cases, have a strong desire for the party to succeed, otherwise they would not be bothering to take the time to write, usually for free.

Or we can, ostrich-like, deny that the world has changed, and attempt to cling to the old world where all comment is to be controlled, for fear that anything else will give succour to our enemies. In the absence of other controls, we can attempt to use peer pressure, rather than rational debate, to stop bloggers saying what we do not wish them to say.

But this is plainly a fallacy: it will not give succour to our enemies. Why? Because, apart from anything, they’re all at it.

It is interesting that in the Labour party we seem to have developed a different attitude. ConservativeHome and LibDem Voice have for some time provided healthy debate within their parties. ConservativeHome, for those who have never visited, is full of rank-and-file Tories who fear that – hilariously – that closet lefty, Cameron, is betraying traditional Tory principles. And they show little embarrassment in saying so.

LabourList and Labour Uncut, started more recently, have been doing a sterling job in taking back the internet agenda for Labour, but we still see much apparent discomfort in the comments sections. We fall into easy habits, talking of “loyalty” and “unity”, in order to try and keep party thinking aligned. It is easy to confuse “unhelpful comment” and “comment that I disagree with”. But all comment, in the end, is helpful. Robust debate is, on the contrary, an overwhelming positive, and it is precisely this Darwinism of ideas that can lead us all to arrive at a decent, defensible common view of where the party is at and where it needs to be. The wisdom, in the words of James Surowiecki, of crowds.

Those of us who have worked within the party structure can readily admit that the modern party has sometimes owed too much to the disciplined organisational tradition of erstwhile Trotskyites. While that thinking once instilled some much-needed discipline into the party machine, it also had a negative side-effect. One of the less attractive aspects, paradoxically, of New Labour was at times a bullying attitude towards dissent: an attitude that could often be traced directly back to those “born-again” politicos and staffers who had been Trots in a previous incarnation, rather than to the leadership itself.

In short, crowds are often wise, but with a caveat: they can only be so when they avoid the groupthink that Uncut writers Peter Watt and Anthony Painter have recently warned against. In other words, they need to avoid being purely self-selecting: the crowd needs to include the widest possible range of opinion, including, arguably, those who are not party members, as many supporters of primaries contend. And whilst one might not agree with much that blogger A or blogger B writes, their right to say it must be defended, because their ideas must sink or swim on their own, without interference from over-enthusiastic censors telling us all what to think.

We must have the same tolerance for all ideas, because this new development of political blogging is, if used correctly, potentially a hand up out of the mire, not someone pulling us further in. In any event, it is certainly here to stay, and there is unlikely to be any effective mechanism to control it. And if you don’t like it, you can always, as with the telly, just switch off.

So, we can keep trying to pretend that we all agree. Or we can rejoice in the fact that not everyone agrees with us, and that neither is it the end of the world.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left <http://thecentreleft.blogspot.com/>

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11 Responses to “Why we should keep on blogging”

  1. Mil says:

    The Darwinism of Ideas is all well and good in theory. But I have two reservations: firstly, in terms of the intellectual debate that should be conducted, it closely mirrors in its dynamics precisely the kind of capitalism which is currently being imposed on us. And secondly, precisely because this capitalism – and its analogous debate – does not take place on a level killing-field, the ideas which will win out will proceed from those with the biggest clout (the biggest virtual networks, the largest number of real-world followers etc.) and not necessarily because the ideas themselves have intrinsic virtue – or are of intrinsic value to the Labour Party as a whole, and by extension those who might wish to vote for it in general elections.

    Less macho Darwinism, more humane communication I think might be the order of *my* day.

  2. Nick says:

    Or we can, ostrich-like, deny that the world has changed,


    OK, so lets see where the head of the ostrich is at the moment.

    How much debt does the government have to civil servants, state pensions and state second pension?

    What assets does it hold against these debts?

    Are citizens of the UK assets of the state?

  3. Ben Cobley says:

    A good argument Rob, and one that needs to be made and re-made. This world of the internet and blogging is a relatively new one, with few rules to be observed and much freedom. It is liberating for that, but many people are struggling to deal with it precisely because of this.

    Like you I think the rules of the game should be more about honesty rather than “loyalty” or “unity”, but coming along with the inevitable problems that being honest brings within a party structure is a need to show civility both in blog posts themselves and in comments. Personal and lazy abuse, and criticism without explanation, is not just impolite and unnecessary, but is also a complete waste of time.

    Places like these give us an opportunity to learn from each other and come up with some answers to our problems. However a lot of people seem more interested in using them as places to flush out the mental and emotional toxins from their brains.

    Still, we are in the early stages of people getting used to this medium. Free debate can be infuriating, but that is the price that we pay, and I personally think it is overwhelmingly a good thing – even with the bad eggs about.

  4. figurewizard says:

    If you want your bogs to be effective, you should ensure that they are moderated and published within minutes of being posted.

  5. Rob Marchant says:

    @Mil: Not quite sure why you think that Darwinism is “macho”. Rather odd. There is no male or female in Darwinism.

    I’m not sure what “humane communication” is, but I’m all for it if it comes up with intellectually robust ideas. I really don’t understand why you think that it’s connected to capitalism, either, but hey. Darwinism existed millions of years before capitalism.

    Anyway, I’d argue that your viewpoint is fundamentally flawed. The battle of ideas is precisely what has produced advances in civilised democracies since there have been civilised democracies. I’m sorry if that sounds too “macho” for you, but there it is.

  6. AmberStar says:

    The thing which you’ve failed to notice, Rob, is that generally speaking the media seem to spend a lot more time talking about splits, factions, conflicts & disunity in the Labour Party than they spend on the internal disagreements within the two Coalition Parties.

    So, we Labour supporters look at the world around us & we notice the fact that the media in general seem to never tire of trying to break up Labour, bring down its leader etc. And we have the Blair/ Brown, Brown/ David Miliband thing which we need to put behind us. Therefore, I’d like to see some unity from the Party, its members & supporters. Is that too much to ask?

  7. Mil says:

    @Rob – I don’t disagree that debate of the right kind produces progress, but just because something comes under the definition of debate doesn’t mean it’s conducive to democratic advancement. PMQs is a regular forum for debate – but it often seems more like the trolling that damages the quality of virtual discourse. Trolling also seems – as the House of Commons demonstrably is – to be generally in the hands of the rather more trying and male half of the species; thus the term “macho” which I used. Of course, I’m all for a process of debate in an online environment where the software constitution promotes the sharing and development of ideas over their origin and individual responsibility. On the other hand, I have yet to see political figures generous enough to contemplate such transfers of power – and, whether you like it or not, I still can’t help feeling such behaviours are more a part of the male half of our brains than the female. But that may simply be an inverted prejudice on my part.

  8. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ben: I agree entirely with your comments about abuse. There’s far too much of it in the comments sections. And also, if we stay rational, we actually contribute to the debate. Those people who disagree with us, but do it politely, get a lot more out of us and so do we them.

    @figurewizard: fair enough, think you’ve a legitimate gripe, there. Uncut could improve the speed of its comments posting (come on guys!) as it tends to make the conversation rather stilted if you have to wait 24 hrs for an answer.

    @AmberStar, think you’re entirely wrong. They spend far more time talking about the Lib Dems as opposition than they spend talking about Labour as the opposition, period. In answer to your question, this appeal for “unity” is just daft. You can ask for unity from backbenchers, fair enough. But party members in general have never been, and never will be united on anything.

    @Mil: Are men really more trying than women? Men not generous enough to contemplate transfers of power? Rather sexist comments, if I may say so. I think we are both equally trying. 😉

    You are right that debate is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for democratic advancement. Anyway, I’ve been debating things online for over 10 years now, and it works. I think we agree that online is a good place for debate, if people can stick to some sensible ground rules. We might actually get a much better quality of idea refinement if Policy Forums could be conducted online rather than in their current format.

  9. AmberStar says:

    @ Rob Marchant

    Did you think Lord Glasman’s contribution today was helpful & constructive? If you did, perhaps you are viewing the world solely through a bloggers’ prism.

  10. Les Abbey says:

    One of the less attractive aspects, paradoxically, of New Labour was at times a bullying attitude towards dissent: an attitude that could often be traced directly back to those “born-again” politicos and staffers who had been Trots in a previous incarnation, rather than to the leadership itself.

    Strange that the discipline that you now rail against, and I actually agree with you on, when it was imposed by the ‘New’ Labour leadership, which you obviously agreed with, wasn’t the fault of the leaders but of former left wing Trots who had gone over to the ‘good’ side but hadn’t left their bad habits behind. I do wonder how many of the Uncut contributors were complaining about the obsessive centralization at the time. Were they up in arms as constituencies were being forced to choose parliamentary candidates from a very limited list or even having the choice of just one? Were the contributors up in arms about the anti-democratic practices in choosing candidates for the London mayor or Welsh leader?

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    @AmberStar: No, I thought it was exceptionally unhelpful. But I am a blogger, not an adviser to the party leader. Advisers, like politicians need to have one important characteristic: to be able to keep their mouth shut. Glasman, sadly, lacks this trait.

    @Les Abbey: We couldn’t complain about obsessive centralisation: we would have been shot. 😉

    Seriously, when you work for the party you’re not allowed to have opinions, ask anyone. You can only have them when you leave.

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