Why mainstream political parties still have a lot to learn – and why social media is shining a big spotlight on their gaps
This post stems from this article in The Observer. The paragraph that speaks volumes is this one:
“Alexander said a review of the party’s structures had revealed that Labour needed to do more in social media and respond more quickly to Conservative attacks. As an opposition party, Labour has become well schooled in criticising government announcements but less skilled in handling attacks from the Conservatives.”
It feels like a re-run of 1995 issues just on a different communications medium. The relationship is a three-way one: Labour communications vs Tory communications and their relationship between a ‘media’ about who can get their messages out the most effectively.
The thing is, this is not 1995.
The key word in the phrase ‘social media’ is the word ‘social’. It implies a conversation. It means that citizens can and will answer back. En masse. In a manner that lots – ****lots**** of other people can see, and share.
Then there’s this final paragraph:
“In an environment of low trust, people look to friends, families and neighbours for trusted opinions on politics and much else . We think Labour’s community organisation will allow us to dominate that critical conversation.”
That mindset speaks volumes. Why would anyone want to join a conversation dominated by anyone? What sort of conversation allows – encourages even – the input from people who don’t normally engage in mainstream politics?
This for me reflects a cultural problem not just within the Labour Party, but within mainstream political parties and hierarchical organisations generally. Those at the top don’t like critical feedback. Their systems and structures are hardwired to clamp down on independent thought and criticism. Things only change when the opposition becomes so great that it’s impossible to ignore, or the institution suffers a setback that it cannot understand the cause of. Such as a general election defeat.
Social media as a broadcasting channel
The problem Labour’s machinery has is that it sees social media as a broadcasting channel. This is reflected by the zombie-like tweets sent out by MPs and councillors that are word-for-word identical attacks on the politician/party/issue of the day. This doesn’t make Labour look co-ordinated, it makes them look like robots controlled from the top. It’s like the ‘New Labour Joke Book’ from the late 1990s all over again, where MPs would pass out if you took away the headphones with the tape of Peter Mandelson’s voice saying ‘Breathe in, breath out’.
Not making use of the talent they have
This mindset and structure sucks the life out of the many talented political activists that are out there. (I’ve met many from all of the main parties). This idea of ‘needing permission’ to do things is one of the reasons why so many people I believe refuse to join political parties: They don’t like the oppressive discipline in this social media age.
Furthermore, the sort of ‘top down’ oppressive discipline can be a symptom for some of the bullying that you sometimes see in political parties and movements. Especially if you are accused of ‘betraying’ the movement. Co-ordination, co-operation and collaboration are not the same as control. And people in this age are less willing to be controlled.
Political parties in an anti-party-age
Now, this is not to say that all political parties are bad, and that there does not need to be some level of party discipline. The experience of The Greens in Brighton has been attributed to the lack of control and discipline in local government – one that will harm Caroline Lucas’ attempts to get re-elected.
People understandably have started heading towards single issue campaigns. It’s far easier and far more visible to see the impact of such campaigns. Party politics is a damn sight harder because you’ve got to reconcile a whole host of competing interests and campaigns into a co-ordinated policy platform & manifesto. It’s all very well winning a campaign that calls for increased spending on a given issue, but that then leads to the further question of where the money will come from.
How can parties engage with citizens who are ‘political’ but don’t want to join a political party?
I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about people that don’t have the working knowledge of Whitehall or who don’t have the access to the people and organisations that I have.
For me, there are two issues to consider:
- Candidate selection
With candidate selection, I’m in favour in principle of open primaries – acknowledging that there are slightly different models for this. Open primaries mean that local people who are not members of a party can take part in the process of selecting that party’s candidate for an upcoming election. It’s one thing trying to convince local party activists, but quite another trying to convince the local electorate. It’s also useful for local party activists to see candidates coming face-to-face with a group of people who will be more sceptical, and see how they cope under hostile questioning.
On policy, all the main parties have issues with how to allow local people to influence party policy. Are the structures and processes continuous or are they one off programmes, such as Labour’s Your Britain? What happens when the latter programme ends? Will it be a return to [Big] business as usual? For example with Labour’s latest announcement on housing (see here). Will they rely on the private sector to deliver those homes (even though they have an incentive not to deliver the homes en masse because it’ll drive the prices down with increasing supply) or will they set up a state-run organisation that can build homes outside of the strictures of those incentives?
I’m watching to see how Cambridge’s Labour activists respond to the call from HQ. On my side of the city, (the wards of Romsey, Coleridge, Queen Ediths and Cherry Hinton), the party political social media presence, with one or two notable exceptions, is next to zero. It feels like me and Puffles have a free rein over this part of town. All political parties in South Cambridge need to up their game on social media.