Thoughts on online campaigns, the left and the right


4:41 pm - May 30th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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I was initially going to circulate this just internally but for reasons that become clear near the end, I’ve decided to discuss it openly.

The HFE bill debate and controversy over abortion and IVF parenting was a turning point for Liberal Conspiracy, I think. The issue won’t go away of course and neither have all the debates been resolves. But I think its worth looking at surrounding issues.

Coalition building.
The aim of this group-blog has always been to find ways in which different single-issue activists on the liberal-left could together on ideas and campaigns.

In that regard, the HFE bill campaign worked well. Lefty bloggers that normally would not write much on abortion joined up with (lefty) feminists to not only blog about the issue, but expose the agenda of one MP who tried her best to distort the debate (to put it charitably).

I still think there is still a lack of coalition building across the liberal-left (especially online) among various single-issue groups and to challenge the reactionary right, this needs to change.

Amplifying the volume
Much of the work in exposing the real agenda of Nadine Dorries MP was done by Unity and Tim Ireland. All we did on LC was re-package it and re-emphasise it, with added support from feminist bloggers here and elsewhere.

That message was amplified by Justin, BookDrunk, Septicisle and others to the point that many other left-of-centre bloggers also started to chip in with their views. Even Libdem and right-wing libertarians were joined in an unholy alliance of Nadine Dorries Watch.

Our posts:
The case against Nadine Dorries MP
Who is funding Nadine Dorries MP’s campaign?
Nadine Dorries MP and her hoax science
What is Nadine Dorries MP’s real agenda?

The left may lack a higher media profile, but I think we can cover this ground through larger numbers working together to amplify messages.

You can read some additional thoughts on this by Mark Hanson.

Lynne Featherstone MP actually made a similar point for Libdem bloggers earlier:

Liberal Democrat bloggers tend to be either fairly inward or local looking. There are many blogs that really talk all about what is happening in the party, along with a smaller number of – often excellent – blogs which are clearly aimed at a particular local audience (e.g. a councillor’s blog such as Mary Reid’s, which seems to be largely aimed at her constituents – understandably enough!).

What we seem to be missing are those combative, outward looking souls who spot a story and want to help spread or extend the message or the point or the attack, as opposed to inwardly looking expressing their own views on it. So you tend to get stories not spreading, and where they are commented on, they are only commented on by those who have reservations to express.

Online campaigning
This was also the first time we launched a separate website to emphasise a campaign, bringing together old media and bigger women’s groups to give it added credibility. The tool to write an email directly to MPs also worked well and several people reported hearing back from their MPs through that. (The Coalition For Choice website will be overhauled soon to focus on thee future of abortion rights)

Online campaigning requires the development and usage of more such tools so any ideas and comments on that front is also welcome.

Ideally, we need something like Blue State Digital in Britain.

Right-wing response
There is an old political saying in the United States – Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line. The same applies in the UK too.

Iain Dale believes, like myself, that a child needs a loving and stable home, and if a gay couple can provide this, what’s the problem? But throughout the debate on IVF access, he maintained party loyalty and didn’t challenge this view.

Guido Fawkes, similarly, says he is a libertarian first and political tribalist second. But this is patent rubbish because at crucial times he always maintains party loyalty. Did he ask why the Tories were seeking to control and restrict women’s reproductive rights or deny lesbian mothers the chance to have babies through IVF? Nope. Complete silence.

ConservativeHome then, without any dissent in the Tory blogosphere from self-proclaimed anti-statists, happily carried editorials that not only pushed this discriminatory agenda, but also published editorials by Nadine Dorries that carried that hoax image (but no explanation this time).

Political pragmatism over principle? You betcha. Take note, fellow lefties, I will keep coming back to this theme.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Reader comments


You can’t build permanent ongoing coalitions of disparate groups and individuals who have different viewpoints and agendas. What you can do is form temporary alliances on issues of common agreement – but only if you take the classical liberal view that differences of opinion are sometimes natural and inevitable, and don’t adopt a self-righteous ‘PC’ attitude which demands conformity across a whole range of topics in order for someone to be accepted as a virtuous ‘club member’. For instance, I don’t consider myself any less of a liberal than you are because we disagree over the status of foetuses – we shall have to agree to disagree about that. one, but I’m sure that we can and will co-operate over many other causes we both wish to advance.

The virtue of genuine STV PR, by the way, is that these differences can each be made to count in the polling booth. .

I think that you can build quite a long lasting coalition, as long as the members goals are not opposed. It just requires people to ignore their less-deeply held beliefs in order to get with the program.

What you can not easily do, is start asking yourself fundamental, awkward questions, about what you believe and why, and how your goals can be achieved. That would expose the differences.

Which is probably a very serious point, as this is precisely what the liberal-left needs to do, to judge from the latest polls.

Very sensible and thoughtful analysis… A few additional points:

(1) The alliance of bloggers was useful, but there were not too many Labour people in your list. Left-ish, liberal people and feminists for sure, but are the Labour Party bloggers adequately motivated?

(2) There’s no equivalent of Dale or Guido on the left and the loyalty issue will always arise. Who does the left-blogopshere have to go on Newsnight? You Sunny I hope.

(3) It’s not the tech as such that’s the problem – you also have the mentality of the political classes in the UK to contend with. I’m all for something like Blue State Digital in the UK and would be happy to build something interesting with some people to achieve it. There’s also the financial issue as well…

This is an old debate about means and ends.

I agree that the HFE bill marked a significant turning point for LC because it highlighted for me the problems encountered by the conflict between the closed shop of conspirators and the disperate audience.

Instead of shepherding the direction of a preexisting body of opinion into active opposition against another predefined partisan grouping I think the aims of LC to create a new coalition of progressive opinion would be better served by enabling contributors to invest in the process of formulating campaigning decisions.

I reject the idea that debate is closed down by placing limits on discussion, as the history of all threads on LC show that discussion gradually wanes into neglect as it strays off-topic, or a gradual consensus emerges as minds are either made up with their prejudices reinforced or contradicted.

The problem with unstructured formats arises when it becomes impossible to distinguish or evaluate the common position as a measure of the mandate for active campaigning and it therefore also becomes impossible to discover the basis of agreed principles which can be applied to further issues as the focus moves forward onto seemingly unrelated issues. This leads to a disjointed weakening of any momentum that any nascent coalition may have formed.

Having inhabited LC almost since its inception I can see an intelligent development of the various topics, but I also think this is less than fully realised.

I would prefer to see a more formalised staging of topicality and suggest that the process would be best composed by mirroring the form that the passage of bills recieve in the parliamentary process with proposal, scrutiny, evaluatoin and decisions all handled separately to create a clear distinction, while focussing attention and building momentum towards their obvious aim of establishing the legitimacy of any further action with popular support.

An inclusive method is fundamentally democratic and is one that I hope we would all subscribe to here.

Interesting article Sunny and alot of valid points…interested that you didnt mention Move On though…what are your thoughts on that?? I think its combination of activism and a vibrant web presence show the way,,,,

Anticant: “You can’t build permanent ongoing coalitions of disparate groups and individuals who have different viewpoints and agendas.

I refer you to the Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom, incorporating the Conservative, Liberal Unionist, National Liberal and Tory parties.

Any coalition that contains Dorries and Alan Duncan while still able to form a coherent group for as long as it has sort of disproves your point, n’est ce pas?

But then the rest of your comment does that for you anyway, as this “The virtue of genuine STV PR, by the way, is that these differences can each be made to count in the polling booth.” is something I completely concur with.

Really must come up with some coherent plans for that “no safe seats” campaign I have in the back of my head—watched a fair bit of the ’83 coverage today, the number of people whinging about “fairness” was really depressing, life isn’t fair, but we can make an electoral system just, which is very different to fair.

At the risk of being provocative tribalism is more commonly a vice of the left but as this post shows that’s not always the case. I questioned the assault on Dorries before I’d read all the material so stand corrected on that.

I’m not a party member but I am sympathetic to Cameron and I’ll happily disavow the party line on IVF restrictions and said so on my blog.

ad:
Which is probably a very serious point, as this is precisely what the liberal-left needs to do, to judge from the latest polls.

really? I’m not sure… that just says the New Labour project is flailing from lack of original thinking or vision.

Jon:
1) Good point. I think that does need to be looked at. I think Labour bloggers themselves are a bit all over the place anyway. For example they’ve generally shied away from saying anything on 42 days pre-detention even though most left non-aligned bloggers have been against it openly.

2) I don’t want to be loyal to parties, more to issues or ideas or broad positions. I don’t want to go on Newsnight representing anyone either :) Alex Hilton makes it there representing Labour bloggers, I don’t to do that. This is broadly a non-aligned blog…

3) Yes… the mentality and the money is an issue. Completely agreed. I think that can be changed over time. I see some movement already.

thomas:
Having inhabited LC almost since its inception I can see an intelligent development of the various topics, but I also think this is less than fully realised.

This is always going to be a chaotic and disparate process. I think it will take more campaigning and time to move this in a clearer direction.

Darrell:
Interesting article Sunny and alot of valid points…interested that you didnt mention Move On though…what are your thoughts on that?

I like MoveOn a lot. I think we can develop email lists through various campaigns but this is more a blog than it is an email list. So, to that extent it works more like Daily Kos and TPM, Huff Post than it can like MoveOn. I think the development of tools to try what they have there is only inevitable though. Plenty of people in the UK I’ve spoken to want to ape that model.

Liam:
At the risk of being provocative tribalism is more commonly a vice of the left

You think so? I’ve always thought the opposite was the case. Lefties go for intellectual purity over pary line. That is mostly why Labour is so isolated now apart from among Blairites.
Plus, just think about how much sectarianism there is on the left.

I understand the distinction (intellectual purity v’s party line) but I’m thinking more of an inverse sort of tribalism – anything of or from the right HAS to be bad and doesn’t get a fair hearing. The facts or outcomes are secondary to the source and if it emanates from the right (or centre) it’s dismissed as, to extend your analogy, unpure.

This is evident in the left’s reaction to Cameron and his more liberal and socially-aware conservatism. There are few if any detailed policy rebuttals or criticisms of his suggested solutions – just a barrage of abuse rejecting the premise – “you’re a Tory, by defintion you don’t care about people”. This reluctance to engage on the substance and dismiss something purely on the basis of where it comes from is pure tribalism.

And for more basic straightforward tribalism there’s always the left’s accommodation with Stalin or Saddam etc. asper th writings of Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm etc.

That said your basic point in this post holds true and I guess the point about online campaigning is that it can transcend the traditional left/right divide. I unwisely questioned the ferocity of the attacks on Nadine (and actually favour 20 weeks anyway) but on IVF and many other social issues I’m firmly on what’s traditionally called left-wing territory. I guess the online world blurs these distinction which in my view is a very good thing.

I think an important point to consider with any coalition is not just what you say but how you say it. A hundred bloggers could all be pushing the same agenda, but if nobody is reading then it is all for nothing.

Where the right have succeeded is in injecting some aggression into what they do. If you look at where this site and its allies have been a success, it has been when it has gone onto the attack. Politics is a dirty business, and if you want to get noticed then you have to be as bolshie as your opponents are. And if that means offending some people and occasionally falling on your face over it, then so be it.

Humour and accessibility is also important. Often the problem with online communities is that they end up only talking to themselves and therefore alienating people who would otherwise want to take part. While this is not the case with Lib Con, it is always worth remembering.

Because most people reading blogs have a very short attention span, so anything that will draw people in and keep them there should be used. We shouldn’t shy away from the techniques used by right-wing blogs just because they are perceived as their techniques. Many of them are actually better suited to the left as people like Charlie Brooker have proved.

Overall, if the left can unite in their approaches to dealing with the right, then coalitions on specific issues will be much more likely to form.

I concur somewhat with anticant that there does need to be some sort of platform of common understanding in order to generate effective single-issue campaigns – which is why I also agree with thomas (feels rude to change your lower case “t” for some reason!) about the need to come up with more a more concrete sense of progress on issues.

Could we perhaps develop some rudimentary tracking system?

Y’know over on Politicshome they do polls and stats from their panel of 100 political thinkers, or however many it is. It’s always on the political question of the moment We could do that for the *same* issues/aspects of governance repeatedly, and plot ourselves on a graph of some kind – bloggers, regular readers, passers-by, whoever.

Or, going back to anticant, could we develop STV PR amongst ourselves and vote on issues, or stances, rather than politicians.

On Adam’s point at 10, I agree that the right currently have the advantage in terms of aggression and, possibly, humour (though not my particular sense of humour; Guido has never knowingly made me laugh). But I think the advantage of a Liberal Conspiracy, assuming it stops being a name and starts being a movement at some point, is that it has the potential to harness a large number of bloggers who will all be using their best individual talents to grow their audiences. For some, that will be aggression and/or humour. Others might discover another way of hooking people in that utterly trounces the right’s methods.

So in a way I’m relaxed about this. I don’t think it’s anything we have to lay down any specific policy for; I think as we grow it will happen.

12. anticant

MatDB, I don’t think I was being inconsistent [though if i was I'll call Emerson's "hobgoblin of small minds" in aid]. I wasn’t talking about political parties, which are always coalitions, but about single-issue campaigners coming together when they agree, and not demonising oner another over the things they disagree about – which is the favourite PC ploy. We’re none of us perfect, and to claim the moral high ground for each and every one of our opinions and anathematise everyone who disagrees with us is both totalitarian and futile, as well as arrogant.

I’m keen to support a vigorous blogging everywhere.

I think that Labour bloggers – if they wish to remain loyal at a party level – have a tension between the blog medium being tolerant of others’ right to express a different view and a government which seems to have lost all ideas except for imposing more control.

I also comment that there needs to be some renewal and some more mechanisms for coalition building on the Centre Right; at the moment it is too fragmented, and if the Tories win an election, I’m not clear who will take forward the arguments from that perspective independently from the new government. I’ll be writing about this on Con Home later this week (if I get it finished).

For me, there are two separate sets of political questions – the serious ones are related to civil liberties and damage to the political process (I’d include everything from SOCPA and libel laws through to Alistair Campbell giving directon to civil servants and the reputation of Parliament in this). On these, I’d broadly expect cooperation among most bloggers on most of these.

There’s another set of issues around policy which sits on top of the political process – economic policy and so on.

For me the latter are an order of magnitude less important – from my point of view it is more serious that we have ID cards coming, yet more personal data retention regulations with wide access to query them even for litter bugs and a universal DNA database on the way than that the economy and government are mired in debt. Our economy can recover in a few years; the other laws will be a devil to roll back.

For online campaigning, I think that the important thing is to prevent online campaigning turning into online marketing. I think I am counted as one of the million member sof avaaz.org, and all I did was sign up to a read only email. Online political campaigning must not be shallow – then it just becomes a bigger stick for centrally driven single issue groups.

Answers for making dialogue and co-ordination more effective? I think political forums may be worth the experiment, as is writing for the MSM on OUR terms – rather than becoming an opinionated MSM glovepuppet. For my money, Mick Fealty has it right maintaining a foot in both camps – while Clive Davis made a mistake closing down his own blog when he went to the Spectator.

I’m not getting into who demonsises who more on this thread !

Well done guys (a gender neutral term in my family)! Have blogged about it over in OK
http://www.opendemocracy.net/blog/ourkingdom-theme/anthony-barnett/2008/06/02/blogland-turns-leftwards

Could we perhaps develop some rudimentary tracking system?

Y’know over on Politicshome they do polls and stats from their panel of 100 political thinkers, or however many it is. It’s always on the political question of the moment We could do that for the *same* issues/aspects of governance repeatedly, and plot ourselves on a graph of some kind – bloggers, regular readers, passers-by, whoever.

Alix, as I said the other day while over a pint, not sure how this would work. Do we just track the bloggers? Or do we track our readers too (who are not all lefties or liberals)? Not exactly sure how this would work…

I think a PolticsHome-style tracker poll and a readership ballot are two different ideas and both have their places in connecting each of the different components of readers, commenters, regular contributors and conspirators.

The tracker requires a regular foundation of participants to ensure comparability, so it is more suited to the bloggers, but this requires a more balanced selection of voices to counteract obvious biases and make the exercise worthwhile. It also needs a large enough sample to stake a claim to representability. So this is still something for the future.

On the other side a readership poll needs to be related to specific questions which tie into the campaign motivations and therefore take advantage of the opportunity to influence the context of the debate by asking good questions that cut to the heart of the divisions (eg asking whether viability is the appropriate basis for deciding the cut-off date for legalised abortions – and if not, what is?).

Whether a webpoll, a separate thread for the specific purpose of collecting named votes or an emailed response form is used to establish the balance of opinion is material only to the actual question being asked, so I would try to find ways to incorporate as many different forms of participation as possible where most appropriate.

From there I think the most important thing isa campaign page with various links to petitions and explanations of other ways to get involved (similar to moveon.org) which naturally compliments a campaign history page showing how the current position was reached.

There are 13 articles collected under the Pro-Choice campaign heading above, which follow on from several pre-discussions on LC setting out the framework for the terms of the campaign.

It seems natural to me that the transitions from pre-discussion to debate to campaign should be the most opportune stages to ask any such prescient questions of the readership in LC’s threaded design format, however, this is impractical if campaigns continue to be mounted in response to outside events (as seems to have been partially the case with the HFE Bill setting the agenda for the pro-choice campaign).

I’d rather be prepared for the eventuality of future legislation by building from first principles – so on that basis “freedom, transparency, human rights, democracy and the public good” would be the right place for LC to start even if I might offer some quibbles.

Er, hem, modest cough, I am one of the Politics Home 100 insiders. It is a mix of politicians, leading commentators, thought leaders etc, organised to create a left/liberal/right political balance so that the result of the daily webb-based poll reflects ‘insider’ opinion. I think it is quite effective in terms of PoliticsHome as it means they generate their own story as well as being an aggregator. It also has has a link to the Observer through Rawnsley. It’s funded by Stephan Shakespeare and it is quite professional and I guess expensive. I agreed with scepticism but enjoy doing it as it focuses me on an issue of the day and gets me to make up my mind, or at least make a call.


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