Giving a voice to Libdem grassroots


11:03 am - January 15th 2009

by Sunny Hundal    


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For nearly two and half years, Liberal Democrat Voice has aimed to represent grass-roots and discuss party issues online. In this interview, the site’s contributing editor Mark Pack, also the Libdem Head of Innovations, discusses what LDV’s point is and whether criticism of online campaigning is justified.

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What do you think is most important for LDV: get Libdems to talk to each other; encourage people to join the Libdems; or get the upper hierarchy to engage with the grassroots through the site. And why?

I see it as having three purposes: to help encourage Liberal Democrats to engage with each other, such as with policy discussion; to help engage with other people online interested in politics, including raising stories they pick up on or rebutting stories others have run; and to be a ‘shop-front’ for the wider Lib Dem blogosphere which attracts those who through time or inclination don’t want to trawl rounds lots of different sites.

Mainstream journalists are a particular target for the last of these purposes, but it’s also the case that many party members and supporters don’t want to spend that much time online and so like the idea of having a site that brings a lot of different content together. That’s one reason why we regularly highlight content from other sites, such as our weekly round-up of the a dozen stories from other Liberal Democrat blog. That way, people who primarily visit LDV but not other Liberal Democrat sites still get to hear about some of the other excellent sites out there.

Political parties and politicians come in for a lot of flack from internet experts. Why do you think parties and politicians aren’t better at their use of the internet?

I’d turn this question back on those throwing the flack. Although they’re often throwing up good ideas, very few of them have ever, for example, run a successful election campaign. You therefore frequently have a group of people with no experience of running an election telling people who have run – and won – elections how they should do their job.

In that situation it is perhaps not surprising that they’re not as successful at persuading people to change their minds as they think they should be! In fact, it’s very rare to hear people start from an understanding of the problems that politicians and parties face (such as the huge pressures on time during an election) and then target their message at addressing those problems.

No doubt you get accused of being a party mouthpiece all the time, since you actually work for the party. How would you counter that accusation?

The site is run by a team of eight of us – two work for the party (and one is also a part-time volunteer at party HQ), but the rest, including our editor-at-large, Stephen Tall, do not. Amongst our contributors there are some other party staff and several MPs – which adds a lot to the site – but again the majority are not staff or elected people, and there is also a regular trickle of outsiders who do guest posts.

at the end of the day, the site is run by a group of people who want the party to do well. But we’re also liberals, and believe that slavish loyalty and uniformity undermines success rather than assists it. Of course, some stories are best left to non-staff members to write about!

What sort of online tools have you developed to enable Libdems to communicate with each other?

I think there’s a difference in our approach from that of the other main parties – based in part of our different political philosophy. The emphasis in the Liberal Democrats is much more about giving people the tools to use rather than delivering stuff centrally. I think this also suits the political opportunities of the internet in the UK better as often the way to get to large audiences isn’t through one or two sites, but through the accumulation of lots of small audiences over many sites.

So, for example, our very successful campaign buttons get several million impressions each month, widely publicising the campaigns features. But the buttons don’t appear on the front page of www.libdems.org.uk. Instead, they are an easy add on for people to add to their own local websites and blogs.

Similarly, one of our other very successful tools is an email list server, which is available for free for anyone in the party to use. The result – hundreds of local email lists, the cumulative membership of which exceeds our central records – and a much more intense network of communication between different people and parts of the party than could be achieved from the top down. Likewise, www.flocktogether.org.uk lets people advertise their local events and activities, drawing in a wider audience and deepening our roots in local communities.

Isn’t focusing only on Libdem news unlikely to attract new members?

To be successful, a site needs to find a niche that can flourish amongst all mainstream media behemoths. LDV’s niche is primarily news about the Liberal Democrats and news likely to be of interest to Liberal Democrat members or supporters; hence, for example, the appearance of posts by myself with computing tips for those who are heavily dependant on their computer (most party activists) but really would rather not have to be a computer geek.

We do cover some wider political stories – ones which are likely to be of interest to liberals – and that’s where the appeal to a wider audience can come in. But if they want general news without a Lib Dem slant or interest, then there’s plenty of other places people are more likely to go.

Do you think Libdembloggers aren’t cohesive enough? Do they not talk to each other enough?

I think there is actually quite a strong sense of community – along with the occasional squabbles! It was one of the reasons for starting the blog of the year awards (run jointly by the party and Liberal Democrat Voice), which include an awards presentation at our autumn party conference so that many bloggers and readers get to meet each other in person.

Events like that, and the self-organised group of bloggers who carry out interviews with leading party figures, help generate those personal contacts which make a community really function.

If anything, I think the issue is more that at times bloggers can be too concerned with talking to other Liberal Democrat bloggers, and not enough with talking to wider audiences!

LibdemVoice has published a book highlighting some of the best commentary and discussion over the past year. You can buy it from Lulu.com

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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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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Libdems ,Media ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Nice puff piece, lads 😉

Should have asked then what they think of Charlotte Gore.

Thanks for the article. There is a lot of discussion about whether and what the right does well, and how whether either Labour or the broader progressive left needs to learn from that. I think ConservativeHome is good at what it does (though I can’t work out whether it justs reflects how much more right-wing the next generation of Conservative activists are than their own leadership, or helps to shift internal debate that way).

But, if this is about more than page impressions, my sense is that the LibDems probably have the most useful and well-developed blogosphere of the three major parties for their own active members particularly, and a sense of connection between their blogs.

The tone and style of LibDem voice strikes me as particulalry successful in what it is trying to do, partly because it strikes me as focusing more on facilitating internal information and discussion than primarily platforming partisan challenges to the other parties. I would naturally be more sympathetic to the LibDems than conservatives but I can recognise good writing from the right, and the quality of discussion and argument does strike me as considerably better from the LibDems.

I suspect part of that arises from there being several advantages in that to being the third party, or rather a reflection of and ability to challenge several disadvantages from offline politics.

– There are relatively few LibDem stories in the national press, and those on politics tend to be about leadership, opinion polls or hung parliament speculation. And though many LibDems will read the Guardian or Independent, it does not have a newspaper, letters page, etc sense of community which lefties or the right might get from the Guardian or Mail/Telegraph. But this is probably ahead of where a much higher proportion of party discussion especially (below the cabinet/shadow headline news) is now increasingly taking place outside the national media news cycle.

– The national politicians also probably have some more incentive to pay attention to what’s going on online.

I don’t get much sense of that from the Tories (it strikes me as more aspiring candidates), nor from Labour (where it has been mostly relatively ‘outsider’ grassroots, certainly up to a year ago. I suspect the party/activist demographic may help, and that the group who are say around five years out of university probably have a stronger share of ‘voice’ in the party.

I was interested to see somewhere Clegg referring to the value of twitter hashtags: the new communications operation does offer the LibDems a chance to level up if they take it seriously and others don’t.

– And the party culture helps as well, in that there is a certain pride in open disagreements and discussions, though my own sense is that the development of more salient online politics within parties will change each of them. (Conservativehome has, I suspect, changed the culture of Tory activism a fair amount already in the last couple of years).

While I accept that many people here may be allergic to the LabourList Derek Draper effort, I expect Labour will do more to get its act together in several different spaces over the next six months. Perhaps more attention should be paid to how LibDems have approached this, particulalry on internal party discussion and debate.

I expect Labour will do more to get its act together in several different spaces over the next six months.

Yup, I think its a work in progress, really.

Perhaps more attention should be paid to how LibDems have approached this, particulalry on internal party discussion and debate.

Yup. But there is little of that publicly debated to get a sense of what was said…

Everything the Lib Dems do is publicly debated, at least to some extent, if you can be arsed looking.


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