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 . 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). UK
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 very good reasons: the Tories were good at it and, 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 really is necessary for elected reps to temper what they think personally with what their party leadership thinks and what is politically acceptable for them to say to 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, for a few reasons. The multiplicity of media channels means that it’s become harder to control what goes out, even for elected representatives, and because of this information overload, the public is less bothered about each piece of news from a party. Finally, they are also increasingly looking for authenticity, rather 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 reps 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 reps, 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) and who, 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; and whilst 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 blog 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.
This post first published at Labour Uncut