Tag Archives: Tim Montgomerie

The Worrying Rise of Lefty Internet Activism

Tim Montogomerie’s reflections on Iain’s Dale’s departure from the blog world got me thinking.   Tim says the right previously enjoyed being in front on web campaigning but now risk falling behind if they haven’t already.  He points particularly at  ‘Movement Activism’.  This surge in leftist web-based ‘movement activism’ is something I’ve only recently started to worry about.  The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts.  We don’t need, nor wish, to be led.  We don’t suffer fools gladly.   Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians.  Collaboration therefore tends to be loose, short , sharp and  limited to specific issues.   The discipline to slavishly follow a party line simply isn’t there outside of the General Election.     Meanwhile the left are getting far better at that ‘discipline’ and all the while are starting to create  a sense of being part of a real  ‘movement’ for those who use the net to  engage with them.

Does this matter?  Up until very recently I would have argued it didn’t.  Let’s face it, the people in the blogosphere endlessly retweeting the same political articles to each other would always have been died-in-the-wool supporters of whichever party regardless.  The political blogosphere draws-in political anoraks like moths to a flame.  The floating voters who matter simply give it a wide berth.   My gut instinct was just to let the left get on with their ‘Slacktivism’.  Those banal campaigns consisting of “click on this to express your rage at the cuts” or whatever.  They’ve confused bleating into the ether with meaningful action.  They’ve kidded themselves they’re doing good with empty gestures.  My attitude has always been if it makes them feel worthy, they’re doing no harm so let them get on with it.  Meanwhile, as they are retweeting each other, us grown-ups can go out and take real action to make our schools and hospitals or whatever else around us better.

Recently though, they seem to have reached a critical mass and realised that they were achieving little.  They are finally making the giant leap to real ‘action’.  Suddenly it is quite scary.  We have a single line in Private Eye hinting in its usual mischievous style that ‘Vodaphone owe £6bn in tax’, and then via a web campaign this leads to real direct action on the streets.  Not ‘action’ in the sense of working through the norms of society (investigative fact checking, lobbying, getting legislation etc.) but ‘direct action’ in the 1960s/70s “let’s have fun causing trouble” sense.

Folk self-select their fact sources from the internet – as they do with newspapers – to confirm their prejudices.  People who read the Guardian will also tend to bookmark ‘Left Foot Forwards’, ‘UK Uncut’, ‘False Economy’, ‘The Other Taxpayers Alliance’ etc.  You could make a similar self-selecting list for those who lean to the right.  The thing is that those who lean to the left are, by nature, happier to run with the herd.   Once a leftist feels part of ‘a movement’ they can be far more disciplined at toeing the party line.   ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ have always been more crucial to the left than ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’.  Those who understand the power of all this seem to be gleefully manipulating it to edge the mainstream left even further left.  Once they’ve got their new foot-soldiers engaged – which they are doing well – they can wreak havoc.  That £6bn ‘tax-dodge’ figure for Vodaphone from Private Eye is a powerful example.   Clearly it is a dodgy figure based in little more than tittle-tattle – and yet it is accepted as an absolute fact by a whole ‘movement’ to the point that people are willing to commit criminal damage in outrage.   We have also seen the power of this ‘Movement Activism’ with the student protests.

I’m not sure what the proper response from the centre-right should be but  I do know what the wrong response would be:  The last thing we need is for the mainstream right to blindly drift further right as a anxious response to baiting.  My idea of how politics should be conducted remains through the normal channels and ballot box – not by violent confrontations with leftist thugs having a jolly day out at a demonstration/riot.   We are living in testing economic times.   Testing economic times have always created an environment to radicalise people.   New technology can be a real catalyst to that radicalisation process.  We need to watch it and keep level heads.


Advertisements

19 Comments

Filed under Politics, UK Politics

Backstage at the Leaders Debate

It’s not often you get to elbow the Secretary of State for Defence. OK, it was an accident, but let me revel in the glory anyway… Bob Ainsworth was behind me worming his way towards Kay Burley to demand an interview, my mobile was glued-to-ear, I turned round quickly and my elbow clipped him. “Sorry”, I said, as recognition instantly made it a polite lie. Disappointingly, he brushed on past leaving my minor assault wholly unacknowledged – he was so desperate to get on the goggle box it left him oblivious to pain. The media circus was in town and nothing was going to stop Ainsworth playing his role as a clown. For Bristol yesterday this circus was the only show in town.

I was on a blag as a guest of Sky TV with a ring-side seat to the razzmatazz. A picture-postcard sunny day saw the troupe rock up, pitch their tents and bring the place to a standstill. The venue was amongst Bristol’s newish waterfront development and so the whole area was ringed by shirt-sleeved machine-gun-toting policemen, grubby looking students with obligatory anti-war placards, fancy-dressed attention-seekers and stressed looking TV crews rigging up kit. Pubs opposite the venue were packed to the rafters, the lager taps flowing which added to an atmosphere seeped in anticipation. Bristol was buzzing. By the time the Prime Minister arrived the mob was well oiled and it was briefly more pantomime than circus as they made their feelings about him known.

I’ll not dwell on the debate itself – every utterance and mannerism has already been scrutinized to the nth degree by every journalist and blogger in Britain. I’ll just share my general impression that all three raised their game from the first debate, it was more compelling to watch and I would ‘score’ it in terms of public perception roughly the same: Clegg first. Cameron second. Brown third. Albeit I’d have Clegg not as far ahead and Brown not as far behind as last time. Brown wins the sound-bite of the night for his ‘Big Society – Little Britain’ jibe. Despite a good performance I’m not sure the debate has helped bolster David Cameron. The Conservatives should be able to put the Lib Dem surge to bed on a Foreign Policy centred debate but it didn’t happen. I know there are a multitude of instant exit polls which will either contradict or support that view but I can only call it as I saw it and I trust my gut-instinct on these things more than I trust any paid-for poll.

For me though the real education of the evening was watching up-close the dance between the media and the politicians. When you first arrive at the media centre the scale of the operation seems huge. Banks of desks, loaded with wi-fi laptops showing the journo’s twitter accounts, big screen monitors showing various feeds from around the building. Camera men. Sound men. Print men. News Anchors. Everyone looking earnest and busy. At the side of the room the politicians and their minders wait. The politico’s blackberries purr right through the debate with every statement by the opposition instantly fact-checked, whenever the opposition scored a perceived hit the blackberries again buzzed with quickly crafted rebuttal phrases to get out to the press later. And then the debate ended and the madness began…

All parties know that the immediate spin after the debate can define public perception as much as the debate itself. Getting to the big hitter media straight away is everything. Suddenly, as you watch you realise that what seemed such a huge operation and a mass of media is really quite a small cliquey affair. Fundamentally, on camera we have BBC, SKY and to a lesser extent ITV. That’s it. The print journos that matter are the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Sun and Mirror (to a lesser extent the Independent) and that’s it. Get to those people and every other commentator simply feeds off their output. In a nod to the blogosphere Will Straw (from Left Foot Forward) and Tim Montgomerie (from Conservative Home) were both afforded the same access as the key newspapermen. So really even the blogs have gone mainstream! There used to be an expectation that the blogosphere would mean that these few key news organisations would lose their prominence and importance. Not a bit of it – the blogosphere feeds off their output – true there is wider comment nowadays and the relationship is symbiotic – but it’s the old media who are still the daddy. The politicians worked the room on their unspoken rota, mentally ensuring they got to each of that hit-list of folk to talk to. The traditional image of the journo chasing the interviewee and begging for them to be granted the great favour of a quick line is turned on its head here. Instead, the key journos stay in place and the politicos come to them and beg for the interview. It was a sight to behold. We had Ashdown, Milliband (Snr), May, Ainsworth (oblivious to his new bruise), Campbell, Huhne and Gove to name-drop just a fraction of those in the room fighting to get on camera. Brown, Clegg and Cameron would by now be on the way home but make no mistake that round two was continuing with brutality in the Media Centre. And so it went on….

I went back up to the Sky Party and watched the last of the interviews in the bar. There was a healthy mix of people with different voting intentions discussing it. Of those who would confess to a clear party allegiance unsurprisingly everyone (except me) saw their man as the clear winner. The interesting thing was the undecided lot – none of them would pin their flag to a clear winner. Perhaps then it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

For a party activist these debates are nerve-wracking. You know that all those thousands of leaflets you stuff through letter boxes, all the door knocking, and all the other local campaign stuff is only ever really worth, at most, about three percent of your local vote. It’s the national stuff that counts most and we’re helpless to control that. Here in one hour your leader can wipe out all that good work with one poor phrase. Cameron did not do that. But he didn’t land any huge punches either. Am I nervous? A little. Am I losing any faith that he is the right man for the job or he has the right vision for Britain? Not a bit of it. Do I wish we didn’t have the debates? The pragmatic campaigner in me says yes – they haven’t helped us and have risked damaging us – but the democrat in me over-rides that. These debates have helped re-engage the public after a full-on collapse of trust in politics. The debates are healthy for our democracy and frankly that’s more important.  Roll on the next one.

9 Comments

Filed under Election

Is Cameron Missing a Trick with Twitter? Is he heck!

Yesterday, David Cameron received a direct appeal from Conservative Uber-Blogger Tim Montgomerie to take up Twitter.  You can watch the question and response here.  Yet more pressure on the Tories to play ‘catch-up’ with this medium came with this report referenced in yesterday’s FT.

Whilst I have nothing but respect for Montgomerie and his ability to use the internet to enthuse & engage Conservative activists I think he’s dead wrong on the value of Twitter.  Cameron is right not to waste his finite time on this fad.  Cards on the table: I’m a relative newbie to Twitter, I resisted the hype for a year or two but when I started blogging I joined hoping to drive some traffic to this blog.  I suppose from that point of view it has been successful. I haven’t sussed it out all the etiquette yet, but there are a couple of things I have learned – all of which for me suggest DC should stay away:

  • The oft-published league tables for ‘number-of-followers’ are nonsense – any quick Google search will show you how to quickly ‘buy’ followers, and there is a juvenile (yet compelling) culture of ‘I’ll follow you if you follow me’.  Look at the million plus followers C grade Radio 5 DJ Richard Bacon has signed up.  If you believe the headline then one in sixty people in the UK is clinging to his every 140 character utterance.  If you actually look at his account you have to scroll through literally thousands of Far Eastern sounding names before you find a single person who appears to be a potential 5-live listener.  Either he has a huge cult following in China and the Philippines or his PR agency have recruited a decent ‘follower farmer’.  It can only be a matter of time before the Media suss this out and ‘number-of-followers’ stops being a measure of digital credibility and gravitas – and actually becomes the reverse.  You also need to drop the assumption that because someone ‘follows you’ they actually bother to read your tweets.  A quick look at a sample of twitter accounts shows many follow hundreds or even thousands of people.   Once people are following that kind of volume, you realise your most profound tweets are lost to many in the sheer noise of the place.

The magic is having quality followers not the quantity of them.

  • For Cameron a ‘quality’ follower would be a swing voter who is only following a handful of other people. The reality is that most people on Twitter are either IT Geeks, Media/Marketing Types or Political Animals – the vast majority of this crowd are dead set in who they will vote for. Those who aren’t political are unlikely to be inclined to follow Cameron.  He would either be preaching to the converted or the lynch mob.
  • Staying off also avoids the potential banana skin of the ill-advised tweets after a shandy or two. I actually follow our local Labour MP in the hope she drops a clanger.

It is therefore simply not a good use of the man’s time and a distraction from methods of campaigning that could engage the people he isn’t currently reaching. Don’t get me wrong Twitter is a neat communication technology and it has its place – but it aint the game changer its proponents think it is and DC is right in sidestepping it.

All that dissing Twitter said, if anyone wishes to follow me I’m @guythemac – I tweet rarely, and only use it to draw attention to new material written on here – I’m sure most of my few tweets are drowned out in the ether – but that’s OK –  I have some time to waste – David Cameron does not.

*This article is a tidy-up of a response I left on Conservative home – that debate there can be seen here.

7 Comments

Filed under Centre Right, Politics, UK, UK Politics