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.