Saturday 11 April 2009

The very last thing we needed was a Red Guido

Among the many galling features about this Easter weekend's tawdry Westminster village eruption which has led to the resignation of Downing Street adviser Damian McBride is not just that the behaviour involved has brought shame on the Labour Party, as Charles Clarke rightly judges.

It is also that - they have, as Monica Lewinsky's semen stained dress did for Matt Drudge - catapulted the right-wing blogger Mr Paul Staines (aka "Guido Fawkes") into the centre of the political media. It would be bad enough were Staines simply the political nihilist he poses as - the nom de plume is because he believes Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intention. That is not quite true: Staines pursues political muckraking and mudslinging in a deeply partisan way, albeit that he selects occasional targets from the right too.

Yet who can deny that this is surely his victory? For what Mr McBride and Derek Draper seem to have been doing is plotting - however ineptly - a pro-Labour muckraking scandal sheet "Red Rag" (as Iain Dale describes), presumably on the notion that was Labour really really needed to get this online stuff was a Red Guido.

That is what Labour needed like a hole in the head, to say nothing of what that says about British politics more broadly. And it is an idea which captures every single mistake that some in the party risk making when they think about the blogosphere.

So it is now time for lessons which could have been learnt a long time ago - including at 3am in the bar last party conference- and which are sometimes articulated as having been learnt - to be finally and fully taken on board.

I am a friendly acquaintance of Mr Derek Draper, and have written for his LabourList website, to which we have tried to be constructive if somewhat critical friends, in particular in stressing how much needed to happen for command and control needs to be ditched in practice as well as in theory.

The central dilemma and problem of LabourList was clear from what I think was the very first public discussion of it - at a somewhat sweary fringe meeting we held in Manchester last September, where the contributions of several people - myself, David Lammy and Tom Harris among others - were summed up by my writing that "I felt that Draper's willingness to move away from the 'command and control' model was far too limited and risk-averse, largely because of a sense that web engagement had more risk than reward". LabourList has tried to do this to some extent, but not nearly enough (yet), and being enmeshed in a Downing Street resignation captures very clearly why.

For the record too, I don't know Damian McBride at all. Constructively critical pointy-heads are not the focus of the sharp end of the political machine, as we are not usually important enough to be phoned up and sworn at should we dare to say anything in public. I have long been personally a fan of the current Prime Minister, while consistently arguing too for the Brown who is best at his boldest. But it is not our role to offer absolute unswerving loyalty to my party right or wrong, and the Fabian Society is practically constitutionally compelled to be non-factional, and pluralist enough to upset the warriors in any of the tiny fractious factions engaged in a narcissism of minor differences within New Labour. Naturally, we try to remain on good terms with our wonkish and political friends who are digging away doing good work from the inside, and are aware that they face challenges which those looking in from outside do not

There are three different reactions to such episodes, when they happen to your political friends and opponents.

(1) All's fair in love and war - but its better not to get caught.

This view involves hyper-partisan fulmination whenever anything happens on the other side (while naturally being chuffed to bits about it). On your own side, exoneration and mitigation where possible, throwing in a bit of 'whataboutery' to try and even it up. Occasionally, to admit to being shocked, genuinely, or in the style of Claude Rains in Casablanca.

I have no idea what proportion of the political operatives on both sides of the political aisle take that view. It would be cynical to say it was a majority of political insiders - but naive to suggest that nobody thinks like that.

(2) Fairness across party boundaries.

This is the approach taken by higher minded columnists and leader writers on the better newspapers; the good chairs of Parliamentary Select Committees, like Dr Tony Wright MP, and a fair sprinkling of people in and around groups like the Fabian Society, the Bow Group, the thinking end of the Liberal Democrats and so on. This is the right thing to do.

We here at Next Left try to do a fair amount of this - however imperfectly - as do the more serious bloggers from left, right and centre. Those who attempt such an approach are seen by some colleagues as having an underdeveloped sense of loyalty and partisanship, and being rather academic and vicar-like. Part of that is the fair point that the liberal-left is somewhat better at this than the right. (We would say that, wouldn't we?) So we are sometimes legitimately open to the observation that they are always bending over backwards to be fair to the Conservatives, when that is more rarely reciprocated by the right.

(3) Enlightened partisanship

So for those who can't make it that far, let me propose a lesson from evolutionary theory - where it turns out that reciprocal altruism is a better self-interested strategy that narrow selfishness. The lesson of political evolution is that tribalism can kill the tribe, as Martin Bright argues on The Spectator blog

This has been the central point too of our Change We Need project on the lessons from Obama, led by Nick Anstead and Will Straw, which amounts to a call for a cultural and organisational revolution in the Labour Party. Almost everybody says they are up for this, so it is now a question of how to really do it. (And I appreciate that I am here once again pursuing that 'false hope' agenda that dreamers like former Illinois Senator Barack Obama believed could defeat both the Clinton and Republican political machines).

In fact, I think Bright has only half of the argument, though an important half of it. It is necessary to be both more and less partisan at the same time. The hankering after the 'big tent' can be part of the problem here too.

The point was made very well just ahead of the last General Election by Meg Russell in her excellent, high-minded Fabian pamphlet Must Politics Disappoint? that the dog-eat-dog narrow politics of personal destruction is closely linked to too great a reluctance to run on values and ideology. Parties that can do that can set out why they are different to their opponents - without needing to rely on 'our competitor's plane will crash' as their main advertising message.

Let us acknowledge a very smart point made by Will Straw at the Change We Need launch. In fact, Obama spent more money going negative than any other candidate in US history. But he spent more still going positive. Does that make him a fraud? No. It was mostly smart partisanship - defining opponents; being forensic about the charges being made and in challenging smears from the other side - which did not undermine the claim to be interested in doing politics differently.

So a successful movement politics means doing politics differently - but in two ways at once. It is necessary to be more ideologically confident to be more pluralist in political organisation, as I have argued before.

To succeed in becoming a part of the centre-left that can inspire its membership and gain public support Labour needs combine two things: being more ideologically rooted in clear values and principles with being decisively more pluralist and open in the way it does politics.

There is nobody left to defend the old New Labour model of command and control. Perhaps, amidst this small but symbolic debacle, the door is creaking open for the change we need.


Morus said...

One of the best posts I've read this year.

Jimmy said...

I'll second that

Silent Hunter said...

Oh Dear Sunder!

Derek Draper is a complete liability to the Labour Party.

I wonder how many 'ex-Labour voters' there now are; thanks to the bone headed efforts of the little shit.

"...I am a friendly acquaintance of Mr Derek Draper, and have written for his LabourList website,..."

Well, they do say that you can judge a man by the company he keeps.

As I said......Oh Dear Sunder!

Grabcocque said...

Did you mention any of this to Dolly and McBride when you attended various "new media breakfasts" with them?

If not, why not?

Anonymous said...

I quite often disagree with you, but this is a really good article. It is precisely people like Draper and McBride plus Smith, McNulty, the Ballses and other advantage takers) who make Labour so despised. Staines does not have the same effect on the Tories because he is not so obviously part of their machine.

Don't promise always to be so respectful!

Nick said...

Funny that you equate what Draper and McBride were trying do with what Guido actually does. Sure, Guido rakes the muck but at least he is looking for some REAL stuff. The New Labour spinners, by contrast, were intending just to make shit up and throw it at the Tories.

Perhaps Labour could do with a proper Red Guido, rather than a bunch of spinners who don't do actual investigations.

Sunder Katwala said...

Well thanks for the nice comments, except SilentHunter of course. Particularly cherami. Its good to be read by people who don't agree with us, and even better.

Grabcoque - I would have liked to get to more of the breakfasts. They were ridiculously early. I think I may have only got to one. That (with the Blue Square Digital people) was well attended by a broad range of people. There was nothing in it that couldn't have been publicly webcast: it was a similar discussion to our Change We Need launch. But of course I made the point I have been making publicly. as at the September event I linked.

Or in January when I wrote:
There is a tension in affiliated, or independent but semi-official efforts. The widespread assumption is there will be a top down, control freak mentality: that it will be an essentially in-house effort, indistinguishable from the output of party HQ. But that would fail" about LabourList's launch.

Anonymous said...


one point though - hyper partisanship works too in contexts - as it does in the United States.

I think its a mistake to say everyone will be in the same camp. There will always be the hyper-partisans, the enlightened ones and the fairness ones. That's the broader electorate for you.

Any political leader has to make alliances and convince all three groups - as Obama did.

From the perspective of a candidate, it's also worthwhile having the hyper-partisans because they'll defend you strongly and knock on doors in a way the floating voters won't.

If you're arguing we should all be enlightened - I probably disagree. I think there's some value in cultivating and holding on to the hyper-partisans. But you have to channel their energies in the right way I'd say.

Stuart White said...

Well said, Sunder. Ideas, values and pluralism, not party tribalism, command and control and sleazy gossip in place of ideas.

Grabcocque said...

Thanks for your response, Sunder.

I've been pleasantly surprised at the preponderance of sane voices refusing to attempt to justify what went on.

Tom Harris has, I suspect, made himself Persona Non Grata with Gordon and the fractured remains of his black ops unit, but done himself huge favours with the sane faction of the Labour party.

A couple of things stand out about this entire sorry saga.

The journos had their eyes on the bigger prize of some of the stories being actually true and provable. The bloggers had the good idea that simply the fact of discussing them ‘officially’ is definitely A NEWS.

I think, in hindsight, what’s odd about the story is the way that Labour thought they could simply turn up, appoint Dolly king of the Internet, dictate terms, and the whole blogosphere would simply fall in line.

It’s an extraordinary and unforgivable failure to grasp quite how much the Internet values its independence from those who would tell it what to think.

You're right that people like Dolly and McBride are people Labour could and should do without. Anyone good a dodging mobiles fancy telling Gordon that?

Chris Bayliss said...

Derek Draper symbolises the sort of ignorant, parasitic apartchik who has tarnished our party's image over the last 15 years; he has no vision, or indeed, passion for progressive politics of his own; he is merely a talentless, political mudslinger. Brown should expel him and people like him from his bosom.