Monday 25 January 2010

The machine v the movement

“The campaign will be between the Conservative party machine and Labour’s grass roots. It’s really a battle between who is going to frame the debate – the official Conservative lines or Labour [activists] knocking on doors and posting their own interpretations on places [such as] Twitter.”

So says Albert Nardelli of the Tweetminister project, quoted in the Financial Times report, one of several today on Tweetminster's fascinating report unpacking what analysing 830,000 tweets from 2009 can tell us about how twitter is being used by the political classes.

The topline finding that Labour dominates all key metrics - but due to 'unofficial' rather than party HQ activity - appears to strongly confirm what had been a widely believed sense, if somewhat anecdotally based, that while the left has been playing catch-up in the political blogosphere, that Labour and broader liberal movements had largely dominated the twittersphere.

(I wonder whether that is one reason why twitter strikes many who use it as a considerably more civil space than the virtual zoo of parts of the blogosphere? (That is much less directly about political ideology, as about the sense of identity and accountability in the twittersphere; nonymous hit and run trolls, whether aspirant editors of national newspapers or not, need not apply. Still, the question about why the right is so much stronger in those fizzingly angry, anonymous spaces than in social spaces which reflect the civic square is an intriguing one, on which more informed theories would be interesting).

Does this matter? A General election won't be won or lost on twitter. But those who make that point may be underestimating how much new forms of communication and engagement could well shift the culture of our politics over time.

At this stage, both the blogosphere and twitter are becoming increasingly important channels of communication in shaping activism and debates within political parties, also linking party activism and those in other highly engaged spheres of civic campaigning and activity in a much more porous way than before. It is less clear that they will have a significant impact in reaching undecided voters, many of whom may well get a sense of information overload from traditional sources already, though it will be an important source for some.

So I suspect that what may be being gradually but most significantly reshaped is the culture of our parties themselves.

What I found most useful and encouraging about this report is less the "mine's bigger than yours" sense of the cross-party competition (albeit that the Tory blogging boys sing about that a great deal when they are winning) but rather what the report captures about the quiet revolution which has been bubbling up from below in the culture of Labour politics and activism.

The enduring (and once rather justified) sense of a 'command and control' party is now rather out-of-date, even if the national press and offline commentariat have been rather slow to cotton on to that.

That matters because one of the key themes of the "party reform" debates within Labour in the last five years has been how much shifting the party culture matters, especially to challenge and break the model of "top down" party politics which was, a generation ago now, the response to the emerging 24/7 (largely one-way) broadcast media of the Clinton and early Blair era. (The Fabian pamphlets Facing Out and The Change We Need have stressed how important this is to a broader movement politics for the left).

There have been some false starts - such as LabourList's initial implosion, before its impressive rebirth under Alex Smith. But today's report offers one good indicator of how Labour - thanks to a handful of hyper-engaged MPs like Kerry McCarthy, and a larger number of campaigning activists such as Bevanite Ellie - have now got on and done it.

It is interesting too to see how the established media brands have most reach - but that the most engaged grassroots voices are as likely to be influential, as measured by messages being retweeted on to other people's networks. We will increasingly see how "voice" mechanisms through social networking can quickly create new channels for focused pressure which decision-makers will struggle to ignore.

Yet the Conservative leadership has, to a large extent, sought to emulate the new Labour model of the Phillip Gould era, with the political message of decentralisation being combined with an ever greater focus on tight party management, and journalists briefed that barely ten Tories really "get" the David Cameron and Steve Hilton project.

For all its self-projected dress down modernity, this risks being timewarp politics when it comes to the politics of party management.

This isn't the 1990s now - which is why this highly top-down element of the Cameron project when it comes to party affairs is increasingly challenged, notably by the influential ConservativeHome blog. That matters because those grassroots voices will often be quicker in reaching and framing debates in the party than the leadership, especially as David Cameron's joke that 'too many tweets making a twat' does reflect an ambivalence about social networking.

The Tweetminister report has led to Tory calls for Cameron to reconsider.

But success on twitter comes most of all from authenticity and engagement.

The one-way billboard blitz may be thought to run rather fewer risks.


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

It is interesting how you have picked up on the grassroots aspects of Twitter and this report, while Tim Montgomerie has been rather more interested (to the point of asking Cameron about it on live TV) about the large number of subscribers @DowningStreet and @SarahBrown10 have.

Matt Wardman said...

I'd put a split between @DowningStreet and @SarahBrown10 in this debate.

The former is determinedly a Civil Service neutral feed, and is run by the web-elves at No 10. I raised the question last week whether @number10 and @MayorofLondon were institutional or political feeds and would be retained by the PM/Mayor or not, and they replied in minutes with a very strong assertion that it was institutional.

@SarahBrown10 is clearly a feed used politically, but - unlike most in the report - goes beyond the Westminster bucket.

There are a couple of points I think you are pushing a bit too hard:

"(I wonder whether that is one reason why twitter strikes many who use it as a considerably more civil space than the virtual zoo of parts of the blogosphere?"

Twitter perhaps tends to be more civil due to the closer interaction - it is even closer to a conversation than blogs, but it is surely as variable as the rest - there are plenty of rampaging mobs and winde up merchants around. I don't think the wider public - or perhaps more accurately the layer outside but in connection with the Westminster village - will buy that.

I see it becoming more confrontational in the next 6 months. I'll be *very* interested to see what happens to the reputation of blogs which change their mix to become fairly pure campaigning platforms.

Isn't that the politics we are seeking to avoid?