Tuesday, 7 April 2009

In Labourspace, no one can hear you pontificate

Web 2.0 is all shiny just now, and ostensibly dominated by the Conservatives (or at least, the minuscule portion that can claim to be political is.) Therefore, Labour are beefing up their online operations in order to a) engage with the ordinary voter and b) fight for the tactical high ground. At first blush, this seems reasonable enough, but somebody, somewhere, should really have asked a couple of pertinent questions:

a) Is a strong pro-Labour online presence really something we can will into being?
b) Do the Conservatives actually gain any electoral advantage simply because literally dozens of middle-aged males are exchanging Harriet Harperson jokes or hosting the same Dan Hannan video?

Whatever the answers may be, the fact is that Labour are making a concerted effort. Hence LabourList, and now Labourspace. LabourList was a place for discussion, debate and deliberation; Labourspace is the place for action.

The concept is simple: one logs on, sets up a campaign and then, er, campaigns for it. On Labourspace itself, on facebook and twitter, on blogs and in the media. Get the most supporters and you win. Again though, there are a few questions that might have been asked first:

What's a campaign? Currently on the site we have proposals for everything from an international open borders policy to ending NHS parking charges, from re-introducing wolves to Scotland to re-nationalising the railways. Some people have specific goals, others just feel bad about stuff. Some people are trying to re-write national policy, others are looking for a grant. Charities, not surprisingly, are using this to raise awareness. There are differences between campaigning, lobbying the government and drafting policy, but whoever's behind this hasn't actually thought about what they're asking people to do. If they want campaign ideas, it's up to them to provide the policy framework for people to campaign in. If they want to listen to the voice of the people, they should only ask questions if they're prepared to use the answers. If they want a general policy forum, they need to weed out contrarians, spoilers and idiots. This site does none of these things. A more focused approach (say, helping local councillors co-ordinate approaches to, for example, fuel poverty) might have produced some valuable ideas that could actually be used. What we've got is too broad and ill-defined to produce results.

What's this got to do with Labour? Seriously. Any government could run a site like this. In fact, this one already did - the National Petition nonsense. There's no requirement that any of the campaigns have any connection whatsoever with existing Labour policy, or traditional left-wing principles, or New Labour values or anything else with even a vague connection to the Labour party. Ed Milliband makes a point of commenting on as many campaigns as possible; his two longest responses are to clarion calls for a) re-nationalising railways and b) an English parliament. Without looking, see if you can guess whether he's for or against. Which brings us to...

What do you win? This is, at bottom, a popularity contest. Plugged-in social networkers who get the most supporters for their campaign get their "ideas bought to the attention of senior Labour politicians". Really? If you were capable of running a popular nationwide campaign, it would already be bought to their attention. That's what campaigning is. But in any case, let's say you are successful. Either your idea flies in the face of government policy, in which case it gets ignored, or it's more or less acceptable, in which case... what? You get a photo-op with a relevant junior minister? The manifesto gets re-written? A law gets passed? How can this help the Labour party? Support the winning campaign, and they're being craven populists, taking direction from a handful of bloggers. Ignore it, and they're denying the will of the people.

There's no point in asking a question unless you know what you're going to do with the answer. Labourspace, even if successful, won't do anything for Labour but create a new problem.

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