The Lib Dems don’t need a blogging strategy. They need a Lembit strategy

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Alex Singleton has written a wonderfully charmless little attack post on about the state of Lib Dem blogosphere (it is always nice to find an article like this has been written by someone I have already dismissed as an idiot).

Leaving aside the usual crap about the Lib Dems not standing for anything (bizarrely, he seems to think that Cameron’s Conservatives are a good example of a consistent party – clearly he has never read ConHome – in particular he clearly hasn’t read this article about the Tory’s own internet fail), one can marvel at the sheer ignorance about the subject matter in question. Describing Lib Dem Voice and Lib Dem Blogs as “rivals” is simply gigglesome. It is as if he has never come across the idea of an aggregator before (let alone the fact that Ryan Cullen is in fact the sinister puppetmaster pulling the strings behind the scenes of both websites). He cites Guido Fawkes for attacking Labour’s blog activities, yet seems to fundamentally misunderstand Paul’s real complaint. As I understand it (and I did speak to him on the topic last week), the Guido analysis is that any blogging strategy is fundamentally a waste of time because it will only reach out to the usual suspects.

I broadly agree with that, which is why I’ve never really gone in for this whole puffing about the party via my blog thing. This blog is a way for me to develop my thoughts, to mouth off and to relieve tension (a bit like wanking). Engaging in a dialogue with similarly interested individuals is a plus. Proselytising isn’t even on the radar.

There are good examples of blogging to the unconverted, but you won’t find them at the “top” of the blogosphere but rather in the long tail. Take Mary Reid for example. A great community blog with crossover appeal between political hacks and Kingston upon Thames residents. Mary’s blog works in that way because Mary gets that engagement is about more than blogging – she’s one of the party’s (indeed the UK’s) leading e-mancipators. But you won’t see her at the top of the Wikio rankings or the Total Politics league table any time soon – to do that she would have to make compromises, talking to the political hardcore at the expense of local residents. That would lead her to disengage and ultimately be self-defeating. But Alex Singleton would of course approve.

Generally speaking it is fascinating how journalists consistently fail to “get” the internet, even at its most basic. A couple of weeks ago, a PR Week journalist by the name of David Singleton (coincidence?) reported that the Lib Dems are going to hold a “bloggers’ summit” at Cowley Street on 28 March. Not so – the party is holding a coders’ summit, a far more productive exercise. And of course, there is this incessant and persistant attack on Twitter – which sounds remarkably similar in tone to the incessant and persistant attack by the mainstream media on blogging before every journo and his/her dog started blogging. The phenomenon of mainstream journalists confusing the medium for the message is one of the great mysteries of the age (perhaps it is something Charlie Brooker should investigate on his new Newswipe series).

Are the Lib Dems getting everything right with their internet strategy? Of course not. I would suggest the following:

  • The party doesn’t send out anything like enough emails and the emails it does send tend to be a bit haphazzard. I’m a bit of a social bookmarking evangelist myself, but even I would question the point in encouraging everyone on our email list to help promote the latest Nick Clegg video via Digg. By all means put Digg buttons everywhere, but every second you spend explaining it to the general public is a second you should be communicating the party’s vision and policies.
  • Every party campaign and initiative should be focussed around collecting email addresses (legally of course). Never mind Digg, we should be letting individuals forward information about our campaigns to their address books in a way that is now old hat on sites such as Avaaz.
  • With the Liberal Youth currently mid-nervous breakdown, it is time for the party to make a strategic decision about how it intends to communicate with young people. For years now, it has tended to be left for the youth wing to organise. That was fine when they were the innovators (launching for instance), but they’ve been bungling it for years now. Following on from Alix Mortimer’s seminal piece last week, it is probably time a group of 20-30 somethings got together and had a serious chat about an alternative that isn’t modelled around a quaint 19th century private members club but rather is a serious attempt to create a liberal grassroots movement that is has strong ties to, but ultimately independent of, the Lib Dems.

Finally, if there is to be a Lib Dem blogging strategy, then the thing it should be focussed around is building up our existing personalities’ web presence. At the start of this year, I avowed a wish to see Lembit Opik start blogging. I’m serious. Lembit’s claim that turning up on light entertainment programmes (catch him tonight on Ant and Dec) helps him reach out to people the rest of the party doesn’t reach is a perfectly sound argument but is poorly executed. Imagine what a plus it would be if he gave people who had seen him on these programmes a place to go; a website which bridged his particular obsession with celebrity and politics? Sadly, he is so steeped in denial that he will no doubt assume this constructive criticism is yet another “pernicious” attack on him.

To a degree, the same could be said about Vince, although his particular brand of personality lends itself better to helping to promote the party. But if you think the party’s success is dependent on having yet another blog to feed the obsessives, you are so wrong you ought to begin a career as a Telegraph journalist.

12 thoughts on “The Lib Dems don’t need a blogging strategy. They need a Lembit strategy

  1. Even by Torygraph standards, that’s a shockingly bad piece of journalism simply on the number of factual mistakes it manages to cram in, and that’s before we even start on the unsubstantiated claims (I’ll take the anti-Lib Dem bias as read – that’s fair enough).

  2. Couple of quick comments – PR Week’s Alex Singleton is not the same guy as the Telegraph’s…

    I disagree that email harvesting at a national level should be the sole focus of our national e-campaigns – it is one important activity, but training local parties to be better at it, and equipping all of our local campaigns to be more active and effective in engaging social media would very probably be more productive.

    I also don’t agree that the party at national level should necessarily be sending out more emails, rather they should be better, and should primarily be first-person updates from key party figures. That requires something of a culture shift inside the party’s operations so that those emails would be treated as a priority, and produced in a timely fashion.

    Local, local, local. At a national level we hold our own. We need to encourage better practice in the local parties.

  3. Rob, some good points there, although I didn’t claim that David and Alex Singleton were the same person (I do wonder if they may be related though).

  4. Lembit Opik should blog but we need to work together as a blogosphere to welcome him in. So James cut the crap and start talking with Lembit’s office if we want Lembit to start blogging!

  5. In the 14 years I’ve known him, and intermittendly worked with him, I don’t think Lembit has accepted my advice once. If people closer to him agree he should blog, they need to have a word with him – not me.

  6. Completely agree with Rob’s point about empowering, enabling and training the front line. I also believe this needs to be the party’s total focus.

    Part of this needs to be a violent step-change in getting national data back to local parties so that virtual contact can be supplemented (where possible and where appropriate) by doorstep contact – and turning virtual contacts into real world activists.

  7. I also agree with Martin and Rob—I’m working on my local party, but progress is slow—the PPCs are on board with the idea, but the practice is intermittent, I need to retype some of Mary’s ideas into a guidelines doc.

    James, when you say proselytising isn’t on the radar, you’re right—and because it’s not on the radar, you’ve been effective at it in some cases. Blogs that stick to the issues and talk about them well, such as yours, were one of the reasons I went from “I’m not partisan” to “I might think about joining”. Adrian’s approach sealed the deal, but it was reading the Lib Dem blogs during Ming’s leadership election that got me on board.

    Irfan, James is right, Lembit isn’t going to listen to him, it’s annoying that politics frequently gets personal, but that’s how it works, it needs to be someone Lembit respects that persuades him—perhaps Ros?

  8. I’d disagree with you slightly Martin, because in my experience the best source of data is local action which gathers it. The total volume of data brought in locally completely dwarfs the amount of data we bring in directly nationally, and that’s still with many areas not being close to maxing out on the amount of data they could be gathering locally.

  9. Mark. True-ish, and we need tools that help people collect and use data more effectively as well.

    Two thoughts though… one is that people whose names appear centrally are often people who provide information spontaneously rather than as a response to something – and they are generally highly valuable. Even if only 10% of the people on the e-supporters list were visited in person and signed up as members, it would be a noticeable bump to party membership.

    The other is an observation that when there’s a proper data flow from the centre, the data-flow to the centre also goes through the roof.

    I suspect it’s not a coincidence, for example, that the two parties that have had petition data returned to them longest have 4-5 times as many signatures as similar parties that don’t. Suddenly there’s an incentive to start pushing national online petitions locally for example, because you know you’ll get the data back.

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