Political blogging: logging on, dropping out

Originally published on spiked.

The Tory Party election campaign slogan, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’, shows a desperation to connect with the voting public. In February 2005, former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith (now head of Centre for Social Justice) wrote in the Guardian that the Tory party needs to connect with the electorate in new ways.

At a time when ‘broadcasters have possessed the greatest potential to frame public debate’ (1), he suggested that the internet could play a crucial role in bypassing traditional media, offering maligned parties like the Tories a chance to talk directly to the public.

Up until now, it is the UK left that has been the loudest advocates of the internet as a campaigning tool. But in attempting to get in touch through the internet, both sides of the political spectrum seem to be retreating from accountability in the real world, towards consultation in the virtual world.

Duncan Smith has launched an unofficial Tory website called ConservativeHome.com with his former political secretary Tim Montgomerie. Part of the unofficial Tory site is devoted to weblogging (a weblog is a kind of personal online journal, with the potential to reach millions through the click of a mouse). The ConservativeHome project mission is to get the Tory voters out in support; then in its ‘second phase… it will begin to urge Tory supporters and natural conservatives… to support “one nation” conservatism’ (2).

However, Duncan Smith’s idea is not new. Labour MP Tom Watson was the first MP to use a weblog, closely followed by a smattering of other MPs from all sides. But what is interesting is just how far Duncan Smith is prepared to go to stake his claim on a new technology to help reinvigorate his political prospects.

Incredibly, he said: ‘[T]he internet could do more to change the level of political engagement than all the breast-beating of introspective politicians and commentators. A 21st century political revolution is now only a few mouse clicks away.’ (3) This enthusiasm will remind many about those (now forgotten) dotcom idealists who bet on the internet in making them millions – and we all know what happened to them.

New Labour has tried a similar thing before (see its Big Conversation website (4)), and both parties are missing the point. While weblogs and websites provide interesting means to publishing ideas, they are second best to the real thing – engaging with people in the real world. Relying on IT and the internet to fuel a new-found faith in politics is at best naive, at worst dangerous.

One of biggest reasons why weblogs are creeping into political life is that they have low political horizons – they have a personal tone, and can potentially reach people outside of institutional or campaigning structures. But paradoxically, these low horizons could be why many find them so appealing. Duncan Smith wants to make a virtue out of campaigning online, arguing: ‘[T]he internet’s automatic level playing field gives conservatives opportunities that mainstream media have often denied them.’ (5) But here alternatives are being sought because of his party’s inability to fight their opponents head on.

The Tories’ lowered horizons are further suggested by their hankering after the past. Like many webloggers, Duncan Smith believes that ‘[A]n online community of bloggers performs the same function as yesteryear’s town meetings. Through the tradition of town hall meetings, officials were held to account by local people. Blogger communities are going to be much more powerful’ (6).

Although today’s webloggers are from all parts of the political spectrum, they share disdain for the political process. They may argue that politics is unrepresentative of what actually is happening on the ground – but what they are really saying is that they don’t like it because it doesn’t suit their needs.

Conducting virtual politics online is second best. It is far less accountable than in the real world – it is impossible to hold anyone to account in a virtual ‘town hall’, where politicians are free to ignore the views people express. Political argument and persuasion should be carried out in the public realm, where politicians can be properly judged.

Rather than the Conservatives fighting their opposition head on, they are in retreat and complaining about being misrepresented. If we go by Duncan Smith, they seem to want to debate politics where it has least consequence or effect. Encouraging a coterie of online concerned voters is easy – but they are likely to be ephemeral and to disappear just as easily as they appeared.

In this case it will continue to exacerbate their obscurity and they will end up talking to themselves. As anyone who works in IT knows, your competition is only one click away.