Friday, March 03, 2006

The Significance of Ming: Part II

Great claims were made for this leadership election in certain quarters. Not in how it affected the Liberal Democrat party, but how it could show the strength of the blogosphere. This article at New Politics, for example, suggests that Chris Huhne's campaign gathered steam because it was the first to try and tap into the blogosphere.

Yet ultimately, the blogosphere's impact on the leadership race was small indeed. Guido Fawkes may have claimed that his brand of gossip merchantry was the first hint of the Oaten scandal; Bloggers4Chris claimed to be the first site to utilise blogging support in a semi-official capacity; Trust People yesterday claimed to be the first to break the news of Campbell's victory.

Forgive me if I remain distinctly underwhelmed. If the pinnacle of British blogging is a couple of puerile jokes about Mark Oaten's lack of hair, or speculatively announcing the result of an election a whole half hour (gasp!) ahead of the announcement, then really, there isn't much hope for the future. Why do bloggers go in for stunts like this? It doesn't reflect well on them, and it doesn't achieve much at all. The ability to cover hustings, conferences and such like in considerably greater detail than is allowed by the broadcast media is a great strength of blogs. It's a pity it seems to be a strategy used less than seeing who can shout the loudest.

As for the claim that Bloggers4Chris was a good utilisation of the blogosphere in campaigning, I must say I disagree quite strongly here. The website had tremendously poor layout for a blog (it is not fun having to click on a link to read every article) and was little more than cheerleading. Rarely were his claims expanded on in any detail - it was just a roll-call of bloggers who had declared their support for Huhne with some (largely uninspiring) posts explaining their reasoning.

I've said it before; the British blogosphere is at its best when it is debating policy. It allows the exploration of ideas in much greater depth than that afforded by the broadcast media, and it introduces a vitality into the blogosphere that is greatly needed - especially in a medium that all too often can appear as if it suffers from major groupthink. This happened at certain stages in the LibDem leadership race - most notably over environmental policy - but all too often it didn't. Press releases do not make for good reading; real opinion does.

Of course, that's as much a criticism of activists as it is for the candidates themselves. And Chris Huhne deserves some credit for producing policy that really did appeal to bloggers. It's no coincidence that the most consistent blogging support was for Huhne - he made much more of an appeal to policy than any of the other candidates, and that was respected in an ideas-driven medium.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to how candidates might utilise the blogosphere more effectively. My conclusions here are tentative, but I will offer them anyway (did you expect anything else?). Firstly, I think there must be a move away from using campaign websites purely as spinning devices. Voters want a more honest approach to politics - that might mean opening yourself up to some more criticism than otherwise, but blogs are supposed to be interactive in stimulating debate and in having vibrant comment sections. Sterile cheerleading like Bloggers4Chris is, quite frankly, boring.

It may well be worth using blogs to have the campaign team write their reaction to events - good and bad. A more frank approach sounds risky but may well be worth the risk. At the very least, perhaps compiling a list of articles about a candidate, good or bad, with a robust rebuttal. Candidates may be busy, but engaging with bloggers more directly might be a good way of tapping into the vitality of blogs.

The use of blogs in the leadership campaigns was dramatically underwhelming. The most interesting comment was, as usual, generated where real discussion was invited. That is where candidates should look in the future if they really want to use the strength of blogging to help their campaigns.