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February 28, 2006

What can American conservatives teach British conservatives about the internet?

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Will the internet have the same impact on British politics that it has had on American politics? Journalist Harry Phibbs ponders the question and makes suggestions as to how conservatives in the UK may more effectively use the internet. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

"What is a blog?", the then Tory leader Michael Howard asked me. It was at a fund raising drinks party hosted by the Ealing Acton and Shepherd's Bush Conservative Association in a Church Hall in November 2003. Howard had agreed to come along when he was Shadow Chancellor but very decently honoured the commitment despite having just been elected party leader. He was doing the rounds speaking to the small groups around the room and when it came to my turn to meet him I had suggested to him that the Conservative Party should have a blog on their website.

One can't imagine David Cameron asking "What is a blog?" But then Howard could scarcely have remained unaware of them for long. There might not be a single, official Conservative Party blog but there is no shortage of unofficial or semi-official ones. Michael's wife Sandra kept a campaign diary during the General Election campaign which was a sort of blog. Tim Montgomerie has enjoyed success with his blog intended specifically for Conservative Party activists, ConservativeHome.com.

Whether by accident or design ConservativeHome.com has got the right balance - of being run independently of the party but with good connections and encouragement. For instance Tory front-benchers often contribute to it. It also has the right balance of being supportive of the Conservatives without being deferential. During the leadership election it contributed to the ability of members to make an informed choice - for example by including reports from the various hustings meetings. The site was also influential in ensuring that the membership had a choice in the first place - rather than the contest being decided by MPs.

Evidently a modest fellow, Montgomerie still feels he has more to learn. So he recently went to America to find out more about the importance blogging can have over there. During the visit he was ambushed by Tom Baldwin, the hostile Times journalist who duly wrote up the visit under the headline: Tories copy Republican dirty tricks on the web.

Montgomerie responded in cyberspace:

Tom Baldwin, the reporter, takes my observations about the campaign techniques of some of the more edgy conservative campaigners and assumes I think the Conservative Party should embrace them. I don't think that. During my stay in Washington I learnt a great deal about the impact that the internet has already had on US politics. I'm convinced blogging and other web platforms are going to be increasingly important in Britain, too. A report on everything I learn will go to Francis Maude and at some point in the future I hope to be able to share many of my findings with readers of this blog.
It is true that a lot of internet politics in the US is negative and aggressive but that reflects the general tone of their elections. Examples of the internet's importance in the last US Presidential elections included the questioning of John Kerry's Vietnam War record by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Howard Dean is another notable example of the importance of the internet in American politics. Although he failed to secure the Democrat nomination his reliance on the internet got him close, it was claimed that he signed up over 500,000 supporters online.

Not all the American stuff is knockabout. I have found the Heritage Foundation's website an invaluable source of material, for example in refuting the argument that education vouchers would make those children who remain in state education worse off. Often if one is looking for a conservative or libertarian perspective on a specific controversy it is to American websites that one needs to turn.

One of the gurus behind the changes that have been taking place is Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths.

The growth of political blogging is one of those extraordinary changes we have just taken for granted. There used to be something magically elitist about journalists. Those who worked in newspaper offices would have libraries at the top of the buildings where they could obtain files of yellowing newspaper cuttings on everybody who had ever been written about. They would be able to trawl through documents like Hansard and foreign newspapers not realistically available to the rest of us. They would have the privilege of getting their thoughts into the public domain.

The internet has meant anyone can be a journalist and publisher by starting their own blog. The extra information that professional journalists have access to is almost marginal. I suppose some press officers might refuse to speak to someone who contacted them on behalf of a blog rather than a newspaper. But they would find it difficult to decide where to draw the line. What about the internet news sites that employ staff? The BBC website apparently employs over a thousand people and has a vast number of hits? Would any press office refuse to take calls from its reporters on the grounds that it was only a website?

I'm sure Google have strenuous discussions about which sites to include for their Google News searches. As well as the obvious news agencies and newspapers they also include stories from an assortment of weird and wonderful sounding sites.

In general I think the democratisation of news is a healthy thing and one that should benefit conservatives. Instead of grumbling that this or that "doesn't get reported" individual conservatives can get on with reporting it themselves.

As far as the Conservative Party is concerned here are a couple of suggestions. The Campaign Guide, the "bible" outlining facts and figures and policies on every conceivable subject, traditionally produced before each General Election should be made available via the party's website and updated regularly.

Secondly, local Conservative associations should include blogs on their websites stressing themes about people's individual experiences, such as their difficulties with the local council. These could feed into influencing policy locally as well as making the websites of greater interest. For instance we often here of cases where couples are prevented from adopting children on grounds of "political correctness", but if local councillors are to be able to put a stop to this, greater details are needed - perhaps not the times but the chapter and verse of the criteria that were cited for preventing adoption. Similarly in the constant struggle against public sector waste and overregulation a lot of information could be accumulated in this way.

In the internet age change will increasingly come from the bottom up.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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