Defending LabourList and knocking the smears about RedRag

As a public relations and social media specialist I’ve had lots of people asking me to comment on the Red Rag blog and Damian McBride’s resignation. I’ve resisted the temptation to become a ‘rent-a-gob’ in the media and haven’t yet responded to those who’ve emailed me and direct messaged me on Twitter. I thought I’d wait until the dust had settled, but as it doesn’t appearing to be settling I might as well have my two pennarth now.

First up I’m not going to be an apologist for Damian McBride. He was totally and utterly wrong to send the emails he did. It was right for him to go, but wrong for him to have been given the opportunity to resign. If what he did wasn’t gross misconduct then the special adviser contracts need to be redrawn. He should have been sacked. That would have sent a far clearer signal from No 10 that this type of behaviour by a special adviser isn’t acceptable and wasn’t sanctioned by Gordon Brown.

However, it has all been blown up out of all proportion. What McBride did might have been odious, but it is in a long tradition of political smearing. Bernard Ingham as Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary did more than his fair share of smearing. The Tories under Cameron aren’t as squeaky clean as he’d like you to think. You’d have to be incredibly naive or stupid not to believe leaking sleaze isn’t part of Andy Coulson’s strategy.

So what should happen now? What shouldn’t happen is that Labour retreats bruised and battered from the blogosphere. My recommendations are:

Don’t listen to the self-appointed social media and blog experts

OK, I know I’m guilty of appearing to be one myself, but at least I do it from a history of 20 years as an award-winning public relations professional and Labour Party activist who now runs a company specialising in providing online public relations advice to big brands, the public sector and not-for-profits. Advert over! Most of the commentators and pundits don’t have a clue about the difficulties of doing ‘proper’ social media within the confines of politics and government. Despite Derek Draper’s mistakes (most of which he’s admitted and said he’s learnt from) he deserves the credit for actually doing something and persuading senior party figures to do something.

Actually have a coherent online communications strategy

An initiative here, an initiative there isn’t the way to do it. Labour must have a clear and coherent online communications strategy as an integral part of its overall election and communications strategy. It’s not an optional extra or bolt-on part to how we communicate with voters (not to). Neither, as some online pundits and enthusiasts would have, is it the most important part of the strategy. The next general election is not going to be lost or even fought much online. But online is going to play an important part, however small.

Appoint an MP to lead the online communications strategy

Labour is a political movement, not just a company or organisation. It therefore needs political leadership. The Tories have Jeremy Hunt MP providing political leadership. Labour should have either Tom Harris MP or Kerry McCarthy MP (who has one of the best set of blog house rules I’ve seen – My blog = My rules!).

LabourList must continue

It’s got lots wrong with it, but nothing that can’t be fixed. I’d start with the technology and dump the proprietary system from Tangent Labs and replace it with something that doesn’t look like it’s been designed as part of a school project. I’m an online enthusiast and even I find LabourList to be unfriendly and clunky to use. Build it on a robust, open platform that is low cost, future proof and feature rich. I’d recommend Drupal. Set it up right so you get proper full feeds and easy to use comments.

It needs to have a more public team of editors, rather than just Derek Draper. Content needs to continue to be from a good mix of local activists and high profile figures such as cabinet ministers. The new design needs to feature other Labour online initiatives more prominently (e.g. John Prescott and Alistair Campbell).

Facilitate more blogs by members and councillors

Before the 1997 election Peter Mandelson used to talk a lot about the air war and the ground war and the need to win both. The air war was what happened in the national media, the ground war was activists out in the community. In the blogosphere the right (in the form of ConservativeHome, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes) is winning the air war with LabourList making a valiant effort to catch up. But I think the war that really matters, and will win the election for Labour, is the ground war where it’s still all to play for. There are good examples of Labour, Tory and Lib Dem local blogs, but no party is dominating this space. Labour can dominate it, but it means trusting local members (never call them just ordinary members!) and letting go of the old command and control models (which has always been more of a media myth than reality anyway).

Once again it’s not by using proprietary technology. It’s about using free stuff and offering up things like decent WordPress templates. Then provide training to members with existing social media skills so that they become more proficient and can cascade the training to other members. Just offering this up to members and councillors as a carrot won’t be enough, there needs to be an element of stick to encourage activists and councillors to at least learn about it (although we shouldn’t try to force them to do it).

Lay off Tom Watson MP

Tom Watson is doing a fantastic job as Minister for Digital Engagement and none of this is his fault. The Tories and muck rakers should get back in their boxed and realise that in promoting digital engagement he’s doing a fantastic job for the long-term future of this country and he’s the most qualified Labour MP to do it. So don’t muck it up for the country by playing petty party politics.

And finally…

It’s also worth reading this thoughtful post by PR academic Richard Bailey and this staunch defence of LabourList by Mark Hanson.

Apologies for those of you who received a half written post, I accidentally hit a short cut key in Windows Live Writer. Duh!

9 Replies to “Defending LabourList and knocking the smears about RedRag

  1. "Despite Derek Draper’s mistakes (most of which he’s admitted and said he’s learnt from) he deserves the credit for actually doing something and persuading senior party figures to do something."

    Hi Stuart

    I do have to pick you up on this. I tweeted you a couple of months ago to see what your view on Draper's efforts to date was. I paraphrase your reply but it was not dissimilar to the above comment. In short, you had spoken to him, he knew he had a lot to learn and we would all see some changes (for the better) soon. In fact, it turns out, that it was at this time that he was up to his neck in the Red Rag/ MacBride smears.

    I'm not sure that any engagement with social/digital media is better than none when the results of Draper's efforts have been so catastrophic for the Labour Party's reputation.

    I find it difficult to understand what aspect of his involvment with the Labour Party's digital strategy he deserves credit for? His extraordinary approach to engaging with social media, which seems to consist of importing the worst aspects of the Westminster Village, has probably done more to damage the enterprise he was seeking to help than any other individual. He may have even hastened the demise of the government (time will tell). None of this merits credit.



  2. I know nothing of the London village but we've been having a related ciscussion on regdafishthinktank and here's one of my posts about the spin machine.

    First thing absolutely no doubt the Cons will win the next election so in those terms this is irrelevant.

    This story, for me, is mainly interesting because of the spin, Lab ******* it up and Con excelling angle.

    Serf the story is also staying top of the news stack because the Cons cleverly keep changing what's pissing them off about it and they are absolutely hammering Lab in the spins stakes. Fantastic media manipulation, although they need to very soon say, 'OK, lets drop it, Browns not going to apologise or accept responsibility' and play the badly done by victim.

    Cams new indignation (yesterday, don't know what it is today) is that it is 'cultural', using the same argument he's the man who 'allowed' Spelman to commit fraud and left her in his shadow cabinet but the Labour spin machine, unlike the Tories, is in complete disarray.

    I'd be absolutely fuming if I was senior Lab, not only did the Tories first notice that the gen pub would be pissed off if they looked closely at the expenses situation (that had been public domain for years) but they also found 'a friend' in the expenses/accounts department to keep drip feeding (anonymously) stories of Lab politicians to focus the public beautifully on Lab when both parties were 'guilty'. Cam and Osbourne (for the first time in God knows how long) kept their heads down and absolutely stum knowing that they were just as guilty. Brilliant spin.

    Give me the national average hourly wage and Cameron's expenses and I absolutely guarantee that I'll find claims that are just as 'scandalous' as Smiths claims. I'd have to exclude the London MP second home claim from that as I don't know if Cam is a London MP but I'd certainly find a Shadow Cabinet member who was claiming for a second London home. But if Cam hasn't got a second London home how the **** is he claiming roughly the same as Smith? Labour spin getting left on the red smear on their pants.

    The expenses claims reality both 'guilty', Con = good spin, Lab = terrible spin/defence.

    This latest email thing I'd be absolutely pulling my hair out, they had a “solid investigative story”, about a Tory MP promoting his partners business interests in the Commons. **** did they need that story and it's a legit story, not as bad as Labours Lord Blackburn who I hope goes to prison although he won't, he's above the law.

    But the spin doctor mixed up a 'solid' story with lots of spurious rumour about scandalous ******s and instead of us thinking about the possible bad behaviour of a Tory MP we're looking at Labour thinking dirty, cheating *******s. I'd remove Damien's tackle with a fork and rusty spoon.

    Another couple of media manipulation/spin questions how did the emails become public knowledge? How fantastic is it for the Tories that their spin machine is purring like a Rolls Royce on newly lain tarmac while the Lab machine is a Mini Metro newly abandoned in Meanwood beck?

    Keeping up the cars analogy just as Prescott is known as '2 Jags Prescott' if the Labour spin machine had even been on the road for the last 2 years David should be known as 'Cameron the man who jogs in front of his Humvee to save the planet'. The Labour spin vehicle should have tattooed that image across Cameron's forehead in the mind of the nation.

    For me, Cameron is an extremely slick, presentable and intelligent PR man, I've seen nothing else, other than a ropey understanding of economics. But hey, it's on such spurious ******s that we elect people.

  3. Character before technology. Since your objective is to rival ConservativeHome, you need to find a Tim Montgomerie character. Tim has integrity, good manners and good news values. He also, despite his own ideological position, tries to be inclusive of all strands of right-of-centre opininon. He is respected across the Conservative Party spectrum.

    Does Tom Harris actually want the job? He clearly has a nose for news, his personal blog is a success and he is frankly, "a grown up".

    Next find yourself a backer – Mike Danson bought LabourHome, is he interested in merging LabourList into it? Seems divisive and inviting of conflict to have two grassroots Labour organisations. Maybe have Tom in a chairman of the board role and Alex Hilton in a CEO type role?

    Don't try and occupy my turf. I am not trying to win votes, I can afford to play by very different rules and take risks as well as be risque. Despite what some of simpler minded types think, the Tories in government will find Guido as much of a thorn in their side as McBride did.

    Technology: Drupal or WordPress are the way to go. Tangent don't really have much of a clue. How much of a budget will this need? £50,000 should do it for staff. Guido costs £100 a month or so to run – which is tiny compared to the advertising revenue it generates.

    Draper has provided us with three months of comedy, or tragi-comedy depending on your viewpoint. He was always going to do that, when I told a senior newspaper political editor I was going to destroy Draper, he said there was no need; Draper will destroy himself, it is his nature, it is what he does.

    There was a certain inevitability about it all. From the launch day at Labour HQ when he had his deranged shouty rant at the Guardian reporter to his more recent barefaced lying on the Daily Politics, he now says "part of me in the dark night of the soul feels like I just attract controversy". Yes Derek, that is because you are still a bullshitting shyster. I shall really, really miss you. He did achieve one ambition, LabourList has become known, through blanket Smeargate coverage, to "60 million people, not 60 bloggers". You can't take that away from him.

  4. Really interesting post Stuart. I especially agree with the points about using open and available technologies, rather than in-house specials. (The Tangent websites for Labour MPs seem to me to be dire, for example – is the default font really times roman 7pt?) The idea of making available some customisable wordpress themes – and presumably some widgets, although I'm getting beyond my technological knowledge here – and a quick way of sharing stories from one Labour blog to another – surely there's lots we could do like this? (I've used 'thesis' theme on a non-Labour blog, which seems incredibly powerful – couldn't there be a 'Labour' version of something like this).

  5. @James Tutt – good point. What I meant about Derek is that he made very senior figures actually listen and agree that Labour needed to be much, much better in this space. That was a huge achievement. His mistake then came by partially squandering the opportunity by doing the wrong things. What we often tell potential clients is that there are LOTS of so called online PR/social media experts who can list what can be done and do it. But it doesn't mean they can do it right! Obama v. McCain is a good example. McCain did most of the same things online that Obama did, it's just that Obama did it right and did it much better.

    @GuidoFawkes – can't believe I'm saying this, but I agree with everything you say! Except I wasn't suggesting that Tom should head LabourList. That's not what Jeremy Hunt does, I've explained more fully on Kerry McCarthy's blog (not actually up yet!).

  6. Stuart
    By coincidence, it struck me yesterday that few of the PR bloggers I follow, including you, had commented – then up popped your post!

    Glad to see you condemning McBride's behaviour. But you have fallen into the trap of dismissing the episode on the grounds 'everyone's doing it'. You're right to remind us about Bernard Ingham, though he had the luxury of indulging in such tactics under a government with a comfortable majority, long before social media had been invented. (As an aside, as a measure of hypocrisy it's hard to beat Ingham's polemic against New Labour spin, The Wages of Spin!)

    Times have changed. One of the tragedies of the post 1997 Labour government is precisely that it broke its promise to be different, to banish sleaze. We learned the reality almost immediately with the Bernie Ecclestone affair, the attempt fix elections in London and Wales … and the obsession with spin. I'm not naive enough to think that Labour could afford not to tell its story effectively and forcefully. But the social media revolution means that the days of control are all but over. It's about time those involved in politics realised this.

    The McBride scandal (not to mention the parliamentary expenses row) gives the impression yet again that politicians cannot be trusted, and have a very loose relationship with truth. This matters if we are to have any chance of reversing voter apathy and cynicism.

  7. The Tories deny the latest – not new – allegations. But the truth is that most of us don’t care one way or the other. It made entertaining reading in the Sunday newspapers. But the great thing is that it did more harm to the sleaze merchants than to their intended victims.

    “New” Labour was always unattractively paranoid and vicious. What is surprising is that they have been pilloried for it for ten years and more and still not got the message. More…

  8. Stuart

    The tragi-comedy aspect is that Draper started out with goodwill (or at least tolerance) from almost everyone – excepting those he had bullied/deliberately had fights with before.

    He blew it all through his own actions, ignoring the advice he received from everywhere on and offline- Dale, LabHome, you name it. The man is a bull with a built-in China shop.c
    One has to be completely bonkers or hallucinating to go out to attempt to destroy the livelihood of those who are supposed to be your political allies (threatening phone calls to Jag Singh/Alex Hilton, campaign against Messagespace etc).

    The death of a thousand self-inflicted cuts.

    >However, it has all been blown up out of all proportion. What McBride did might have been odious, but it is in a long tradition of political smearing.

    I think that is starry-eyed. My take is that the McBride stuff is simply the outcome of a political culture in the heart of New Lab that puts retaining power above human decency. I see no difference in attitude from the way they operated under Blair 12-15 years ago. The clearest example was perhaps the insistence on Robin Cook confessing his affair to his wife at the airport for media reasons. Exactly the same: damage a political non-combatant because it is politically necessary.

    >Bernard Ingham as Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary did more than his fair share of smearing.

    At least an order of magnitude different in my view.

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