We are inviting a series of guest posts to mark the official launch of the Young Fabian blog. YF members who would like to contribute should get in touch with Vice Chair, Adrian Prandle, firstname.lastname@example.org.
First up is Labour’s New Media Campaigns Spokesperson, Kerry McCarthy MP on how the web can play a part in making ideas have impact.
Making the world a better place!
When the Young Fabians contacted me to ask me to write this piece, I was asked to comment on whether collaborative policy-making is possible online… Well yes, it is, but just because a new medium exists that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any better than the old ways of doing things.
We’ve all been to meetings where, fascinating though the discussion is (sometimes!), in the end they’re little more than talking shops. This is also true of online debates, perhaps even more so if you don’t have anyone to look at the clock and say “Right, we’ve got ten minutes left, we need to reach some conclusions!” I’ve seen plenty of interesting and thought-provoking comment pieces online, but how many of them ever get translated into action?
If you’re looking to influence actual decisions, you still have to get to the decision makers and into the arena where decisions are made, which in Labour’s case means our senior politicians, the National Policy Forum and Labour Party Conference (via the influential, such as the big beasts in the union movement).
The most basic use of new media is for transmitting information: telling people what our policies and our principles are; what we support and what we oppose; what we’ve done and what we plan to do. It’s also about engagement, having a conversation with people, hammering out ideas and thoughts, not just transmitting but receiving too. And it’s about campaigning, promoting a cause; making sure something actually happens as a result of all this talking.
Although Twitter is derided by many as being trivial and insubstantial – how can you possible say anything important in 140 characters? – I actually think it’s the best tool for engaging with people that I’ve found. It’s a great source of news and information, as people tweet links to articles or blog posts, and it sparks lively debates. It’s a great tool for challenging your opponents when they say something stupid, and for rebutting their arguments. A perfect campaign could involve using all forms of social media, for example, wiki-sites, blogs or online forums to develop ideas; Facebook and Twitter to rally support and publicise the campaign; and podcasts, YouTube and virals to keep interest going.
So let’s say, for example, that you wanted to come up with some ideas that would give young people a reason to vote Labour. First thing I would say is this… focus! Focus on what’s achievable, i.e. what you can “sell” to the Party and what the Party can deliver. (I know Fabians are the intellectuals of This Great Movement of Ours, but there’s a time for talking and a time for action, and six months before an election definitely falls into the latter category! You can’t “sell” a thesis online. You can “sell” a great idea.)
If your intention is to take ideas forward, you need a mechanism to come up with a consensus and to set priorities, whether that is a form of online consultation / polling, or a meeting. Keep it simple; you’re not being asked to write the whole manifesto.
A great example of a successful online (or partly online) campaign recently was the Scout movement’s ‘Stop the Rain Tax’ campaign, which involved Scouts lobbying Members of Parliament at the Party Conferences and through Twitter. There was a clear ‘ask’ to their campaign; they knew what they wanted from politicians. Although it may be tempting to stray far and wide in your online discussions for the pure intellectual enjoyment of it, think how much more satisfying it would be to know you’ve actually changed Government policy and – hopefully! – made the world a better place as a result.
So settle on your ‘ask’ and then get it out there in the social media world. There’s no reason why you can’t have a blog and a Facebook page and an online petition and supporters tweeting too. If it’s a good cause and you’ve managed to rally support behind it, and been innovative in your campaigning, the mainstream media will eventually pick up on it. Which means even the most Luddite politicians can be reached.
Final point. I’m obviously a convert to the idea that social media can be incredibly useful to politicians and political parties, but above all, I use it because I enjoy it. So make sure you have fun with it too!