Left trumps right in EU web initiatives

The Party of European Socialists’ brave and seemingly successful foray into the world of Web 2.0 with the Yourspace blog remains by far the most impressive web initiative I’ve seen by any European party or political group. Why is it so good? It’s a platform aimed at galvanising active supporters, not one where party bigwigs can strut their stuff: it gives them space to write and engage, and promises them something concrete in return – a chance to influence the content of the PES manifesto for the 2009 European elections. Result? Very Obama’esque: excited, active supporters, eager and able to help spread the PES mantra (aided by Yourspace’s multiple outreach channels e.g. a YouTube channel and very active Facebook Group).

The Socialist Group in the European Parliament (PSE) have not been quite as daring, but they do have a section on their site entitled Interactive which contains posts by PSE members, a portal of blogs by PSE members who do not write on the site itself, a forum, and a so-called citizen’s room where people can submit their opinions. The tools are all relevant and I’m especially impressed by this one line from their terms and conditions (assuming it’s true): “The Socialist Group interactive pages are an area for free expression. Only views that are ethically and legally unacceptable are excluded”. However, the section has been hidden away and is not properly introduced. For it to really work, the PSE should make a real splash, sell it on their homepage and in all their other outgoing communications, and explain why they’re doing it e.g. we want to speak directly to you, we need to know where we stand with you, like out parent party, the PES, we want to promote your ideas and concerns, not our own; and so on.

The site of the EPP-ED (the centre-right political group of the European Parliament) is far more static and dull. They present positions, latest press releases and members (Zzzzzz), while the only remotely innovative feature is the online “TV” channel. I did a search on YouTube, where the EEP-ED also have a channel,which appears to show the exact same footage even though there is no link between it and their site. It’s not bad, but I have some objections:

  • Why have the channel in two places? Seems like totally pointless duplication.
  • It’s all one way. Comments are allowed on both channels, but the moderators are obviously very strict. The only comment on the YouTube channel homepage itself reads “Just wanted to say that you’re doing really good job there” while none of the videos I saw had any comments (even where there were 100s of views). Same on the other channel: I had to look really hard to find one video with a couple of comments.

This approach seems to reflect the French Presidential elections last year, when Sarkozy’s campaign site became little more than a video vault, while Segolene Royal’s approach was far more inclusive. Sure, he won the election, but as Obama’s triumph last month showed, an approach which embraces the web as a tool of engagement and mobilisation, rather than just another one-way broadcast medium where you show yourself in your best light, can work wonders. In an era where the electorate demands a voice, politicians need to show that they’re listening and care; and the best start is to provide a platform where you allow people to openly engage and then actually respond.

Is the left more open to new tools and politics of engagement because it fits their political philosophy? To some extent I do think they are more comfortable with open engagement with constituents, but the main reason why the left on both sides of the pond has been quicker to adopt new tools is clearly born out of need, seeing as the centre-right has held power in the US and most European countries (and thus the EP) for a number of years. It’s a political reality that incumbents are less innovative: their approach won, they’re in power, so why change? In addition, the Conservatives in the UK have a new website which embraces blogging, integration with social networks, online donation, and supporter mobilisation features to the same degree as the Obama campaign did in the US, so it’s not as if parties of the right don’t have it in them. Despite the need to find some better supporters to populate the Show your support page than the current weirdoes on display, it’s really quite an impressive showing.

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Obama online

Think I’m breaking blog etiquette by cutting and pasting, but I realise that my last entry was very long, and some readers might not have had the time or patience to get all the way to point number 6, so here it is again (plus a few links and other points at the bottom):

Much has been said of how the Obama campaign mastered the web. The fact that three million people donated online, helping to make his campaign the best funded of all time, meant that money was no object. Having an endless supply of cash was obviously pretty handy, but what’s perhaps even more salient is that the Obama campaign was funded by citizens. Parties, corporations and corporate interest groups are usually candidates’ main donors, and these will at some point expect payback in some shape or form. How will citizens expect payback from Obama? By fulfilling his campaign promises. This is of course no guarantee that he can or will, but it’s a good starting point.

What’s been most revolutionary has been the campaign’s ability to use the web to not just inform people, but to mobilise them. Massive followings on various public social networking platforms has kept people informed and excited, and enabled them to easily spread information and urge their friends and acquaintances to join the conversation or register to vote and so on – the viral effect at play.

Even more important was my.barackobama.com, which became an offline facilitator for people wanting to help in some way – make calls, arrange meets, knock on doors, put up placards and so on. It’s somewhat ironic, but the ability to mobilise people offline was arguably the most important element of Obama’s online campaign: sort of a return to a bygone age when citizens would congregate for hours in town-halls and other meeting places to debate, organise, and delegate in support of their preferred candidate. The web has shown itself to be the enabler and integrator that has resurrected this phenomenon. So much for people being politically apathetic – it was a question of time or the means (and let’s not forget: an inspirational candidate).

A few recommendations on the topic of Obama and the web:

Some thoughts on President Obama

The unprecedented dominance of the airwaves and column inches (what’s the web equivalent?) by the new US President-Elect over the last few months has led some people to complain of Obama-fatigue. Nonetheless, here are some points which I think have stood out.

1. I wrote about the dumbing down of US politics recently, but it’s been great to see that Obama’s cerebral style has been welcomed rather than scorned, especially since September. Once the financial crisis took off and people grew increasingly concerned about jobs, mortgages and pensions, they were far more comfortable with Obama than McCain’s rather more gung-ho and instinctive approach. Plenty of Obama voters obviously preferred Bush in 2004, given the swing, but the Iraq war or the war on terror, the main issues in 2004, were perhaps harder to relate to than voters’ own financial well-being. And when the latter was at stake, clever trumped cowboy. That’s somewhat comforting. A successful Obama presidency would hopefully convince more people that cerebral is best across the board.

UPDATE: Good column on this same issue on the New York Times website.

2. Obama’s ability to learn on the job and skilfully respond to criticism has been impressive. His response to the two prevailing criticisms – that he lacked experience and that he couldn’t back fantastic oratory with real substance – was to: 1) study all major portfolios in such depth that he could rival old hands like McCain and Hillary Clinton on the finer details of policy; and 2) choose in Joe Biden a running mate that could make up for this perceived Achilles heal.

3. At a time when Americans are feeling vulnerable about their economic plight, are more eager to reach out to the world, and are waking up to the threat of climate change (there’s been a shift – thanks Al Gore – drill baby drill was perverse), Obama represents a case of right place and right time. Americans are feeling less confident than they have for decades, and the message of each man to himself espoused by the Republicans can’t work as well at a time when the American Dream seems a little more distant to most and government help suddenly doesn’t look so bad. People want to feel safe and cared for, and Obama is deemed the better man for that role, due in equal measure to his personal biography and platform. We should not forget that McCain’s story is pretty inspirational too, but it represents the brasher, more confident America which many citizens have rejected for now.

4. How must Al-Qaeda be feeling right now? Or Ahmedinijad? I suspect they’re really annoyed. Their number one recruitment officer is coming to the end of his term and Americans have chosen to replace him with someone called Hussein. It’ll be a lot harder to denounce the great Satan now.

5. What was the McCain campaign thinking? Easy to say in hindsight perhaps, but his selling points were experience and being a moderate Republican. He surrendered both by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. And when he ran into trouble, his campaign went dirty, which given that Obama was running on a platform of hope and positive change was always going to backfire. He’s tarnished his legacy. A shame really.

6. Much has been said of how the Obama campaign mastered the web. The fact that three million people donated online, helping to make his campaign the best funded of all time, meant that money was no object. Having an endless supply of cash was obviously pretty handy, but what’s perhaps even more salient is that the Obama campaign was funded by citizens. Parties, corporations and corporate interest groups are usually candidates’ main donors, and these will at some point expect payback in some shape or form. How will citizens expect payback from Obama? By fulfilling his campaign promises. This is of course no guarantee that he can or will, but it’s a good starting point.

What’s been most revolutionary has been the campaign’s ability to use the web to not just inform people, but to mobilise them. Building up massive followings on various public social networking platforms has kept people informed and excited, and enabled them to easily spread information and urge their friends and acquaintances to join the conversation or register to vote and so on – the viral effect at play. Even more important was my.barackobama.com, which became an offline facilitator for people wanting to help in some way – make calls, arrange meets, knock on doors, put up placards and so on. It’s somewhat ironic, but the ability to mobilise people offline was arguably the most important element of Obama’s online campaign: sort of a return to a bygone age when citizens would congregate to debate, organise, and delegate in support of their preferred candidate. The web has shown itself to be the enabler and integrator that has resurrected this phenomenon. So much for people being politically apathetic – it was a question of time or the means (and let’s not forget: an inspirational candidate).

6. A bit of a tangent, but Obama’s success made me think of Italy’s political plight. After eight years of George Bush, Americans conveyed their disapproval by ditching his party and embracing a candidate whose policies, biography and style could not be more different. Democracy at play. In Italy, five years of ecomomic decline, gaffes, and a whole lot of time spent keeping himself out of legal trouble did not prevent Silvio Berlusconi from being re-elected earlier this year for a third time.

Now that I’ve put my impartial hat back on, another thought is the use of history in creating a political narrative that people can relate to or feel pride in. What really struck me was how Obama’s message of hope and change in his speeches is often relayed in connection with elements of US heritage, from the founding fathers, to the pioneers who ventured west, to Martin Luther King and so on.

Why do Italian politicians never evoke memories of our past and eloquently mould these into soundbites that inspire and encourage? It’s not as if there’s no material. What about evoking the spirit of Renaissance Florence: the small city-state which was a bastion of progressivism while the rest of Europe was just about emerging from the Dark Ages, producing philosophical movements, artists and writers that still define Western civilisation as we know it? Or the heroic tale of a mad adventurer, Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose thousand men beat the odds to conquer the Kingdom of the two Sicilies and help unify Italy? Or of how the country, ravaged by Fascism and the war, impoverished and agrarian, picked itself up by its bootstraps and underwent a true economic miracle in little more than two decades?

Sure, Florence and Garibaldi were a long time ago, and the economic miracle was arguably the result of the Marshall Plan and some very dubious machinations by the Christian-Democrats, but so what? It’s not the details but the notion of legacy that matters, however vague: instilling a sense of belonging and pride; that we should aim high, be brave, work hard, and aspire to be brilliant and humble in equal measure, because we owe it to those who came before us. Who knows. Someone might do it once Berlusconi is out of the picture. Around about 2018 then!

Elitism and the electorate

An article on the Guardian’s website poses the question: “How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance?” The ensuing analysis centres on three main factors. First, the notion of intellectual elites being anti-Christian, which carries considerable clout in the very pious and conservative corners of the US. This hypothesis has roots in social-Darwinist thought prevalent amongst American elites in the nineteenth century, by which they would justify their status and/or wealth and encourage destitution amongst supposedly lesser people, because the laws of nature dictate that by a process of natural selection, the weak should be weeded out for the strong to prosper. Second, the de-centralised nature of education, especially in the southern states, essentially allowed anti-intellectuals to take control of what was taught so as to help maintain traditional social orders. Third, the tendency to equate intellectuals with supposed subversives, in particular communists, which given Americans’ particularly zealous patriotism and the backdrop of the Cold War, meant intellectual elites were for years tainted by the anti-American label.

It’s interesting to see some real thought go into explaining why Americans indeed do appear to be so polarised when it comes to the merits of intellectuals and progressive thinking.

Three points I’d add are:

1) Might perceived access to the elite play a role? Ironically, for a country that prides itself in the mantras of the American Dream and all its citizens being born equal, the intellectual elite is arguably more of a closed shop than it is in Europe, with access to the best universities not based solely on merit, as it largely is in Europe. The sense that one is kept out from an exclusive caste can’t but foster antagonism. I don’t know how much of a factor this is, as I can hardly claim to be an expert on US education, but it’s a thought.

2) Far more simplistic than any of the insightful arguments put forth in the article, but could the mere size of the US not be a factor? Communities and individuals are by nature less integrated if there’s a hundred miles between each town or village. Surely, alienation from that which appears so different is only amplified if you’re never actually exposed to it?

3) The author of the article alludes to Europeans being surprised by this phenomenon, but I’d not be too complacent. As discussed, the dumbing down of American politics is seen as a reaction to elitism, and anti-elitism is certainly prevalent in Europe. Sure, we still like our politicians to be able to string a sentence together – even Silvio Berlusconi, the court jester of European politics, was a brilliant student and cunning businessman before foraying into politics. Nonetheless, the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy did not attend the École nationale d’administration, like most prominent French politicians, was seen as beneficial to his campaign for president in 2007. And when I was at Oxford, I remember the immense efforts being made to attract students from state schools, a process which I believe has even intensified since. Despite that, the Laura Spence affair – the case of a girl from a state school who was not admitted to Oxford, much to the consternation of her headmaster – was allowed to capture national headlines in the UK, spearheaded by Gordon Brown.

Moral of the story? I’d argue that elitism really should not be seen as a bad thing. However, it must be seen to be based on the principle of meritocracy and be accessible to anyone who fits the bill, warts and all.

Industry still doesn't get it

I recently attended an industry-sponsored debate on a very pertinent issue that broadly sits within “chemicals”, where I watched a mad Green MEP and an awkward young NGO campaigner with a twitch and a penchant for talking to himself walk all over the representatives of the industry in question: a CEO and a prominent stakeholder. Frankly, industry has the edge on this issue. The scientists agree, as do academics, as would the most of the general public if they know the facts. The argumentation used by the Green MEP and the NGO campaigner was aggressive and emotional, lumping all industry together as the devil incarnate, be it tobacco or consumer electronics (over CFC), but it was poor in terms of real substance.

Nonetheless, it appears they’re going to win this battle, and it makes you wonder why some elements of industry in times of crises still spend fortunes on aggressive advocacy and financing events and impact studies full of facts and figures that supposedly support their case, rather than communicating in ways that resonate with people in a more gradual manner before the proverbial s*** hits the fan. By appearing aggressive, industry shoots itself in the foot. Furthermore, the “science” is no longer that important! People are put off by it, and yet industry remains prone to state that science is in its corner and somehow expect the whole thing to go away.

So what should they do about it? Go down the road many players in the energy and automotive industries are taking, from Exxon to Shell to Toyota. They are some of the biggest polluters in the world, but by turning the corner and communicating more proactively, appearing more honest and compassionate, trying to be part of the solution, talking to pressure groups, and coming to the table offering something, they’ve greatly enhanced their appeal – and as a result have far more leeway with legislators.

Plus I think they should be focusing a lot of their attention on communicating on the web, for the reasons described in my previous post, and for the following two in particular. First, the nature of the medium suits the honest and compassionate angle because it’s so easy to give a face to a supposedly faceless industry, and personalise communications, via say a blog or video interviews. Second, it’s the easiest place to give up or at least share control of the message with those who might disagree with you – which is imperative seeing as industry is chastised for not listening to concerned citizens. What better way of countering this than providing a platform for airing concerns that gives equal access to all?

Converting a Eurosceptic? A glimmer of hope

I had a conversation with a virulently eurosceptic Brit recently (one of many). I’ve had similar conversations with Daily Mail reader types – the sort of people who claim things along the lines of “political correctness has run amok, the country’s going down the drain, immigrant paedophile junkies are roaming our streets etc” – and in these cases, I smile politely and try to make a hasty retreat. This eurosceptic, on the other hand, was bright, open-minded and well-read, so surely ripe for conversion?!

To cut a very long story short, the notions of pooled sovereignty, interdependence as a means to maintain peace etc had absolutely no effect on him. And when I ummed and aahed when he asked me whether it was really true that France was holding the EU hostage over agricultural policy, I thought he really was a lost cause. However, I eventually came up with two last-gasp arguments which he lapped up and which I’d advise all europhiles to use on British eurosceptics.

First was my mention of the euromyths section on the website of the European Commission Representation in the UK, which contains scores of untruths reported by the British media, demonstrating the tactics used by pretty much all national papers apart from the Guardian in their reporting. These tactics range from outright lying, to taking a regulation and finding the most preposterous application for it (even though the regulation is NOT intended for that purpose AT ALL), to passing off something done by another European body/European country/international organisation, then misrepresenting it AND saying the EU is responsible, even if it has absolutely no affiliation to the other body in question. My eurosceptic friend was understandably astonished that the media would misrepresent the truth to this extent, and promised that he’d read up on euromyths and take reports on supposedly scandalous activities of the EU with a pinch of salt in future.

Second, was my assertion that the UK is actually very well represented in Brussels, which came as a great surprise to my eurosceptic friend, as Brits are obviously so focused on the misplaced notion that the EU is all about giving away power to faceless foreign bureaucrats. When told that, in actual fact, plenty of Brits occupy major posts in important Directorates-General at the European Commission; that many British MEPs are very active and head important committees; and most of all, that the lobbying industry, from consultancies, to in-house, to NGOs and trade associations, have an utterly disproportionate number of Brits at the helm, he seemed headed for conversion.

I have not spoken to my eurosceptic friend since, and he may very well in retrospect have thought I was speaking absolute cobblers. Nonetheless, I’ll be trying out these arguments again.

Good campaign on show in Brussels

I saw this poster strung to a lamp-post near the European Parliament last weekend, and pretty much every other lamp-post in the vicinity, urging MEPs to insert more stringent measures in a CO2 reduction bill doing the rounds at the moment.

Its message is simple and to the point, pulls the heart-strings and guilt-trips naysayers, it uses familiar imagery, AND is visible to the right audience at the right time. Quintessential, well-executed, NGO fare.

The site the poster refers to is OK too. Again, simple, provides further information but does not overwhelm users, and makes decent use of YouTube to present the issues. What I don’t like though is the call to action: a pre-written letter to post or email to an MEP. These are annoying and disingenuous. I think it’s much better to provide links to contact details for relevant MEPs and a few pointers on what to write, but most importantly, insist that the letter be personal, as I’m sure that ten personalised letters from concerned citizens carry more weight than a hundred of the same.