Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 30 October 2014

What does the decade of Guido tell us about online political writing?

I started writing about politics online in 2008. At the time the "blogosphere" (as we decreasingly refer to it these days) was in the ascendency. There were serious pieces written and debates had about whether "blogs" would ultimately supplant the mainstream media*.

The ecology of the blogosphere at the time was already starting to take on the sort of "long tail" shape that has since become much more pronounced. There were a number of blogs that were highly prominent. Iain Dale was arguably the most famous of these. The erstwhile Tory parliamentary candidate and publisher had carved out a niche for himself with "Iain Dale's Diary" where he readably and prolifically held forth on his political views and sometimes other more frivolous topics such as his favourite music. Because Iain was (and is) so well connected, having been involved in Tory politics and more widely for years he was often able to get stories and information about breaking news before us mere mortals and hence was genuinely able to compete with major media outlets as well as set the agenda himself. Of course Iain has since gone on to bigger and better things hosting the drive time show on the now national LBC radio. He does still occasionally blog but nothing like he used to.

There were various prominent "self starter" online writers around this time that I used to enjoy reading such as Recess Monkey, Dizzy Thinks, Letters From A Tory, A Blog from the Backroom and others many of whom have either fallen by the wayside or update their blogs much less frequently than they used to.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the lot though back in 2008 was the website "Order Order" run by the at that point enigmatic Paul Staines. The site itself dealt in scandal and attacks which seemed largely indiscriminate. If you were a politician (or even an apologist for them in Guido's eyes) you were a target. Stylistically the pieces on the site were similar to opinion pieces in a tabloid newspaper. Think "The Sun Says" but slightly longer form and with red writing to add emphasis where necessary.

Guido was intriguing though because unlike most of his contemporaries he seemed able to regularly break stories. "Conspirators" were sometimes the source of these (continuing the Gunpowder Plot linked theme) but like Dale, Staines seemed to be very well connected.

I first came across Order Order following Staines' somewhat disastrous Newsnight appearance in March 2007 where Michael White got the better of him. It wasn't helped by the fact that Staines had insisted on being in shadow and not be referred to by his real name in order to protect his anonymity. Of course White revealed his real name almost immediately during the interview rendering the shadowing pointless.

But despite the car crash nature of this I wanted to know more and became a regular reader of Order Order.

I'll be honest, it's not my style. In fact it's almost as far away from my style as it's possible to be. There are smears, attacks, sarcasm (OK that is a bit like me), mocked up photos to illustrate points (very tabloid), nicknames for the most hated politicians and so on and so on.

In the end though it comes down to what you count most for online writing. Some favour well constructed arguments. Some value rigorous evidence. And while Order Order has its fair share of these, what Staines treasures above all else is viewing figures. And who is to say Staines is wrong in this? In 2008 his was right up there among the most read blogs in the country. In 2014 it is still right up there. He has been able to leverage these figures to ultimately get a column in a national newspaper (The Daily Star Sunday initially and now The Sun on Sunday). Very few bloggers can say that. He is also almost unique among political bloggers in the UK in that he has actually been able to earn a living from his online writing. In fact he has been able to employ several other writers and bring them into the Guido stable. Most notably former "Tory Bear" blogger Harry Cole who Staines once described in a comment on my own blog as "the unchallenged reigning playboy of the blogosphere".

I have met Paul Staines on a couple of occasions. We were on a British Computer Society panel in the run up to the 2010 election and together on a judging panel for some political awards following that same election and had a lunch together with a few others. I have also debated with him on the radio down the line a couple of times. He remains the only person to have turned me down to be a guest on my podcast by just saying he didn't think it was worth his time (which in some ways was commendably honest of him). All the other declines I have had have been much more polite than that. It made it clear to me that he can be very brusque and doesn't mind offending people. Indeed looking at the output of Order Order he obviously thrives on it.

He has a number of political scalps to his name. Most notably former Gordon Brown spinner Damian McBride following the whole "Red Rag" debacle in 2009. This episode demonstrated that Guido has real power and was not to be trifled with.

It would also be remiss of me not to point out that on many occasions Staines (and Cole) have very kindly linked to my work. There are some times when things I write about (usually civil liberties or drugs policy) accords with the libertarian Guido philosophy.

So that's a potted history from my perspective. Now Order Order is 10 years old. But where does that leave us with respect to the question posed in the title of this post? What does the decade of Guido tell us about online political writing?

Well I think one thing it tells us, as if we didn't need telling already is that tabloid newspapers do not exist by accident. When political writing began online the barriers to entry were (and still are) effectively zero. There was no need for the blogosphere to mirror what happened in the world of newspapers. And yet through many, many thousands of experiments in self-starter one-person-band blogs (at least in their initial form) we have seen the one that has risen to the top in terms of readers and income is the one that probably most closely resembles a tabloid**.

No matter how much people like me might argue that there is an audience out there for more nuanced and subtle forms of writing, it is clear that the most success and power has been bestowed on a blog that would probably be offended if either of those adjectives were widely applied to it. The truth is there is an audience out there for my sort of writing but it is nowhere near as big as the audience for a bit of good old fashioned attack journalism.

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Guido's success though is that you have to be prolific. Staines must have devoted a massive amount of his time to Order Order in the first few years. There were regular posts on most days (usually several). To be able to produce that much content that is interesting and attracts an audience is not easy. Iain Dale once referred to it as "feeding the beast" and he is right. Another way of putting it might be "you're only as good as your last piece and there needs to be another one along in a minute or you're dead".

See I'm not as snappy as these top bloggers am I?

As an addendum to this piece I wanted to point out one other thing. Every now and then, Paul Staines goes off piste and writes a longer form piece on Order Order which does go in depth in analysing issues. It is usually related to the financial markets or fiscal policy where he has particular expertise having worked in the City previously. They are often very readable and would not be out of place in The Economist or a similar publication. But I know from having discussed with him that they get many fewer viewings than his usual tabloid fayre hence he keeps them few and infrequent so as not to distort his brand too much.

* Of course as time has gone on the blogosphere has increasingly become subsumed into the mainstream with brands like The Guardian, The Telegraph and others hoovering up the best and the brightest bloggers.

**Indeed Staines has cited former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie as an important influence on him on more than one occasion.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Labour agreed with Freud's "Therapeutic Work" idea in 2003

Ed Miliband has managed to dominate today's news cycle with his revelation that Lord Freud, speaking at Conservative conference 2 weeks ago made comments implying that some disabled people may be better off if they were not paid the full minimum wage.

Outrage aplenty today from almost everyone on the left and also lots of disability charities.

But in 2003, whilst Labour were in power, the government published an "Information Note" entitled "The Minimum Wage and Therapeutic Work" (opens PDF).

The document seeks to clarify the legal status of certain groups of people such as those who are disabled with reference to the minimum wage.

With reference to potential therapeutic work it states: "There may be no employment contract if there is no mutual obligation between the parties i.e. the individual is genuinely not obliged to perform duties and the employer is genuinely not obliged to provide the activity or pay the individual."

It then goes on to give a number of examples where it considers the minimum wage would probably not apply such as this one:

(c) A trust runs a facility for mental health out patients, who do various activities such as packing and assembly. They are paid varying amounts up to £20 per week. If they do not attend there are no sanctions. If they go along and do not want to do any activity they don’t have to. There is a production line but the speed is set by the users and if they want to they can turn it off;

Surely this idea is not far off what Lord Freud was saying today? That there may be circumstances where disabled people could derive benefit from a working situation where they were not paid the full minimum wage. Of course Freud did not heavily caveat and nuance his statement and it was clearly not properly thought through.

But the fact that when in power Labour clearly recognised there could be cases where disabled people could provide labour in limited circumstances and not be remunerated to the full extent of minimum wage law demonstrates that Freud's is not such an outlandish idea.

That won't of course stop Labour from continuing to attack him until he eventually has to resign which I predict will happen before the weekend. Because seemingly one thing you never have to worry too much about in politics is being consistent.

Not when there's a shitstorm to kick up anyway.

Hattip to Senior Sceptic on Twitter for highlighting this document to me.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Apathy and the attack culture of politics

Ellie Mae O'Hagan wrote a piece for LabourList recently in which she laments political apathy and tries to analyse what the party conference season says about that subject.

Ellie rightly states that "there are large swathes of the electorate who are disillusioned, angry, alienated from politics, and feeling ripped off and unrepresented". Indeed there are and this has been the case for a long old time. So far so obvious as Ellie herself acknowledges.

As to the main question her piece poses she lightly skips over the Labour conference and immediately draws the conclusion from the Tory conference "that they’re aware of high levels of political disillusionment, but they don’t really care as long as the electorate let them get on with it.".

What a shockingly cynical thing to say. And indeed precisely the sort of thing that commentators, activists and politicians saying about political opponents will cause apathy. After all if members of the "Westminster Village" all say that everyone except their own tribe are scoundrels then what do they expect the rest of us to think? I'd say it's pretty uncontroversial to conclude that a good number of them will think all politicians are scoundrels as a result of these sort of tactics.

It gets worse though: "Finally, Nick Clegg branded the Lib Dems 'the party of education,' a claim so ridiculous I won’t even bother to address it.". How utterly, breathtakingly dismissive of a party that has introduced the pupil premium and ensured that millions of primary school aged children now all have free school meals. I am sure Ellie is obliquely referring to the tuition fees debacle which was handled dreadfully but to so sneeringly dismiss everything the Lib Dems have done in government is to again stoke the apathy problem. What is the point of voting for politicians who are so terrible that their opponents don't even feel they need to explain why you shouldn't?

The coup de grace of the Lib Dem section is this little bon mot: "We all know Lib Dem policies are just tokens they redeem in exchange for power anyway.". Yes we all know that Ellie. The Lib Dems are a bunch of unprincipled shysters who crave power so much that they will literally sell their own granny to get their arse on the seat of a ministerial limo. This is despite the fact that for several generations they got nowhere near power. That of course is ignored because we "all" know the dark heart of the Lib Dems now.

I'm singling Ellie out here probably unfairly because all sides do this. It just particularly jarred with me because of the stated intention of the article.

We have a situation where for short term gain, politicos attack the character and motives of their opponents, their opponents do the same back and this carries on month after month, year after year. At the same time trust in politics and politicians keeps falling, people feel more and more disenfranchised and that politicians are "only out for themselves" etc. I know correlation is not necessarily causation but it doesn't take a genius to work out that in this case one has a high probability of affecting the other.

And in this one article we have a very neat, bundled up synopsis of the problem. A bright, articulate Labour activist attempting to write a piece about what we can do regarding political apathy has managed to load it with attacks that are more likely to exacerbate the very problem she is trying to tackle than to help it.

It's enough to make you weep.