A Duel Will Settle This!: In defence of policy blogging

May 31, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging, British Politics | 3 Comments

(I have no idea why this post became as long as it did. Sorry)

Well, the weather may be glorious, but if there’s ever a chance to spurn the sun’s come-hither allure and hunch over a keyboard, clattering caffeinated musings about The Future Of The Left!, it seems I’ll always bite. The latest addition to a debate that has all the cool kids talking comes courtesy of Charlotte Gore, who has a few things to say about Liberal Conspiracy, Britain’s left-liberal blogging behemoth and an occasional host for my overwrought rambling. Now, as a libertarian, Ms Gore has more than one criticism to make of LC, but in this case she suggests that the site can’t grow any more influence whilst it remains a place for lots of policy discussion:

All that fretting and worrying about policy is such a complete waste of time. I’ve heard it over and over on Labour Home, I’ve heard it over and over on Labour List and it’s been done to death on Liberal Conspiracy. All of them looking for the new idea, the new brilliant policy that’s going to somehow going to reinvent the left, bringing together the benefits of redistribution and a monolithic public sector without economic stagnation, unemployment, crushing of innovation, a welfare subculture, Government enabled Monopoly corporations and all this without the authoritarianism and ‘unfortunate’ need to take as much wealth as possible from as many sources as possible to pay for all these adventures and ideas.

Charlotte concludes that instead of wringing our worried hands over policy, LC should take a leaf out of DailyKos’ book and start scouring the country for some charismatic charmer who’ll make our daft ideas sound sensible and lead us to that far-off promised land of equality, fairness and cheap beer.

The whole thing’s a quite provocative read and I must admit to sometimes doubting the utility of all these ‘where do we go from here’ thinkpieces which have sprouted up under Labour’s rotten corpse. That said, I think she’s taking the wrong lessons from the Daily Kos example.

It’s certainly true that the Netroots movement wasn’t particularly interested in policy. Sure, there were things the Democratic left was against (war, torture, the collected wrongdoings of George W. Bush) and things they were for (peace, healthcare, impeachment), but the Netroots never had a laundry list of specific policy demands and never had the ideological unity to even attempt a manifesto.

This isn’t to say that you couldn’t find any good policy analysis & debate; the past few years have also seen the rise in profile of such exceptional young commentators as Ezra Klein & Matthew Yglesias, and the lack of a comparable British version of what those two do is a problem. But by and large, the Netroots was for organising, proselytising and flaming the Republicans out of existence. Online organising was the means and electoral success was the end.

This was all incredibly successful for a while, particularly in the ’06 midterms: activists managed to kick Senator Lieberman out of the party, get James Webb elected in Virginia and score countless smaller victories in Congressional districts, state houses & city councils. Then there was the election of a certain shiny, smooth-talking speech-maker who, thanks to the donations, hard work & votes of millions, went to the White House & bought a comedy dog.

But it’s in the election of President Obama where the flaws & limits of the netroots are starting to show. As he undertakes the complicated task of governing, Obama has inevitably disappointed some of his supporters, and there have been plenty of quarrels over his cabinet picks, his fiercely-rebuffed attempts at bipartisanship, his economic policy, his approach to the Bush administration’s torture regime & his continuation of the war on drugs. In each of these areas there’s been disappointment for Obama’s liberal activists, but because the Netroots wasn’t established on the foundations of policy, the response to these disappointments has been as disparate & varied as they were unified & disciplined in opposition. Had there been a more widespread & lengthy discussion about what policies Democrats expected when in power, they might’ve been able to use their formidable organisation as leverage to pull the Obama administration closer to their idea of progressivism.

Right, let’s try to shift this back to the malaise of the British left. As a libertarian, Charlotte’s bound to interpret much of the policy discussion on Liberal Conspiracy as the equivalent of saying ‘oooh, what else can the state buy with other people’s money? What other excuses can we come up with for making folk more poor & less free?’ That’s a logical reaction from someone of her political leanings, and she certainly has a point that it’s all futile without (a) the ability to organise effectively, and (b) some skilled communicator who’ll have the nation taking out subscriptions to ‘Marxist Bollocks Monthly’.

But let’s say that in a decade’s time we have that organisation in place and we have an Obamaesque orator who could sell even the Poll Tax, and let’s say (s)he wins a 100+ majority in the House of Commons. Then what? Are we simply doomed to repeating the same policies of the past twelve years? Will we ever have the opportunity to try something new? Or will we have just helped to elect some Blair-lite blank canvas without ever subjecting their positions to the scrutiny & criticism they deserve? For those of us who don’t want to repeat the mistakes made during the Blair era, that’s pretty critical.

Beyond that, the downside of being silent about policy is that it would keep people with very different ideologies at arms-length from each other and turn the blogosphere into a partisan battleground rather than a talking shop. I doubt that a left-wing/liberal-left/progressive (delete as appropriate) commentator would have much agreement with Tories or libertarians on something like tax or welfare, but there are plenty of areas which don’t fall anywhere on the left-right spectrum. The questions of how you reform a broken criminal justice system, how you move the country away from drug prohibition or how you can move power away from Whitehall all fall on the liberal-authoritarian scale, and talking about them at somewhere like Liberal Conspiracy provides the opportunity to build consensus across political divides which might otherwise have proved insurmountable. Surely we can all benefit from that?

Ultimately, the numbers don’t lie, and if you can have the 3rd highest-ranked blog in the country by having a substantial number of posts on policy, then there must be some appetite for it. Policy is the substance of politics, but it’s also an area where people are more inclined and better-equipped to debate ideas in good faith. If the site can remain a facilitator for that in years to come, then online politics should be in pretty decent shape.

*Yeah, I nicked the post title from a Mates of State song. It’s a good job I don’t get paid for this blog; God knows how much I’d have to pay indie bands for stealing their words.


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  1. Hmm I must say, your predictions about what happens after this messianic figure is found are very similar to my own as it happens.

    Sadly the two pillars of politics – getting elected and governing – are two distinct, often contradictory disciplines.

    I don’t doubt that the left will continue to talk about policy, searching for that holy grail of something which has ‘all the good bits’ and none of the ‘bad bits’ of social democracy. I suspect I’m beyond convincing such a thing is possible, although feel free to surprise me :)

    • I don’t doubt that the left will continue to talk about policy, searching for that holy grail of something which has ‘all the good bits’ and none of the ‘bad bits’ of social democracy. I suspect I’m beyond convincing such a thing is possible, although feel free to surprise me :)

      Ah, too easy Charlotte! Allow me to present: Bulmers Light. All of the Good Bits (alcohol, sweet cidery goodness), but none of the Bad Bits (huge numbers of calories, hangovers). So all we need to do is invite the people who invented this sweet nectar to run the British state for a few years. Sorted.

      On a slightly more serious note, I was fascinated reading your post because it’s the exact opposite of my own approach to politics. I don’t really care too much for tribalism or movement politics (and I used to care about those things a lot); all I’m really bothered about is policy making, and whilst that tends to have me plonked on the political left, I’d like to bet that I’m the only rabid lefty who’s had nice things to say about CATO, Iain Duncan Smith and – of all people – Jonathan Aitken. If I hadn’t been interested in policy, those folks wouldn’t have got a mention – at least, not using positive adjectives. So it can broaden horizons, I think – even if it might bore my readers into submission.

  2. There’s various issues here.

    1) For a blog supposedly so crap, Charlotte seems to write a lot about it.

    2) Rather than Kos, which is impossible given I don’t have an open model (like LabourHome used to have), I’d much rather emulate Joshua Micah Marshall and TPM.

    3) Political strategy is important. Policy is important. Activism is important. In the US, the blogs fulfil different roles. Here, I have to try and offer a mixture of all three because all are lacking.

    4) I’m not sure why I should be taking advice from CH. She’s a bit like Dan Hannan – sure about her puritanical libertarianism – but what do they know about building broad coalitions? Or in fact, a successful group blog? If I wanted advice, I’d take it from Tim Montgomerie.

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