The Sunday Times reports that the Irish Labour Party has hired Zack Exley to help them with their Net strategy. Exley worked on the Howard Dean Campaign, the John Kerry Campaign and recently worked for the UK Labour party’s re-election campaign.
It’s a very forward-thinking move from a party that so far has failed to cop on to how good the net can be for a political campaign. The majority of the other Irish political parties have the same blinkered view. There are individuals in each party who “get” the Internet and the advantages of it but there’s no overall policy from the parties. In the US and the UK they have high Internet and broadband usage so it makes sense to use the net to reach out to large chunks of informed people and have them increase the momentum of your campaign. This was probably why a 3 day conference put together by the folks from Daily Kos was so successful and why the New York Times gave front page coverage to it describing how over 1000 bloggers came together to discuss politics. It also attracted many Presidential wannabes who showed up to suck up to the bloggers.
I asked Mick Fealty, Richard Waghorne and Cian O’Flaherty from IrishElection.com what they thought of this move by Labour to get with the net. Mick had this to say:
It’s good news for the net. What political parties need to do to attract some readership on line is to create a buzz and have fun with it. Exley will no doubt provide that.
Richard also thought that Exley would be good for Labour’s online campaign:
“He’ll bring some net savvy anyway. Like the other parties, Labour’s website is clunky and its candidates blogs little more than press release collections. If Exley does for Labour what he did for the Kerry campaign two years ago we can expect carefully tailored email lists and aggressive Internet campaigns.”
Cian O’Flaherty also welcomed this move by Labour:
It’s certainly positive. It would be interesting to have a bigger net presence from Irish parties and improve access to power for people.
Mick went on:
It may well be able to help Labour galvanise its support base, and begin to attract the younger demographic that predominate amongst those of us ‘who live on the net’. I’m particular keen to see what extent the party will embrace the Irish blogosphere, particularly whether it is prepared to draw them in to the reporting of their conference for instance.
Labour Youth seem a little bit more hip to the Internet, even having their own bebo page with the preqreuisite Che Guevara background image and galleries of photos of supporters dressing like Lenin and wearing “remixed” Coca-Cola t-shirts. There seems to be acres of facial hair in the photos too. Pity they can’t accept sponsorship from Gillette or even Flymo. Now hopefully Exley can push Labour HQ to experiment online a bit more like Labour Youth has. At least their Lenin photos seemed like they were having fun.
Here in Ireland, Internet usage varies from 38-42% depending on who you ask. The figure hasn’t changed much in years. It’s much lower than the UK and US. Whatever difference was made in those countries with Exley’s input, it will surely be diluted down in Ireland. I asked Richard how much influence did he think blogs/websites/discussion forums had in elections, both in Ireland and elsewhere, Richard stated he was unconvinced that online media made significant difference and added:
“At the moment, there’s little quality control when it comes to blogs and boards, either formal or informal. Most of what goes up is, frankly, junk. Ninety-nine percent of commentary on blogs or boards wouldn’t get past an editor. “
Blogging and Irish blogging right now is still a very new thing, which has yet to reach it’s adulthood which may be why some political dicussions online are so childish and messy. Mick Fealty echoed some of Richard’s feelings but thought bloggers had the ability to promote intelligent discussions:
Some of the public discourse around the recent supreme court ruling was woefully unengaged. The tone was more measured and precise in certain areas of the blogosphere. Those amongst us with knowledge of specialist areas such as government, health, education, and law can go a long way to making the complexity of government more accessible to the public reader, and put the parties on the metal.
Richard too stated that there are areas whese blogs and online media can help political activity:
“That said, online media have a real role to play in two specific regards. First, as fact-checkers and individuals with specialist areas of expertise, online commentators collectively comprise a powerful watchdog on the accuracy and fairness of established media outlets. Second, the ease with which groups can coalesce online means that niche political movements and interests can collaborate and organise very effectively online. The internet does less for mainstream parties than it does for single issue groups and campaigning organizations, who are potentially the really big winners.”
I chatted to Britt Blaser for a few hours this week and he believes that passionate people are needed to shake up politics and that an online medium can bring more of these passionate people together and get them to work with each other to bring about change. Britt worked on the Dean campaign too and built the systems used to run big and even tiny short-term campaigns.
This is the bright future that Cian sees:
I would like to think that blogs by then will have become more accessible and popular. A party looking to mobilise via the web and the possible dawn of netroots sites could really kick stuff off.
It’d be great if Exley turned the boring “blogs” of the current frontbenchers into something far more genuine like the Ciaran Cuffe blog or blogs like Damien Blake’s or to get into podcasting like Diarmuid Scully. If Labour helps to increase intelligent discussion of politics and starts reaching out to all those passionate people online they may very well make a change that the other parties have no option but to go with too. It would be great to see the day where every party and every politician had frank and genuine conversations with people online and offline and used the press office filters less and less. Just like some use blogs as a training ground to get into print media, maybe future politicians can use the Irish Internet to grow themselves.
Meanwhile, can we start a fund to buy Joan Burton some new clothes? That pink suit features 5 times on the front page of her site. I’m almost embarrassed that €80k of taxpayers money can’t keep our elected representatives in a wardrobe.