Sunday, November 14, 2010

Political Innovation event in Edinburgh

It's probably not the wisest idea to go to a six-hour-long conference (let alone a six-hour-long "unconference") off the back of ninety minutes' sleep. When I arrived at Waverley Station I caught sight of myself in a reflective surface, and having realised I looked like death cooled down I seriously considered turning round and going straight back home again. However, I gritted my teeth and pushed on, and I'm glad I did. I'd actually been quite sceptical about attending the Political Innovation event all along, because it sounded extremely 'participative', which is not my natural habitat at the best of times. But the standard of discussion was astonishingly high throughout the whole day, so there was plenty to learn just by listening.

The first discussion I chose to go to was about how to raise the standard of online debate from the customary slanging-match (which I thought was a suitably ironic choice in the light of my latest run-in with the Kevin Baker Fan Club!). One of the most interesting suggestions was for a kind of blogging 'fact-check' regime (or Cyber Police as someone else dubbed it), whereby each blog could be monitored, and if it was felt that something had been written that was demonstrably untrue it could be flagged up. The blogger in question would then have the opportunity to either accept that a mistake had been made, or to explain why the flagging was unjustified. Someone immediately pointed out that different people have very different ideas about what constitutes a 'fact', although the right-to-reply would probably cover that problem to some extent. I'd suspect the real barrier to such a system would be practical - it's hard to imagine that anything like enough people would volunteer to be monitors (or at least not in such a formalised way).

The second discussion I attended posed the question "can elections be won online?", to which, predictably, the general answer was "no". Having said that, there must be any number of instances where information found on the internet is the determining factor in the votes of individuals. I recently voted by post in the US midterm elections, and found myself faced with a scary-looking ballot paper full of candidates I'd never heard of standing for obscure local and state-level offices. If it hadn't been for the internet I would either have had to abstain on those votes, or take a wild guess about which candidates were most likely to share my views. As it was, I was able to make a reasonably informed choice in all but a few cases - and that was courtesy of a mixture of blogs, mainstream media websites, and the candidates' own sites. OK, my reliance on the internet was partly down to my status as an overseas voter, but I think it's perhaps also true to say that the more complex the choice voters are faced with, the more likely they are to rely on their own online 'research' (although the flipside is that they're probably also more likely to simply throw in the towel altogether). In contrast, the single, one-dimensional choice of British general elections perhaps lends itself more naturally to an overwhelmingly TV-dominated campaign.

Someone (I think it might have been Peter Geoghegan, but I'm not sure) pointed out that one of the limitations of using a site like Facebook for campaigning purposes is that it's a realm of personal relationships in which many people are not expecting to be exposed to political messages, and may react with a degree of scorn if they are. That hit a nerve with me - I've never really used Facebook very much, although I set up an account eighteen months ago mainly for the sake of sticking my Twitter feed on it. But a few weeks back I finally gave in to the inevitable and started broadening my range of Facebook friends, and instantly found myself feeling very inhibited about writing political-flavoured tweets (however innocuous) that I knew they might end up seeing.

The plenary session after lunch covered so much ground that I've probably already forgotten half of it. Caron Lindsay and Joan McAlpine disagreed on how the Scottish blogosphere could most constructively play a role in the run-up to next year's election - Caron thought that it would be by exploring in depth the impact of the planned cuts and identifying scope for alternative (presumably less regressive) cuts, whereas Joan felt that the obvious 'gap in the market' left wide open by the mainstream media is the absence of any serious discussion of the constitutional question and independence. The latter theme also carried over into the last of the smaller-scale discussions I went to. Caron explained that she has some sympathy with the frustration of nationalists in relation to the media, because she gets similarly tetchy when the media lump the Liberal Democrats in with the "unionists", when in fact - in her view - they are not unionists at all, but rather "federalists". I must say I was doubtful about that line of argument - yes, federalism is certainly a distinct constitutional option that deserves 'parity of esteem' with the status quo, independence, and the full menu of proposals for enhanced devolution. But two huge problems - a) the Liberal Democrats are actually in power at Westminster right now and are intent on delivering Calman, not federalism, and b) federalism is undoubtedly a unionist option anyway. There's no need to see 'unionist' as a dirty word in that context - it would be a different, and probably much healthier, type of union, but it would be a union all the same. The USA is a federal state, and the President's annual address to Congress isn't called the 'State of the Union' for nothing.

At the same discussion, Peter Curran of Moridura expressed his disappointment at being criticised by fellow nationalists for pointing out in a blog post that the SNP might not necessarily be the governing party of an independent Scotland. That actually surprises me slightly - from my dim and distant memory of the 1990s, I can recall Alex Salmond going out of his way to say something along the lines of "if you want John Smith or Gordon Brown as the Labour Prime Minister of an independent Scotland, first you have to vote SNP to get it".

There was still one session to go after that, but I decided to call it a day and catch up with a Scotland rugby defeat or some sleep - whichever came first. All in all, a well-organised and illuminating event, attended by very friendly (and very articulate) people. Oh, and to answer the question I posed a couple of weeks ago - is there such a thing as a free lunch? Yes, but it helps enormously if you like haggis...


  1. I hope you've had some sleep by now James.

    It sounds like an interesting conference. I wish I'd known about it, although, like you, I'm not terribly at home in participative events; my preference is to listen (although on 90 mins sleep, I'd have dropped off).

    Just a few thoughts on what you discussed.

    I think that the monitoring of blogs is a non starter. By and large you read blogs that interest you in one way or another. They contain a writer's opinions. My posts, and yours, become discussions, and if there are inaccuracies in them, then people have the opportunity to point them out. Your monitors are your readers/participants.

    I'd certainly not be interested in someone monitoring my blog for perceived mistakes.

    I think the last election in the UK proved that it was tv that was the defining factor in an election here. OK, a few people fell into the silly trap of tweeting or posting on Facebook, comments that it would have been more sensible to have left unmade. The Prime Ministerial broadcasts that will now so surely become a feature of elections seem to have it. It’s wrong because we don’t chose a Prime Minister, we choose an MP, and the mainstream parties are hell-bent on the idea that we must maintain a link between the MP and the constituency, by vetoing any proper PR, but at the same time seem determined to carry on with PM contests. The message clearly is that MPs don’t think for themselves. They think the way their leader thinks.

    I’m not sure how the SNP could go on as it is, as a single party after independence. I’m not sure what its policies would be. I certainly have friends in the party that are trendy lefties; I also have friends who are more traditional left wingers, but they want their country back; and a few who used to be Tories, but still want their own country back.

    I don’t see them sticking together once the raison d’ĂȘtre of the SNP has gone.

    Interesting post. Thanks for the information.

  2. PS... I love haggis.

  3. Ah, unfortunately for me, I'm not so keen on haggis, but the dessert was nice!

    There were actually quite a few other interesting suggestions about raising the tone of online discussions, but some of them were quite involved and technical, and I'm not sure I entirely understood all of them. The problem with any system is that it could only ever be voluntary - there would still be a 'Wild West' of cyberspace outside its walls, so it would have to offer attractive enough benefits to draw a wide range of people in. There was a young woman at the last session I went to who said that although she blogs herself and has a boyfriend who blogs about American politics, she never looks at Scottish political blogs because they're so partisan. I know exactly what she means, but again it's the 'voluntary' problem - unlike parts of the mainstream media, the blogosphere can't really be planned with the needs of an audience in mind, it simply springs from whatever individuals feel motivated enough to write about. Perhaps cross-party group blogs might be one way forward - ie. not neutral, but all angles covered.

    One other thing that leapt out at me that I forgot to mention was someone's comment that young people are now much more likely to become politically engaged, because we now have an 'ideological government' after years of 'managerial' rule from Labour. That had never really occurred to me in those terms before - if there's a degree of truth in it, it's quite extraordinary that a two-party coalition could be more ideological than single-party Labour government, and I'm not sure what that says about the distinctiveness of Clegg-style 'liberalism' from 'conservatism'.

  4. I think, James, it pretty well says that he sold out to his right-wing side, which of course, was always there...just better hidden.

    The idea of power must have been too much for that part of him that actually believed in liberalism.

    Only a few short months ago, for example, he had nothing nice to say about AV, calling it "nasty" and he signed a pledge not to increase student fees.

    If he hadn't about turned on these things, would be be being called "minister" and speaking at the UN, or would he be sitting on the opposition benches, to the right of the aisle, like so many Liberal leaders before him?

    It is good that younger people are becoming engaged though. Perhaps they are seeing, in many different ways that politics really affects them all, from students to unemployed youngsters.

    It is, though, a bad example for them of coalition government and how it can be made to work.

    Pity about the lunch, haggis is yummy!! But at least the sweet was good!