“It’s about making traditional campaigning methods even more effective”: The Kerry McCarthy interview

August 16, 2009 11:11 pm

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Kerry McCarthyKerry McCarthy is MP for Bristol East and is also Labour’s new media campaign spokesperson. She met Mark Hanson on Wednesday, 12th August, 2009.

Blogging, Twitter and Facebook are all the rage and there’s a suspicion that politicians jump on the bandwagon sometimes…what does the internet mean to you and how is it useful in politics?
I think those politicians that are bandwagon-jumping quickly get found out online, which is why it’s so powerful, as it rewards authenticity. That doesn’t mean to say there won’t be lots of people who disagree with you but you can connect with people. It’s like when MPs are in their constituencies, people always go away with a much better impression when they’ve met someone face-to-face and realise that not all politicians are the way we are characterised in some parts of the media.

And that’s really a key message we want to get across – that new media campaigning isn’t really that different to traditional campaigning. Rather than being something completely new, campaigning using new media is simply doing what we’ve always done in a new setting – and rather than replacing traditional ways of doing things, it is about making traditional campaigning methods even more effective.

What kinds of social networking sites do you like and dislike? How do you use the ones you like?
I saw someone on Twitter suggest yesterday that Facebook is about connecting with old friends whilst Twitter is about connecting with new ideas. I like that a lot. LinkedIn has a lot of potential. It’s primarily been used as a professional networking forum up until now but I’m interested in how politicians can interact with professional audiences there, particularly to get specialist feedback on policy and also how charities are using it. Twitter is the one I’ve taken to most. It’s the one with the lowest barriers to taking part and that makes it a perfect way to meet people and swap ideas without having to be so techie!

What pitfalls or mistakes do you feel politicians have made with the internet?
I think it’s fair to say that a few years ago when there was much excitement about what was happening in US campaigns, and when Facebook and blogging were new, that maybe politicians experimented but didn’t quite get it right. I think that’s partly because most of us are in the wrong age group to be early adopters, but also there was a misunderstanding that new media would be like old media, i.e. about broadcasting. There were plenty of politicians starting Facebook groups, gathering ‘friends’ but then not knowing what to do. This was wrong. What we know now is that new media is more powerful in the way that we develop relationships, help constituents, converse with members – all without having to leave the house!

What do you think politicians can learn from the way Twitter has led the defence of the NHS in recent days?
New media is just so empowering in the way that people can find each other and act as a group to achieve change when so often people feel either there’s no point in protesting or that no one will listen. Not only can they bond with other people, swapping personal experience and news links, they’ve also had interaction with politicians on there, have made the news headlines, effectively grouped together to attack those who have rubbished the NHS, and even had input into the debate across the Atlantic.

These are people who aren’t party activists, who wouldn’t necessarily get it together to write to their MPs, and don’t in the normal scheme of things have any contact with politicians – but now they can get involved, even while they’re slouching on the sofa watching TV.

It also demonstrates the immediacy of Twitter. Increasingly the mainstream media is sourcing information and stories via Twitter and gauging the mood of the public via that channel so it puts David Cameron’s stance of keeping his MPs away from Twitter into stark contrast.

Are there any examples of politicians and/or campaigns that are doing it well? What can we learn from them?
Go Fourth is a great example. They’ve been able to organise a large group of people who all care about the same thing and realise that by acting together they can achieve very specific things, whether that be fundraising or protesting. They’ve also got John Prescott who is one of the best communicators – no soundbites, no pretensions – just very natural.

I’m also particularly excited by LabourSpace. As a site it gives NGOs and individuals the chance to bring their campaigns to the direct attention of our manifesto coordinator, Ed Miliband, who regularly looks at the site and comments on there and then meets with the quarterly winners to discuss their campaigns in more detail. We need to do more to get people using the site but for me it’s a sign that the Party wants to use the internet for real engagement.

What does your new role actually involve?
Well obviously I will be a spokesperson for the great work the Labour Party is doing in the area of new media. I also want to be talking to fellow MPs and PPCs about the new media campaigning they can do at a local level. There’s some great work going on in this area, especially amongst our PPCs, people like Lucy Powell in Manchester Withington, Stella Creasy in Walthamstow and Luke Pollard in South West Devon and I’d really like to help share best practice.

I think this is a real contrast with what the Tories are doing in the area of new media – they seem to be doing everything centrally whereas we have people who are just getting on with it and using these tools at a local level. People like Theo Blackwell in Camden who uses his blog to consistently hold the Tory-Lib Dem council there to account. New media at a local level is going to become increasingly important.

How were you chosen?
I was appointed by Douglas Alexander, the General Election Coordinator. There’s an ever-growing interest in the new media area and so the Party thought that there should be a politician involved in both the coordination and in being the public face of the great work the Labour Party is doing in this area. This is something I care passionately about and want to play a part in making sure we keep making progress here.

What immediate plans do you have?
I think there’s so much being done in this space, both at HQ and also in our wider network. I’m keen to make sure more of our own people know what tools and platforms are available so that they can use them to the full. It’s also important that we help the best of the blogosphere to bloom. There is so much young talent out there, the likes of Grace Fletcher-Hackwood, Bevanite Ellie, Duncan Weldon, the Blackburn Labour crew and many, many more. They’ve got a big part to play and I want to bring them on. By all helping each other we can grow our traffic, sharing ideas and best practice. This is in all our interests.

I’m also hoping that I can help some of my more reluctant colleagues in the House of Commons get more comfortable in this area. I’ve had some interesting conversations in the Commons tea room recently, helping Liam Byrne and Jim Knight ‘get’ Twitter and now watch them go!

Do you feel its right that the Tories are characterised at being better at social media than us?
I don’t agree with that at all. There are two right-wing celebrity bloggers in the form of Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes, who have a fair amount of traffic and a lot of mainstream media profile. This is quite different from the Conservative Party being great on the internet. We had WebCameron three years ago, which was an interesting experiment but you would expect far more in the way of innovation and movement-building from an opposition party. Instead they seem to focus on eye-catching gimmicks like “Be our friend on Facebook” that cost them half a million pounds, yielded little in way of results and has been criticised by a number of senior voices in the Party.

The Labour Party on the other hand have been working away quietly at this – building up an infrastructure which seeks to give our supporters the tools they need to campaign for us. So you’ve got tools like the Virtual Phonebank allowing members to call voters from home; the use of Google Maps to advertise and sign up to campaign events; viral widgets that can be used by our supporters to put on their own sites which use humour to get across serious messages; and integrated online and offline campaigns like the Mr 10 Per Cent campaign launched recently.

It’s also the case that Labour MPs are leading the way on Twitter and that the Party is working more closely with bloggers and that LabourList is really starting to flower…and is certainly not always in agreement with the leadership!

How has Labour’s attitude towards the internet changed and to what extent will this continue up to the election? What role will the web play in the campaign?
I think we’ve got far more used to it. Being actually in government means we need a bit more time to try things out but you’ve seen the likes of Tom Watson, Tom Harris, John Prescott doing all the right things and means others start to try it and get used to it. This filters through to the cabinet and throughout the Party structure. So now we’ve got even got Cabinet Ministers like Ed Balls and Ed Miliband twittering – and I have to say that they’re naturals on there.

I think the key point for my colleagues to take away is that this is the first election where people don’t have to wait for politicians to come to them – to knock on the door, to deliver a leaflet or to do an interview.

Voters will increasingly be searching the web to find out what we think about the issues, what we’ve actually been doing in the locality and looking to see what we sound like. That’s where YouTube comes in. All our candidates need to start building up that online collateral from now.

Do you think we’ll see any web innovations in the campaign?
The internet will make it much easier to organise and adapt during the campaign. We can get much better information from doorstep to centre in terms of what is a concern in canvassing, what is working well and then when campaign strategy needs to change quickly the information will flow much more quickly back the other way. I also think the blogosphere will play a bigger part in fact-checking and crowd sourcing ideas rather than just people posting about their views.

Are you expecting the Tories to ramp up their web efforts?
To be quite honest I think the word has come down from Tory HQ that their MPs are to stay away from social media at all costs – it’s deliberate non-engagement strategy. Iain Dale, ConservativeHome and a couple of the younger ones are popular but where are the politicians, the people you’re expected to actually vote for? Hardly any are on Twitter and the ones that are there are just ‘lurking’.

To what extent will your approach differ from the way Derek Draper championed the internet?
My role is quite different in that I’m a politician and I’m not seeking to be an alternative to the Tory-supporting celebrity bloggers, but Derek did a lot of the preparatory work of getting some kind of infrastructure together that so many others have been able to utilise. I want to grow that infrastructure, help grow the awareness of best practice amongst my political colleagues and have a mature approach to working with Party members who are active online. I’m much less keen on picking fights in the blogosphere!

Will you be coaching Gordon Brown on how to use YouTube? :)
No one’s saying that everyone should do all elements of new media and let’s remember this happened in the middle of a storm about MPs expenses when people were rightly very angry. He chose to use video to speak direct to the public, which I think is very powerful. OK, may be the execution wasn’t perfect but politicians need to keep using it and getting better. I have to include myself there and say I’m by no means an expert and so I wouldn’t want to lecture anyone else!

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