Life as a political blogger

Thanks to all of you for coming and to Liberal Democrats Online for inviting me to speak here tonight for what has now become – much to my surprise! – my specialist subject.

Not that long ago, I would have laughed at the idea of me being invited to hold forth on blogging – or in fact – anything to do with computers and technology.

So I have to confess – blogging wasn’t my idea originally. It was a friend of mine, who knew I liked writing. And my reply was – that part of it which is repeatable – that:

a) it would have to be between the hours of 2 and 4 in the morning – given I was already working all the hours there are, or

b) happy to do it but an equivalent task would need to go to give me the time.

Needless to say – nothing went and I did it!

For me blogging (once I got going) is therapeutic. I love writing. It lets me think about what I have done – and let’s be honest – what I want to say about what I have thought and what I have done.

And it’s my voice – without a middle-man. No newspaper reporter, no campaign manager, no one wanting their angle, their interpretation with a sound-bite quote from me.

In a typical month, I write around 12,000 words. When you think that one of the party’s typical 4-page constituency wide newspapers has only 2,000 or so words, you can see why I like the chance to talk about things at greater length than normally possible.

Of course – you need people to want to read it. And – outside of being written therapy for politicos – it is also an incredibly valuable tool for campaigning and winning.

I would say that on-line campaigning and blogging played at least as important a part in my win in Hornsey & Wood Green – where a 10,614 majority over me converted into a win by 2,395 for me – as did press coverage.

Not leafleting however – that still reaches the parts other methods cannot reach.

During the election almost as many constituents read my blog as cast postal votes this time – which gives some idea of the reach and potential of on-line campaigning

I now am in regular email contact with 6 times as many people as I was in 2001 – of course – that is not just blogging but also e-campaigning.

I believe that e-campaigning will also become common, or more appropriately – a must do part of campaigning as will blogging. Local people will expect their candidates to have websites and blogs – so they can see what they are up to.

Anyway, I started a blog now two years ago as a good way of marrying my love of writing with political communicating.

As the last five years have rolled on, more and more people seem to use the net as a common way to find out information and communication – so it is vital for a politician (that is, someone who wants to represent and listen to people) to also be present in that milieu.

I cannot tell you how many people I meet and am introduced to say to me that they read my blog.

In fact it is a bit freaky sometimes. I remember one of the two UKIP members of the London Assembly (UKIP then before they switched to Veritas, and now something else again) whenever I bumped into him would start talking to me about an issue that I was involved in. I couldn’t understand at first how he knew so much about my local activity. Of course it was the blog – but he must have studied it, learned it off by heart. It felt marginally like having a stalker – because he literally knew my every move.

However, one of the bugbears of communication is the theoretical desire of the public to be able to interact on every thing with everyone.

It’s very common to criticise politicians for ‘not getting it’ and failing to use the internet to interactively communicate with the pubic but I believe that interactivity comes with a high cost – in terms of time taken to deal with comments and messages which come back – often from the same small group of usual suspects.

So my blog doesn’t have a comments section. On the evidence I’ve seen so far for candidate blogs, particularly as elections near, this form of interactivity actually nearly always becomes just a soapbox for a small minority to shout – often mindless and repeatedly. Comments work well on some blogs – and good luck to those who have such blogs.

But there’s a particular problem with candidate blogs as polling day nears. So I’m not condemning commenting across the board, but people who want to comment on things on my blog find me pretty easily through one means or another.

More generally, it’s pretty easy to get contact with an MP if you want to, but if you don’t want, to it’s pretty easy to blame the MP for not getting in touch with you.

So – just to put my blog into perspective in terms of a campaign tool – particularly during an election. My webmaster tells me that something like 5,000 people a month – different people – look at my blog.

He told me this during the election (and actually traffic doubled from this level during the campaign) – which was scary as made me realise that I wasn’t just writing for myself!

So – I don’t see blogging as some miracle cure for the ills of politics. But it is a useful way of communicating with more people.

Journalists too pick up a huge amount of stuff from it. And some very powerful journalists and political editors are regulars. I was reasonably mortified to find that my weight lost during the election was regularly reported in the Evening Standard – a la Bridget Jones Diary.

And my opponents logged on religiously – searching for any of my words that could be used against me. It’s a dreadful business. If you keep it so bland that you say nothing – no one will read it. So I do take risks. I do say what I think.

I think one of the keys to successful blogging is the personal slant in a blog – which includes a large slice of opinion – which opinion may upset some.

But it is also a way of getting out a message when I felt the truth and justice had been missing from one or other issue.

I had the opportunity to put my version out there – which as a candidate (and we are much maligned) I found very satisfying.

But be warned – blogs have a life of their own and can get you into trouble.

For those who have heard this story before – I apologise – but…

I was at the London Assembly before becoming an MP – and I remember a lunch with media. Very nice guy sat next to a member from another party who could bore for Britain. When I wrote my blog I mentioned this – and that I could see his eyes glaze over within a few minutes.

There were only about nine of us at thisit wasn’t long before I got an email from the Head of the Assembly Press Desk saying he knew who I meant.

I thought – so what – no one reads the blog except geeks.

Wrong!

As I came up in the lift to the seventh floor of City Hall and got out – said member got in – and as the doors closed I heard the word ‘cow’ emanating from the descending lift.

So of course – I put that in the blog too – never to be forgiven. But then she failed to get re-elected to the GLA.

I have had corporations ring me to say they don’t like what I have said about them or individuals in the company and will I change things – no I won’t! And it can get pretty heavy. In this instance I was commenting on the sacking of the Chief Executive of Metronet. He had appeared in front of me when I was Chair of Transport at the GLA to answer for the tube performance. He was appalling. Admitted it was his responsibility that there were engineering overruns every Monday, etc. A couple of days later – he was sacked. Relating this in my blog – and I though being funny – I said something like so if you are appearing before me, be afraid – be very afraid: look what happened to John Weight.

Not appreciated by Metronet – and then some. But stick your ground or your blog won’t be worth writing.

This is my work – and no one – unless it turns out I’ve got my facts wrong can persuade me to remove or add anything!

So – that bit is fun.

I don
‘t see how any politician who really wants to engage with their electorate will be able to afford not to have a well-designed and well kept up to date website (if you are not going to do it well – better not to do it) and a blog.

Blogs are no good if you don’t do it with enthusiasm and do it well.

Blogs are no good if they are boring, i.e. – do not put in every detail. I got up, put on a suit and took the tube to work. When I arrived there were three messages on my phone from the council officer who I had asked to look into waste collection in Somewhere Street. At work I had six voicemail messages waiting so the light on my phone was flashing at 0.5 second intervals. Yawn.

Blogs are no good if the politician themselves doesn’t write it. Well – I don’t think it works.

It has to be of interest. It has to say something that wouldn’t be said in another medium. It’s not like a FOCUS.

And it’s no good on its own – if you are not doing all the other things you have to do as a candidate from raising media profile, to campaigns, to literature.

I don’t know what percentage of my swing was due to e-campaigning and my blog – but I do know that over the last two general elections – I have overturned a majorityLabour lead over me of 26,000.

I have no doubt that without e-campaigning and my blog – it simply couldn’t have been done!