The Establishment, Dolly Draper and Labour List
‘The Establishment’ is a wonderful phrase precisely because no one is quite sure what it refers to. Whitehall mandarins? Church leaders? Press barons? Where are the boundaries? It’s a phrase even used by some of the most conscientious historians and political analysts I know of, including ‘mainstream’, non-Marxists. And yet in the last week, we’ve had a tantalizing glimpse into what might be called the political Establishment courtesy of Dolly Draper and the scandal of his emails.
In case anyone hasn’t been paying attention, the scandal of the emails originated with ideas bounced between Draper and Damian McBride (one of the PM’s press officers) about how to smear the Tories. Cue outrage and resignation. Draper then published an article on Labour List, explaining himself, which has since recieved around two hundred comments and not one bit of engagement with those comments by the man himself (who, presumably, will claim that this is because he’s ‘on holiday’ and not because he’s a coward without a leg to stand on).
Draper has since gambled on apologetics and absolution rather than hara-kiri. Meanwhile, the blogosphere has fallen upon this set-piece with glee. Sunny had declaimed how poisonous Draper is to Labour (and he is totally right). Tom Miller has come forward to attack the hypocritical reaction of the Tory blogs to Draper’s indiscretion (and he’s totally right too). Meanwhile, some more circumspect bloggers have pointed out that it is the self-referential culture of politics which turns some people off it.
Whilst not fully buying the conclusions of the last, or perhaps wishing to extend them and render them into practical suggestions, I also wish to disagree with one of Tom Miller’s points. With reference to Claude’s post, it is absolutely correct that the focus on the Westminster bubble and the activities of people there is harmful to politics, it’s also the case that nothing in the ‘Red Reg’ ideas of Draper and McBride is even remotely worth the controversy that has been set aflame as a result of them when set in the context of unemployed millions.
However, the problem is not merely a displaced prurience on the part of the blogosphere. In fact it is much more structural – especially in the case of the Labour blogosphere. This is where I diverge from Tom Miller, who says that “What we’ve been doing at LabourList has been completely separate from whatever went between Derek Draper and Damien McBride.” Whilst I would defend Tom’s honour that neither he nor others knew about the emails, actually he and Labour List contribute to the structural problems we’re witnessing.
Labour List has been nothing short of disastrous from the point of view of the grassroots, not least because it has managed to pull into its orbit some genuinely respectable left-wingers, such as Tom Miller and Laurie Penny. With half of the writers coming from the professional political or professional journalistic Establishments, the focus of the site is going to be national news commentary. Whether focussing on what Ian Duncan-Smith says or what Dolly Draper says, it is this approach which renders the Left blogosphere weak.
It does so in two ways; first of all, it’s not playing to Labour’s key strength over the Conservatives – our activist base. Second of all, news coming out via the media or via ‘insiders’ is already ideologically slanted to the right. Being an insider necessitates a ‘pragmatic’ relationship with one’s principles and the media editorial process has the same effect on the individual journalist. As most of the writers on Labour List are not awake to ideological critiques of this nature, it follows that most of them will simply be slightly Left versions of the MSM.
This might seem like a negligible problem, except that the mainstream media are not just biased in their tone of presentation. They are also biased in precisely what they choose to present. An inevitable consequence of Labour List’s structural set-up is that there’s no room to define priorities for ourselves, according to how important they are to our activist-based struggle, rather than how important they are according to the voluminous screechings of Iain Dale and the professional media. Draper’s emails don’t qualify.
Labour List is therefore perpetuating the very thing which keeps the Left blogosphere weak; our (Labour’s) inability to pierce the cacophany of the babbling commentariat.
To achieve this, Labour List would have to be restructured and the editorial policy revamped. Getting rid of the CiF people would be a good start, followed by the ministers. If we still want a format whereby we can actually find out what our ministers are thinking, then ten minute interviews once a week rotated among the regular contributors would be ample, especially if done in real-time. This reduction in the amount that LL spews would actually create some space to put articles into perspective.
Secondly, a local focus to supplement the national. The most readily understandable level of exploitation is local, whether through Tory outsourcing, PCTs ‘restructuring’ local mental health facilities or corruption in local planning. Most activists (myself included) understand their relationship to national government more easily than their relationship to local government, which shouldn’t surprise anyone since most of us read ‘national’ papers, and our blogs reflect the issues being babbled about by the ‘national’ commentariat.
It would be all too easy, at a local level, to repeat the “grandees” approach of the national blogosphere – recruiting an MP or two, several Councillors and so forth to fill out a ‘local column’. I’m not saying such people can’t write, but the Editorial guidelines would need to be tightened up so that along with ‘news’, we’re not having to read a bunch of promotional horseshit, much like I do every time a certain local Labour MP puts out a press release or whenever the government send out their emails to Party members.
‘News’ could be geared towards not simply mentioning what campaigning efforts are being undertaken, but towards a reflective approach that analyses and explains why that campaigning effort is thought to have the greatest chance at success. By such an approach, not only will we escape the Westminster bubble, and the priorities of the paid commentariat, but we (the activists) begin to arrive at a better understanding of the relationship between theory (ideology) and political practice (campaigning).
Essentially this aims at an educational forum for activists, not structurally prejudiced towards any particular ideology within the Labour family and not largely predicated upon the musings of people who are placed at ‘the centre’ of the political Establishment, but open to the musings of grassroots activists, suitably edited to make things readable rather than the sort of dross that appeared frighteningly regularly on Members’ Net. This would pull together the Labour bloggers (and probably other socialists too) until such times as those bloggers could themselves elect and run an editorial board.
Under such terms, I seriously doubt that three articles (possibly more by now) would have been dedicated to this peripheral nonsense about Derek Draper. In fact, the only criticism I can foresee being made is that such a project would increase rather than decrease the self-referentiality of our political debate – however criticism along such lines forgets that the things that concern our activists concern the s0-called apolitical too. Instead of jeering at the disingenuity of Ministerial articles, we might get some engagement if we’re deploying articles that illustrate what our activists are doing, even in the teeth of opposition from within the Party.
We benefit from the shortest possible distance between what it means to be a Labour activist and what it means to be just another person, confronted by the issues of living in the UK. We don’t benefit from Westminster-focussed muck-raking or apologetics. Let the Tory blogs do that all they want. So far Labour List doesn’t show any signs of following such an approach, being something of a cross between Iain Dale’s site and the Guardian’s Comment is Free. Fine and dandy, if success is judged by comment numbers – but not if we’re aiming to build a genuine grassroots influence on the blogosphere, such that it can even influence the media as well as influencing Joe Blogs.