I attended the Political Innovation Conference in Edinburgh on Saturday. It was interesting, and a very well planned day in an excellent venue. Following what I suspect may be a defining week in UK politics I was keen to hear what the collected bloggers and Twitter-ers had to say about the role of social media in defining our political future.
The Informatics forum worked very well as a flexible (if cold) space to conference in. It was great to meet Mick Fealty, whose “Slugger O’Toole” blog is genuinely groundbreaking. It provides a cross community resource that has raised the quality of debate in Northern Ireland politics. It’s read every day by most members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and regularly breaks news stories.

Several themes came out of the day. The first was that the Obama campaign has become mesmeric for social media and new campaigns. The second is that the Tea Party is now the touchstone for debate around campaigns. Thirdly, there are a lot of nationalists out there angry about their marginalisation in the Scottish media. Lastly, it seems that the change in the political context marked by the ‘Demolition’ rally in London last week has had very little impact on what young people involved in politics think about politics.

All three sessions I attended had discussions circling around both the Obama campaign and the Tea Party movement. Broadly people approve of the Obama campaign and are quite frightened by the Tea Party. The conclusion was that the Obama campaign used social media to mobilise and excite the people most likely to get active in the campaign. These people then used traditional techniques, like door knocking, to get out the vote. That seems right to me. There’s an unfortunate caucus which believes that election campaigns can be won on the internet.

Similarly, the Tea Party uses social media to bring those together who believe in economic libertarian and neo-conservative politics together into a coalition. This has been successful in getting a slate of radical right-wingers elected, like Rand Paul. I’m quite sure that this is in part because of the way Obama has closed his government down to the movement that elected him. The appointment of Rahm Emmanuel was disastrous – describing supporters of the “Public Option” in Health Reform as “f**king retarded” reflects his opinions on the movement that elected Obama. It shows that if you get elected using sword of social media you need also to live by that sword.

Mick Fealty made a fascinating point, drawing on blogger Burke’s Corner, about how the USA was a Whig state, and that tradition means there is great scepticism about government. Which is why the USA swings to the right. Meanwhile Canada was a Tory state, happier with government, but consequently swinging to the left. This has profound implications for the current government’s sceptical approach to government. Fundamentally the left in the UK believes it has successfully captured the state, which now must be defended. That may play well with the traditionally Tory polity in the UK, which eventually ousted Thatcher.

The event was dominated by nationalist bloggers. They’re right that the issue of independence is unfairly treated by the Scottish media. There are few pro-independence columnists, and the tabloid media treats the concept in a deeply partisan and deeply Unionist way. But it’s not the only issue on which the Scottish media gets it wrong. There are a whole range of other issues where the Mainstream Media are totally ineffective. Anyone who honestly thinks the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi is of comparable political significance to the Irish economic collapse (as one contributor did) clearly has no sense of political proportion.

There has been no serious debate on the additional Forth Road Bridge. When the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee attacked the Scottish Information Commissioner in 2007 the Scottish media couldn’t be bothered to cover the story. Weeks later the Westminster media broke a very similar story – which was massive. Sadly too many of the nationalist bloggers are happy with the media hegemony on these issues. There’s more to politics than the national question, and the case for more powers would be stronger if it were less one dimensionally put by nationalist bloggers.

Most interesting was the attitude of many of the younger people in some of the sessions. While I’d seen the events in London as evidence that young people are anything but apathetic, the conversation worked from an assumed position that young people are more apathetic. For an event that was meant to be about political innovation this was deeply disappointing. If you think innovation in politics is taking a marketing approach, or making it more like “The X-Factor” then we’re faced with a pretty dire future. The poverty of analysis was matched only by the lack of ambition. The problem with politics is precisely that it is bedevilled by a marketing approach and failed attempts to be like “The X-Factor.” The managerial politics of the last 20 years, marked by an ever more presidential style, has gone a long way to killing politics. If you never discuss anything interesting you make politics boring.

The really sad thing about this is that the people at the event should have been excited by the strength of the protest in London, and by people caring about politics. Instead they dismissed it as transient and superficial while prescribing what were transparently transient and superficial solutions. It was really deeply disheartening to see how deeply the cynicism of the Blair years has seeped into the collective political psyche.

I’m still optimistic that the students radicalised by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat attack on students and young people will be able to reverse this essentially hope-free approach to politics. There’s certainly every chance they will, given just how brutal the attack on today’s young people is. That’s what the conversation I had in the pub was about. And because it’s so easy to get a blog up and running I’m hoping some of the righteously angry will be at the next Political Innovation conference kicking the hopeless and unambitious out.