This is my article for the Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2010/11 which was published yesterday. I was asked to contribute something about how new media helps me as a councillor and why I take the view that, whilst it won't win me re-election, it's still something councillors should be doing.
David Penhaligon’s famous advice to politicians was that if you have something to say, you should write it on a piece of paper and stick it through peoples’ letterboxes. In today’s digital world, that advice is still as true as it ever was.
I’m an enthusiastic advocate of modern communications methods. As a councillor I use twitter and have a blog and most of my communications are done by email - I think I’ve only written two actual letters in the fifteen months since I was elected. I was also one of a group of councillors who pushed for Cornwall Council’s meetings to be webcast. But I’d be lying if I claimed that anything other than good old leaflets and letters got me elected and if I am to be re-elected then it will be through exactly the same means.
My experience as a councillor using blogs and social media has been mixed, to say the least. I started my blog (lansonboy.blogspot.com) before I was elected as an additional means of communicating with both my prospective constituents and anyone else who cared what I thought. It hasn’t got the greatest readership in the world and some of the biggest visitor numbers have come through distinctly unpolitical postings. Pictures I took of reality TV star Lee Mead performing at the Princes Trust awards have grossed the highest number of visitors, closely followed by London residents searching for public transport timetables who come across my post on weird names given to kids - someone named their child Number 13 bus shelter. Even when talking about politics, it is my take on national stories that tend to garner more visits. However, most of my more mundane posts are about ward issues or the politics of Cornwall Council and I have a pretty good following for these. Whilst my constituents might not be there in great numbers, I do get feedback about my blog on the doorstep and I always ask what issues people would like me to cover more.
The other important audience is the local media who read all the local blogs looking for stories. This has led to a number of my issues being picked up in the local papers and on the radio. The downside is that I have to make sure I moderate my comments. A councillor’s blog has to be interesting enough to be read time and again but not so lurid as to land me in front of the Standards Board.
I also started to use twitter just over a year ago. Like other cynics, I hadn’t seen the point of a system that only allows you 140 characters for a message. Perhaps that’s the verbose politician in me. I’m still not going to win any awards for most beautifully crafted tweet, but twitter is still incredibly important for me in three ways.
First, I tweet about all my blog posts and that draws readership. It used to be said that a website was like a reference book - readers go there if they know there is something they want to find out about. A blog is supposedly like a newspaper - people will read it every day just in case there is something interesting. The true blog champions like Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes can pretty much rely on their readers coming back time and again. A little local blog like mine will probably lose readers over time unless I do my best to market it and tweeting my posts is an easy way to accomplish this. It’s probably worth noting that the big bloggers aren’t content to sit back but do this too.
The tweeting new posts thing also works in reverse. I get alerted to a lot of the news that interests me through the tweets I receive.
The final great use of twitter for me is live tweeting from council meetings. Although this has distinct up- and down-sides. The positive was exemplified during a meeting of Cornwall’s sea fisheries committee. It’s not the most dynamic of affairs and attracts very few councillors who do not sit on it. But a tweet about a debate on a proposed by-law drew an immediate response from a colleague concerned about the impact on his own area. A question on his behalf was quickly asked and he got the reassurances he needed about the plans. It didn’t hold up the meeting but saved his time and the cost to the taxpayer of paying for his mileage to attend.
The downside of live tweeting comes when someone gets the wrong end of the stick or decides that modern technology gets in the way of ‘proper meetings’. Perhaps it was this view that resulted in the headline ‘What a bunch of twitters!’ on the front page of the Western Morning News back in January accusing five Cornwall Councillors of sending ‘sexually suggestive’ tweets during a council meeting.
In fact, nothing of the sort had taken place. But a number of councillors from across the political spectrum had been providing updates to our respective followers about what was happening during a debate about members’ allowances.
The story of ‘Twittergate’, as it unimaginatively became known, started with the live tweeting of meetings. The tweets were a mixture of meeting updates, political commentary and messages from one councillor to another. During the course of that particular meeting, there had been a couple of double entendres between the Chairman of the council and one of the backbench councillors. One of my colleagues tweeted that there was ‘a high level of sexual innuendo in the chamber today’, nothing more or less. Two days later the story ran in the local weekly papers as a factual, if lighthearted, report on the various tweets that were being sent during the meeting. The day after, it was taken up by the daily WMN as a shock horror front page.
It would have been easy at that stage to throw in the towel and abandon the use of twitter and other social media forums. After all, rural local authorities are not known for being at the cutting edge of modern technology.
Fortunately, the council brushed aside the criticism. So too did the local weekly paper which has started running a live blog from some of the bigger council meetings and has invited councillors to contribute their own updates to these from time to time via twitter.
Incidentally, one of the recipients was the Taxpayers Alliance, who had asked to be kept up to date about the discussions on an area of keen interest to them. So it was more than a little ironic for the same organisation to be quoted lambasting us for wasting taxpayers’ money when we should have been concentrating on the debate.
The other members of the twitter gang have also continued to to use the medium. But the case of Ken Livingstone has made us a little more careful. Livingstone was accused of making some incautious remarks and was promptly hauled up before the Standards beaks. His defence, which has since become the benchmark, was that he was not acting in his elected capacity at the time. As councillors, we know that any public comment we make could land us in trouble. Some of my colleagues separate their official and their more sweary comments into different accounts. Others, including myself, maintain a single account but are just careful about what we say on it.
Cornwall Council has adopted a social media policy which is pretty forward looking. It focusses not on the particular mediums - twitter, facebook etc - but on the sort of communications we want. The aim is to have a two way conversation with residents, visitors and businesses. I don’t think we are completely there yet, but a corporate twitter account and facebook page have certainly started the ball rolling. So too has the webcasting of full council meetings. Although this is currently a pilot study, I have no doubt that it will continue beyond an initial six month period. On its first outing, more than 1000 people watched the proceedings live with a further 1300 watching the archived version at some point in the month afterwards. It’s not exactly thrill a minute stuff and web-casting is not an end in itself, but it is another step towards transparency and openness at minimal cost.
The council has also taken advantage of free software connected to their website to help all councillors set up a blog if they want to do so. There are already eight of us who have our own blogs - of whom five could be described as ‘regular bloggers’ - but I would encourage others of all parties to take the plunge. Cornwall Council meetings tend to be devoid of ‘real’ political debate and blog posts can encourage decent exchanges of views on issues that are barely mentioned in formal meetings.
I also hope that more of my colleagues will adopt twitter. Perhaps not the councillor who took me aside one day to lambast me for failing to pay attention but who nonetheless falls asleep in committees on a regular basis. But the more outsiders we can interest our efforts on their behalf, the more they might be encouraged to have their say and the more responsive our council will be.
But even with all these communications methods, nothing will replace knocking on doors or delivering leaflets on a regular basis. When I won my seat, I delivered 12 different pieces of paper in the four weeks leading up to polling day to get my message across. I wouldn’t pretend that I won for any other reason than this. Blogging and tweeting will hopefully help me to do my job better and may even add a few votes to my pile next time, but it will be the traditional campaigning methods which will stay dominant for many elections to come.
If you would like to buy a copy of the 2010/11 Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK, you can do so by clicking here.