The sun was shining on Liverpool for Labour Conference last week, but that did not stop Labour activists from heading inside and filling up the room for our second Local, Social, Digital fringe meeting. You shouldn’t doubt their judgement though, they were promised Tom Watson MP (and a free lunch of bacon butties).
Tom, as we had expected, captivated the audience with his opening speech. Tom is a self proclaimed “champion for the digital community” and his passion for digital technologies and open government drove much of his work when he was a government minister (as we mentioned about in a previous blog post). But he used this speech to focus how these issues have shaped his campaigning activities in opposition, including using the Freedom Information Act to obtain information about the contents of the Government’s wine cellar. He spoke with optimism as he described the latest intake of Labour MPs as “the most innate users of digital media” and challenged Labour activists at the meeting to form their own group and help Labour devise one of the most radical digital manifestos for the next general election.
Mark Ferguson is the editor of LabourList, but also drew on his experience from his previous role as the Islington Labour Borough Organiser in his remarks. Mark suggested that using social media and e-mails might help Labour increase its campaigning power in rural areas, where it is difficult to maintain two-way communication with voters using traditional doorstep methods. He said that if activists collected e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers whilst surveying voters in remote locations, it would be easier to continue a relationship with them, without having to visit them at their homes each time. Using innovation to build these relationships is key to Labour being a “truly national party”, he said. Mark also remarked that Twitter is not a great way to reach the average voter – you have to “fish where the fish are” – which is on Facebook and e-mail in his opinion.
Cllr Catherine McDonald spoke to the meeting about her experience of using social media as a local councillor and cabinet member in Southwark. She encouraged councillors to work on gaining a following of local people on Twitter, because it is only an effective way of communicating with local people if they are following you. Catherine said: “Once you engage with a community about one issue [by using social media], it is easier to engage with them on others.”
Nathalie McDermott, from On Road Media, told the meeting about her experience of using the internet as a tool to engage some of the most excluded individuals. She told the meeting: “We need to make sure that the most excluded groups are using the web in the same way as people in this room.” Hywel Lloyd from OPM said that councillors should forget about Town Halls and find other ways of reaching out and engaging with the people they represent. Following a discussion within the audience, where many shared their concerns about controlling the message and not giving information to opposition parties when using social media, Dominic closed the meeting with this challenge to the Labour activists and politicians present: “Are you going to be very cautious and PR driven or more human and open online?”