Q: What plans do you have to expand and improve LDV in 2007?RF: Re-designing the site is a priority - a new design is needed to make navigation easier and show off the broad range of contributions and contributors. I'm always on the lookout for new people to join in and get writing, Podcasting, or videoing. I'd love to get more contributions from outside the South East of England - the first fortnight of the site saw Blog posts come in from Wales, Scotland and other places, but since then it's become harder to encourage contributors from across the country.
Q: What is the role for blogs in British politics? After all, even the uber-bloggers such as Guido Fawkes are read by a small fraction of people in the UK? Isn’t their influence over-hyped?RF: Blogs have one hundred and one roles in British politics - everything from allowing constituents to communicate with Councillors (see Walcot Ward, for example), to running the sort of salacious gossip the media wouldn't dare / care to print (eg, Guido Fawkes), to allowing the public to comment on the words of the Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson.
The power of blogging as a medium is not over-hyped (I believe, for example, that Lynne Featherstone's Blog played no small part in helping her win Hornsey and Wood Green), but the power of 'celebrity' bloggers is massively over-hyped. Guido Fawkes is a Westminster Village distraction, the love of politicians and journalists. Even Iain Dale's Prescott revelations, which broke in to the mainstream media, probably actively grabbed the attention of 1% of the population. The other 99% either shrugged their shoulders and muttered 'bloody politicans, they're all at it', or simply didn't hear the story.
One of these days a blogger may come up with something that topples a cabinet minister, or causes a major shift in government policy - but that's not a power inherent in blogging. Any individual, in the right place at the right time with the right message, can change the country - blog or no blog. In the meantime, is there a danger of some bloggers disappearing up their own backsides? Definitely.
Q: Are there things you think the Lib Dem party website could learn from the success of LDV?RF: Our party website lacks a human touch - ask the Liberal Democrats what we believe, what we stand for, and the website offers you a 20 page policy document - and in the process we pride ourselves on having more detailed policies than the Conservatives. The policy's there, but there's no narrative, little humanity and, dare I say it - no passion.
I'd like to see our website make more use of the diverse base of people in our activist ranks - photos, comment on topical issues, videos even. It seems sometimes that party spokespeople agonise over every subtlety, every nuance of every word uttered in public - specific phrases are tested and polled, we stay away from some issues for fear of upsetting strong lobbies, and of course - we mustn't upset the party's big donors. Is it any wonder then that sometimes what we have to say is about as interesting and inspiring as an exhibition of kitchen floor tiles?
We're the third party, constantly having to pedal our bike furiously to keep our place in the political arena, let alone move faster - I really believe we have to take risks and be less in cautious in what we say if we are to re-catch the public's imagination for reasons other than rent boys and Cheeky Girls.
RF: I'm very aware of the phenomenal electoral power of printed leaflets, and am prepared to do my bit locally and at by-elections and the like to deliver Focus. I do worry that the party passes harsh judgement on those who cannot, or will not deliver leaflets. I fear we may be turning off activists who can provide valuable assistance with things like office support, logistics, even management and training skills. Activism should be permitted to be more than solely being a postman / postwoman, or producer of literature.
Q: And, finally, is LDV your main party activity? Or, to put it more bluntly, when was the last time you got off your butt, and delivered a Focus?
My main form of activism is building various bits of web stuff for the party - recently I was in Scotland helping the team there prepare the internet side of their 2007 election campaign. Before that I put together the party's new Extranet, and continue to provide support for it. I have been regularly involved in keeping the front page of libdems.org.uk fresh. I assembled the IT infrastructure for the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election this year - the platform on which tens of thousands of target letters and other election communications were printed.
As I see my web and IT work for the party as no less a form of activism than delivering Focus, I (unlike most of the party's web developers and agencies) offer my services free of charge, and have done since I left the party's employ more than 18 months ago. Like many activists, we're talking about very many hours of effort. In return for what would commercially equate to tens of thousands of pounds worth of IT 'consultancy' over the years, I only beg to be let off canvassing. I hate it, and am in awe of those who can canvass effortlessly, but please - never again let the words, 'Hello, I'm Rob Fenwick and I'm here on behalf of the Liberal Democrats,' pass my lips.