Does Labour Really Think John Prescott is the New Obama?
Catherine Bennett: The US president led a new generation into politics via the web. The government may have more trouble
Like US marketing experts, who have already distilled Barack Obama's formidably successful online campaign into a series of bullet-point hints for salesmen, our native politicians are convinced that the US president's campaigning techniques must be transferable. If a political nobody could sell like that, coming from nowhere, then why shouldn't viral technology work for other unpromising stuff? Carcinogenic baby food, for example? Or even the labor party?
"Obama's victory was not simply a victory for an extraordinary individual," says keen Obama student and government minister Douglas Alexander. "It was also a victory for a body of ideas and a new approach to political campaigning."
And let's not be picky: couldn't we lose the "body of ideas"? To judge by the contents of Labor List, one of several new labor-supporting blogs aspiring to fill the aching gap left by my.barackobama.com, a modern political blog can easily do without them. Absolutely, concedes Mr Alexander in his first Labor List contribution. Obama had his "convincing analysis" and "compelling rhetoric". And very nice too. "But," Alexander goes on, "his campaign team used his message to engage and excite online communities and used the web to bring politics to a new generation. This is the big challenge for progressives around the globe that Labor List.org is directly responding to."
Whatever you make of Labor List as a direct response to this "big challenge", there is something impressive about the website's almost insane determination to test Alexander's theory to destruction. It was not enough, for example, that Labor List should set out to demonstrate, in its homely way, that a well-run campaign can engage online communities without any fashionable, Obama-style brains or la-di-dah Obama-style blarney. It would not merely prove that an "extraordinary individual", in the Obama-slot, came as optional. The website went further. It would replace that extraordinary individual with Derek Draper.
Was this wise Even following his marriage to television's Kate Garraway, it is likely that Draper is best known to most people as the New labor trusty and lobbyist who told an undercover Observer reporter in 1998 that he could sell political access for cash. "There are 17 people who count [in this government]. And to say I am intimate with every one of them is the understatement of the century."
Accepting that Draper has since served time as a psychotherapist, and that even the most loathsome reformed offender is entitled to a second chance, some labor supporters are still asking if the party's showiest overture yet to the online community was the ideal platform for Draper's relaunch. Although a commitment to democratic engagement with the online public is now compulsory for any party official, Labor List's fondness for joyless affirmations of party solidarity, along with official reports on the modern equivalent of tractor production and Draper's corrections of perceived thought crimes, can easily make it appear, to visitors from the free world, to have less in common with Obama's style of civic engagement than with Vladimir Putin's.
Of course, Mr Draper could quite plausibly retort that he is a good deal more serious about public engagement, what with his incessant interjections, than fellow democrat Ed Miliband, whose ambitious but sad little social networking site Laborspace ("Be the change!") has just begun to quantify the yawning public indifference to Labour's experiments in collaborative politics.
"We know we achieve more together than we do alone," wheedles Mr Miliband, inviting visitors to invent new campaigns, as if we'd forgotten about the Big Conversation or Downing Street's numberless online petitions. At the time of writing, a campaign called "renationalise the railways" is top of the Labor space list, with 35 votes, followed by "save our bees" with 28.
Arguably, John Prescott shows a deeper understanding of the medium with his strictly Prescott vehicle, misleadingly entitled Gofourth (for a fourth labor term), in which he reinvents himself, in faux-Obama YouTube clips, as a modern political person, telling visitors that "the old days of controlling campaigning from the center" are over. Recruits are offered weekly, Obama-copycat emails in which his collaborator Alastair Campbell, tells you "a list of simple things you can do to help secure a labor fourth term?" Yes, that Alastair Campbell.
Unless Gofourth, as at first seems more likely, is a cruel parody of the Obama campaigners' more demagogic tendencies, in which the lithe, brilliant, thoughtful, articulate, uxorious, preternaturally dignified individual at the center of their massive online movement is replaced by a blustering, discredited exhumation from the British political past whose personal attributes are, in every case, the opposite.
Last week found Prescott complaining - "Cameron's plane daft" - that he'd had to attend a debate on Heathrow's third runway. It cannot have been intended, presumably, that even his most harmless post should read like an injunction to join the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, Plane Stupid, the schismatic Druids - anything but the party that once employed him as deputy prime minister.
Even without Alastair Campbell's assistance, a visiting idealist can see that the simplest thing John Prescott could do, to help secure a fourth term for labor, would be to disapparate, taking his fellow revenants with him. Naturally, we should miss Gofourth pieces such as last week's attack on former colleague Matthew Taylor, whom he described a "pointy head" and a "Mekon". But entertaining as it is, in pieces such as "What's Emotional Intelligence?", to see old two Shags deploying, online, the mental agility which made him such an ornament to political life, what happens when he has to debate trickier subjects, such as: "What's an illegal war?"
True, there's no guarantee Iraq will come up. Any more than Prescott's cowboy outfit, a gift from US billionaire and former Dome owner Philip Anschutz. One of the most important political lessons to be drawn from Obama's campaign is to never accept cowboy outfits from men called Philip. But so far, contributors to Labour's proliferating websites appear to have shown extraordinary tact where this kind of potentially embarrassing subject is concerned, avoiding everything from Labour's dishonesty about the war and the death of Dr Kelly to its responsibility for the deaths of 178 servicemen in Iraq, betrayal of civil liberties, missing EU referendum, non-regulation of the City, third runway and record debt.
When it comes to Gordon Brown, however, there may be justified suspicions of censorship. On each new, Obama-inspired labor website, there is a patch of nothing where a picture of the party leader should go. Up to a point, the reticence is understandable. How thrilled would you be to receive a personal email from Gordon? Or keen to join my.gordon brown.com? But a movement with no ideas and no leader? They must have skipped the last Obama lesson. People aren't as stupid as was hitherto believed. They'll notice.
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