Should Left-wing bloggers just shut up?
A historic election defeat has led to soul-searching among New Zealand's Left-wing bloggers and online activists. Where to from here? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.
In a parallel universe, David Cunliffe is the prime minister of New Zealand presiding over a Labour-NZ First minority government in a happy arrangement with the Green Party. Internet Mana, backed by German entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, has a few MPs in Parliament, including veteran activist Hone Harawira.
ACT is already history and former Prime Minister John Key has taken a long holiday in Hawaii.
Wake up. The Left was soundly defeated in the 2014 election.
"I think it's fair to say we haven't had dreams in colour since September 20," says Left-wing activist and blogger Martyn Bradbury.
He freely admits he got it horribly wrong. That was his election prediction above. He "didn't consider for one moment" that voters would rally to National and that high levels of early voting meant that New Zealanders were backing Key.
Instead, Labour had its worst result since 1922, the Greens slipped below their 2011 peak and Harawira is out of Parliament. "Despondent" is a good word to describe how those on the Left feel.
"Right across the Left there are conversations," says Asher Goldman, co-founder of the newly-launched blog On the Left. "We lost the election, what does that mean?"
Is it even possible that bloggers are part of the problem?
Goldman agrees that blogging and tweeting are no substitute for real-world political activity. It should be an extra not an end in itself.
"A successful blog for me is one that has good stuff to contribute, a community built around it that is participating in useful, productive discussion and a few visitors, hopefully," Goldman says.
Hope seems to be the prevailing mood. How else would you describe launching a Left-wing blog after such a historic defeat? Or is this the ideal time to start regrouping?
Lynn Prentice from the long- running Standard blog says a fall in interest is predictable after an election, even if your own side wins. He has been heavily involved in Labour campaigns since 1990 and "one of the largest drop-offs in activists I ever saw was after the 1999 election". That was a Labour victory.
Goldman is a Green Party member, co-founder Stephanie Rodgers is a Labour member and both believe their new blog should be broadly across the Left rather than overtly party-based. They also want it to be fun, which has not traditionally been a feature of Left-wing politics.
"It doesn't have to feel like a chore," Goldman says. "Politics is about all our lives and should have a sense of hopefulness and passion. You're not going to change things by sitting and moping."
When the blog launched a fortnight ago, Goldman and other authors wrote thoughtful pieces about what being on the Left means to them. On the first day, some 2500 individuals viewed around 10,000 pages. If those numbers keep up, On the Left would be in New Zealand's top 10 political blogs, alongside Kiwiblog, the Daily Blog, the Standard, Whale Oil and others.
But is there room for another blog on the Left of politics? The more the merrier, Bradbury says.
"There is a limited attention span and everything is in competition, but that's healthy," he says. "At a time when we have had such a shellacking, I don't think anyone can pretend to have the answers. It's time to do a lot of listening and talking and asking what we stand for on this side of the fence."
It is also time to ask what kind of impact blogging can have. Since the first Barack Obama campaign in 2008, political obsessives have assumed that social media would play a greater and greater role. Twitter and Facebook might reach every undecided voter. Blogs might replace mainstream journalism.
One lesson of the 2014 election is that those predictions may not come to pass. When Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics disrupted the election campaign, it showed that Right-wing political blogs have had a different, more malign influence in New Zealand.
Hager alleged that Slater's sins included publishing public relations material under his own name and taking payment for it, publishing information supplied in secret by a cabinet minister and a former staff member in the prime minister's office and using his blog as an outlet for internal National Party battles and personal attacks on opponents.
The links went all the way to the top. Before Dirty Politics appeared, Key revealed that he regularly talked to Slater to see "what he's got on his site and mind".
Questions were asked in Parliament this week about those conversations.
For Bradbury and many others on the Left, here was evidence that Key's laid-back, "non-political" persona disguised a ruthless political animal.
"I thought that when people saw the other side [of Key], they would be appalled. I suppose I was naive to think you could change six years of media narrative in six weeks."
Bradbury was sure that Dirty Politics would be a turning point. It hasn't been just bloggers and activists who have been scratching their heads. Mainstream journalists have been, too.
Why did the stories in Dirty Politics, and the revelations about mass surveillance in the final week of the campaign, have no impact on the election result? What does that imply about the efficacy of journalism?
Or was the Left undermined by its own bloggers? Was the squabbling and bickering on the internet symptomatic of the Left's general disarray and lack of discipline?
Should everyone on the Left just shut up and let the politicians do the talking?
Labour MP Clayton Cosgrove seemed to think so. In the wake of the historic defeat, after being attacked anonymously online by someone who turned out to be David Cunliffe's wife, Karen Price, Cosgrove said he wanted to see "appropriate discipline" in the Left-wing blogosphere.
He singled out the Standard and named bloggers and Labour activists Lynn Prentice and Greg Presland. Presland is closely associated with Cunliffe.
Prentice responded quickly on the blog, calling Cosgrove's comments "ill-informed and outright silly" and claiming that he is the most "destabilising" MP in the Labour caucus. Pot, kettle, black.
With scenes like these it is no wonder Key was able to neutralise the impact of Dirty Politics by saying that Labour has its own secret relationships with bloggers. That argument caught on with the public.
But Goldman calls that a "false equivalence" and Prentice agrees.
"Unlike Slater's or Farrar's professional efforts on behalf of National, we don't get paid either directly or indirectly for our volunteering to work for politicians or writing blogs and never have," Prentice says.
The blog is about serving an audience and community rather than a party.
"Most politicians and wannabe politicians are rather peripheral to that, which is I suspect something that they find hard to live with."
Bradbury says that the Daily Blog does take advertising money from unions but it does not influence the blog's position on such issues as the Labour leadership.
There are other lessons to take from Dirty Politics and its revelations about Whale Oil, Goldman says. Blogs now have to work harder to earn credibility.
Transparency is key. It has become impossible to look at Whale Oil since Dirty Politics without wondering whose agenda is being served. Goldman says that On the Left will use real names unless there is a good reason not to and a strict moderating policy will keep the trolls out.
Goldman and Rodgers want On the Left to be a place where the reliable adage "don't read the comments" need not apply. Where comments are not only not offensive, but are actually useful and productive.
Is such a thing possible? Yes. Russell Brown's Public Address blog has done that, Goldman says.
And there have been ways in which New Zealand's Left-wing blogs have acted like journalism. The No Right Turn blog takes a serious and analytical approach to Parliamentary business and has been instrumental in the increasing media scrutiny of the Official Information Act.
But not all bloggers will keep trying. Left-wing satirist and author Danyl Mclauchlan has put his popular Dim-Post blog on "hiatus", because he thinks "some of the Left's problems stem from over-engagement with social media".
Mclauchlan's argument is that some who thought they were part of the solution were really part of the problem.
"If you're listening to and engaging with a cacophony of voices online it's easy to lose touch with the silent but demographically much, much larger section of the population that aren't commenting via blogs or Twitter and have very different priorities and concerns," Mclauchlan wrote.
The blogger exited but the online pundits still came out in force to agree, disagree or start entirely new arguments in the comments.
TOP FIVE LEFT-WING BLOGS
A long-running Left-wing blog with multiple authors often writing under pseudonyms. Has a lively and argumentative comments section.
Launched by Martyn Bradbury last year with an all-star lineup of Left- wing writers, some of whom have moved on. But John Minto, Chris Trotter and Bradbury remain.
The new addition. Another multiple author blog, but with a hopeful and positive mood.
Satirist and published author Danyl Mclachlan has been at it since 2008 but recently put the blog on hiatus. Not everything is political; one of his best was headlined "Peter Jackson to Film 95 Hour Adaptation of Silmarillion".
A valuable analysis of parliamentary goings-on. This blog has broken stories and has been especially strong on abuse of the Official Information Act.