Selective hearing

Around the web: Labour Party

The media have made much hay with the launch of New Labour’s latest white elephant. Stung by the exposure of the democratic deficit opened up by the war in Iraq, Blair’s spin doctors quite understandably want to portray The Leader as a figure keen to listen to what the electorate has to say - providing the rationale for the Big Conversation. Sadly for the apparatchiks involved, the anti-war movement has already rumbled this exercise in consultation. The latest Stop the War Coalition bulletin claims: “Blair is becoming the Basil Fawlty of British politics. ‘Don’t mention the war’ is his watchword” (December 2). Indeed, the Big Conversation fails to mention Iraq once, suggesting New Labour hears what it wants to hear.

The website itself glistens with the Blairite spit and polish we have all become accustomed to. Headed by the mantra, “Big issues need a big conversation”, the screen is split into six sections. Moving left to right, ‘Have your say’ opens the survey itself. If you can brave the ‘friendly’ welcome letter from Blair, this open-ended questionnaire is pretty unremarkable. Only name, postcode and email address are the required fields. It then asks you for the most pertinent local issue, before moving on to your three highest-ranking national issues. Rounding it off, it asks for party/group affiliation, whether you usually vote in elections, and whom you normally vote for. Finally in an attempt to bolster Labour’s flagging ranks, an “I’m interested in becoming a member …” box is included. I think I’ll give that one a miss.

Clicking on Blair’s vacuous quote on the home page allows you to watch a Big Conversation video. This short film is available for 56k modem or broadband, and the web designers have helpfully included Realplayer to enable it to run. Now if only it was worth downloading …

Next along is ‘Big issues’. This page is organised around five questions which viewers are invited to submit comments on. You would be mistaken for thinking this is a discussion forum, as it hopes that “everyone will read and engage in the debate”. Clicking on a question, it soon become apparent that it is nothing of the sort. It asks for comments to be submitted, followed once again by the same questionnaire format. However, a ‘Read your responses’ link has been included, leading to a page full of pearls of wisdom. For example, the question on young people and politics has invited a response arguing for a ban on voting, in the hope that it will generate interest!

Moving down to ‘Our conversation starters’, this page is the home of the Big Conversation document itself. Replete with the usual Blairisms of ‘opportunities’, ‘choices’, ‘vision’ and ‘mutual responsibility’, each chapter title is a question. Setting out a narrowly defined problem, the anonymous author proceeds to offer some equally circumscribed answers. Presumably this document should be read as a pep talk, before tackling the survey proper, therefore failing to give it a prime position on the home page was not a bright idea. Perhaps Tony hired the web designer from Ben Elton’s Ministry of Crap Design.

‘Question the politicians’ is “your chance to ask the politicians your burning questions”. The next two Blairites to brave this toothless lion’s den are culture minister Tessa Jowell and faceless foreign office hack Bill Rammell. Basically, this entails filling out the form and submitting a question to your chosen MP. This will be entered into a database from which the most ‘interesting and pertinent’ queries are plucked. The question with the answer will then be streamed live onto the website. It does warn that “abusive” or “irrelevant” questions will be discarded - that is probably why the archived quizzing of schools minister Stephen Twigg is strictly on-topic and free from tough questions.

‘Your stories and pictures’ is in a similar vein to ‘Big issues’. This is another opportunity for viewers to post their “priorities” and see them published online. To be fair, some critical commentary has been included, such as arguments against top-up fees and the case for a complete separation of church and state, but overall the tone is pretty uncontentious (no mention of the ‘I’ word) Also, where exactly are the pictures, and what purpose are they supposed to serve?

According to ‘Frequently asked questions’, contributions will be forwarded to relevant policy commissions, and will apparently improve your local area and shape the next Labour manifesto. Sadly for the Big Conversation, a touch of virtual PR will not convince anyone that the Blairite leopard has changed its spots.