Towards a new on-line politics: OurKingdom and Liberal Conspiracy

One of Britain's best blogs is re-organising and so is OurKingdom
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
7 March 2010

Sunny Hundal has started to prepare Liberal Conspiracy for the Conservatives taking power (even if the leading Conservative in power should prove to be Mandelson). He wants to build the site with more political strategy, activism and news. But it is not just content that he is after. What Sunny is attempting is ambitious, important for British blogland and on-line publishing and for OurKingdom, as we prepare our new approach. He’s written three posts. I commented briefly on the first. Beginners should start with Sunny's third, which includes a summary and links to the first two.

Liberal Conspiracy is immensely creative and refreshing. As well as tackling issues and being smart and forthright, it goes about things in a different way from your average lefty or liberal blog. It looks outwards to what is happening not inwards to what ‘line’ it should be taking. With this new development Sunny is trying to get us all to think with a similarly fresh spirit about our methods and how we resource them in the coming era of citizen journalism.

Sunny says there is too much opinion around. Conservative Home and TPM are his models, aggregating voices as LibCon does but more important, setting the agenda through persistent reporting, exposés, campaigning for their perspective and throwing digital stones at the opposition. They create a field of force with the organisation of strategic stories, discovering facts, revealing hypocrisy and mendacity in their opponents, to build the foundations of wider opinion. Sunny calls this “infrastructure”. It’s larger than just a platform.

Sunny also thinks that we have to see ourselves as a movement of the majority that nonetheless has to form an “insurgency” against the establishment. Because, while we may have the numbers, they have the power. Think of the popular dislike of the database state and yet its relentless ongoing construction. So we have to force them to listen otherwise we won’t get what the progressive majority wants and the country needs. Call it democracy or fairness - the point is that it doesn’t belong to ‘Labour’ or ‘the Unions’, or ‘the Lib Dems’ or ‘Green’. It isn’t owned.

In short Sunny is seeking to lead the liberal left in a new direction. And he is sure right about this: for opinion to count it has to be organized, especially if it is against the current. It’s influence we want, not flatulence.

Here at OurKingdom I hope we’ll absorb what Sunny is arguing and more important doing - and that we’ll be connected to it in our own way. He says he’s going to add blogs about activism, the media, trade unions and Westminster. Without restraining ourselves from these topics we’ll focus on the UK constitution (the nature of our government, the state, the nations, the law, the media, liberty, rights, freedom and power and  the stories, histories and culture that form them).

In doing this there are three aspects that I’d add. First, because OK’s focus is the whole area of the nature of the state in the UK and the future of our democracy, liberty and human rights, this means we are open to, can learn from and engage with sections on the right, in a way Liberal Conspiracy does not, and that we have even bigger problems with the authoritarian left.

Second, Sunny is spot on about the need for an infrastructure that supports spirited and informed combat; web-journalism that generates new stories that others have to respond to. For OK the big story is the broken and dangerous state of the British constitution. We will try and report this in a way people can grasp, makes sense of their experience and accumulates into a critique that reshapes politics and prevents each scandal from being lost in the torrent. But also, as we try and fill our sails with influence, we have to work on the sails themselves. These are woven from argument, analysis and opinion. These too have to be strong and tested. We have got to have theory, analysis, ideas and debates that stand up to the storms - or the stories will just become part of an updated political routine absorbed by the status quo. This goes further than Sunny’s description of ‘analysis’.

Third, there is how we reach agreement. To signal what I mean, start with an example of point 2 - the development of ideas. I was invited to a conference in India in January and it changed the  way I think about democracy and how it should be analysed. It was a very enjoyable experience in Reimagining Democracy which I wrote about in openDemocracy. It’s one of those rather long, discursive essays that makes Sunny impatient. But it is an exploration. Quite a few people have been sharing it. In the comments Rosemary Bechler, who is part of the OK team, wrote:

In the discussion one of the speakers said of Rajeev that he demonstrated a belief in the power of reason to achieve ‘moderation’. Rather than, as I was taught to believe, the whole point of reason being to win arguments."

This is such a disarming little en passant sentence, but I don't think it should be allowed to pass by unnoticed. What it points towards, as a movement towards pluralist thinking, is momentous. Moderation, if it is not compromise of the self-defeating, unsatisfactory kind, is surely a win-win situation but winning of a different kind - precisely winning because someone else isn't losing!... What we need is not reason as restraint, or as a boring middle ground, but reason as creativity - a going beyond winners and losers, enemy images, false binary oppositions, dogmatic notions of the truth and the notion that one can possess it and not let anyone else have a look in....  Perhaps science and philosophy have more to learn from classical rhetoric and persuasion than they have sometimes assumed....??

This points to a tension in what we aim to do. On the one hand OurKingdom will relentlessly seek to demonstrate in newsworthy terms and prove by its analysis that the supporters of the status quo are plain wrong. Sunny's argument is definitive here.

But at the same time, we want to build a different kind of political discourse to the adolescent crap that starts at Prime Minister's Question Time and inhabits British blogland. This needs to include holding out a hand not just throwing stones.

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