There have been some very good posts from the lads at the Cedars recently all on the subject of Labour and the left. Ben at Dublin Opinion has presented us with a subtle and nuanced view of Labour's history and the lessons that may be derived therefrom. Michael Taft has just weighed in with an important and significant contribution looking at Irish political alignments through "a different prism". Those and a post from the highly astute and always interesting Mark Schmitt at TPMCafe give me an incentive to write about both blogging and left political parties.
Let's look at Schmitt's points first. His starting point is the ever tighter control exerted over the American political campaign - "the candidate, the process, the message have to be planned out, and the game plan executed with total discipline". Schmitt says that
In a politics that is all about discipline, the “gaffe” -- which is by definition a lapse of discipline – is everything, and campaigns live to catch the other side in a gaffe and to avoid the slip themselves. Such a politics is uninspiring and unengaging, and ultimately hugely narrows the range of choices and options available in the political arena. Because it seeks to limit politics to that which can be managed, it is inevitably a smaller, narrower politics.
Schmitt notes that a significant counter-trend has emerged in this decade which he terms "the politics of Letting Go". It has been fuelled in part by the Internet but in part by the inherent limits of the tight-discipline model. Letting Go involves self-organized politics, in which some large portion of the campaign is allowed to exist, even encouraged to exist, outside of the control of the campaign itself. Blogs and the associated 'netroots' are a huge part of it. Schmitt says that Letting Go takes a lot of daring, given the culture of politics as discipline. But the rewards are great because the political culture that will develop over time will be less risk-averse and more open and daring.
A similar Letting Go would be of great use to what Michael Taft, for illustrative purposes, calls the "progressive block". At this point we are all focused on the next election and what happens to the different components of this block, who will be in government, who remains in opposition. What will we do when we get this election out of the way? I believe that the left needs to start setting our own agenda and not simply react to that set by our opponents. The whole Labour tax debacle proves that point sufficiently.
It is important for those of us in and around the different components of the block not to get sidelined into wasting time over partisan trench warfare when we should be trying to figure out how to break the hegemonic duopoly of Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael. I'm not suggesting that it will be easy to put our partisan sentiments entirely to one side (I too would be sceptical, to say the least, about Sinn Féin) but it's more important to start thinking and talking about the policy and strategy that could turn a purely notional progressive block into a reality that could challenge for power.
What form would Letting Go take in an Irish context? For some bloggers I suspect it might take the form of a more concerted effort to start some kind of netroots movement of like-minded commentators and activists to see how we could shift the terms of the dominant political discourse. I can see a possibility where Internet-based activity crosses from the virtual to the real political world, especially in bringing like-minded activists together on particular campaigns and issues. I'm not saying that we can just ignore the realities of party politics and replace it with some kind of virtual or 'viral' politics but the two can and must co-exist if there is to be any chance of political renewal of the left.
How will the parties react? Michael Taft is right when he says that the PDs provide a good example of how a party can publicly discuss future options that lie outside its current alignment. Party leaders may even see distinct advantages in Letting Go. The great thing about Letting Go is that it does not require a party stamp of approval. What goes on in the netroots and elsewhere may be 'off message' but could ultimately strengthen the position of the left parties.