Lib Dem Voice: Unmasked… Part I

by Stephen Tall on January 2, 2007

In the 114 days since it was launched (on 9th September, 2006), Lib Dem Voice has well and truly become established as the premier unofficial website for party members – “our place to talk” as LDV bills itself.

In its first week, it was garlanded by Iain Dale as the No. 1 Lib Dem website. In its first month, it attracted 7,000 visits, and now lures in almost double that number.

The techie inspiration behind LDV is Rob Fenwick, the über-blogging posh-sounding Northumbrian, and former Lib Dem Internet Campaigns Officer. (A fuller biog can be found here.)

Rob and I first met via e-mail when I posted a pretty critical comment on his blog to which he took the time to reply (ever so courteously). So I guess it seemed logical enough that when he felt it was time to set the record straight about what prompted him to start up LDV, and whether he has any hidden agendas, Rob reckoned I might ask him a few, erm, direct questions.

As the whole interview weighs in just shy of 2,500 words, I’ve split it into two parts.

Today, part I, unmasks the motivations behind LDV: is it an ego-trip? Does Rob want to be our Iain Dale? Does he regret the ‘rumour mill’?

In tomorrow’s concluding part, Rob anticipates how LDV might develop in the future, and tells us what he thinks of Guido Fawkes, the party’s website, and his dislike of canvassing.


Q: What’s the aim of Lib Dem Voice? Is it a party mouthpiece with attitude? Or do you want it to be the Lib Dem version of ConservativeHome?

RF: When I started planning the site in August 2006, ConservativeHome and LabourHome were models I looked to – though I also wanted to add a private, members-only part of the site which is something they don’t offer.

As time has passed, the site has developed in to something which is different to ConHome and LabHome. While it certainly isn’t a party mouthpiece, it isn’t afraid to say when the party has done something right, as well as when it’s slipped up. Lib Dem Voice should ‘tell it as it is’ – sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t. Both eventualities are given space.

Sometimes Conservative Home sounds like a party within a party – I don’t want that to happen to Lib Dem Voice.

Q: Can LDV claim to be independent of the party when you used to work for the Lib Dems, regular contributor Mark Pack still does, and former contributor Will Howells has just started at Cowley Street?

RF: Will had no ties that I am aware of with Cowley Street when he joined up to LDV, but he’ll be an asset to the party in his new role and I wish him well! He made a great contribution to Liberal Democrat Voice, and there’s no doubt he will be missed.

The site is independently run, independently edited, and independently financed. The proof of the independence pudding is in the eating. Just look at the archive – a broad base of contributions from a wide range of people, all speaking their mind – their words, not the party’s words.

Mark Pack (the party’s Head of Innovation – or ‘propeller-head in chief’) and I have worked together on various projects for a couple of years now. I think we trust each other, so giving him a place to publish news and thoughts of interest to the party on Lib Dem Voice seems natural. He has the ability to post straight up on to the site without having to go through me first – so as I have independence from ‘Cowley St’, they have independence from me!

But as an aside, members are often very hard on ‘Cowley St’ as some sort of impersonal all-seeing entity. Cowley Street is an office like any other, full of people of various levels of enthusiasm and ability – we expect impossible things of the very small number of people there, and stamp our feet and mutter when they don’t deliver. We activists should cut the people in our HQ some slack now and then. HQ could play its part in that by opening up the staff list to members, and perhaps even offering a virtual tour!

Q: What prompted you to start LDV up, and how is it funded? Is your aim to become the Lib Dems’ Iain Dale?

RF: Without wishing to be rude to Iain, I’ve absolutely no desire to follow in his footsteps. Iain has successfully managed to build himself a living as a conservative commentator – his ‘product’ as a pundit is himself and his thoughts. I couldn’t live the pundit lifestyle. One, I haven’t got the brains and two, I like my job to end at five o’clock. Pundits never stop working.

The idea for Lib Dem Voice had been bubbling away in the back of my mind for a while – basically, what is at the heart of it is a belief that, no matter how excellent (and cheap!) publications like Liberal Democrat News are, members shouldn’t have to pay to get access to important party information, like PPC selections and routine announcements. Also I believe that members benefit from having an independently owned and managed place where we can talk to one another.

The trigger that led me to finally create the site was rather dull and technical I’m afraid. The introduction of a new web service that allows party websites to check whether or not people are members of the party meant that I was able to create a truly secure ‘members-only’ section – the last barrier to getting off my backside to create the site was thus removed.

At the moment, the modest charges involved are paid for out of my pocket. I can’t see that changing in the foreseeable future.

Q: Does LDV have any policy agenda (eg, pro- or anti-Orange Book)? After all, you were closely associated with Simon Hughes’s leadership campaign, and would identify yourself with the ‘social liberal’ side of the party.

RF: Are you calling me a lefty? Well I am a bit of a lefty at heart, it’s true – and I believe that Simon Hughes would have been the best choice for the party earlier this year, but a majority of fellow party members disagreed, and I respect that.

My personal emphasis on social liberalism over economic liberalism is one of the reasons why it’s important that Lib Dem Voice continues to be a platform for individuals – any individuals – to say their piece. It is not a platform for me to push my personal policy beliefs – I have a personal blog for that. Having a broad range of contributors giving their opinion usually ensures balance, but when Lib Dem Voice is reporting news, I think impartiality is paramount – and I do try and exercise impartiality in reporting.

Liberal Democrat Voice has no policy agenda – in the case of party conference for example, LDV was reporting the facts of what happened, or was offering space for people to argue their respective corners, but Lib Dem Voice doesn’t adopt a stance and say ‘this is our collective view’ – with so many different viewpoints represented on the Blog, in the comments, and in the discussion board, it’s very difficult for that to happen.

Q: Some LDV postings have raised some eyebrows – eg, revealing Paul Rainger was quitting as the party’s director of campaigns, and highlighting well-known blogger Susanne Lamido’s expulsion from the party. How do you intend to walk the tightrope between breaking news and breaking confidences? And are there any articles you regret posting?

RF: No regrets… yet. In the two cases you cite I learned some lessons on dealing with the fallout from posting up ‘breaking’ news, but if the situation arose again, I’d publish again.

That’s not to say I’m always hell bent on publishing and being damned – many articles have been held back until certain times to respect clearly expressed individual wishes – Paul Keetch’s decision not to stand at the next election is the most recent example. LDV respected the embargo. As for breaking confidences – that hasn’t happened.

Q: The ‘Rumour Mill’ is another section of the site which has proved controversial. Why did you introduce it? To get attention; as a way of proving that LDV is unofficial; a populist way to increase your audience reach; or a bit of fun?

RF: Oh all of the above, and a healthy dose of gut instinct for what would ‘work’ on the site, too.

Political parties thrive on gossip – though I must say that the Rumour Mill is proving increasingly difficult to find content for. There is a world of difference between passing gossip to one another in private, and putting it down on screen for in copy+pasteable form. I take the responsibility of ensuring that Liberal Democrat Voice doesn’t casually damage the party very seriously – one of my great fears is turning up to a parliamentary by-election to find a quote from Lib Dem Voice popping up on a Tory or Labour leaflet out of context.

Q: You set up the LDV Forum to enable party members to discuss issues behind ‘closed doors’. Was this to prevent the vitriol often seen in the comments section of ConservativeHome from being on such public display? And how effective do you think it’s been?

RF: People say things online they simply wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face – sometimes, myself included. We’re all human. There’s no doubt that I would prefer that some of the more robust debates that inevitably happen between members to be conducted behind closed doors. I also want the members’ forum to be available as place where anyone can start a discussion on any subject, rather than be bound by whatever is being discussed on the public part of the site. It’s a place where everyone has the instant power to set the agenda, without having to go through any sort of editorial process.

The discussion board is getting there. There are many more readers / lurkers than there are posters, which is a shame, but is perhaps to be expected. The Private Messaging feature sees a lot of use though (don’t worry! site administrators can’t read your messages, only see statistics on how many are sent). The discussion board could be a really valuable asset to the party, and I encourage your readers to dive in – for everyone’s benefit.

Part II tomorrow