An article on the Mail Online suggests that the Conservative Party has sent an email requiring all PPCs to submit online articles and comment on their blogs, Twitter and Facebook for vetting before publication. If true this would be a worrying development.
Any attempt by the party to impose such a restriction on the freedom to comment on issues that affect their own campaigns would, I suggest, indicate a breakdown of trust between the party and its candidates and a failure of the party to understand grassroots constituency issues.
Before being accepted as a potential candidate, the party requires a detailed application, three references and participation in a rigorous selection process in which potential candidates have to demonstrate that they possess abilities as organisers, communicators and team workers. Nobody can apply for selection as a PPC by a constituency unless they have been through this process.
Getting through the selection process is another immense hurdle. The last two seats I applied for had well in excess of 160 applicants from the approved list, which the constituency whittled down to a shortlist of 6. The final 6 then have to convince the constituency not only that they are competent but also that they will represent and defend the constituency in a way that the constituency considers appropriate.
Surely anyone that has been able to negotiate these two obstacles to selection has to be credited with having the ability to identify what the issues that they need to campaign about and how to do it. So why would PPCs need to go through an additional vetting process?
Now, I do have some sympathy with CCHQ’s concerns that all public-facing members of what is to all intents and purposes the “government in waiting” present a consistent and publicly acceptable message. That is just sound campaign management. There have also been plenty of examples in the last year of the pitfalls that await those who fail to check sources and accuracy before pressing the “send” key.
However there are two ways of doing this:
- Vet all communications and choke any messages that apparently run counter to the party line.
- Build consensus within the party, ensuring that policy when formed reflects grassroots concerns and communicating messages outwards through the party.
One of these methods is consistent with the behaviour of a party committed to preserving personal freedom of expression and giving everyone the opportuntity to shape the future of our nation. The other is redolent with the worst excesses of New Labour regimes spin in the 1990s. So which is the Tory line?
According to the Mail Online article, a Conservative spokesman last night clarified that the instruction is simply aimed to ensure that candidates expressed party policy correctly, not to vet every utterance by candidates, adding that this would be impractical. A party spokesman said:
We are encouraging people to Twitter. Our candidates are free to write what they like on blogs, newspaper websites and other electronic media. This e-mail is simply a reminder that they should double-check factual details.
There have also been a number of tweets from Conservative activists denying that they have experienced any attempt to censor or control their social media activity, although comments on the subject on Conservative Home reflect a considerable degree of indignation.
I assume that this is indeed the case and the Mail Online article is just another crude attempt by The Mail to portray David Cameron as a “teenies” Tory version of Blair. However the way that the purported CCHQ email has been reported should itself alert us all to how sensitive we are to suggestions of spin and media manipulation. Carry on tweeting!