Harry Phibbs: Should anonymous commenters be banned?
Harry Phibbs is a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham and a regular contributor to the Social Affairs Unit's blog.
Increasingly our opponents seem to be focusing on dissent within the Conservatives. This poses a dilemma for Conservative Home as a public forum for debate and constructive criticism of the Conservative leadership. Given that hostile journalists will scan through for damaging comments about David Cameron would it be in the best interests of the Conservative cause for the site to be closed down? Emphatically not. The site has been enormously valuable in ensuring Party members are better informed and motivated and thus more effective.
The criticism over mundane Party organisation matters is thankfully of limited interest to the media but well worth including. In some respects CCHQ embodies characteristics of the public sector which ironically those who work there are charged with highlighting as part of the Conservative message. Like the public sector CCHQ is bureaucratic, inefficient, arrogant, resistant to change and shows inertia about rewarding success or punishing failure. Too many meetings, too little output. By providing some accountability the Conservative Home website acts at least as something of an antidote, a means to keep these tendencies in check.
In terms of policy debate this site has been fizzing with ideas on a daily basis. It has also offered a chance for frontbenchers to communicate with far more Party members than they could via the official Party website.
So this site causes certain problems for the party at present but it would be dreadful were it to cease to exist. Thus I propose a third way. Those who wish to comment on the site should cease to be anonymous. In future only supporters of the Conservative Party should be invited to take part. Perhaps only Party members. All those wishing to comment would need to register with Conservative Home providing their name and postal address so that their identity could be confirmed. Only those registered would have their comments posted. One possible compromise might be that those known by Conservative Home to be genuine Conservatives would still be allowed to have their posts appear anonymously if for some particular reason concerning their job they would be unable to take part otherwise.
There is a more general argument about the merits of anonymous posts. Shadow Cabinet member Michael Gove wrote in The Times recently:
"Sometimes you find, after an admittedly controversial post, that a string of commenters have offered their own distinctive, often bilious, take on the argument behind the shield of anonymity. Some of these comments get to the heart of the weakness in the original post. But others can be just random abuse, attacks that seem to carry proportionally less weight for being made anonymously. If a poster wants to attack an individual without having the courage to identify themselves, we are unable to pass appropriate judgment on their own credentials as a critic. Doesn't that weaken, if not negate, the substance of the critique? In any case, isn't hurling abuse at someone from behind that anonymous shield a form of moral cowardice itself?
How would any of us react to a letter that made a series of trenchant points, but to which the sender had shrunk from adding his signature?"
No doubt such a change would represent a nuisance for those working on Conservative Home as a tedious additional chore would be involved. It would also mean fewer posts - often interesting and informative even if abusive would not appear that otherwise would have done. But it would solve what I anticipate being a growing problem, and a highly annoying one; the press citing problems for David Cameron and then quoting comments on this site probably which might well have been written by supporters of Labour, the Lib Dems or UKIP in the first place.