The state of the left wing blogosphere

December 30, 2010 8:50 pm

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By Alex Smith / @alexsmith1982

Below is a copy of my article on the state of the left wing blogosphere. It was originally written at the beginning of August, and published in the Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in October. As I leave LabourList, I thought a version should be posted online too. Last year’s equivalent can be read here.

By the nature of blogging, the article below is already out of date. Few would have predicited in their end of 2009 reviews, though, quite how fluid the blogosphere would be at the end of 2010. Since this piece was written, many of the most prominent and popular bloggers have announced their intention to stop or reduce their output, including some of the most popular writers, Iain Dale, Tom Harris and Will Straw. Other trusted friends of LabourList during my editorship, including former guest editor Anthony Painter, have also stopped blogging. Political Scrapbook laments their loss here.

But as is the natural churn of the political blogosphere, notable new projects have risen since this piece was written. False Economy is important and invaluable as a repository of scrutiny on the government’s spending cuts. NetrootsUK will launch in January for centre-left online organisers to work more collaboratively. And Labour Uncut, which I mention below, is rapidly becoming one of several go-to sites for news and opinion on the Labour movement.

In the coming months, I predict that Twitter will supercede blogs as the dominant form of political communication online. It probably has already, at least as a portal to the many other online communities that exist. And there will doubtless be other, more unpredictable changes and innovations.

I’m grateful to everyone who’s supported and read LabourList over the past nearly two years. As I continue to work on communications for Ed Miliband, I know LabourList will continue to thrive and improve under Mark’s excellent leadership.

Alex

Two years ago, there was a general consensus that the right dominated the blog wars in this country. Iain Dale’s addictive diary, Tim Montgomerie’s agenda-setting ConservativeHome platform, Paul Staines’ scurrilous Guido Fawkes and the Spectator’s intelligent Coffee House combined to cover all the bases of political intrigue. Those four right-wing blogs were routinely at the top of Total Politics’ annual poll, and were untouchably the best and most read blogs in the country. The sum of the parts was even more influential still: as mainstays of the right-wing media presence, each building on the others’ success, individual web activists collectively held an increasingly significant sway within both the mainstream media and their own movement. And their passion and creativity were harnessed by Tory HQ, which seemed comfortable – where Labour was not – with critical, pluralistic and genuinely grassroots contributions from independent bloggers. To unimaginative pundits who spoke of 2010’s being the “first internet election”, these were the tools that would help win arguments, and winning arguments is what wins elections.

Although the right’s dominance has not been entirely overturned in this election year, left-wing blogs have unquestionably gained ground, and the right no longer has free reign over the web. A canon of lefty talent, both new and old, is rewiring the centre-left’s blogosphere for the fightback. Of these, the most influential projects are the group blogs LabourList, Left Foot Forward and Next Left. But new and diverse additions over the last year have also been part of the change, most notably Political Scrapbook, a playful collage of the sillier aspects of the Westminster village; Anthony Painter’s spruced-up site [since closed], which was always brilliant but which is attracting more and more attention for its sharp analysis of political affairs; and Labour Uncut, the new online fanzine which grew out of the ashes of general election defeat to become a mainstay of Labour comment and behind-the-scenes rumour within weeks. Crucially, each of the left’s new projects occupies its own unique territory, and adds to the collective strength of our online infrastructure. There is competition between the top left-wing blogs, of course – but the left has finally realised, as the leading right-wing bloggers did long before us, that success in this arena is built on reciprocity, and mutual support. And it’s beginning to tell.

Of all the new entries to this list, Left Foot Forward’s is surely the most impressive. From nowhere, Will Straw has built a non-party aligned (though broadly Labour-supporting) blog that scrutinises right-wing policy and the right-wing press in equal measure, and with equal glee. It is pithy, attractively-designed and, with the arrival of the centre-right coalition, it is timely. But most importantly, it is also credible. Its analysis is detailed and its intentions are true. And its biggest strength is that it adds new numbers to the debate: more than merely comment, the opportunity for Left Foot Forward to create its own news is potentially unlimited – and that makes it a very powerful resource indeed.

My own project, LabourList, was the second highest new entry to this list last year, and has, even objectively, continued its development in 2010. Where Left Foot Forward scrutinises the right, LabourList provides a platform for news, discussion and community within the Labour Party and wider movement. With traffic up to nearly 300,000 unique readers in the first half of this year (an increase of 46% year on year) LabourList has become a key influencer in Labour Party politics: as Anthony Painter says, if it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Our 5,000 word interviews with the Labour leadership candidates and other thinkers within the movement have bolstered the site’s journalistic depth, credibility and unique output. Meanwhile, researching and aggregating the Constituency Labour Party nominations amplified the voice of the party grassroots to the mainstream media during the first phase of the leadership contest. And, alongside the Fabian Society’s Sunder Katwala at the Next Left blog, LabourList was instrumental in lobbying for a longer window for MPs’ nominations and for the type of wide and plural debate that eventually helped ensure Diane Abbott made it onto the leadership ballot. Those are no small achievements for a blog which suffered such an inauspicious genesis in its earliest days.

In the broader scheme of things, LabourList has also helped change the nature of online politics, shifting it away from the comment-focused debate traditionally favoured by the right, and towards a more Labour-friendly campaigning arena in which people organise online in order to mobilise offline and deliver real world activism. The results of popular initiatives such as the Labour Doorstep and Mob Monday are partly intangible – but, as Will Straw outlines elsewhere in this book, that online change towards enabling traditional face-to-face campaigning during the general election may have had a real impact on the results in a number of seats that stayed Labour against the odds in 2010. And Searchlight magazine’s Hope not Hate – more offline campaign than blog, but nonetheless with a beautiful, informative and enabling web presence driving that activity – has led the way over the last year in this field: as the Hope not Hate t-shirt proudly states, its organisation helped Labour beat off the BNP in the Barking council elections by 51-0.

There are, of course, numerous other blogs that have also made an impact over the last year. The New Statesman’s new Staggers platform brings the magazine’s traditional mix of politics, current affairs and culture into the online setting in an attractive and effective way, and is a platform for a number of talented young writers – notably Laurie Penny of the inimitable Penny Red blog, Sophie Elmhirst and George Eaton – to earn recognition alongside more established political journalists such as James Macintyre and Mehdi Hasan. Similarly, the Guardian’s Comment is Free, sadly not included in this list, is one of the most influential blogs in the world. Harry’s Place tackles some of the more difficult and most important issues of the left, though is not to everybody’s taste. And Liberal Conspiracy, edited by the spiky Sunny Hundal, who also refuses to be acknowledged in the Total Politics’ blog poll, is another prolific, high-traffic, high-influence space – and one which shapes political debate, rather than merely echoing it.

In the trade union movement, the TUC’s ToUChstoneBlog is a deep well of information, which has mapped the jobs crisis better than any media website and which is committed to fighting the coalition cuts. It produces heavy-duty studies and several detailed and very readable posts every day, which then inform the rest of the debate. Socialist Unity still documents more about the international and domestic trade union movements than any other single blog, and Andy Newman, its editor, is an immense asset to the wider cause online and off.

Add these group platforms to the work of the lefty blogscape’s founding fathers – the passionate Hackney moderniser Luke Akehurst, the brilliantly witty and weird Hopi Sen, and the admired-by-all-sides MP Tom Harris [now closed] – and it’s clear that the Labour Party and broader left will go into the new parliamentary session with a healthy army of support, activism, ideas and scepticism, led at least in part by a diverse and increasingly respected ecosystem of blogs and bloggers. Indeed, a Guardian leader recently noted that, amidst Labour’s first competitive leadership election for 16 years, a substantial portion of Labour’s liveliest thinking and discussion for renewal has been led by those working online.

Even the right-wing online royalty have taken notice of the rise of the left-wing blogs over the last year. Tim Montgomerie, founder and editor of ConservativeHome, wrote at the end of 2009 that “there are clearer and clearer signs that the right’s dominance of the internet is being challenged as never before.” A week later, Iain Dale wrote that “in terms of writing and debating, 2009 was the year the left came of age on the blogosphere.” What is interesting, however, in comparing the relative movement of left and right blogs over the last year, is that where the left has improved its quality and quantity of output exponentially, the right has largely stagnated. As Iain Dale continued, in 2009 “the right made no headway whatsoever. The same faces are at the top of the right-wing blogging tree who were there in 2008 and 2007.” Even approaching the end of 2010, that is frankly still the case, and there are few really good new right-wing blogs in this list.

The lefty blogosphere, on the other hand now boasts a new crop of leading young lights ready to take up the mantle: Conor Pope, Salma Yaqoob, Mark Ferguson, Dominic Campbell, Left Futures, Hadleigh Roberts, Claire Spencer and many others, in addition to those listed above. Of course, the left has suffered some casualties, too: Sadie’s Tavern [now closed] called last orders in 2010; Tom Watson, one of the leaders in the field, moved largely over to Twitter; likewise Kerry McCarthy; and we lost a number of talented blogging PPCs to the general election. On the whole, though, the left’s attrition rate has been favourable. And it is notable, too, that Labour’s blogscape relies less now on its big beast establishment figures – Alastair Campbell, John Prescott, Progress – than it did even a year ago, and increasingly more on younger grassroots activists. In this new political reality, a new generation of progressive politicians from across the left is using the blogosphere to make waves, not just from the Labour Party, but disillusioned Lib Dems and curious Green Party activists too.

But blogging is no longer just about blogs. These days, if you want to make a splash in online politics, you’ve got to be active on at least one other web platform. Ellie Gellard – who writes the Stillettoed Socialist blog and who made the Guardian’s Hot List list for 2010 – initially made her mark on Twitter, before reaching the front pages of newspapers and magazines. Ellie, who marketed herself as an “unashamedly, but sometimes embarrassingly, passionate supporter of the Labour Party”, has this year interviewed Gordon Brown, and soon after the election began work on Ed Balls’ leadership campaign. Other online stars of the left, including Sally Bercow, have rejected blogs altogether, choosing to opine in the Twittersphere alone. And as well as the amplification of Twitter’s noisemakers, presence on Facebook and email also remain crucial: LabourList and Left Foot Forward now mine an increasing amount of traffic from their 3,000+ strong Facebook groups and 4,000+ strong email lists. And, with the coalition government, those networks could be about to reach tipping point.

Yet there are big challenges ahead. Left-wing blogs, in particular, will need to seek to reach broader audiences, because for all our progress over the last two years it remains a fact that Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale and Lib Dem Voice receive as much traffic in a week as the top lefty blogs can muster in a month. To do that, left-wing bloggers will need to turn out from the Westminster village and political obsession alone; to make an asset of real world anecdotes and advocacy, rather than mere think-tankery; to reject the top-heavy content which may be a forced reaction to a mainstream media disinterested in the arguments of opposition; and to open up further to the disaffected and the grassroots.

And with people increasingly on the go, and our information increasingly coming in bitesize and from various sources, the single-purpose blog will likely be forced to adapt and adapt again in the next year if it is to survive at all as as a major form of political communication. Successful blogs will have to innovate if they are to grow; some bloggers may choose to seek new challenges and pass their projects on to others rather than continue the slog.

But those difficulties are most exacerbated by what is still the biggest challenge for independent left-wing blogs, namely to sustain recent progress while competing for a very limited pool of resources. Group blogs, which are still the most popular in this list, require a permanent staff of at least one – so it is no coincidence that the top left-wing blogs in this list mentioned above are almost exclusively those hosted by existing media organisations, or run by MPs or by editors who have raised money to work on their projects full time. Successful right-wing blogs are supported on the whole by some form of financial backing: in 2009, for example, ConservativeHome was underwritten by £1.3million of Lord Ashcroft cash; Iain Dale’s Diary and Guido Fawkes are sustained by business interests separate but connected to the blogs themselves. The left’s online initiatives, however, have no such support and currently exist on hand-to-mouth donations, small fundraising and union sponsorship. Some of that funding has already been gobbled up this year by the general election and by Labour’s leadership election – and further revenue streams look uncertain. For even existing left-wing blogs to survive and thrive into the future, a new business model may be required.

So for all the progress made over the last year in the left’s blogosphere, if there is such a monolith at all, and for all the opportunity for further growth ahead, there remain serious existential challenges, too, which may threaten that development going forward. There is no doubt that in terms of quality, growing readerships, diversity, influence and innovation, the left’s blogs have found at least parity with the right over the past couple of years. In that sense, our blogscape is editorially and numerically in very sound health and now reflective of the values we seek to espouse: collectivism, pluralism, openness, democracy and youth. But with the mainstream media’s eyes on the new government, and organisational challenges imminent for the left, the progressive renewal and movement-building that everyone is talking about will depend on some of these initiatives surviving and thriving as places to share news and campaign expertise. Because if you think these projects may be important now, bear in mind that in 2015 we may just have our first internet election.

This article, along with many others about the UK political blogosphere, appear in the Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging 2010.

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