In a thought provoking article for this week's New Statesman, James Crabtree (Deputy Editor of Prospect Magazine) asserts that the left wing blogosphere will come of age in 2010 and will finally catch up with the success of blogs on the right.
I don't buy the argument that right of centre blogs have been successful purely because the right is on opposition. It may be small part of the explanation, but there is far more to it than that. Those who believe left of centre blogs will become more successful purely by dint of Labour being in opposition are both deluded and complacent.
I would argue that in terms of writing, and debating 2009 was actually the year the left came of age on the blogosphere. And indeed, I would further argue that 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. But look at the left wing blogs which made the top 5 left wing blogs in my end of year awards poll...
1. Tom Harris
2. Labour List
3. Alastair Campbell
4. Tom Watson
Two of those four started their blogs during 2009. As did Left Foot Forward, seen by many as the blog with the best prospect of rivalling the success of ConservativeHome. Left Foot Forward, LabourHome and LabourList are all group blogs, which have two things in common with each other. They are financed by outside interests. LFF receives money to fund its editor Will Straw and an assistant, while LabourHome is owned and financed by New Statesman owner Mike Danson. LabourList received initial seed funding from the trade union movement, but following the Draper debacle has found it difficult to raise funds to pay its talented editor, Alex Smith (although he tells me funds are in place which will see him through to the election).
And that's my point. Whatever the political situation after May, I think the Left's task in the blogosphere will be made all the easier if it has several group-based sites which are well funded. If they are to challenge what James Crabtree refers to as the Man U, Chelsea & Arsenals (ConHome, me and Guido) they need to break out of the blogging equivalent of the Football League Championship. Because at the moment, to use Crabtree's parlance, they may be described as the West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and Derby County of political blogging.
There are also signs of some new individual bloggers raising their game, getting a profile and being quoted and interviewed in the MSM. Bevanite Ellie is one and Hopi Sen is another. Sunder Katwala's Next Left is yet another. But should that one criteria by which we judge success in the blogosphere? I would argue yes, but it shouldn't be the only one. Reader numbers are important too. And it is here that the Left continues to lag behind the three big sites on the right. None of the left of centre blogs seem to publish their statistics
Alexa isn't the best measure of traffic, but for these purposes it is good enough as it shows the trend. LabourHome and Left Foot Forward barely register. Tom Harris has the highest tradffic levels of all these sites, but I know that his traffic is about a fifth of that of my blog or ConservativeHome. I've stopped doing monthly Statporn figures but traffic continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace than before. Will Labour going into Opposition provide the rocket boost that left wing blogs need to take on the right? Very possibly, and it is here they can learn a lesson from ConservativeHome, which came into prominence during the 2005 Tory leadership contest. Crabtree agrees...
But rather than the election itself, it will most likely be the forthcoming Labour leadership election that will truly give birth to this blogging movement. The bloodletting between Labour's left and right flanks will largely happen online, where disgruntled members will duke out years of anger in blog-to-blog combat. Blogs do best when they cover subjects whose minutiae are ignored by the mainstream media, as was true on the right during the 2005 Conservative leadership contest, and more recently the coverage of selections for individual parliamentary seats.
Whichever of LabourList, Left Foot Forward and LabourHome manages to dominate the agenda will emerge as the true left of centre rival to ConHome.
James Crabtree goes on to write...
Yet if or when Labour loses the election, the latent left "netroots" will likely surpass their Tory counterparts. The spark will be Budget savings. Team Cameron will look less cuddly when their first emergency Budget is followed by bloody cuts. Activists concerned about the "Osborne axe" hovering over their school or hospital will gather on the web. Every word uttered by a Conservative in the past five years is online, making accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency trivially easy to stand up. With campaigns to oppose every major cut likely, Osborne - a long-time admirer of online politics - will become a hate figure for progressive bloggers.
This new movement will not lack for professional help. After the election, there will be plenty of unemployed Labour special advisers (and even ex-MPs) looking for jobs and revenge. They know where the unexploded ordnance is buried around Whitehall, and how to use Freedom of Information laws to set it off. And while setting up magazines or think tanks - the staples of political renewal 1.0 - is expensive and time-consuming, founding new attack blogs is cheap and easy.
Yes, it is indeed cheap to set up a blog, but it's not easy to get an audience, as many have found. Most bloggers still find it difficult to get more than a few hundred readers a day. But Crabtree's words betray a degree of complacency. Left wing blogs won't suddenly become popular just because a Conservative government becomes unpopular. Osborne is already a hate figure for so-called 'progressive bloggers'. That doesn't translate into extra readers. No, the challenge is for left wing bloggers to break out of their left wing box and attract general readers - non Labour supporters, those who just happen to be interested in politics. My blog gets a large audience because a third of the readers don't agree with my politics. I have created an environment where non Conservatives can feel at home and part of the debate. They know I'm a Conservative, but not a blind one. I'm in the Conservative Party and not run by the Conservative Party. And that's a real problem for the Left more generally. The most popular left of centre blogs (with one exception, Liberal Conspiracy) are to one extent or another creatures of or closely associated with the Labour Party itself. LabourList started off as a direct initiative of the party centrally, even if they tried vainly to hide the fact. It is true that it has now become independent of the Party but it still seems to be a cheerleader and a place for people to defend rather than discuss. Left Foot Forward may not be a creature of the Party but its editor is the son of a Cabinet Minister. That's not his fault, and while his surname may open some doors, it calls into question the site's true independence. And no matter how independent they may appear from time to time, both of the Toms, Watson and Harris, are Labour MPs and in the end there are lines which neither can cross.
Contrast that with the party affiliations of the four most popular right of centre blogs. Neither Guido nor Dizzy are members of the Conservative Party. Tim Montgomerie is completely independent of the Party and isn't afraid to disagree with the Party line. I may have political ambitions (hanging by a thread!) but I hold no office within the Party - either elected or appointed. The point is that only the blinkered could really seriously believe that any of the four of us take any kind of instruction from Conservative Central Office. Kerry McCarthy genuinely believes that we do just that - that the online fundraising campaign in aid of her Tory opponent was coordinated by CCHQ. The truth is that it was an example of internet cascading. One thing led to another. I launched the fundrising campaign, then Tory Bear (unbeknown to me) created a website and it went on from there. That's what happens on the internet but it's so difficult for some people on the left that there can never be a successful command and control in the political blogosphere. It's what Derek Draper could never get his head round. And it's why he met his political end. And it's why Kerry McCarthy just doesn't get it and is destined to fail in her role as Labour's internet coordinator.
Cheap though such sites might be, there will be money, after the election, to help get more off the ground. Unions, left-wing charities and bruised Labour millionaires will cast around for exciting anti-Tory projects to bankroll. Already, one such group - called 38 Degrees (the angle at which avalanches begin), funded by the estate of Anita Roddick - is trying to re-create the success of MoveOn.org, the hugely influential American group. Many other such organisations could emerge following the election, kicking off a new, blogging industrial complex fuelled by union and charitable cash.
Hmmm. It's possible, but I wonder. If I were looking to donate a large sum of money to a start up blog or website I'd want to know where the readers were going to come from. It's all very well being "anti-Tory" but that is actually just as likely to turn off an audience than attract one. Partisan hackery is rarely very entertaining. Successful blogs are those which gain a personality, whether through an individual or a group. Readers need to buy into a product. I see no evidence of any recognition of this in James Crabtree's article. On we go...
From such developments, an obvious truth will emerge: the internet is not intrinsically amenable to either left or right. Dubious theories circulate that the online world is ideologically slanted to be either libertarian or collectivist. Instead, it is most usefully understood in British politics as an insurgent technology. It's where you go when you are on the outside and you need to beat an incumbent. In this way, the rise of the right-wing blogosphere has been pegged to two forces: people who strongly dislike Gordon Brown (such as Fawkes) and people who want their government back (such as the ConservativeHome activists).
What will emerge on the left will be different. The right-wing blogs are, in truth, a top-heavy affair, with little strength below their big three. Labour's new digirati will likely be broader and deeper, reflecting the greater political power and reach of the internet today relative to five years ago, when the Tory blogs began in earnest. And while there might be no Labour equivalent of Fawkes's poisonous, gossipy attacks, those anti-government leaks will still need somewhere to go.
There is no evidence to back up the assertion that Labour's new 'digirati' will be broader and deeper. In fact, what does that mean? If he means there will be more lefty blogs with a bigger audience I'd say that was living more in hope than expectation. There are more of them today, but few of them carry any weight or are thought to be of any influence or importance. That may - may - change, whether by virtue or government leak or talented writing. But it's a brave man who can predict that with any certainty.
As Guido points out, Sunny Hundal made some big claims when he launched Liberal Conspiracy back in 2007. "It will become ‘the hub’ of a revitalised left-wing blogosphere," he boasted. James Crabtree and Jon Bernstein seem to making similar claims,
Two years ago, the left of centre blogosphere barely existed. It was the Rymans League of blogging and I got a lot of flak for saying so at the time. But the truth was no one cared about any of the lefty blogs that existed and few people read them. A lot of progress has been made, and I certainly read far more left wing blogs than I used to - mainly because there are many more well written blogs out there. I don't have to agree with what they write, but they are great sources of ideas for blogposts for me to write here. Sunder Katwala and Hopi Sen in particular are blogs which, if either of the authors had the time to devote to them could become very serious players indeed. And here we come to the rub.
During 2009 I posted on average 6 times a day. It's what my readers have come to expect and it's one of the main reasons I have built up such a large readership, 50% of them visit my blog three or more times a day, and when they return they expect to see something new. Somehow I manage to combine this with my normal work. Of course blogging is not just about quantity, but it does play a part. You cannot build up a readership without regular posting. That's where group blogs will generally - but not always - be able to outdo blogs written by individuals.
Guido has posted his own thoughts, which are rather less charoitable than my own, but no less valid.
LabourList is, like LabourHome before it, a bit directionless and seems more about cheering up the troops than scaring the enemy. That might be a valid role. It is of course way better than back in Draper’s day. Boy, does Guido miss him. To match up to ConservativeHome’s influence and be taken as seriously by the host party as Tim Montgomerie is will take some doing.
The left has to get the post-election civil war out of the way first before it re-groups. Given that the online left is way to the left of the electorate, there is a good chance that the Labour blogosphere will help consign the Labour Party to irrelevance for a good while.
- Sunny Hundal’s Liberal Conspiracy suffers from what Lenin would call an “infantilist disorder”, that is the kind of leftism Guido wants to see dominate the Labour Party in the next decade. A modernised version of the loony left of the eighties would be ideal fodder for this blog.
- Hopi Sen, Tom Watson and Tom Harris all write well, but are they really willing or able to put in the hours Dale does?
- As for Twitter, it isn’t going to win any votes and is a tool, not a means. Forget it.
There is a good chance the Labour blogosphere will be as much of a hindrance to the Labour Party in 2010 as it was in 2009…
I am tempted to say, we can but hope. Joke.
Anyway, to conclude (at last), I think it's healthy that left of centre blogs are more interesting than they were a year ago. 2010 is going to be a huge year for politics on the internet. There will no doubt be some unseemly spats between right and left bloggers. But let's hope there is some cracking debate too. If not, we all need to wonder why we bother.
Hattip for graphic at the top to Guido.