Why political blogging belongs to the insurgent

2010 and the rise of the left-wing blogosphere

Forget tired clichés about 2010 being the year of the UK's first internet election. For many of us, that came nearly five years ago. And what will feel like sophisticated digital electioneering next spring will seem quaint -- if not antiquated -- come 2014.

Nevertheless, the forthcoming election will mark a media break from the past for a number of reasons.

First, it's worth repeating that when the last general election campaign got under way in March 2005, YouTube was barely a month old and "broadband Britain" was at least three months away (in June that year, the number of households with a broadband internet connection finally outstripped those with dial-up).

Second, despite the multiple millions spent (wasted?) on 3G licences at the beginning of the decade, by the mid-point of the Noughties mobile internet was more notional than real. Always-on, mobile connectivity in its many guises is now, finally, commonplace.

The third point worth making is that political activists -- if not the mainstream media -- were mostly dabbling with the power of the net in 2005. Not so this time.

The political right is more established, with Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale and ConservativeHome leading the way, but the left is coming. Or so argues James Crabtree in this week's New Statesman, forecasting "the rise of the genuinely powerful, left-wing blogsophere".

He cites the likes of 38 Degrees (funded by the estate of Anita Roddick) and Left Foot Forward (set up and run by Will Straw) as examples of the new breed of left-of-centre blogs, joining the more established LabourList and Liberal Conspiracy.

Straw's site, with a remit to scrutinise Tory policy commitments, is inspired by Think Progress in the US, but also by the likes of Channel 4 FactCheck, where I was editor during the last campaign.

Crabtree is most persuasive when he argues that "the internet is not intrinsically amenable to either left or right". He writes:

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).

His analysis is spot-on (even if Guido disagrees) but it does mean that, for the left to become truly successful, Labour will need to lose the next election. And that may not be what this new breed of left-of-centre bloggers -- preparing to sweat it out over the next six months -- had planned.

Read James Crabtree's piece in full.


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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.