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.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

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

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.