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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.