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 Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.