Show Hide image

Winning the web war

Right-wing bloggers have been established for years, but the left is catching up and 2010 will be it

Anthony Painter might not be famous now, but David Cameron should worry about him. Painter runs a small, left-wing blog. Sitting in an east London coffee shop in December, he spotted a message from "thedancingflea" on the social networking service Twitter. The "flea", a student called Claire Spencer, had absent-mindedly said that she might invite George Osborne to join her undergraduate economics study group. Smelling a mini-story, Painter got in touch - and was soon forwarded the email she had sent to the shadow chancellor. Painter realised that "Osborne going back to school on economics" had a certain appeal, and posted it on his site. Soon enough, it was doing the rounds on Twitter.

Such online Tory-baiting might not look like much. But it is a small example of a trend that will soon reshape British politics: the rise of a genuinely powerful, left-wing blogosphere. At the moment, progressive online activists such as Painter - along with blogs such as LabourList and Liberal Conspiracy - get little respect. They wield none of the clout of the Conservative "big three": Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes and ConservativeHome, which are the Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United of British blogging.

At a deeper level, there is a sense that the British left, unlike its American counterpart, does not "get" the web - an impression summed up in the contrasting performance of its leaders. Cameron launched "WebCameron" by doing the family dishes on YouTube, looking naturally suited to the intimacy of the internet era. Gordon Brown tried an online video during the expenses scandal: his unfortunate "rictus grin" became an instant laughing stock.

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.

Angle of avalanche

The Labour activist Will Straw is an example of things to come. He recently launched Left Foot Forward, a blog modelled on Think Progress, a successful site run by the Centre for American Progress in the United States. Straw's site linked up progressive wonks to fact-check Tory policies and also to uncover angles and facts that help the media write pro-left stories. The site now breaks stories, but more importantly it was launched with a tiny budget, employing one full-time staff member (Straw) and relying on a network of collaborators to chip in ideas and articles.

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.

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.

Online bloodletting

Here, the technophile Cameron faces a final irony: the bigger the Tory victory, the more this anti-incumbent feeling will boost Labour online. Indeed, Labour's netroots will succeed in inverse proportion to the scale of the party's defeat. A spectacular loss in Westminster will make opposition online all the more important and will make Gordon Brown an inadvertent handmaiden to his party's digital renewal.

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.

Worryingly for Labour centrists such as David Miliband, most of the energy in this process will be on Labour's left. You can't fake online enthusiasm, so candidates with strong grass-roots support - such as Harriet Harman, with women - will see their chances boosted. Even if Jon Cruddas doesn't stand, the leftist group Compass (with its 30,000-strong email list) will be an influential advocate for whom­ever it throws its discontent behind.

So while the blogosphere will play a role in the next election, it's unlikely the internet will be a decisive factor. That honour will fall instead to Labour's 2010 leadership fight. And when the dust settles, Cameron might well face a new Labour leader in charge of a divided, demoralised party. But he will also have to square up to a turbocharged swarm of pissed-off progressives with laptops. And this swarm will do Dave more damage than he expects

James Crabtree is an editor at Prospect

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

Show Hide image

Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue