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.
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