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Diary: Iain Dale

Tea with Tony and Maggie's acid-house party

If you have a blog, and are worried that few are reading it, let me give you a piece of advice. Write a post about Israel. Or abortion. Or climate change. Or homosexuality. Watch those hits! And if you can write a single post containing all those subjects within three paragraphs of spiteful prose, you will really hit the jackpot. But it is the subject of Israel that seems to make normally sane and rational people lose all semblance of reason. I have expressed unreserved support for Israel's action against Hamas on my blog and, in consequence, have experienced all manner of threats and allegations. Apparently I must be in the pay of the Israeli government or being blackmailed by Mossad over some past indiscretion. Neither happens to be true. I just subscribe to the rather old-fashioned belief that Israel has every right to defend its population from the 5,000 rocket attacks it has suffered over the past three years. The Israeli response has been attacked as being "disproportionate". Rubbish. What would be "proportionate"? Lobbing 5,000 rockets back into Gaza?

It's not just the British economy that has been going back to the Seventies. For Christmas 2007 I was given a machine that lets you convert vinyl recordings into MP3 files. It sat in its box for a year because I feared I wouldn't be able to figure out how to make it work. Last week I finally plucked up the courage and linked it to my laptop. And what do you know? It's easy to operate and I have started putting all my 1,500 singles and 200 LPs on to my iPod. I have discovered records I had forgotten I possessed, and which I last played more than 20 years ago. I still can't find a record that the Liberal Party released for the 1964 election called "The Jo Grimond Song", though. Or a 12-inch acid-house track from 1991 called "Maggie's Last Party", with Lady Thatcher's dulcet tones dubbed over house music - an NS reader offer if ever there was one.

Thirty years ago I regarded Tony Benn as the greatest threat to Britain outside the Soviet Union. Nowadays we agree on Europe, the constitution and threats to civil liberties. I interviewed him last week for the next issue of Total Politics in the endearingly ramshackle basement office of his Holland Park home. I don't go in for Paxman-style interviewing but I quickly learned that you have to challenge some of Tony's wilder assertions. "Thatcher made trade unions illegal." Er, no, she didn't actually. "The Soviet Union posed no military threat." Come again? On most subjects he is incredibly persuasive and it is easy to see why he continues to fill theatres up and down the country. But he still attracts incredible bitterness from those on the Labour right who blame him for the party's 18 years in opposition. When I solicited questions for the interview on my blog I was taken aback by the venom unleashed by people who are normally quite meek and mild. He clearly has something in common with Israel.

OK, I hold my hands up. If I hadn't lunched with Derek Draper he might never have embarked on his one-man crusade to provide competition for the right-of-centre blogosphere. This week he launched LabourList.org as a lefty rival to ConservativeHome.com. I wish him well, but fear he underestimates the task ahead. Group blogs are damned hard work, especially with no external funding or mainstream media back-up.

My advice to Derek was to start his own blog - Dolly's Diary has a certain ring to it - and see how it went. People kept suggesting Labour needed its very own Iain Dale (flattery or insult?). He fitted the bill perfectly. LabourList's problem is personified by its roster of contributors, which on the face of it is a list of people you wouldn't answer the door to: the same old faces that have come to embody the new Labour years. Sure, there are a few aged lefties thrown in, too, but where is the fresh thinking, where are the new kids on the block who are going to inherit the ashes of what remains of Labour after the next election? The site also faces the prospect of being so slavishly loyal, it becomes irrelevant. Irritated by the disloyalty of many ConservativeHome contributors, the Cameroons set up a similar blog called Platform 10 about 18 months ago. But it was so "on-message" that it failed to attract a large enough audience to make a real impact. I'm afraid I foresee the same fate for LabourList if it isn't careful.

Those of us on the right who broke the habit of a lifetime, as well as our Republican tribal allegiances, and supported Barack Obama are now in a bit of a bind. We want him to prove us right, if only so we can salve our consciences, but we're also keen for the Republicans to find a moderate voice to challenge Obama in 2012. That can't happen while Sarah Palin remains the de facto leader of what is rapidly becoming a narrow right-wing sect rather than a big-tent political party. Like Tony Blair, Obama will go through his first term with no serious opposition. Let's hope he achieves more than Blair did.

Iain Dale is the publisher of Total Politics magazine and blogs at: http://www.iaindale.com

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...