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Battle of the blogsites

The right has dominated the UK online community so far. A new Labour site is fighting back - with he

Politics 2.0

The crescendo of partisan propaganda over recent years - which is part of a flurry in the run-up to the next general election - is led by the influential blogger Iain Dale. Dale, who has dismissed this writer as a "Labour journalist", is an amiable and influential figure. Yet to portray him as an independent blogger, as the numerous media outlets that carry his commentary do, is not quite right. He is an official Conservative politician, who stood (unsuccessfully) for Norfolk North at the last election in 2005 and is on David Cameron's "priority list" for the next. Further, Dale's brand of socially liberal, but state-slashing, politics is exactly in tune with that of Cameron. Dale's ally Paul Staines, who runs a more vicious blogsite under the pseudonym "Guido Fawkes", is more prone to discredit all politicians, but it is clear that his mission in life is to unseat Gordon Brown, whom he darkly portrays as insane, and to promote the election of the Conservative Party.

The new site is designed to counter the ‘‘Tory trolls’’ who have taken hold over the weird world of virtual British politics

So the launch this week of, a new blogsite to which a range of leftists from cabinet ministers to polemicists will contribute, is overdue. According to the new Labour spin doctor Derek Draper, it will, in the short term, be a "street-fighting" mechanism, by which Labour can redress the perceived online imbalance. But, in the medium term, it aims, with the help of Peter Mandelson (who has embraced the internet with a "Second Life" character of spooky likeness to the rather old-fashioned Business Secretary), to cash in on the "Obama era" by galvanising support via the computer screen as much as on the streets.

With the Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Yvette Cooper and the Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband taking part in online forums for the site's launch, the validity of its claim to be "independent" may appear questionable. And it is certainly true that Draper, who is currently running the operation from an office in Soho with two Labour-minded interns, is back in the party fold as an unpaid adviser. This has come as a surprise to those who know him. Draper returned from America in 2004 newly trained as a psychotherapist and pledged to have nothing more to do with politics. But now the old, colourful Derek is back, and he's angry. At a Labour conference fringe meeting last autumn, he railed against Labourhome, which had just carried a joint poll with the Independent showing that a majority of party activists wanted Gordon Brown to be ousted as Prime Minister. He shouted at the meeting, attended by the site's founder Alex Hilton: "If you want to wake up in March 2010 and say you were the star blogger of the election, and you got on to Radio 5 Live twice, but the price you pay for that is costing Labour votes and David Cameron in Downing Street, then you can fuck off out of the Labour Party and run your own independent blog somewhere. But the point is no one would bother reading you, would they?"

But those questioning the ability or the willingness of LabourList to unsettle the Brownite leadership of Labour should note that a number of dissidents from left and right have signed up, and among those helping behind the scenes is the Blairite former Downing Street adviser Ben Wegg-Prosser, who will post on why George Bush was right to present Tony Blair with his "medal of freedom". Provocative, yes; hardcore Labour? Not quite.

What Draper freely admits to, however, is that the new site is designed to counter what he calls the "Tory trolls" who dominate the weird world of virtual British politics. "While the Tories do have some gentlemen bloggers like Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie [of ConservativeHome], the right-wing trolls that infest Tory blogs will eventually do the party a great disservice," he says. "Just cast your eye down the comments at Guido or some of the early comments we had at LabourList, and you'll see how puerile and pointless these people are. The nasty party is alive and kicking."

But the initiative, which Mandelson surprised some by putting his name to, has higher ideals than mere electronic hand-to-hand combat. Last month, a secret meeting was held at Labour HQ attended by some of those involved with Obama's online campaign, including the president-elect's new media director Joe Rospars. He was among 68 people discussing a possible Labour equivalent aimed at reaching out to voters in advance of the election. Philip Gould, Blair's former pollster, was said to be particularly impressed. The meeting will be followed up by a "bloggers' breakfast" on 28 January, hosted by Lord Mandelson and carried simultaneously on Second Life.

For those of us not familiar with Second Life and who do not obsessively check the rather limited range of political blogsites as often as we should, it may be time to log on. The battle of the keyboards is coming to a head. And - at last - the left is fighting back.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

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