What follows is a brief long account of the political online community. I’m not an active member of this community, but I do compulsively read politics blogs. I’d be quite interested to hear about other online communities that other people are involved or interested in. I read recently about the alarmingly eloquent and interesting Tavi Gevinson and so got a window onto an online community and a world that I know nothing about. I wonder what else is out there…
The right of centre was the first side in the political argument to mobiles online to any great extent. This is probably due to the fact that during the years following 1997 the political right needed to re-group. Online tools were just becoming accessible to the general population and provided a good opportunity for them to do this (just as in America, it was the left of centre who seized the initiative online during their years in the political wilderness which also coincided with the birth of web accessibility). There are several fairly influential blogging Tory MPs, and many lesser commentators, including those on the fringes of the party, and those who’s views are too incoherent for any political party. However, the most important voices in the right of centre are those of Iain Dale, ConservativeHome and Guido Fawkes (who is probably the most influential blogger from any part of the political spectrum – see below). Iain Dale was a Conservative Party Candidate (for Norfolk North, which he lost) and was campaign manager for David Davis’s failed bid to win the Conservative Party leadership. He blogs frequently, and although his views on many topics are to the right of his party’s stated position, he is popular and widely read. ConservativeHome is a website designed to provide a forum in which the Party’s grassroots have an opportunity to discuss matters important to them. It is large site, almost like newspaper in terms of the number of posts a day and in terms of the size of its readership.
It is worth talking about Guido Fawkes’ blog in some detail, since it is one of the most influential blogs in Britain (despite its own description of itself as “tittle-tattle, gossip and rumors”) largely because it is avidly read within the community it discusses, which happens to include Britain’s political leaders. Its author, Paul Staines, claims to be politically non-aligned. He espouses a form of populist libertarianism which sees the whole political class as the enemy. New Labour, and Gordon Brown in particular (referred to on the site as ‘the Prime Mentalist’), are loathed with some passion. His biggest coup and one that dramatically raised the profile of the Guido Fawkes brand, was the resignation of the Damien McBride, a senior communications advisor to Brown. Staines acquired some emails between Derek Draper (then editor of LabourList) and McBride, detailing plans to set up a left-wing gossip site called Red Rag, and outlining some fictitious stories about the health of Conservative politicians. Two days after a picture of McBride appeared on Guido’s site with the caption “he who lives by the smear…” he had resigned. Timed to coincide with the end of the G20 forum in London, the revelations provoked a storm of headlines, de-railed the government’s communication strategy and caused a significant dip in the opinion polls for the Labour Party.
The left of centre blogosphere is quite disparate, with no core, ‘must-read’ blogs on which the rest of the blogging ecosystem depend (unlike in the right of centre blogosphere). LabourList is a grass roots site which is a functional mirror to ConservativeHome (the birth of LabourList was marred by controversy because the divisive Derek Draper was appointed editor and promptly alienated large swathes of the political blogosphere against him and his fledgling site). Tom Harris is a widely read and engaging Labour MP blogger, as is Tom Watson (another casualty of the McBride affair). Other popular left of centre blogs include Liberal Conspiracy, Alastair Cambell, Hopi Sen and the now defunct Sadie’s Tavern.
Although it is quite difficult to talk about non-aligned political blogs, since blogging is so personal an activity and genuinely non-aligned people are very rare, there are some blogs that, for various reasons, present a very balanced view of politics. These include certain political journalists including Nick Robinson and the ever interesting Paul Waugh. Also among the more balanced political sites is the enormously influential Political Betting, and also PoliticsHome, which ran into controversy recently when it was bought by the billionaire Tory Peer (and Deputy Party Chairman) Michael Ashcroft, arguably compromising its impartiality.
There is no question that the political blogosphere is a rough-and-tumble community – emotions run deep when it comes to politics. There are amusingly deep seated rivalries, but also rather touching cross-party love affairs. In addition there are ill-fact checked, border-line racist, and mundanely boring articles published on politics blogs every day, providing a fairly compelling argument for the continued existence of edited, regulated newspapers, regardless of whether they are accessed online or in printed form. The worth of political blogs, is that they exist in a pluralist media, where one partisan voice is balanced by an opposing one, and all tempered by a strictly regulated series of more established organs. The blogs enable the voicing of concerns and views that would never be raised by mainstream media, and which are stronger when balanced and blended. One of the challenges facing politics in the coming years is to find a resolution to the emerging dichotomy between free and controlled media – they exist in an uneasy symbiotic tryst at the moment, but various pressures will undoubtably alter this.