This past week Norn Iron’s funniest blogger hit the big time, having been given a platform in the Belfast Telegraph. No, not your humble host, but Professor Billy McWilliams, founder of the wonderful 1690 An’ All Thon, who was spakein’ his mine about issues of concern to the Ulster Scot, and outlining a programme of action for new Stormount culture heid-yin Nelson McCausland. (Here I must take issue with dodgy translation in the Tele’s headline. Nelson is the minister for culture, but he is not the culchie minister. It’s Michelle Gildernew who has ministerial responsibility for culchies.) Anyway, thon was deadly crack. More please.
On a related note, I don’t often blow my own trumpet here, but it’s the time of year when inventor of blogging Iain Dale publishes his chart of the most popular blogs in the “UK”. Obviously this is just a bit of fun and completely unscientific – and, with several hundred blogs in the field and around 1500 voters, you don’t need to be enormously popular to appear on at least one chart – but, nonetheless, you get a nice warm feeling when you make an appearance. This blog was enormously gratified to be voted the 52nd most popular left-of-centre blog, beating Norman Geras (Yo! Fuck you, Norm!); utterly flabbergasted at, thanks to Iain’s eccentric taxonomy, being named 27th most popular Labour blog (some other folks were equally surprised at being on that list); and surprised at only placing one lower than Melanie Phillips on the big list. Aw, shucks.
Apropos of this, Andy has some thoughts about the pro-Labour blogosphere that are worth a look, but here’s my Kent Brockman. Quite apart from the indignity of finding oneself on lists with well-known leftwingers like Tom Harris and Alistair Campbell, not to mention Draper’s brainchild LabourList (one notes the predominance of Westminster village people at the top of the various charts, which may be a commentary on the Total Politics readership), I want to return to this long-running trope of Iain’s that it’s the right that sets the pace for political blogging in Britain, while the left trails far behind. I don’t actually think Iain is entirely wrong – the strongest part of his case is that loyalty to the New Labour government has had a stupefying influence on specifically Labour Party-centric blogging (but, I would argue, not on those many readable Labourites who are either indifferent or hostile to the New Labour project, or have a wider variety of interests), though this is changing as Labour discipline has broken down. It remains to be seen whether a Cameron government would have the same bromide effect on the Tory blogosphere, with the possibility of Labour blogs picking up as they have a target to get their teeth into.
Otherwise, I think Iain’s comparing apples with oranges. Let’s leave aside his tendency to view “the left” and “Labour” as more or less coterminous, which misses out the vital left blogging done by people outwith the Labour Party – as the chart is no longer picked by a select few, that’s been correcting itself and it’s been diversifying a fair wee bit. But there are also important structural differences between the left and the right. It’s been noted ad nauseam that the Tories have the two superstar bloggers, Iain and Guido, who enjoy a lot of media traction and can set the tone for lots of smaller Tory blogs; there’s also the existence of Conservative Home as a hub for those who identify specifically with the Tory Party. The rise of Liberal Conspiracy notwithstanding, the left-of-centre blogosphere is much more pluricentric, which I think is unambiguously a good thing, in a Thousand Flowers sense. I enjoy reading Dave Osler, but that’s not to say I’d like to see a situation where Dave was as dominant on the left as Iain Dale is on the right.
On the other hand, the right-of-centre blogs tend to do better on Wikio or Technorati because authority on those sites is based on linkage, and rightwing blogs link to each other quite promiscuously. By way of contrast, many of the most prominent left blogs either ostentatiously ignore each other or maintain a state of glowering hostility. This says something about left political culture that I’m not sure reflects well on us, and makes it a bit implausible if we talk – as we sometimes do – of having a shared space for discussion. And that’s without even mentioning the virtual shouting matches that go on in the comments threads. The most prominent blogging representative of one British far-left group has taken to issuing alcohol-fuelled proclamations about which of his online antagonists he’s going to have executed in the unlikely event of his group taking power – an extreme case maybe, but the further left in particular often has a level of discourse that verges on hate speech, where anyone who differs from The Line even slightly is a class enemy who needs to be smashed. Bear in mind that blogs like Socialist Unity or Lenin’s Tomb are rather widely read in the labour movement – how does this reflect on the left’s image?
The polemic problem arises because the sort of invective that used to be contained in tiny-circulation left publications is now available to anyone with an internet connection. And that’s not the only way that the new media challenge us. Just about all MSM outlets now expect at least some of their journalists to blog, but there are an embarrassing number of dead-tree journos who don’t seem to get what blogging is about, apart from an opportunity to share their surplus word count with the public. To get away with that, your surplus word count needs to be of a certain quality – one of the reasons why Stephanomics is so unmissable on the BBC site is that Stephanie gets to go into quite technical economic issues that aren’t easily translated into a three-minute spot on the TV news. But it’s the dialogic aspect that’s a challenge to your professional journalist – it might be invidious to single anyone out, but I immediately think of Nick Cohen and Martin Bright, who are both in the habit of deleting even mildly critical comments and only responding to sycophantic comments. By contrast, an example of good practice is Peter Hitchens, who actually reads his comments box and takes some trouble to respond, often in excruciating detail, to his interlocutors. But Peter has ideas, wants to proselytise for those ideas, and has the confidence of the ideas man that the comments box is your friend, even when it’s hostile.
Bringing this back to the political, I’d like to note a rare tactically astute move on the part of the Labour Party in appointing Bristol MP Kerry McCarthy as the party’s Twitter Tsar. This is a smart move, not only because Kerry is a prolific blogger and tweeter, but because she’s one of the few online politicians who seems to have grasped how you work with the new media, by a willingness to be unvarnished and by embracing the interactivity. The latter bit is important. There was an interesting segment on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour some weeks back, on the decline of the public meeting, where politicians would go and address a crowd of often rowdy punters, thus developing important skills in improvised speaking and in dealing with hecklers. The last forty years or so of TV-dominated politics have virtually killed off the old-fashioned public meeting, and the meetings “Dave” Cameron and Nick Clegg have been having with tiny audiences of floating voters in target constituencies are a poor substitute. But online communication has the immediacy, rowdiness and unpredictability of the public meeting (though lacking the face-to-face aspect) and so has some democratising potential.
This is something the further left will have to consider carefully. Take Lenin’s Tomb, the Socialist Workers Party’s unofficial official blog. The Tomb accounts for a huge proportion of the SWP’s published output – maybe over a half of the party’s word count, if Richard is having an especially prolix week – and certainly has a much wider readership than the print Socialist Worker. Now, the SWP leadership are not as technophobic as they were back in the days when Alex Callinicos was proclaiming that anyone who worked with a VDU was middle class and that the internet was inherently elitist and anti-worker, but it still blows hot and cold on its most important online shop window. While non-SWP people sometimes complain that the Tomb hoves too close to the old Pravda letters page format, there are quite a few people in the party who find it much too anarchistic and freewheeling. If the party leadership were really smart, they would adopt the Sainsbury’s strategy. You know the way that, when Jamie Oliver lit into Sainsbury’s over its chickens, there was speculation that he would be dropped from their ad campaign? I never believed that, because a Jamie who’s willing to occasionally bite the hand that feeds him is a more credible spokesman than a transparently mercenary Jamie. The SWP know on some level that allowing party members to think for themselves, even if it means them going off-message once in a while, reflects well on the party – better at any rate than turning every tiny issue into a test of loyalty. They’ve been willing to follow this approach with such as Paul Foot and Eamonn McCann, but very reluctant to extend it to mere mortals.
Well, that’s just a bit of an unstructured ramble around the issue. But I do think there’s an important point at the centre of this – the new media offer great opportunities, but also require us to develop new skills and habits. This may be difficult for those who continue to regard Lenin’s Iskra as the cutting edge of propaganda. But as the media shift online, I think we’ll see new people emerging organically, while some masters of the old formats fail to adapt and fall by the wayside, in a manner that would gladden the heart of Professor Dawkins. And the left, while it may love its traditions, is no more able to defy natural selection than anybody else. Selah.