Well, the entries for the Orwell Prize are out, and your humble host is among the 164 eligible contenders in the blogging category. I stress, of course, that the OP is self-nominating, and the fact that you’re an entrant doesn’t betoken anything beyond your ability to fill out the online form. We shall await the longlists for a sense of what’s being looked for.
Nonetheless, I recognise a good lot of those on the list. It’s nice to see some of the extended family there, of course, and some of my regular reads are there too. There are only a couple that I recognise as downright stinkers, although somebody must like them, and there are lots that I look forward to discovering. Besides, how often are you likely to find yourself on a list with such elevated company as Peter Hitchens or Stephanie Flanders?
And if we look amongst the entries, we can see some of the features of a successful blog. Of course, blog ipsus loquitur, and you find your own way to make it work, but it helps to have a particular selling point – maybe not a unique one, but one you do well. The two aforementioned are actually good examples, especially since quite a few traditional journalists are clueless about new media when not actually hostile – someone somewhere else paraphrased Orwell in this sense as “Freedom of speech, if it means anything, means journalists not having to be told they’re wrong.” Peter Hitchens, on the other hand, despite his carefully cultivated image as a reactionary fogey, embraces interactivity – being a man who loves nothing better than to argue about political ideas, he’s a blogging natural.
Another approach is taken by Stephanomics. You’ll know Stephanie Flanders from her regular appearances on the BBC news where she talks about productivity figures or quantitative easing. But there are limits to what you can say in a ninety-second package on the evening news, and Steph likes to use her blogging space to show off her economics expertise and go into the sort of detail about her field that the TV medium doesn’t really allow for.
Particular knowledge about your field does help with building up the audience. If you want to know about legal issues, Jack of Kent is your man. If you want to know about matters religious, Archbishop Cranmer is a must. (Despite my well-known taste for traditionalist Catholic blogs, I’ll cut some slack to a conservative Anglican.) Anton is great at skewering tabloid culture. PC Bloggs is deeply entertaining about the forces of law and order. More locally, Chekov can tell you everything you ever wanted to know and more about the strangely fascinating world of UCUNF.
It also helps that all these people can write. You could be emeritus professor of blogging at Oxford University, and it wouldn’t do you any good if you wrote like some slobbering imbecile from Have Your Say. Maybe the Orwellian dictum of making an art of political writing is a bit highfalutin, but you should at least aim to be an enjoyable read. And apropos of this, I’ve just come across these Ten Commandments, which may be worth pondering. (Via.)
Now to more political business. As the 27th most influential Labour blogger (according to Total Politics), I am frequently asked how the left of the blogosphere can make itself more effective. There’s recently been some interesting commentary on this theme here, here and here, and I have been meaning at some point to come back in detail on this. But I do have a few thoughts that I’d like to touch on here.
Statisticians recognise three types of error. There’s the false positive (type I); there’s the false negative (type II); and there’s the wonderful type III error, where your answer may be correct but isn’t meaningful because you’ve asked the wrong question. The Man Who Invented Blogging used to have a theme of asking why the left was so useless at blogging, and concluded that this was because the internet was natural territory for the entrepreneurial right. This is a type III error.
In the first place, Iain always conflated “the left” with “Labour”, meaning that a highly successful blog like Lenin’s Tomb – not to mention a whole thriving culture of socialist blogs outwith the Labour Party – simply failed to appear on the radar. Secondly, I think it is an error to ask why the left doesn’t have an analogue to Iain Dale, Tim Montgomerie or Guido. As Phil explains:
But there is a certain blindness to the conditions that made the big three of Tory blogging so big – a mix of a less crowded blogging market place and pre-existing relationships with insiders that allow Iain and Guido to break Westminster gossip, and for ConHome to steal a march on policy announcements are better explanations than self-serving bollocks about the internet being natural Tory territory.
This is true, and there’s a further point to be made in that many Labour heads (but not, say, Kerry, who does understand social media) were in thrall to this narrative – they saw what the Tories had and wanted their own. Hence the misguided search for a “Red Guido” which led to the Draper debacle. Recently the centre-left has been getting its act together by doing different things – the evidence-based policy-centred approach of Left Foot Forward is particularly appealing. Generally, I like the idea of the progressive (centre-left as well as socialist left) blogosphere being a pluricentric ecology rather than revolving around two or three big stars.
Which is not to say that the left can’t learn from the right. Some of the bigger left-of-Labour blogs have much higher traffic than specifically Labour-identified ones, but there are still bad old leftist habits. One thing that’s impressive about the Tory bloggers is that, though they have disagreements, they don’t escalate into nuclear polemic – they do recognise each other as being on basically the same side – and also, they link to each other assiduously. Compare that with the far-left blogs, where in some particular cases, a mixture of sectarian dogmatism and personality clashes leads to long-running feuds, and in one or two cases putatively socialist blogs that do little except run furious denunciations of other socialists.
The question of linkage comes into this, too. On this, I’d say it depends what tasks you set yourself. Lenin’s Tomb rarely does links, but that’s reasonable enough given it’s really about providing a platform for Richard’s (consistently excellent) writing. On the other hand, sites like Socialist Unity or Liberal Conspiracy, which are centrally to do with coalition-building and putting together a broad community of online progressive politics, do quite a lot, and so they should. I don’t see that everybody should be linking all the time, but a culture of backscratching rather than backstabbing would be an improvement.
There are happy mediums. It’s like saying your comments box either has to be an unmoderated bearpit, or be so heavily moderated that it starts to look like the Pravda letters page. Managed correctly, the comments box is your friend, pulling you up on factual mistakes or sloppy argumentation, and helping you clarify your argument. This is especially so if, like me, you have a tendency to run freewheeling – and sometimes half-baked – think-pieces that end up in unpredictable places, and the process of writing – and the further process of feedback – can be a great help to thinking things through.
There is also, if you’re willing to be laid-back enough, a chance at cross-pollination of ideas. In the real world, members of rival left groups don’t all that often get the opportunity to discuss politics in an in-depth way with each other, and non-party leftists even less so. Online, that can happen at any time. And, as a countervailing force to keyboard rage, you can take a catholic approach to discussion. There are those on the dogmatic left who will argue that the Labour Party, or the Greens, or Respect, are politically unsupportable. Fair enough, you can argue that in a formal sense, but it’s much harder to say that they are outside the realms of dialogue. Spending time arguing with people who don’t agree with you is the best proof against sectarianism; sitting in small rooms with people who agree on everything often has the opposite effect.
Finally, it’s important, when you’ve decided what to do, to follow through with it. I can immediately think of one ambitious centre-left blogger who talks the talk about coalition-building, and is even quite eloquent on some constituencies that might be excluded, but who has a shocking record of blanking potential allies, and will basically not engage with anyone who isn’t either (a) part of a very small coterie of mates, (b) incredibly sycophantic, or (c) a complete moron who can then be easily demolished. Apart from being bad manners, it actually contradicts what the writer has ostensibly set out to do. You know, even if you can’t easily come up with a winning strategy, there is enough intelligence out there to avoid actively self-defeating strategies. One would hope. Sin é.