Will the left’s renewal come from the web?

5:15 pm - January 4th 2010

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contribution by Ed Wallis

The Fabian Review New Year special is out now, and it previews the major political schisms of a pivotal political year.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, the air is going to be thick with renewal. James Crabtree has some interesting advice in the magazine for lefties seeking the next big thing: don’t bother.

“Hoping for a British Obama to turn up is even less likely than wishing for some kind of super-charged Geoff Mulgan-on-steroids to dream up an entirely new vision of social democracy.”

So rather than spending the year searching for a saviour and what Crabtree calls “Big Renewal” or “waiting for another Crosland to turn up”, the left should put its energy into the new institutions of political ferment – mostly internet-based – where a multitude of ideas and campaigns can merge to create the political energy the left has lacked for a while.

In a separate article in the New Statesman, Crabtree predicts that 2010 will be the year the right’s dominance of the blogosphere is halted and ‘progressive’ netroots start to bloom.

The world is a complicated place and increasingly so; we’ve been waiting a long time for the next Future of Socialism, and perhaps that kind of inspired synergy is no longer achievable. Crabtree’s suggestion is that we let it go and get on with using the tools at our disposal to promote the ideas we already have.

Read it here.

Ed Wallis works at the Fabian Society

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Reader comments

All well and good, but what websites will “renew” the left?

I’d really like some definitions of “left” and “renewal“…

The right dominates the blogsphere? Really? In the absence of statistics relating to the demographics of blog-users, my impression is that the political blogosphere is overwhelmingly inhabited by 20-to-40-year-olds with a preponderance of males. It seems to me that about 35% of the electorate (those over 50, who are perhaps a very distant and vague presence in the peripheral vision of some bloggers and nothing more than a sort of theoretical construct for others) have little or nothing to do with blogs, and would thus be uninfluenced. A very rudimentary poll of 10 over-50’s recently led to the following result: 4 had never heard of the word blog, 3 had heard the word blog and thought it was something to do with computers, 2 knew what a blog was, but had never read one, and 1 had read a blog. Mind you, if over-50’s did engage with blogs, then the blogosphere certainly would be dominated by the right.

Hey, thanks for the edit, but now my comment @2 looks stupid, as well as petty 😉

I’d really like some definitions of “left” and “renewal“…

Left: all that is good and righteous in the world of politics

Renewal: not getting royally fucked in future elections

Sy, thanks for pointing it out. Occasionally mistakes get through.

I think a definition of “renewal” certainly is important.

But I fear James Crabtree may be referring to ‘renewal’ as in a coherent narrative and an upturn in fortunes for the Labour Party.

But the Left and the Labour Party are not the same, so we do need a different barometer of success for the left.

I keep meaning to write about this but keep pushing it back. So much to say, so little time. But I think its possible for the question posed in the header to happen.

6. david brough

“Mind you, if over-50’s did engage with blogs, then the blogosphere certainly would be dominated by the right.”

Not here it wouldn’t. I’m 49, and people my age or slightly older remember Thatcher and know how subsequent governments have faithfully followed her policies with disastrous consequences.

And the even older ones remember their fathers telling them about the Depression and how things were improved by Attlee, and before him Lloyd George. I live in a mining village and we remember what things were like when the owners controlled our lives.

There are coming to be more young people who are on the left. I have hopes that there will be more and more in the years to come. But in all age groups there are people who hate Thatcher and the filth who follow her, and will be more.

Don’t you think that a sample of 10 over 50s is rather small to represent the entire population of over 50s in the UK? It may have been the case, pre-Thatcher, that the older you get the more conservative you get, but I don’t think that’s the case now, even if many over 50s aren’t computer literate.
The benefit of being over 50 (with regard to the issue of renewal) is that we remember what it is that’s being renewed. We were the generation who invented the mass protest against unjust wars (Vietnam), we were the first post-war anarchists, our world was not littered with the material and ‘we’ had not been replaced by ‘I’
I am not a theoretical contruct for others, I am a person.

“Don’t you think that a sample of 10 over 50s is rather small to represent the entire population of over 50s in the UK?”

I certainly do. If you can find me some more representative statistics, I would be interested to see them. But generally the people who populate blogs aren’t aware of old people on an immediate level. There is a perceptual bias, just as Londoners believe they are Britain.
For example, cast your eyes to the comments policy box above: misogynist, racist, homphobic, xenophobic. Ageist? Like hell. This policy reflects the mindset of those who run it. Go to the comments policy of any other political blog and view the same.
The advantage of being over 50 is that you get to see history repeating itself.


“There are coming to be more young people who are on the left”.

When weren’t most young people on the left in their mushy love-n-peace/smash the system phase? So was I. I was the local enfant terrible lefty. I’m grown-up now. And where I come from – West Worcestershire – politics used to be straight Conservative v Labour. My mum and dad, like their mums and dads were staunch Labour because it was “the party of the working man”. Not any more, because Labour is no longer perceived as such. Priorities have changed. The Lib Dems are now opposition, and in the last election Labour got 10.5% of the vote. In the last local election they didn’t even bother to field a candidate. Worcestershire is the unwilling host to Long Lartin prison, infamous for being home to Islamic extremists, associated, of course, with New Labour. Gordon Brown down in London has decreed that Worcestershire has to build 25,000 new houses, far more than is required to house the natural increase of the county. The only political party not to challenge this edict is the Labour party. I think it’s end of the line here for Labour of any description.

of course the blogoshphre is dominated by the right.
Sad impotent men who think that spending hours winding up lefties fills their empty lives. A little like you T boy
Long Lartin prison, infamous for being home to Islamic extremists, associated, of course, with New Labour.
Where is the evidence for that.
I do now that it was the right
1. Who gave Iran weapons in the 80’s
2. Who invited Muslim terrorists to number 10
3. Who spported MOSSAD when it helped HAMAS against the more secular FATAH.
4.Who was up to its neck with the Saudis (aitkin, dennis thatcher et al)

10. david brough

They still are allied with the shameful and disgusting Saudi regime which oppresses Saudi and foreign workers. Because they are military allies it apparently excuses their extreme right-wing jihadism and anti-worker actions throughout the world.

And I tell you what Trofim, you patronising cunt, come to my local and talk about how much you admire Thatcher and you’ll soon find out how fucking “mushy” and “love and peace” young and old are in this village. Does anyone fucking care that you used to be a useless dilettante and now you’re a useless old whinger? The fact is that people like me and other working-class people had and still have grievances against your Thatcherite system that we don’t hold back from expressing.

It may be beside the point but it is true that people on the right have an amazing knack for spamming “leftists” blogs. I sometimes find myself blown away by the amount of time they have on their hands to doss around LC and similar sites.

that kind of inspired synergy is no longer achievable

It’s only unachievable if you don’t even try to make it happen, which is the state Labour has been in for almost twenty years now. We do need a new social democracy, but unlike the last one it needs to actually be based on more than market-love and weirdo dogma. And Labour need to govern and pass policy in the interests of middle- and working-class people, which means an adequate welfare state and proper world-class public services.

You get what you pay for: Labour thought it could cut costs and make services more “efficient” but it just got crapper service. Also, it might be nice to pretend welfare makes people lazy, but there were lazy people under feudalism too. Either we abandon people to poverty that usually isn’t their own fault, or we help them – I think a society that looks after the poor is worth paying for.

get on with using the tools at our disposal to promote the ideas we already have

Except Labour are out of ideas and could barely define their own ideology at this stage, outside of hypocritical attacks on the Tories. Labour can say what it likes about the Tories being worse, but if it ever tries to suggest it can do something for the middle and working classes that it hasn’t already done (like narrow the inequality gap), then anyone can simply shut them up with “Why haven’t you done it already in the 13 years you’ve had in power?”

Labour needs to lose. Only then will it rebuild. Frankly I think the worse thing it could do is, if the Tories get a majority, to just turn into an anti-Tory whining brigade, like it is now. Go back to the drawing board, Crabtree, Katwala, Straw the Younger: time to build a new party from the ashes of the old.

@11 Claude, maybe they are lazy benefit scroungers with no jobs, who should be forced off welfare and into work with the Tories Work For Dole schemes???

14. Charlieman


The web primarily delivers brief content — 237 word blog posts like the one above, three minute songs, six minute videos, 140 character twitterings. These are fine for many communications, but they tend to be short attention span events (Unity’s blog posts excepted). Ed Wallis’s post here only works because we permit him to deliver a snappy proposition, with the understanding that we have to delve into the comments for more depth and discussion. When acting that way, we are unlike the majority of citizens.

Right wing arguments are much easier to communicate in a short package. They typically appeal to common prejudices and use unusual events in the news to portray a scary world.

Lefty, liberal arguments are more theoretical, more contemplative. Occasionally, there is a message that can be delivered in a few hundred words (why not to invade Iraq) but most are more complicated (why 90% of what you read about immigration is bull shit).

I won’t argue that we should ignore the web completely. As the Obama campaign demonstrated, it is a great tool for motivating supporters to go out and knock on doors, or for reinforcing switching voters. Until somebody really smart and really funny (so we’re not looking at Mark Thomas) comes along with a new communications recipe, live with its limitations.


You make good points, man. Although (if you’ll allow me) I think Yoda said it best in this scene from Empire Strikes Back:

Luke: Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

I think Obama’s campaign succeeded because it did the rare trick of making progressive liberal arguments much easier to swallow then the right wing tosh. This was partially because of the unpopularity of the Republicans automatically put people in the mind for change, and Americans tend to seek renewal every 20 years or so. Plus, the message was vague enough for people to be able to put their own meaning into it, giving it much wider appeal than the technocratic messages that the left traditionally uses.

Or: the Left’s renewal won’t come from the web, it will come from within the Left itself and the web can be the means to that renewal if not its origin.

Two thoughts:

1) I’m right-of-centre, and like to look at the threads on LibCon for that reason. I’m interested in politics, and would rather see views I don’t instinctively agree with. (Nb: I’m undecided who to vote for at the next election).

2) I don’t mean this offensively, but the younger generation are relatively ignorant of politics (it just hasn’t been an issue for a great many years). Alright, spectacularly ignorant, but also less narrow-minded.

What 2) means is that many new voters simply don’t carry the old partisan baggage, and are open to persuasion. Additionally, there may be other priorites now given factors such as the recession, relative material comfort and so on. In short, there is an opportunity for all parties to take up new positions, regardless of past history (ie influenced by the sum of experience, rather than “yeah but you lot did, etc etc”).

What’s disappointing about this site is the frequent abuse meted out to those who don’t agree with the “line-to-take”. This is scarcely the way to engage with “don’t-knows”, and certainly not a good way to iron out potential future policies. After all, if the answers are already known, why argue with anyone at all?

Or am I just a brownshirt?!

Trofim @ 3

Not sure you are right.

The online population now reflects the demographic make-up of the UK as a whole, with a 52%/48% male/female split. 21% of internet users are 25 to 34 years and at the other end of the spectrum, the over 50s now represent 30% of total time spent online. [Source: IAB UK, 2008]

Okay – so the political blogosphere may not exactly conform to the overall online profile, but all those over-50s accounting for nearly a third of internet usage can’t all be shopping or looking at porn, can they?

I do worry that there will be gallons and gallons of snake oil sold onto the Trade Union tab by the Nathan Barley brigade. The search for the web voices of the left is on and there is gold in them thaar hills. Truth is that such gold is a thin vein and quickly tapped out. What you need is the following (this is scattergun but I’m trying to watch Newsnight).
a) People who write things in a way that lots of other people want to read
b) Humour
c) Sourced and accurate scandal
d) A window into the tensions and rivalries within your oppositions leadership structures.
e) People good at creating memes. Is Brown Bonkers? may be a nasty line but it got traction. Peter Mandelson as the Lord of Darkness similarly struck a chord. The right lampoon the politicians of the left far more effectively. An example? David Cameron is a posh boy and its various iterations. Shock! Horror! Conservative Leader is a bit posh. That’s pretty much what the public expect of a Tory leader. We are in a time of personality politics and you have to play into the personality. For a Labour Party led by Gordon Brown, that’s a problem but I digress.

Did Cameron have a fag?
How much is George Osborne being frozen out and who by?

You don’t need to do too much on policies and positions. Have you noticed how little the “right wing” blogosphere actually write about their own policies? The right wing blogoshpere really isn’t them writing about themselves, its them writing about you, amusingly, without mentioning the dialectic of this and the pressing need for social reform of the other.

I think Hopi Sen sort of gets it.

@ Whatnext?

Please tell us more sites that you go to that are so ‘open minded’ and have the depth that LC has.

I don’t know these guys or comment here alot….but I’m dying to see your proof of these amazing sites! I tried some of those right wing sites because I’m more in the centre and anything left thinking was bullied to death!

What pisses me off (again) is that lefties have more depth when it comes to information and interests but righties are so one dimensional that the aren’t interested in the beauty of African landscapes nor art in Paris. Everything is about profit and being proven right.

Lefties have high integrative complexity and the right have it low and bring on that cognitive dissonance….

Can one even debate?

@Outed How much influence does the right-wing blogosphere have anyway?

Surely if they made any difference at all to actual politics, as opposed to Wesminster bag-carrier gossip circles, the Tories wouldn’t be so bereft of a convincing message for the electorate? All they can do now is point out that they aren’t Labour. No new ideas or narrative at all.

You are right that the left needs to stop being technocratic and get its hands dirty. Although, when it tries to do this, as Sunny has with his class war posts, the right tend to piss and whine. It’s quite pathetic to see. Obviously most of them are overgrown teenage boys still living with their mums at the ages of 30-40 – look at the village idiot Donal Blaney.

I think the left blogosphere aspires to more than just getting hundreds of comments, a higher Wikio ranking, and mentions among the Westminster bubble.

Paolo @ 18

Thanks for providing that. But I think visitors to political blogs might differ somewhat. It would be interesting if blogs could actually do some of their own research into the demographic they cover. At present, one has to use various clues. E.g. my impression of Samizdata is that it seems to be frequented overwhelmingly by youngish males who like boys’ toys, have dosh plus a touching belief in the power of technology.
As it is, the left cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that most ordinary people don’t necessarily share the values they cherish on issues which are totemically set in stone for the latter. For example, mass immigration, for the left, is an indisputable good, and more can only ever be better. Thus, the left is not willing to face up to an honest analysis of the very significant shift to the right in Europe over the past few years. Again, the left has saddled itself with defending Islam, an uphill task at the best of times. Another albatross round their necks. And yet again, the left has decided, for purely opportunistic reasons, to wear green clothes, though their philosophies are significantly different. The left is permanently engaged in squaring the circle, in coping with cognitive dissonance.

@John Booth

The blogoshpere is a marginal activity but for what it is you might as well do it effectively. Floating the Class War meme was just guilty of being a bit rubbish in execution. The idea that Torys look after their own first and last and always is a good one but defining it in terms of class was a blunder. Even the name was a hostage to fortune. It somewhat marginalised Sunny IMO. I agree no new ideas but they do have a compelling narrative, just that the narrative is not about them, it is about their opposition. They are able to define you in unfair terms and get away with it time after time after time. It is not about truth or fairness. It is all about compelling, mischievious and compelling narrative.

The influence comes when the mass media feeds off them. Marr asks Brown about medication for example, that came straight out of the right / libertarian blogosphere and was a barely dodged bullet.

No, by persuading skilled craftsmen, charge hands , foremen and those running small busineses to vote for Labour. Producing a large, highly skilled workforce so we are equal to Germany in exporting manufactured goods . Realising that increasing the employment of white collar type on the state payroll tends to alienate blue collar workers, especially those who are skilled. Realising that many policies supported by metropolitan middle class people who have no industrial, agricultural and military experience alienates many of the working and lower middle class voters who have the afore mentioned experience and have a more traditional view of life.

Interesting comments by all (outed, I don’t disagree on many points you make).

I’ve been working on stuff that I plan to announce this week which will lay out my thoughts more. I wish I could now but it’ll just come out as a mish-mash.

Here’s some more thoughts on the class war meme. In one sense it’s my job to push the boat out so far that if the national media get annoyed, then politicians can allude to it but not spell it out.

I think so far Labour has played it right – saying they hate class war but continually pointing out that Cameron’s policies are aimed at the rich. I needed to push the boat out and make the case for going down the road. I’m told it had some impact too. So I’m quite happy with how that turned out. I just think they need to keep pushing it. Narrative take time to develop and become widely used.

whatnext?!: On debate – rantersparadise has it right: please do let me know of right-wing blogs we should be aping. Even ConservativeHome now runs articles on people who disagree with Cameron (FT, Telegraph) and frequently criticise them.

Claude: It may be beside the point but it is true that people on the right have an amazing knack for spamming “leftists” blogs.

Not just that – but constantly telling us what we should write about.

What pisses me off (again) is that lefties have more depth when it comes to information and interests but righties are so one dimensional that the aren’t interested in the beauty of African landscapes nor art in Paris. Everything is about profit and being proven right.


I don’t know if this counts but I spent Christmas in Paris and will be in South Africa for two weeks at the end of Jan!

27. Alisdair Cameron

Part of the problem relates to both waht Sunny (at last) alludes to and what Outed has said. New labour, using the union’s cash (when will the unions stop bank-rolling a neo-liberal enemy of the workers?) has scuppered the blogosphere for the left, by appropriating the term as if there were really of the Left or even vaguely liberal for that matter. Their wilful theft of the terminology, plus their money and top-down approach makes it harder for genuine Leftists to gain attention. Witness the disaster that was LabourList mark 1 (and mark 2 ain’t much better). Money does have a big impact upon getting readers, and NewLab’s control-freakery (and their own spammers, playing up the party line) has damaged the grass-roots real Left and its bloggers as much as any damage it’s done to the right.

28. Old Labour

Daddy paying for you to watch the cricket.
Are you meeting your old apartheid buddies to discuss the good old days

29. Old Labour

Remember to take Nick Cohen’s “The Observer book of nasty black and brown men”

Ever since LC became part of the blogging establishment it lost any claim to represent what it describes as the ‘left’.

So keep fooling yourselves, you don’t know what ‘left’ means.

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