Log on for the great debate

This is an article by Ellee Seymour.
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Ellee Seymour (http://elleeseymour.com) says that political dialogue and debate is being conducted on blogs. Here’s her guide to essential political blogs.

With trust in politicians at an all-time low – and their reputation and future career entirely dependent on public scrutiny and support – what better way is there for them to communicate with publics than to write a blog?

One thing is certain, while most politicians are still wary of engaging in this form of transparent two-way communication, their voters are not. They are making their views known virally and these views are instantly accessible on the web, thanks to Google and other search engines. The blogosphere is a graveyard that is never empty and holds a bottomless pit of revelations which can continue to haunt. It hosts a conversation that cannot be ignored.

Ellee Seymour The appeal of political blogs is that they are free of rhetoric, propaganda and party political spin, while providing an opportunity for genuine opinions and a lively and interactive debate. Although some are personal ramblings which fail to captivate readers, a few of them are very high profile and have been influential in bringing about change.

Former Conservative parliamentary candidate and author Iain Dale is regarded as one of the UK’s top political bloggers and is a popular political pundit; his sharp, witty and informative blog has also proved to be a valuable asset and self-promotion tool and has broken major news stories ahead of the mainstream media. The appointment of Andy Coulson as the Conservative Party Director of Communications is just one example of a story broken by Iain Dale.

Dale publishes an annual guide of top political bloggers in the UK. His latest “Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2007-8” is a directory of 1,200 political blogs, including the best 500 nominated by readers. He also generously promotes lesser known bloggers on his regular “Daley Dozen” post and links to his favourite political sites.

Dale shares the blogging limelight with a satirical site written pseudonymously by right-wing libertarian Paul Staines called the “Guido Fawkes’ blog of parliamentary plots, rumours & conspiracy”. His revelations must make many politicians squirm uncomfortably. Many of his posts are based on the private lives of politicians – John Prescott has been one favourite – and it makes irresistible reading.

elleeblog Both Dale and Staines provide compulsive reading for political anoraks who want to keep abreast of the latest political news. Both men are aware that political journalists will be avidly trawling their sites regularly throughout the day for leads they can follow up.

Dale has impressively described his readership as reaching 404,000 in 2007, double the circulation of the The Independent! Staines’s viewing figures are similarly impressive as both men rival each other for the top readership spot. This demonstrates their massive appeal.

Having seen the impact of political blogging, mainstream political journalists are becoming bloggers too, having to establish their popularity and credibility in the blogosphere like any other blogger. The Spectator’s Coffeehouse blog and the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson’s blog are among my regular reads, and there are many more excellent sites too, if only time permitted! Be warned, trawling blogs can become addictive!

As I write this, Staines and Dizzy, a fellow right-wing blogger, are questioning whether donations for Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign were legally declared. Dale links to this story and promotes it further. This increases pressure on government to be transparent and to respond, knowing that the national media will report on it too.

It demonstrates how right-wing bloggers can very publicly criticise government in a way which left-wing bloggers have not managed to equal against Conservatives. As a result, Conservative activists have shown that they are far from being anything like their former “blue-rinse” image. They are sharp, internet savvy campaigners out to score political points in a bid to knock Labour off its perch. For them, blogging is the perfect domain. It is much easier to criticise a government when in opposition, to poke fun at any failings, real or perceived. The real test for UK Tory bloggers will be whether they can survive if the Conservatives win the next election. The boot will be on the other foot, and it is obviously not known how they will they respond and maintain their appeal.

Dale’s blogging guide of top 500 political blogs showed that 154 were on the right and 153 on the left, so they are equal in numbers. But when it came down to their impact, 14 of the top 20 blogs were on the right, and only two were from the left. Today, there isn’t one single left-wing blogger who has a strong following. Labour bloggers have no iconic and influential Iain Dale figure to support them the same way. Recess Monkey, written by Alex Hilton, is ranked the top Labour blogsite in Dale’s guide, even though it caused a spectacular media frenzy earlier this year by incorrectly stating that Margaret Thatcher had died. He is followed on the list by MP Tom Watson, one of the country’s first blogging politicians who has maintained his regular and loyal readers.

UK bloggers are beginning to make their mark and there are signs that the government is taking the blogosphere seriously. Last year, it was forced to climb down from its policy on the recruitment of junior doctors when a medical blog called Dr Crippen, written by a British NHS doctor, exposed critical security flaws in the system, and then mobilised doctors to take to the streets to protest the perceived fairness of the new system.

The COI, the UK government’s communications agency, announced recently that it was working on a way to monitor what people said about policy on blogs and internet forums for the media briefings it sends to ministers because it didn’t want to be caught unawares by debates spread on the web.

In fact, it is doing more than that, having already responded to a blog post, something which would have been unthinkable a year ago. The Ministry of Defence posted a 600-word response on the EU-Referendum blog after it again challenged the MoD’s equipment and procurement policy. It was posted by Lord Drayson, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support.

Ministerial blogs have been pioneered by Foreign Secretary David Miliband who is now writing his third ministerial blog, having started his first as Minister of State for Communities and Local Government, before becoming Environment Secretary. Topics he has written about recently include the role of diplomats, EU regulations and street children in Tanzania. It was hoped that other ministers would be inspired to follow his lead, but that does not appear to have been the case. Mr Miliband hopes it will bridge the gap between government and publics, providing an opportunity for the ordinary man in the street to have his say on political issues, though he has been criticised for failing to respond to comments, and using it as another political website.

In spite of Mr Miliband’s enthusiasm, too few politicians have embraced this interactive technology, even though it’s free, perhaps through fear of saying the wrong thing, having to respond to abusive comments left by ranters, or simply feeling that they cannot find time to regularly write an online site. Only around 6% of MPs currently write a blog.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries writes a very witty blog which gives an excellent behind the scene account of parliamentary life and extracts from it are often featured in the national media – as well as raising a few eyebrows among her party whips. Her blog has been described by The Sunday Telegraph as “cult reading for MPs from all political parties”. But she has been forced to close the comment facility on her site because of “vile” comments she was receiving on a controversial matter. This means there is no two-way communication anymore. However, it has not deterred her from continuing to write her frank “shoot from the hip” posts, and her blog has certainly raised her profile.

Another blogging enthusiast MP is Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone, who urges others to start too. She believes this form of two-way communication is the perfect way to keep constituents informed – and dispel the image that politicians do little all day other than eat and drink and are interested only in their own egos. She believes it has been a very effective tool in discussing local issues and for campaigning, and believes she has personally benefited from helpful and informative comments posted by readers.

John Redwood, another Tory MP, was voted as having the best parliamentarian blog in the Dale guide, and his site demonstrates how it can be used successfully for campaigning and discussing topical issues; he also responds to comments.

I believe more politicians will turn to blogging in the run up to the next general election. During Labour’s deputy leadership contest last year, five out of six candidates had a campaign blog, though they are now mostly defunct. More activists will use blogging as a campaigning tool, along with video posts and YouTube made popular by WebCameron, videos posted by Conservative leader David Cameron. They are already actively updating their profiles and “friends” on Facebook and other social networking sites.

But the fact is, the conversation is going on now, and they should be listening and responding. I wonder if Gordon Brown could be truly innovative and be the first Prime Minister to start writing a blog….

Recommended reading and references:

Iain Dale’s Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2007-08, published by Harriman House. http://www.politicos.co.uk/books/246220/Iain-Dale/Iain-Dale%20s-Guide-To-Political-Blogging-In-The-UK/17773a3fa52672136e7f727bd4da273b

Iain Dale: http://www.iaindale.blogspot.com/

Guido Fawkes: http://www.order-order.com/

Conservative Home: http://conservativehome.blogs.com/

Labourhome: http://www.labourhome.org/

Lib Dem Blogs: http://www.libdemblogs.co.uk/

David Miliband: http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/blogs/david_miliband/

Political Betting: http://www.politicalbetting.com/

EU Referendum: http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/

Dr Crippen: http://nhsblogdoc.blogspot.com/

Recess Monkey: http://www.recessmonkey.com/

Dizzy: http://dizzythinks.net/

David Cameron: http://www.conservatives.com/tile.do?def=webcameron.index.page

Nadine Dorries: http://www.dorries.org.uk/Blog.aspx

John Redwood: http://www.johnredwoodsdiary.com/

Tom Watson: http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/

Lynn Featherstone: http://www.lynnefeatherstone.org/blog.htm

Spectator Coffee House blog: http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/

Nick Robinson: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/nickrobinson/

Photo credit: Ellee Seymour


  1. This is much the recommended line-up I would expect from a Tory blogger (note the fascinating game of spin-within-the-spin). But I blog and read political blogs every day and this doesn’t reflect my favourites feed at all. Certainly I rarely read Iain Dale or Guido – typically only when one of them breaks a story and Lib Dem Voice or another Lib Dem blogger links to it. I’m aware of them as major bloggers, but they have little to do with my own experience of blogging.

    I think it depends on why you want to read blogs. Iain and Guido are, as you say, for news junkies and their primary aim is to make contacts with the media. I tend to enjoy blogs that discuss actual political ideas, and the great joy of blogging to me is the way people can be much more radical with their thinking on blogs than in the press.

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  1. […] with this article I wrote for Behind the Spin, a magazine for PR students and young practitioners, about political blogging following a request from its excellent editor Richard Bailey. It was written a while ago before the […]

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