Tuned in and turned on?

by Stephen Tall on May 1, 2007

I have penned an article on political blogs, published in the current issue of Parliamentary Monitor, apparently “widely regarded and regularly highlighted in independent research as the No 1 monthly read for MPs and Peers”. If you have a subscription, you can read it online here. If, like me, you don’t you can read it online here:


Which definition comes closest to your view of political blogs?

Blog (n.): an online journal written by publicity-hungry politicians and self-opinionated journalist manqués, commenting on current political affairs with scant regard to fact or fairness, and accountable to nobody save their small band of obsessive readers.


Blog (n.): an online journal written and/or read by anyone in the democratic world, providing them with a platform to address issues of concern to them, and which is transforming the relationship between modern citizens and the traditional governing and media elites.

As a self-confessed Liberal Democrat, it will not surprise you to learn that my view lies somewhere in between these two polar opposites. I am not a dewy-eyed idealist who believes that, if a thousand blogs bloom, society’s current political disengagement will vanish in a puff of apathetic smoke.

Equally, blogging cannot be dismissed simply as a new-fangled fad of which we know little. It is to early twenty-first century politics what Caxton’s printing press was to the pamphleteers of the English civil war: a medium ideally suited to quick and simple exchange of ideas.

There are 33.7 million internet users in the UK, and over 50 per cent of adults in the UK now have broadband internet access at home, up from 39 per cent a year ago. The internet is growing, and blogging is here to stay. The question is not, ‘Will it last?’, but ‘What’s its role?’

For most of us – whether fully paid-up members of the political classes (like you), or enthusiastic amateurs (like me) – part of the point of blogging is to attract attention to what we have to say, to ‘get noticed’.

Bloggers tend to be a bit squeamish about ‘fessing up to exactly how many people read them. For the record, my website attracted 24,150 unique visitors between January and mid-April this year. I am a minnow. Westminster gossip-blogger Guido Fawkes attracted 326,897 unique visitors in March. The American liberal, progressive blog, Daily Kos, attracts an average of 540,106 unique visitors daily.

The audience reach that these über-bloggers command demonstrates they are no longer talking only to a clique. But let’s not get carried away. In March, The Sun newspaper had a daily circulation of 3.03 million, and The Daily Telegraph of 896,197. Newspapers are still the big boys.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. Much of the content of blogs is inspired by, and links directly to, news reports or op-ed articles appearing in the press. But nor are newspapers reticent about lifting blog content, either as snippets for diary columns, or as quotes to lend verisimilitude to speculative, single-sourced stories.

So why, if you are an elected or wannabe-elected politician, should you bother writing a blog if (as is likely) few of your constituents will read it, and if (as is certain) journalists will seize on any unguarded remark?

Those MPs who do blog are taking a calculated risk. Lynne Featherstone, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, overturned a Labour majority of 10,216 in 2005 with a huge 14.6 per cent swing. Alongside the usual hard slog of ‘pavement politics’, and a formidably well-organised campaign, her local profile – with the media as well as the public – was boosted by her sparky, feisty blog.

But it doesn’t always work to the good. When Jody Dunn, the Lib Dem candidate in the 2004 Hartlepool by-election, blogged that she had canvassing a street whose residents were “either drunk, flanked by an ugly dog, or undressed”, Labour made the most of her quip, and clung on to the seat.

The internet is a highly paradoxical force. It atomises us, as we each bury our heads behind our individual computer screens, reading or writing our transient e-phemera. Yet it is also developing a visceral power to connect a community spanning geography and generations.

For example, Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell has broken new ground in becoming the first party leader to join the hip social networking website Facebook, racking up well over a thousand ‘friends’, and earning an accolade from the Daily Mirror as the politician with the best online presence.

The first cabinet minister to blog, David Miliband, does so, he informs us, to “help bridge the gap – the growing and potentially dangerous gap – between politicians and the public”. My reason is less highfalutin: I have stuff I want to say, and which I hope some folk may want to read.

Blog (n.): my space to write about whatever’s delighted or annoyed me that day, forcing me to arrange half-formed thoughts into something semi-coherent for public consumption, keeping my thinking fresh and up-to-the-mark.