Iain’s little list

by Stephen Tall on September 25, 2007

Iain Dale has now published the official list of the top 100 Lib Dem blogs, and I’m runner-up – and I can think of few bloggers against whom I’m more happy to run up than Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England. He is indeed the Lib Dem blogfather.

Here’s what Iain wrote about me, myself and I:

Stephen Tall has emerged in the last twelve months as a key player in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere. His own A Liberal Goes a Long Way blog won last year’s Liberal Democrat blog of the year, awarded by the Libdems at their party conference, and he has become a familiar face as the LibDem blogger who most appears on the media. Recently he has taken over as commissioning editor of LibDem Voice, which, it is to be hoped, does not see a decline in his own blog. Stephen is not one to write short snappy posts. He has an erudite, if sometimes academic, style, which means that his posts have a clear beginning, middleand end. He’s a blogger who makes the reader think about their own position on an issue, and you can hardly pay a higher compliment than that.

It is of course more than possible that my involvement with Lib Dem Voice has seen a decline in the quality of both blogs.

One of the chapters which appears in Iain’s eponymous Guide To Political Blogging In The UK is written by me, and focuses on the state of Lib Dem blogging. Or, perhaps more accurately, looks at the state of blogging through a Lib Dem prism. (Sorry, Iain – are references to geometric shapes too academic?)

Anyway, if you want to buy it, you can do so by clicking on this Amazon link – in which case you’ll earn the Lib Dems some commission, an irony I’m sure Iain will enjoy.

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The state of Lib Dem blogging in the UK

Anyone still harbouring the hackneyed view that Liberal Democrats are a bunch of equivocating well-on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other nicebodies, who wouldn’t say boo to an organic free-range goose, should visit www.libdemblogs.co.uk.

There you will find aggregated each day for your reading pleasure the opinionated postings of over 130 Lib Dems, displaying a frenetic range of topic, content and style. Punchy op-ed commentary on the big national and international issues of the day nestles alongside tales of potholes, pedestrian crossings and planning applications in Coketown.

It is emblematic of Lib Dem thinking that this should be so: the local and global are too intrinsically intertwined for it not to be. Indeed, the Lib Dem blogs ‘Aggregator’ is itself a signature of liberalism: diverse individual thinking finding strengthened expression through a collective community venture.

A year ago, at our 2006 conference in Brighton, the Lib Dems became the first national party to recognise the blogging fraternity – and it is a fraternity; the scarcity of women unhealthily skews the blogosphere – launching an inaugural ‘Blog of the Year’ award, which earned national media coverage.

But, in fact, it was eight months earlier that Lib Dem blogs first made their mark, during the leadership contest sparked by Charles Kennedy’s resignation. The momentum and profile of initial-outsider Chris Huhne’s campaign was boosted by declarations of support from some leading Lib Dem bloggers, inspiring a ‘Bloggers for Huhne’ section on his campaign website. Ever since, the party has taken increasing time and effort to reach out to bloggers – not simply through the awards ceremony, but also by giving access to press conferences, and interviews with senior MPs, such as Ed Davey and Ming Campbell.

Does this present a danger to those of us who blog? Should we be concerned that, as the party seeks to embrace us, we’ll become smothered? Clearly that’s a risk, but then any new phenomenon is laden with risks. Bloggers who compromise themselves, who sacrifice their authentic independence for the vicarious thrill of being among the favoured élite, lose their credibility – as those who read, and post to, their blogs will be swift to point out.

Besides, the Lib Dems are not that kind of party. I recall the media office phoning to say they had suggested Sky News contact me for a vox pop following a controversial conference vote. “Is there a particular line the party wants to get across?” I asked. (I wasn’t offering to be their patsy, but I thought I’d find out just the same.) “It’s entirely up to you; they want to hear from someone a bit independent,” came the reply. So much for Svengalian spin-doctors: Peter Mandelson would have been turning in his Euro-gravy.

In any case, those of us who sit at a computer should beware of turning into Mr Pooter. It is easy to exaggerate the importance of blogs, their novelty perhaps obscuring the fact that they remain a niche. Even the über-blogs, like Iain Dale’s and Guido Fawkes’, attract around 250,000 unique visitors each month. Yes, it’s impressive… but that’s the same number as pay for their copy of The Independent, the UK’s lowest circulation national newspaper, each and every day. (The nearest comparison for my blog is probably the Biggleswade Chronicle.)

Perhaps the biggest function which blogs perform is the influence they are beginning to exert on the mainstream media. Blogging is prime retail for journalists: it is an easy and unending source of news stories and diary snippets. To politicians, this can spell either manna from heaven, or gaffes from hell.

In the former camp, resides Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, who ousted the Labour incumbent at the 2005 general election with a huge 14.6 per cent swing. Alongside the usual hard slog of ‘pavement politics’, and a formidably well-organised campaign, her profile was pepped up by her sparky, feisty blog. The outspoken blog of Welsh Assembly member Peter Black has earned him copious media coverage, especially in the febrile weeks after May’s inconclusive election results, as he chronicled the twists and turns of the coalition negotiations.

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.

Perhaps it is because the rewards do not yet outweigh the risks that few Lib Dem Parliamentarians are bloggers. In addition to Lynne, only three MPs have so far been taken by the blogging muse – John Hemming, Adrian Sanders and Steve Webb [and now Sandra Gidley has resumed her blog, too, making four] – as well as two MEPs, Sajjad Karim and Graham Watson, and one peer, Lord Eric Avebury.

Yet alongside this understandable caution, there may be at least as much prioritisation. Elected representatives, at local or national level, may well ponder if blogging is the best use of their campaigning time – compared, say, to producing regular newsletters delivered through every door, or holding surgeries for residents, or simply ensuring they’re keeping on top of their casework. After all, it’s likely your blog will be read chiefly by the cognoscenti in your patch, both your supporters and your opponents. If you’re serious about winning votes you need to be in touch with precisely those people who are least likely casually to surf their way to your blog, and even less likely to read your latest, learned disquisitions on the EU treaty referendum, or the need for electoral reform.

The lesson is simple (the best lessons usually are): blog if you want to, not because you feel you have to. If you find it a chore, and resent the time it takes, your apathy will seep through the screen. It is the enthusiasm of the top bloggers – their drive to connect with their readers – which makes them work.

And if you have that passion, your blog can become a powerful campaigning tool; or it can simply be your space to re-cast your half-formed thoughts into something semi-coherent for public consumption. Either way, fasten your seatbelts, prepare for take-off, and welcome to the Lib Dem blogosphere.

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