The state of the Liberal Democrat blogosphere

by Stephen Tall on September 18, 2009

There is of course no such thing as ‘the Lib Dem blogosphere’. For sure there are hundreds of Lib Dems who write blogs, but any suggestion we can be neatly bundled together into one coherent entity is wide of the mark – we’d scarcely be liberals otherwise. Which is why if you visit the Lib Dem Blogs Aggregator – a site which collates the feeds of more than 220 active bloggers – you will find posts about potholes and proportional representation, pop-culture and Palestine, all nestling alongside each other. If anything defines ‘the Lib Dem blogosphere’ it is this eclecticism.

We can separate political blogs – whether Lib Dem, Labour or Tory – into two broad categories. First, there those bloggers who write primarily for (and are read primarily by) those already interested in politics. And then there are those bloggers – usually political campaigners – who are primarily writing for readers in their electoral patch.

In each case it’s true to say the Lib Dems punch well above our weight. You don’t have to take my word for it. A report examining the political social media landscape, published in May by Social Media Affairs, found that:

  • despite the persistent media myth that the Tories dominate the blogosphere, of all political bloggers with a party affiliation the Tories account for 19%, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour only just behind, both with 16%;
  • 7% of Lib Dem councillors are bloggers (many of them making good use of www.mycouncillor.org.uk, run by the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors), compared with only 2% of Labour councillors and just 1% of Tory councillors.
  • Enough with the statistics already; they tell only part of the story. A far more important question than ‘how many bloggers are there?’ is ‘what impact are they creating?’

    Undoubtedly the biggest splash made by a Lib Dem blogger this year was by Mark Thompson, whose post proving a statistical correlation between the likelihood of MPs caught up in the expenses scandal and the safeness of their Parliamentary seat helped re-ignite the debate about the need for electoral reform. It’s not often articles featuring medians, quartiles and t-tests go viral, but this was a terrific example of the kind of detailed analysis which would never make it into a newspaper, but which thrives in the blogosphere.

    Mark is the latest ‘newbie’ in the Lib Dem blogosphere to have been fast-tracked into MSM success. At 2008’s Lib Dem blog awards, now an annual fixture in the party’s conference calendar, Alix Mortimer achieved the distinction of picking up trophies for best new blog as well as the overall award for best Lib Dem blogger. Alix was then deservedly short-listed for the prestigious Orwell Prize’s inaugural award for blogs in 2009.

    Her success highlights one of the distinguishing features of Lib Dem blogging. Once you could pretty much count the number of female bloggers on two fingers of one hand: Lynne Featherstone MP and Mary Reid. But now the party can boast a clutch of top blogging female talent: Charlotte Gore, Jennie Rigg, Helen Duffett, Jo Christie-Smith, Linda Jack, Meral Ece and Sara Bedford to name just seven.

    If the under-representation of women blogosphere has been at least partly addressed by the Lib Dems, the domination of London and the south-east continues. In total, one-third of all political bloggers are located in the capital. (When I’m contacted by broadcasters for interviews, they are usually nonplussed to discover I don’t live in London). However, Lib Dem bloggers do more than most to ensure the party’s message is heard nation-wide: in every region in England, bar London and the West Midlands, there are more Lib Dem bloggers than in either of the other main parties.

    In Wales, a group of Lib Dem bloggers, including long-term Welsh assembly blogger Peter Black AM, launched Freedom Central in January 2009, quickly establishing the site as an influential hub of online activity. They have laid down the gauntlet to Lib Dems in Scotland, who – in spite of the active blogging efforts of individuals such as Stephen Glenn, Caron Lindsay and Andrew Reeves – have yet to build a Scottish group blogging platform to help promote the party’s efforts north of the border.

    The Lib Dem blogosphere is not only populated by councillors and activists – the party’s Parliamentarians are increasingly developing and innovating their electronic communications to connect with the online public. In addition to Lynne Featherstone, regular blogging Lib Dem MPs include Adrian Sanders, Willie Rennie and Steve Webb.

    Meanwhile MPs such as Tom Brake and Steve Webb have been pioneering in their use of social media, such as Facebook, to interact with their constituents. For example, Steve held his first Facebook ‘drop in surgery’ in February, attracting some 200 people. And the phenomenon of 2009, micro-blogging site Twitter, has been utilised by Jo Swinson MP to ‘tweet’ live from PMQs, and keep those following her up-to-date with her constituency and Parliamentary work.

    But it can be hard for politicians to judge when to blog and when not. Baroness (Ros) Scott was elected Party President by the Lib Dem membership at the end of 2008, at least in part thanks to an active online campaign and a lively blog, ‘Because Baronesses are people too’. However, the MPs’ expenses scandal saw Ros caught in the maelstrom as she dealt with the political fall-out, including the early retirement of the party’s chief executive Lord (Chris) Rennard – she decided to extinguish her blog, and instead now reports her presidential work through Liberal Democrat Voice.

    Another notable absentee from the Lib Dem blogosphere is the party’s cultishly popular deputy leader, Vince Cable. True he has a website, but this is pretty much restricted to his constituency activities with no real interactivity. When PR Week asked a number of digital marketing experts to assess the parties’ online campaigning, this was regarded as a significant weakness: ‘Not turning Vince Cable into an online asset during the credit crunch has been a huge missed opportunity.’ Perhaps – although Vince and the wider party could point out that authoring a Sunday Times Top 10 bestselling book and penning a regular column for the Daily Mail will reach more people than a blog. However, as Nick Clegg’s official leader’s website – www.nickclegg.com – has shown, it is possible to bring together content culled from speeches, news releases and articles, and still create an impressive interactivity, generating vibrant discussion threads.

    Three big challenges await the Lib Dem blogosphere in the next 12 months during the lead-in to the general election. The first is practical: resources. Earlier this year, the technical wizard who runs the indispensable Aggregator, Ryan Cullen was forced to close libdemblogs.co.uk after running out of money to pay for hosting costs: a virtual whip-round brought in the few hundred pounds necessary to keep it going within 24 hours. But this highlighted the shoe-string nature of the Lib Dem blogosphere.

    At Lib Dem Voice we are anticipating the next election with a mixture of excitement and fear. The site currently just about breaks even thanks to a mixture of advertising, sponsorship and donations, and because it is staffed wholly by volunteers (all of whom have full-time jobs). Unlike our peer sites, LabourList and ConservativeHome, we have never benefited from big-money backers. Ensuring we are fully prepped for the intensity of the first ever general election in which blogs are regarded as principal players is a top-priority task.

    The second challenge is for those Lib Dem candidates standing, whether for Parliament or council. How can they best use the full potential of new media and blogs to gain a campaigning edge over their opponents, increasing their public profile and connecting with the public? Those that do this best are the ones most likely to be able to celebrate success when the votes are counted.

    The final challenge is a broader one. Lib Dem bloggers often feel we are part of an online community, that we know each other long before we actually meet ‘in real life’. This in itself is a considerable achievement, and a great resource for the party to tap into. However, there is an over-lapping tendency for the Lib Dem blogosphere to become parochial and inward-looking: we place too much emphasis on talking to each other, ‘the converted’, rather than reaching out to the much larger audience of liberal-minded blog-readers who are not necessarily Lib Dem voters. An election campaign, always a febrile period, is likely to accentuate that tribalism at precisely the moment we most need to be opening ourselves up, drawing in the sympathetic undecideds.

    The election is a big test for the Lib Dems; it’s also a pretty big test for its blogosphere.

    * This article will appear in The Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2009-2010, available to buy here. It’s published on 1st October. My thanks to all those who responded to the LDV meme in July with ideas for this article.