The state of the Lib Dem blogosphere

by Stephen Tall on September 23, 2010

‘Like a yeti in a barber shop?’ This was the playful headline with which the big ‘n’ bearded Lib Dem MP David Heath chose to announce his arrival in the party’s blogosphere, capturing something of the tongue-in-cheek essence of Lib Dem blogging. David’s blog – http://davidwsjheath.wordpress.com – has, rather sadly, fallen silent since the general election, and his appointment to the government as Deputy Leader of the House. But don’t expect for a moment the coalition agreement to have a similarly quelling effect on the rest of the party’s blogging community.

What’s out there?

There are, as I write, 249 active Lib Dem blogs, according to Ryan Cullen’s indispensable Aggregator (www.libdemblogs.co.uk): that’s an increase of some 13% in the past year, testament both to the impact of the general election, and to the involvement of the Lib Dems in government. Follow a day in the life of the Lib Dem blogosphere and you will see the variety of ways in which the party’s bloggers make use of the medium. Let’s take three random headlines from one day in the past week: ‘One week left to oppose Prestwich car park charges’ (http://richardbaum.mycouncillor.org.uk), ‘Sarah’s Law Is A Backward Step For Society’ (http://diblemming.blogspot.com), and ‘More Evil-Looking Than Anything On Doctor Who’ (http://essexmoonlight.blogspot.com). Local and national political issues jostle for space alongside the social, cultural and personal. Which is entirely as it should be in our liberal bit of online space.

The winners of the 2009 LibDemVoice.org ‘Blog of the Year’ awards highlight both the quality and diversity to be found. The overall winner, the pseudonymous ‘Costigan Quist’ (http://himmelgartencafe.blogspot.com), was a well-deserved winner for his pitch-perfect postings denouncing uninformed journalism wherever it appeared, and sticking up for rational scepticism. The winner of the Tim Garden Award for best blog from a Liberal Democrat holding public office, meanwhile, went to Lewisham councillor Brian Robson (www.brianrobson.org.uk), who mixed local news, information and commentary in a dynamic and attractive way. For different reasons, both have discontinued their winning sites: a case of the curse of the ‘BOTY’ awards, perhaps.

There’s a high ‘churn’ across the blogosphere as a whole, of course. But a bigger problem than people giving up blogging, or choosing to dip in and out, is that too many people never try blogging in the first place. To inspire more Lib Dems to take the plunge, my co-editor at LibDemVoice.org, Mark Pack, together with a gaggle of nine established bloggers, put together an online series, ‘Getting started with blogging: a guide for Liberal Democrats’, later published as a free e-book at www.scribd.com/doc/24979240/Blogging-Guide. It is a fount of practical wisdom and encouraging insight, covering topics as diverse as the best blogging platform, where to get ideas for posts, how to handle comments, blog ‘etiquette’, increasing your readership, using Twitter, and – the real biggie – ‘Why blog?’. For those Lib Dems wanting to get started, or even just thinking of getting started, it is a must-read first-stop.

‘Blogging can help you win elections’

In his introduction to the guide, Mark offers three simple reasons for starting: ‘Blogging can be fun … Blogging gives you a voice … Blogging can help you win elections’. Given that 2010 was a general election year, let’s have a look at that last claim.

The Lib Dem MP who, above all others, is identified with blogging is Lynne Featherstone. An active blogger since 2003, her lively, authentic, informative style of communicating was credited with helping her overturn a huge Labour majority in her constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green in 2005. By the 2010 general election, though, blogging was only one part of Lynne’s online repertoire. Visit her attractively busy-but-uncluttered website – www.lynnefeatherstone.org – and you enter (via Facebook Connect if you choose) a comprehensive portal for all her political and campaigning work. Alongside the blog – which Lynne still posts to several times a week, even now she’s a government minister – sit feeds from her local party’s news pages, from her Twitter, Flickr and YouTube accounts, and from Hansard. There are pages detailing her campaigning activity on local issues – from ‘After Baby Peter’ to ‘Schools and funding’ to ‘oyster cards’ – fun, interactive cross-links to the council wards in her constituency to support the Lib Dem councillors in the area, and of course her contact details for those wanting to get in touch.

It is a supreme effort, but – crucially – is not hard work for the user. Small wonder then that, in June, Lynne was given the Orange Digital Election Awards for ‘best use of digital campaigning by a candidate’. Even smaller wonder that she was re-elected this year, trebling the size of her majority.

But you don’t have to be an MP to make the most of blogging, as demonstrated by ALDC’s (Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors) mycouncillor.org.uk website platform. Available free of charge to Lib Dem councillors and campaigners who are members of ALDC, there are well over 600 sites registered: many serve simply as news aggregator sites for their local parties, but a number of the most popular run lively blogs – for example, http://lesbonner.mycouncillor.org.uk, http://karenchilvers.mycouncillor.org.uk and http://timpickstone.mycouncillor.org.uk – as an outlet for their own views, and as a way of drawing in readers.

‘Only connect’

Blogging serves another purpose alongside reaching out to local residents and floating voters: as a place for Lib Dems also to talk to each other, whether to encourage, to agree or disagree, or simply because we’re like-minded souls. I was struck by this comment by Andrew Hinton – http://scarier.wordpress.com – in a comments thread on LibDemVoice.org:

Blogging facilitates an internal conversation which is useful for drawing in people who are already pretty strong supporters but maybe aren’t members or maybe aren’t involved in their local party. I should know, since this broadly applies to me – when I started blogging, I was nothing like as connected to the “meatspace” party as I am nowadays, and I probably wouldn’t have become so without the Lib Dem blogosphere. I probably wouldn’t have gone to conference for the first time. I probably wouldn’t have shown my face at the local party AGM where I got conscripted into the position of Data Officer. I probably wouldn’t have played the part I did in fighting the general election. And so on.

On the same thread, another Lib Dem blogger, Jennie Rigg – http://miss-s-b.dreamwidth.org – reported that her site had helped recruit seven new Lib Dem members: folk who had read what she had to say about the party, and her reason for being involved, and who had joined as a direct result. For those who view blogging as a self-indulgent waste of time – and there are plenty still in all parties who do – such anecdotes are a pointed reminder that the best-communicating political parties will go where the audience is.

Twitter-bug #nickcleggsfault

Micro-blogging, chiefly in the form of Twitter, has been the internet sensation of the past couple of years. An early and enthusiastic adopter, Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson – http://twitter.com/joswinson – won the LibDemVoice.org 2009 award for best use of social media for her tweeting commentary of the weekly bouts of Prime Minister’s Questions. Runners-up included Daisy Benson – twitter.com/cllrdaisybenson – a Reading Lib Dem councillor and parliamentary candidate, who carried out a consultation on private rented housing using Facebook in order to reach out to residents who would likely not respond to an official council questionnaire.

The campaigning potential of Twitter has come into its own in the past year, most notably late in 2009 when trading company Trafigura sought a gagging order against The Guardian. This self-defeating action sent the story viral, assisted by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg – twitter.com/nick_clegg – who tweeted that “the Lib Dems are planning to take action on this”. That morning two of the party’s MPs requested an urgent question and debate on the press’ freedom to report parliament, and the injunction soon came crashing down. Where a blog post would have spent time passively gathering comments and dust for a day or two, a bit of newfangled re-tweeting combined with some old-fashioned parliamentary muscle brought a campaign to crescendo and closure in a matter of hours.

And of course the infamous #nickcleggsfault hashtag – in which the Twittersphere took an ironic swipe at the right-wing press’s nakedly aggressive assault on the Lib Dem leader following his leaders’ debate triumph (sample Daily Mail headline: ‘Nick Clegg in Nazi slur on Britain’) – was the ultimate demonstration of group solidarity. It was a Lib Dem blogger, Nick Barlow – www.nickbarlow.com – who initiated it, and sparked an internet sensation with all the woes of the world being laid at Nick’s door: ‘Just stubbed my toe #nickcleggsfault’, ‘San Andreas #nickcleggsfault’, and ‘If someone asked me “Why are you proud to be British?”, I would point them at #nickcleggsfault.’ The Lib Dem leader himself identified the hashtag as one of the highlights of his election campaign.

Twitter has caught on with Lib Dem MPs – over half now have Twitter accounts – in a way that blogging, with a handful of honourable exceptions, never quite did. The star Lib Dem tweeter is, without a doubt, Evan Harris (twitter.com/drevanharris), who – by dint of his trenchant support for scientific, evidence-based policy, and his natural flair for packing a verbal punch in 140 characters – has attracted over 11,000 followers. Evan’s ability to appeal across party divides, and even to those who disagree with his views but respect his candidness, helped generate some very practical support when a virulently personal campaign was launched against him during the general election: over £6,000 in online donations was received as a direct response.

Blogging in a coalition climate

Trawling, with 20/20 hindsight, the Lib Dem blogs archive of the immediate aftermath of 7th May offers a fascinating glimpse of recent history in real-time. Many of the posts report the council and general election results in our bloggers’ local area: disappointment mingles with defiance sprinkled with optimism. There is much disbelieving of the unfairness of an electoral system which saw the Lib Dem vote increase by over a million and yet the party lose seats. But there is also a hard-headed acceptance of the impossibly difficult decision confronting the party.

Four bloggers – Angela Harbutt (www.liberal-vision.org), Jonathan Calder (http://liberalengland.blogspot.com), the Bracknell Blog (http://bracknellblog.blogspot.com) and Chris Wilson (www.wilsonswords.co.uk) – publicly voiced their support on the Friday for the Lib Dems to consider a coalition partnership with the Conservatives. Many others stressed the importance of staying true to the party’s key manifesto pledges, and of delivering a deal on electoral reform. A handful doubted any deal would emerge, and began to anticipate a Conservative minority government.

What is most striking, though, is the mutedness of knee-jerk opposition to the idea of a deal with the Tories. I can find only two bloggers who immediately signalled their opposition to a Lib/Con agreement: Craig Murray (www.craigmurray.org.uk) and Jane Watkinson (http://myliberaldemocratpoliticalramblings.wordpress.com), the latter subsequently leaving the Lib Dems. But for the most part – and especially as the long, long weekend of discussions wore on – there is a growing if weary acceptance that the only real deal likely to emerge is with the Conservatives; combined with a steely determination that Nick Clegg has to hammer out a real deal, including electoral reform, if the party is to be able to sign up.

At LibDemVoice.org, we set up a special email address by which members and supporters could make their views known to the party’s key decision-making committee and the wider leadership in time for the weekend discussions between the parties’ negotiating teams. We were also the first media outlet to be able to poll over 1,200 party members in the days after the election through our members-only discussions forum. Our results showed overwhelming endorsement of Nick Clegg’s decision to open discussions first with the Conservatives (90% in favour), and subsequently of the decision to enter coalition government itself (91% in favour). Our findings ensured there was a degree of mass consultation with members even during the negotiations, and put rather a dampener on the media’s attempts to suggest the leadership faced a grassroots’ revolt.

Did the Lib Dem blogosphere impact the coalition negotiations? Not directly, no, because the Lib Dem leadership, membership and its bloggers were in the main in agreement: a deal with Labour was out-of-the-question, a minority Conservative government offered much of the pain with none of the gain of coalition, while a partnership agreement represented the least worst option. Had the leadership taken a view at odds with most members and bloggers, I suspect the noise would have been louder, the potential impact greater.

What comes next is of course anyone’s guess: after all, who anticipated the last 12 months? The Coalition, for all its baiting by the right- and left-wing press (which is pretty much all of it), is still enjoying something of a honeymoon among the public, with generally positive approval ratings. Lib Dem poll ratings have, however, dipped since polling day. For the moment, Lib Dems are generally phlegmatic: we knew the potential for unpopularity when we signed up to the Coalition, and can hardly bail out now. But if that situation is sustained, and is reflected in actual elections at the Scottish, Welsh and English local elections next year – and especially if the referendum on the alternative vote is lost – the Lib Dem blogosphere may be the place where members’ discontent manifests itself most publicly.

Yet we can also expect it to be the place which – through its striking devotion to liberalism, diversity, debate, fun and irreverence – will continue day in and day out to remind Lib Dems exactly why it is they joined the party in the first place, and to encourage floating voters wherever they are to test the waters.

* This article appeared in The Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2010-2011, available to buy here, published in September. My thanks to all those who responded to the LDV meme in July with ideas for this article.