The tipping point for UK political blogs

Although I’ve largely been offline over the Easter weekend – meaning, not using Twitter or much RSS reading – I have been following developments in the extraordinary tale of No 10’s (former) communication strategist Damian McBride’s emails to LabourList blogger Derek Draper in January.

In concise summary, those emails were to do with ideas for smearing Conservative Party politicians with scandal stories about their private lives. The right-wing News of The World has the gory details which the newspaper published yesterday.

McBride has now resigned and political knives are out everywhere looking for a puppetmaster.

What’s extraordinary to me is the simple thought that McBride, Draper or anyone else would have imagined that such sleaze tactics actually have any merit.

More interesting, though, is what this still-developing scandal means for the role of political blogs in the UK.

Two blogs in particular are central protagonists in this tale: Guido Fawkes’ blog written by right winger Paul Staines, and, run by ex-New Labour strategist Derek Draper.

Copies of the incriminating emails from McBride to Draper were sent to Staines who so far has refused to name his source. He reported to have hawked the emails around Fleet Street looking for a buyer. While he did find a few (the News of World being one), most refused although it now seems clear that journalists in most of the national UK press have seen the content of those emails.

Guido Fawkes and LabourList have been mentioned in all the mainstream media reporting on this scandal that I’ve seen, raising the profile of both blogs out beyond the narrow confines of the Westminster bubble and into the mainstream.

Could this be the tipping point for real influence by political blogs in the UK?

That’s a key point raised in the Daily Telegraph today in a pretty good assessment on how blogs have transformed the political landscape in the UK.

Until the downfall of Damian McBride, it was still, just about, possible to argue that political blogging was an essentially marginal activity suited to obsessives and insomniacs.

But when a political blog can bring down one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers, and lead the BBC news for an entire weekend, something important has changed. The British blogosphere has entered the mainstream, and with a vengeance.

The Telegraph goes on to explain, in lay terms, what blogging is about in the context of the UK political scene, and has this to say which I think throws a bit of light on what might have been behind McBride’s thinking:

[…] the left has been slow to grapple with [blogging]. Derek Draper, a former advisor to Lord Mandelson, decided that he would try to alter that and set up the ill-fated Labourlist website to provide a rallying point for left-inclined bloggers. His initiative has so far resulted only in the PM losing one of his most trusted aides in a smear scandal.

The impact is extremely significant. It is increasingly clear that the internet has removed the barriers to entry to the political process for those with something interesting to say. Mainstream journalists, bound by Westminster conventions, face a challenge from a new and noisy rival and elites will find it ever more difficult to dictate what the story is without fear of challenge on-line. Centralised control is weakened.

The Telegraph has a more insightful view in another well-written assessment of this whole scandal:

The downfall of Damian McBride has its roots in a speech by Communities secretary Hazel Blears last November, when she warned of the increasing powers of rightwing bloggers to influence political debate.

[…] Miss Blears was no doubt trying to appeal to the moral high ground. But there was little doubt how her words were interpreted: the Left had to find a way to counter the torrent of innuendo, conspiracy and political scandal (a lot of it about Labour) contained on Guido Fawkes’ blog.

(A whiff of “Will no man rid me of this troublesome priest?” perhaps? If so, it looks like a spectacular backfire.)

The Telegraph concludes:

The timing was important too, with the internet likely to play a major part in the next general election, itself likely to be one of the most closely fought for a generation.

The scene is being set for the next twelve months or so: the next general election is due to be held by June 2010.

Political bloggers in the UK have never had a better chance to wield real influence, whatever their political flavour.