Jun 25 2008

The UK Left Blogosphere: staring defeat in the face

It seems to me that the Leftwing blogosphere is as knackkered as Gordon Brown’s poll ratings.

I have just been to (half – I had to get back home early, I am a single parent) a meeting where Sunny Hundal had been trying to find common ground with a group of leftish bloggers.

At times it felt like a digital re-enactment of that scene in Life of Brian: “No we’re the people’s front of Judea” etc.

The Online Socialists have various problems.

No-one reads them. Guido Fawkes and his wicked Right-wing pals are far more entertaining and they know how to write for an online audience: scurriously, succinctly, directly. They are much more committed and actually contribute facts, stories and vitriol to the debate.

Power without responsiblity?

The Left bloggers want to change the world but they don’t want any responsibility. In this they are a mirror image of the right-wing blogosphere in the States.

Georgina Henry from the Guardian made the important point that the Left is in opposition to the Government. So it is much more fun to be a right-wing blogger. What does Iain Dale do when his party gets in to power? I suspect he will be as slavishly pro-Cameronite as he is now. More interesting will be what Guido does. I suspect he will adopt the knee-jerk impossibilism of the current left-wing blogosphere.

A feminist surprise

One pleasant surprise tonight were the Feminists from “The F-Word”. Here was a bunch of people who actually seemed to enjoy blogging and who hope it might change things. They seemed to have a good business plan. They knew their audience and had a sensible expectation of what they might achieve.

But much of the bit of the meeting that I was there for was taken up by false concerns. There was a lot of bleating about lack of resources. I’m sorry, but the blogosphere is cheap. This Great Movement that built the Trade Unions and fought Apartheid didn’t need an Arts Council grant.

They were also obsessed by old categorical issues. “Are they journalists or campaigners?” asked one intelligent audience member. Sunny Hundal gave a good answer that might have come out of my book SuperMedia (but I don’t think he’s read it, so give him the credit). It’s perfectly possible to be both. You can use Online facilities to bring people together to investigate an issue and to report it to a community of people who then go on to take action.

Curious spectacle

It is what Right-wing bloggers/activists have been doing for years. Look at the way that the Conservative bloggers got behind David Davis. Even the Left has got caught up in that digitally-inspired admixture of online comment and activism. Hence the curious spectacle of old Left-Liberals like Anthony Barnett being charmed by the former Tory Home Secretary.

It would be fun and easy to tease the the F-Word Feminists about some aspects of their political correctness. So here goes. I can’t believe that one of them started going on about gender inbalance 20 minutes in to the meeting, but she was right. Both of the first two  speakers were classic dull male bloggers who either wanted to show off their arrogance or their impotence.

It was funny (in a nice way) to hear how the Feminists were struggling to spend the little income they had raised via Amazon sales referalls. One member admitted that the website doesn’t have a bank account. Another pointed out that it is difficult to find a good Feminist cause to donate to that doesn’t cause divisions – give it to an anti-pornography campaign and the pro-porn Fems complain.

I respect the Feminists because they seemed to have enthusiasm and a decent website that wasn’t just about waving political penises around. As a middle-aged white heterosexual male I realise it is not aimed at me but I can recognise integrity when I see it.

Where’s the change?

But overall this meeting does seem to feed in to the thesis that I was airing before.

There really does seem a possibility, outlined in an American context by Matt Bai’s book The Argument, that the blogosphere is a place where political activists go to play instead of to effect real political change.

This goes against what I have written about, albeit cautiously, in my new book  SuperMedia. I suggest that a combination of mainstream and public journaism can reshape politial communcations.

I should not judge Online political journalism on one (partial) meeting in Clerkenwell. Who knows what will change when (or if?) Labour loses power. But for both Right and Left online there remains an overwhelming question: is digital a distraction or a democratic development?

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36 Responses to The UK Left Blogosphere: staring defeat in the face

  1. Isn’t this is in part just a characteristic of the left? Your descriptions of the bloggers could just as much be of branch Labour party meetings. The left don’t do power well.

    More worrying is whether the leftblog flourishing will happen when opposition comes: we don’t have a culture (as they do in the States) of people whose party is out of power going and working for something like the Brookings Institute.

  2. Sunny says:

    No-one reads them. Guido Fawkes and his wicked Right-wing pals are far more entertaining and they know how to write for an online audience: scurriously, succinctly, directly. They are much more committed and actually contribute facts, stories and vitriol to the debate.

    I don’t even disagree with this (though I think there are plenty of funny, vicious etc left wing bloggers too which I read), but you’re assuming that the right-wingers have built up an audience because they’re good in itself.

    I disagree. They’re built up a large audience through having a profile in the MSM and they’ve done a good job of sustaining it. But the MSM linkage is and always has been vital to their growth. This is why the second tier right-wing blogs are so far behind.

    I’ll have to get your book and read it now Charlie :)
    thanks for coming and your thoughts.

  3. Guido Fawkes says:

    Hold on a second Sunny, you are no slouch at self promotion. You are all over the Guardian and the New Statesman. Despite offers, even from Georgina, I almost never write for the MSM, don’t want to be a newspaper hack and turn down TV appearances every week.

    Dale does loads of TV, writes for the Telegraph and even has a dead-tree-magazine of his own now. He still doesn’t get as many readers as me – which kind of undermines your argument.

    The spin on this issue seems to have evolved a bit – first we were supposed to be lying about audience share, than it was we only had massive audiences because we appealed to the lowest common denominator and now it is because we are linked to the MSM. I attack the MSM constantly, not cosy up to them.

    Maybe popular blogs are popular because what they write is more interesting to more people? Just a hunch. My advice to you and your friends is to stop defining yourselves in counter-pose to Guido and Dale. Do your own thing regardless.

    Saying we are not “good” is pretty pathetic. I write on the blog in an accessible populist way, if you want to read heavy ideological tracts you can find mine on the web – I wrote them in my teens and early twenties. The style and tone is very different, not “good” or “bad”. I read Chris Dillow most days, his is a great blog, it will never be mass market – is that the issue? Does size really matter to you?

  4. Praguetory says:

    Alex Hilton & Tim Ireland

    ‘Both of the first two speakers were classic dull male bloggers who either wanted to show off their arrogance or their impotence.’

    Or tried to show their arrogance but revealed their impotence. This is splendid article, Charlie. I knew the Leftie blogosphere was all over the shop – this is wonderful corroborative evidence.

  5. Matt Wardman says:

    >This Great Movement that built the Trade Unions and fought Apartheid didn’t need an Arts Council grant.

    I think that needs unpacking. How did the resources that built the TUs appear? Were they just “workers in the evenings”? What about Robert Owen, the Quakers (meaning the movement as well as the entrepreneurs).

    Where did the resources that fought Apartheid come from? What of the key roles played by MPs, TU campaigners, monks? They all had autonomy to interpret their funded (whether public or private) roles in a way that provided resources for the movement.

    I think there may be some useful comparisons to be made.

  6. Tim Ireland says:

    Guido (Paul Staines) said: “first we were supposed to be lying about audience share”

    But you were, my dear boy. I caught you. It doesn’t mean that you have no audience at all, just that it was much smaller than you had almost everybody* believing. The only fallacy here is one that you’ve invented.

    (*Including Teh MSM… see: ‘profile’)
    (PS – Does size really matter to you?)

    Praguetory: Alex Hilton didn’t speak. Way to provide corroborative evidence that you have no idea what you’re talking about most of the time.

    Charlie: I get the impression that you brought some assumptions with you and managed to go home with them intact. Well done.

  7. Praguetory says:

    Ok. So it was Jag Singh, Timmy. He thinks you’re nuts, by the way.

  8. Russ says:

    I would not characterise Guido as right-wing. More like a libertarian.

    And he is the most entertaining (and often insightful) element of British politics for an outsider like me.

  9. Tim Ireland says:

    Praguetory: “Ok. So it was Jag Singh, Timmy. He thinks you’re nuts, by the way.”

    Jag didn’t speak, either. Where *do* you get your information?

  10. Albert Shanker says:

    Yes the right is more active / fertile on blogs – but is largely populated by conspiracy theorists and far-right nut jobs.

    To any middle of the road voter reading some of the postings on right wing blogs, the right comes across as insecure, extremist and highly ideological, a real turn off and a refreshing reminder of why the Conservatives have been out of power for so long.

    Keep up the good work.

  11. Matt Wardman says:

    >good business plan

    I agree with the need for that.

    Lack of resources limits what is possible in political blogging. Those in jobs where they self-manage or can treat blogging as effectively being part of the job have a far greater opportunity. On resources, I think there’s also a degree of Puritanism out there about commercialising political blogs; IMO the key is transparency (see – for example – Jeff Jarvis’s disclosure page here: http://www.buzzmachine.com/about-me/), but I think we need political disclosure are well as financial (e.g., Party membership but also other affiliations).

    I’m also thinking about self-promotion – the media are far less hairshirted in this respect. For example, when I play an audio item from the Today programme, it gives me a whole host of Social Bookmarks inside the flash player. Indie bloggers are at risk of being out-innovated in our own space.

    For analogies, I think that the printing press is a good one for blogging than the TU movement, or Gestetners or Cheap Photocopiers or Faxes becoming available. Transformative technology. But blogging also has the social dimension.

  12. Revamp says:

    “The Online Socialists have various problems.

    No-one reads them.”

    Why do you whiners so persistently insist on making me promote Lenin’s Tomb?

    That blog, once you ignore the rightist distortions that render visits visitors that both Dale and Fawkes used, is almost as popular as either of the blogs the left-wing seem to spend an entirely inordinate amount of time bawwwing about.

    If “No-one” reads his blog then your readership must be in the negatives.

    Also: the feminists were by far the weakest part of the evening. Feminist blogs are insular on this side of the pond and downright incestuous on the other side. There are damn fine feminist blogs about, such as Penny Red, but they get that way by bucking the boring trends of typical feminism.

    Furthermore a large part of that section seemed to be a squabble over who should take credit for the “Victory” over abortion legislation, when the only people who genuinely can are the British electorate of 2005 for turning in more Labour MPs than Tories.

    Next time around, when there are more Tories than Labour in the Commons, the feminists will lose. Why? Because while American feminists marched a million women on Washington the British ones made some blog posts about the issue and wrote some letters to MPs. That is not a political campaign.

    When they march ten thousand on Westminster I’ll start paying attention. Until then they need to up their game to convince me that feminism as a genuine movement in this country isn’t outright dead.

  13. Paulie says:

    The problem isn’t the left-blogs ability to hang together is some way as an entity – there is no value in that. In the 1980s, the noisy left was a coherent and shouty group of people – but they made Labour unelectable.

    I doubt if David Cameron is sleeping soundly knowing that Tory bloggers are daily trouncing the visitor numbers of their lefty rivals.

    Quite the reverse, if he has any sense.

    The blogosphere, in itself, is not a valuable stratgic asset to any political viewpoint.

    http://nevertrustahippy.blogspot.com/2008/06/bloggers-changing-politics.html

  14. Frank Fisher says:

    Interesting article Charlie – I’d venture that it doesn’t really matter who claims to have the greatest audience, or produces the most entertaining copy; what will count, in the long run, is how influential their ideas are.

    Today (in the UK at least) we exist within in a whole range of social and political constructs that largely originated in leftist thinking. These might be tangible – such as the welfare state – they may be intangible – such as BBC news values – but they anchor, reflect, shape debate. I see the first serious public challenge to this orthodoxy, with us since the 50s and 60s, coming from the right of centre blogosphere. We aim to shape debate – extend the boundaries of what is considered viable, desirable, practical. Might happen, might not.

    But if it does, I’m afraid you lefties face pretty much an existential threat.

    Quite odd, btw, that the issue of *funding* comes up. Why on earth would anyone fund your blogs? Sure, advertising or commissions are always welcome, but Arts Council funding, are you serious?????

    A Rightie doesn’t expect anyone to pay us to rant. Although, I have been offered money to stop.

  15. Talwin's testicles says:

    You speculate as what Guido Fawkes will do – and, I suppose, as a corollary, his right-wing pals, also – on a change of government. You posit his adoption of “the knee impossibilism of the current left-wing blogosphere”.

    It seems we’ll get the chance to see pretty soon; but there are clues to be found already. Right wing Guido may be but to the chagrin of many of his ‘pals’ – and, importantly, the fulsome support of an equal number – he has spent the last few weeks ruthlessly castigating a number of Tories, both at home and MEPs.

    I suspect that after celebrating Cameron’s elevation (although it is arguable if Brown can be said to have been elevated!), Guido and his pals are unlikely to metamorphose into an off-shoot of ConservativeHome: rather, Guido will wish to robustly hold a Tory (or any other) government to account. My guess: that Guido may well assume the role of a sort of cyber Private Eye. In any event, his will remain an entertaining and influential meeting-place.

  16. Sunny says:

    Guido – come on now, let’s not compare the promotion you get compared to me. I didn’t say I’m crap at self-promotion but that’s not the point. the point is, and you admitted this to me when we met, that your audience figures shot up when you were talking about a political scandal that the MSM wasn’t and the MSM basically started referencing you regarding it.

    Secondly, I never said you were crap. Its not the sort of blogging I would do, but you serve your own audience.

    My advice to you and your friends is to stop defining yourselves in counter-pose to Guido and Dale. Do your own thing regardless.

    I do that anyway. I don’t see myself in competition with you guys – its a big pond and there’s space for all sorts of content.

  17. Angela Saini says:

    I was at the event last night too and as a longtime journalist who has recently forayed into blogging (rather than the other way round), my humble observation is that blogging is not journalism. At best it is comment but it is fundamentally gossip. What’s wrong with that?

    I, like you Charlie, was disappointed that a lot of bloggers seemed to crave ‘mainstream’ recognition, big audiences, funding and resources. Blogging is free and easy. That’s why everyone does it. And the communities are small because, as anyone who has ever been to a radical political gathering will know, only a few people get excited about the kind of issues in the kind of detail that left-wing bloggers blog about. Instead of trying to pull in thousands more readers, it would be great if these little communities could be content talking to each other without bending over backwards to appeal to larger audiences… let’s leave that to the press.

    On another point, someone last night bemoaned the lack of online arenas for grassroots activists. I was amazed – Indymedia has been doing that for ages, and very well. Are left-wing bloggers really so introspective and narcissistic that they believe no-one else on the web is achieving real change? The truth is that a lot of campaigners use the web brilliantly.

  18. BenSix says:

    I greatly enjoyed the evening, but I think that there can be a consistent ‘left’ collective of bloggers. Some – such as Mark – are presumably concerned with righting the Labour ship (or at least salvaging scraps from the wreckage) while others among us are currently opposed to the party.

    Therefore, it will be difficult to find any unity except on single-issues, campaigns and the promotion of ideas. Not that, to steal a quote, there’s anything wrong with that.

    PT,

    “Or tried to show their arrogance but revealed their impotence. ”

    Why are you here (I mean that in a wider context)?

    Angela,

    “At best it is comment but it is fundamentally gossip.”

    It isn’t necessarily gossip, it is just that the gossip – which is terse and accessible – commonly becomes popular, and therefore ‘good’. Lenin’s Tomb is a fine exception, but – as he writes on foreign policy to a greater extent – he also has wider readership abroad.

    I hear that it’s all a tad extweme over there, though.

    “I was amazed – Indymedia has been doing that for ages, and very well.”

    Seconded.

    Ben

  19. BenSix says:

    * don’t think that there can be a consistent ‘left’ collective of bloggers.

    *facepalm*

    Ben

  20. Hey says:

    As a Guidoite, I can tell you that a rather substantial proportion of the readership are looking for him to keep up his headhunting no matter who is in government. The corrupt, expense fiddling pols who have blue rosettes are even more loathed than the ones with other colours as they kill the Tory brand, are almost always wets (especially the MEPs), and encourage the pervasive attitude of permissiveness where staffers are dragged to court over a few thousand pounds of an honest mistake but pols caught out flagrantly for hundreds of thousands of pounds (or dodgy loans worth millions) get to keep the dosh and the CPS can’t make a case.

    We’re the ravening barbarian horde and won’t be satisfied until MPs are compltely cut off from the public purse. 700 Lord Ashcrofts!

  21. Fred Kite says:

    Can I remind you that the most popular internet presence in British politics is that of the BNP which received 51 per cent of all hits to party sites last year – seven times more than the online pages run by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
    (confirmed by monitors Hitwise and written up in the Times and Daily Mail)

    We have some lively bloggers – I bet we’d give the feminists and the rest more than a run for their money, audience size-wise.
    Can I recommend the blog of Richard Barnbrook, London Assembly member. It is at http://www.richardbarnbrook.com/

    I’ve no doubt that you are glad to see, as a good democrat, that working class people are taking to blogging so enthusiastically.

  22. i for one will not be automatically backing a conservative government.

    why should i? i’m not even a member of the tory party. or any party..

    left wing bloggers need to realise one thing about why the likes of the Daily Kos and MoveOn.org are so successful in the U.S. , and why leftist blogs over here arent.

    its simple.

    America has never had a socialist government. They honestly do not realise what living under socialism entails. So you end up with ObamaDroids wishing for the new utopia – which will never arrive.

  23. Tim Ireland says:

    Hey: “As a Guidoite, I can tell you that a rather substantial proportion of the readership are looking for him to keep up his headhunting no matter who is in government.”

    Sorry, but Paul Staines has already announced his intention to retire after the next general election. Past form (see: rave scene) suggests that he might even pack it in earlier once the money dries up.

    Fred Kite: “Can I remind you that the most popular internet presence in British politics is that of the BNP…”

    Do tell. Why, just imagine the impact leading blogger Paul Staines could have if he formed a strategic alliance with the BNP. What do you say, Paul? Do you think it will go down as well as Iain Dale’s big-up for the ‘rivers of blood’ spech?
    http://icanhaz.com/rivers-of-blood

  24. CharlieBeckett says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments – it’s been a fascinating exchange of views.
    I have one extra follow-up question for all Pol Bloggers out there:
    How Do You Think That Your Blog/blogging Might Change If There Is A Change Of Government?
    Answers here or via email to polis@lse.ac.uk
    cheers
    Charlie Beckett

  25. Matt Wardman says:

    >Angela
    >blogging is not journalism. At best it is comment but it is fundamentally gossip. What’s wrong with that?

    I think that you are making a common mistake of thinking that there is an entity called “blogging” that is all the same – no so.

    That’s like suggesting that the FT is the same as the Daily Star and the same as the Rhyl Gazette, and that you can describe Polly Toynbee in the same breath as a local paper horoscope column *.

    There’s far more variety in blogs than there is in the printed media, and that needs to be understood.

    Rgds

    * perhaps you can but you see the point.

  26. zohra says:

    Hi Charlie
    Interesting write up – sort of sounds like you’ve never met a feminist before though. Except that Sunny is a feminist…

    Point of information: not all the feminists in the room were from the F Word. And the point about gender imbalance raised 20 minutes into the talk was from a feminist yes, but not a regular F Word blogger.

    zohra

  27. Fred Kite says:

    Only if you think a change of government will lead to change anywhere else But plainly it will not; Cameron’s policies on immigration, EU, 42 days and Iraq are indistinguishable from Brown and the difference is only one of margin.

    But that said, there is a huge intellectual gulf between the leading left wing and right wing blogs and journalism in general.

    Left wing “discourse” for want of a better word, exists in a self-congratulatory echo-chamber of moral status competition in which working class concerns are considered irrelevant if not offensive.

    The real vibrancy of ideas is on the right where libertarians, neo-cons, traditionalists and Quisling collaborators (Cameron and co) argue it out on a battlefield that is being transformed by demographics, family breakdown and neuroscience.

    On the blogging side the problem with Tory bloggers is that they tend to be insiders masquerading as outsiders while working feverishly to be even better insiders; Iain Dale and ConservativeHome are good examples of this. Guido not immune with his FCS background.

    If anyone is seriously interested in the ideas of others then websites such as http://www.bnp.org.uk can be eye-opening.

  28. Tory Troll says:

    ‘blogging is not journalism’

    It’s whatever you want it to be. If you break stories and report on events then it is journalism. If you don’t then it’s not. Just because there is no editor or proprietor looking over your shoulder, doesn’t mean that you have no right to use the term. In fact in many cases, bloggers are able to report events faster and with more insight than the mainstream media precisely because we do have that independence.

    Which is also why I don’t agree with the premise of this post. The left wing blogosphere is not knackered, because there is no such thing. Some blogs on both left and right are doing well and some are doing badly. But with a change of government and with changing technology it is those blog writers who are willing and able to adapt that will do well.

    Because those people who are stuck in a mindset of what blogging should and shouldn’t be will just plunder along in the same way, be it for good or bad. This has always been the case with any media and I don’t think that it has anything to do with people being either left or right.

  29. Recusant says:

    Tim Ireland

    You really are unhealthily obsessed by Guido. Give it a break, for all our sakes.

  30. Mick Fealty says:

    A good and civil chat, by recent standards anyway. And good post Charlie. Good mostly because it is robust. My view of the effort aimed at trying to get bloggers into a single movement is that you’d been better off trying herd all the cats in your local area.

    I did a personal run down of my own personal tastes in political blogging on Brassneck yesterday: http://url.ie/h7a. They cut right across the piste and leave loads of good blogs out.

    As will be obvious from this thread even, I like the work of several individuals who dislike each other’s work. Of course, I don’t agree with them all, but people who bring stuff to the party over and above their polemic get my repeated attention.

    For me, that is more often the specialists. Largely because the likes of Guido are already talking to the people I want to talk to. Typically, these guys don’t get the big numbers, but they are often where you find the genuinely original thinking.

    Six years ago when I started blogging the US blogosphere was dominated by the Right. We were just eighteen months into the Bush Presidency, and many were surfing on the tidal wave of warblogs after 9/11.

    Now the biggest blog traffic is being hogged by the US Left: Kos; Move on; MyDD. Displacement from power seems to be a powerful motivator for people to get out there and blog and do it well.

    If I can go out on a limb here somewhat: the Right do seem to do the individual voice better than the Left. ConHome is worth reading whether you are a Tory or not, since there is a clean dispassionate feel to it, similar to Real Clear Politics (even though it is what it says it is on the tin).

    Focus on facts, and marshalling clean argument that carries some practical utility and your audience will grow. What you then do with it, is up to you and your politics.

  31. ” ‘blogging is not journalism’

    It’s whatever you want it to be. If you break stories and report on events then it is journalism…”

    The point surely is not what blogging is. It is what journalism is.

    Once upon a time there were very few ways in which writers could get their views across to many people in a regular way. One had to be a columnist.

    Now there are lots of writers able and ready to do just that, for free! Competition. Plus there are lots of people able to ‘report’ news and add valuable analysis to it. Newspapers and TV stations no longer control the means of production of news and views.

    Nor are they doing that good a job in preserving their market share in the new vaster market, since so much of what they serve up is Just So Damn Poor – see John Simpson from Zimbabwe and his pitiful sporting cliches to describe Zimbabwe’s agony.

    As to whether Left bloggers are better than Right ones, until the Left sheds its Stalinist instincts a more libertarian, irreverent style is going to be much more convincing to the quixotic Internet generations now coming through.

  32. Tim Worstall says:

    Whither political blogging?
    http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/misc/meta%11blogging-%28definition%3a-blogging-about-blogging%29-20071213494/
    “For I think there’s a fault line that runs through “political blogging” which isn’t in fact properly appreciated. There are those who blog for a specific group, for a party, for their tribe. And there are those who blog in support of certain ideas, or ideals. The former group will indeed be liable to capture by the centre (“don’t rock the boat old boy, not now we’ve got back into power again”) and the latter will continue to scream for their cherished goals whichever party is in power.”

  33. Paul Linford says:

    More interesting will be what Guido does. I suspect he will adopt the knee-jerk impossibilism of the current left-wing blogosphere.

    On balance, I disagree with this, for the following reasons.

    Much of the real energy behind Guido’s blog currently derives from his deeply personal hatred of Gordon Brown. Perhaps fortutiously for him, many other people also seem to share that view. In that sense, his blog is a reflection of the zeitgeist (whereas mine, still vaguely pro-Brown for want of an obvious alternative, is currently about as fashionable as Phil Collins, deep-fried camembert and shellsuits.)

    By contrast, Guido appears quite well disposed personally to David Cameron, although as an “anarcho capitalist” he’d probably like him to be a bit more openly committed to lower taxes, shrinking the state etc. Obviously if Cameron were to win an election, it would indicate that the public were also broadly in tune with this.

    My point is this – for Guido to turn against Cameron post-2010 would be (a) inauthentic, in that he clearly likes the guy, and (b) bad business, in that it would fly in the face of the prevailing political and public consensus.

    I suspect that far from adopting the “impossibilism of the left-wing blogosphere,” Guido will set out to be Mr Cameron’s candid friend – much as the Grauniad did with Tony Blair after 1997.

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