British Conservatives Build Their Movement Online

Posted: Apr 22, 2007 12:00 AM
British Conservatives Build Their Movement Online

Across the Atlantic, young conservatives in Britain are trying to transform what they consider a disjointed and unorganized political faction into something that rivals the American conservative movement.

Tim Montgomerie, a 36-year-old former Conservative Party staffer in London, is taking cues from the United States. Despite the American conservative movement’s recent troubles, Montgomerie regards it as an “inspiring” model for Britain to follow.

But Montgomerie hopes to build this movement not through publications such as National Review or think tanks like The Heritage Foundation, but through the Internet. This movement is taking root through a number of influential websites that already have captivated many conservatives in Britain, including Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who has called Montgomerie’s popular ConservativeHome website, “Sometimes infuriating but always good value.”

The low cost of building a movement via the Internet has helped fuel some of the success. But a populist message inspiring ordinary Joes and Jills to get involved in the political process is what put Montgomerie on the map.

Back in 2005 when former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard attempted to deprive rank-and-file Tory members of their vote in the party’s leadership election, Montgomerie sprung into action. The incident introduced conservatives to a new form of activism. “Up until the blogosphere, the process for choosing candidates was always closed,” Montgomerie said. “That’s no longer the case.”

American conservatives have grown frustrated with the Republican Party leaders’ failure to remain faithful to conservative values, and so too have British conservatives become disenchanted with their party establishment. Conservatives’ distrust of Cameron motivates Montgomerie to keep the party leader honest.

Despite their differences, Cameron’s embrace of the Internet has contributed to the popularity of blogs such as ConservativeHome, 18 Doughty Street and the brand-new PlayPolitical video site. Cameron, who many consider the prime minister in waiting, has tapped a former Google executive as an adviser, giving rise to Web Cameron, where the conservative leader uses video to communicate with his constituency.

While Cameron has been lauded for his embrace of modern media, conservative bloggers hardly toe the party line. At ConservativeHome, for example, there’s a standing feature called “How is David Cameron doing?” that includes updated polling data -- making it a one-stop shop to get a temperature check of Cameron’s standing with the public. The website also conducts monthly surveys of readers’ approval of Conservative Party leaders -- prompting at least one unpopular politician to ask to be dropped from the poll.

Any political movement will have its internal squabbles, but liberals really do remain the primary target. Last year, for example, ConservativeHome surveyed its readers about the best ways to “tackle” future Labour Party leader Gordon Brown. The result was a six-part series that included suggestions from British conservatives on issues from economic competitiveness to Brown’s relationship with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

While American liberals have built well-trafficked blogs such as Daily Kos and Huffington Post, their counterparts in the United Kingdom have not followed suit. Liberals there have not yet embraced the blogosphere as a tool for political activism, Montgomerie says. Only one liberal site, LabourHome, has any significant traffic.

Conservatives, meanwhile, haven’t wasted time filling the void. Iain Dale, a 44-year-old right-leaning political pundit maintains his own popular blog but also works at 18 Doughty Street, which produces live broadcasts for five hours each weeknight. The undertaking has inspired about 100 citizen journalists, equipped with a camcorder, to supply their own video for the broadcasts.

One of the most popular videos produced by 18 Doughty Street asks what the world would be like without America. It emphasizes the remarkable advancements made by the United States over the course of history. It launched along with a new Montgomerie-developed blog called Britain and America, which seeks to strengthen ties between the two countries and counter the BBC’s anti-American reporting.

Montgomerie, who visited Washington, D.C., last week with his deputy editor Sam Coates, sees American conservatives as brilliant role models for his country -- both in terms of our political triumphs and embrace of technology. American conservatives should take heart that their movement continues to offer inspiring solutions across the world.