NOW that Tony Blair has announced the date of the general election, a new army of opinion formers is stepping out of the closet: the bloggers.

In America, political bloggers played an important part in last year's presidential elections.

After coming to prominence as an outlet for political feeling following September 11, 2001, blogging reached the campaign trail when Democrat Howard Dean used his personal blog to raise funds for his candidacy.

This was the start of increasingly vocal tubthumping from sites on the right and left, which helped candidate sites sign up vast numbers of voters for daily policy e-mails.

They also claimed various scalps as voting drew closer.

Three executives at the CBS network were fired and news anchor Dan Rather was forced to retire after bloggers proved that a report questioning President Bush's National Guard service was based on forged documents.

In a similar vein, Eason Jordan, the head of news at CNN, was forced to resign after a blog repeated comments he made at a Swiss conference about US soldiers in Iraq deliberately killing journalists.

Meanwhile a left-wing blog exposed Republican employee James Guckert's attempts to pose as a journalist under a false name to pass off party propaganda as news stories. Many commentators also believe that blogging had a bearing on the election outcome. It played a supporting role in both Bush strategist Karl Rove's successful e-mail campaign and helped to crystallise Republican opinion. With as many as 27-per cent of US adults estimated to be reading blogs regularly, it may also be one reason why electoral turnout was 6-per cent higher than 2000.

"People felt that there was a presence and influence there, a new way of engaging with the process, " says Tom Coates, author of prominent UK blog plasticbag. org.

With the British general election now officially announced will blogging come of age here? Blogs like Harry's Place, SamizData and the Adam Smith Institute have been steadily building audiences over the past couple of years, and there are signs of fresh activity in the run-up to the election. Sites such as backingblair. co. uk and strategicvoter. co. uk have recently been launched to raise funds and encourage disillusioned Labour voters to vote tactically to damage the government. These efforts are being driven by sites in the political centre such as bloggerheads. com.

Another new launch is conservativehome. com, which has been set up by Tim Montgomerie, Iain Duncan Smith's former political secretary. The site aims to push a Tory message, bypassing what they see as media bias.

The traditional media also appear to be jumping on the bandwagon, joining Guardian Unlimited, which has been pioneering a blogging hybrid since 2001. This involves dedicated journalists writing blog-style articles for the site plus space for readers to post responses.

In addition to this, Radio 4's Today programme site is looking for three bloggers to cover the election, and other media sites, including Times Online, are thought to be planning to launch something in the coming weeks.

"There is a bit of a scramble to get into these activities in the short-term, " says Alistair Shrimpton, whose Six Apart company sells tailored software to people setting up blogs. He confirms several large media companies have been in touch recently.

Meanwhile Channel 4 News/ITN have launched channel4. com/factcheck, where a team of six journalists will spend the election campaign reviewing all political statements to point out distortions and inaccuracies. It is based on the factcheck. org site which played a similar role in last year's US election.

Compared to these activities, the British political parties have been relatively cautious - perhaps a sign that independent individuals make better bloggers than organisations.

Labour has hired Zack Exley, a leading light on US blog MoveOn. org, as a consultant, but a spokesman insists the party has no plans to use blogging in this election. It is far more interested in aping the successful e-mail drives of the Republicans and Democrats.

The LibDems also say they are concentrating on e-mail drives after being burned last year when Jody Dunn, their candidate for last year's Hartlepool by-election, wrote in a campaign blog about constituents in poor areas cutting up their floorboards for firewood. Labour seized on this and arguably mobilised enough bad feeling to win the by-election. Mark Pack, internet campaign manager for the LibDems, said: "Blogs are not silver bullets that whisk you into Downing Street."

Nevertheless, he won't rule out using blogs during the campaign, and the party is thought to have commissioned Tim Ireland to develop a promotional online game for the blogging community.

Interestingly, the one party which confirms activity is the Scottish National Party. It is to use an online campaign diary written by chief executive Peter Murrell and three other senior party executives, and will allow members to post responses. This is part of an effort to make the SNP site more relevant to voters, along with the obligatory e-mail policy drive and various other interactive slots.

One major factor that may prevent blogging having an impact in the UK equivalent to that in the US is the size of the "audience" here.

Though not measured yet, it is certain to be far lower than in the US.

As several bloggers point out, the movement caught on more quickly in the US because the media is perceived as being biased by both left and right.

Neil McIntosh, assistant editor of Guardian Unlimited, says that leading political blogs in the UK are generally worse than those in the US. "You still have to have access. You have to say things in a tone that makes people want to know. You have to say interesting things. The UK sites tend to lack one or the other, " he says.

Combined with the relatively low site traffic in the UK, most bloggers believe it will be the election after this one before blogs really break through here. "The bloggers may surprise us, " says McIntosh. "Especially those focusing on single local issues.

But I'm not expecting there to be huge ructions just yet.

This election is coming too early for them."

steven. vass@sundayherald. com


BLOGS or web-logs are internet sites where individuals record opinions for others to respond to.

They first made their mark in the US as alternative outlets for opinion after September 11. They influenced last year's presidential elections, and there are signs of similar momentum as the UK elections draw closer.