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Britain’s cottage industry of Left-wing punditry may soon be redundant

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Guardian columnist Owen Jones, commentator Marina Purkiss and the Rest is Politics host Alastair Campbell

“This is the post-Brexit, post-Boris Johnson election, where the Conservatives are going to triple down on lying through their teeth about everything,” said James O’Brien in typically hyperbolic fashion this week.

“The only question really, the only mystery facing the population, is whether or not the client media retains enough power to let them.”

For regular listeners of the LBC host, the comments follow a familiar trend of monologues decrying what he sees as the decline of Britain under the Conservatives.

O’Brien isn’t alone. Fourteen years of Tory rule have given rise to a vocal – and often lucrative – subset of publications and pundits who have made it their mission to oppose the Government, as well as parts of the media that have shown it support.

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But with a general election just six weeks away, and a Labour victory looking all but certain, the game may soon be up. With the Conservatives no longer in power, will the anti-Tory business model need a re-think?

“Commentators are responding to events,” says former ITN editor Stewart Purvis. “When the target doesn’t seem to matter any longer, their appeal lessens.”

O’Brien is among the best-known anti-Tory pundits, thanks largely to his vocal presence on X, formerly Twitter, where he has 1.2 million followers.

Clips from his mid-morning show often go viral as O’Brien, who was once video games correspondent for the Daily Mail, rails against government policy or his favourite topic – Brexit.

This prominence has proved to be lucrative for the radio host, who has spun out his brand of opinionated broadcasting into two books – How To Be Right and How They Broke Britain – as well as live shows.

Other commentators have followed suit. Marina Purkiss, whose Twitter profile states “I’m not always having a go at this Government…sometimes I’m sleeping”, has used social media to build her anti-Brexit and anti-Tory brand and is now a regular guest on daytime TV shows including Good Morning Britain and Jeremy Vine on Channel 5.

Purkiss says her output is “based on holding politicians to account, no matter what colour scarf they’re wearing”.

She adds: “That’s the joy of being an independent commentator with no reliance on, or allegiance to, any party – unlike some newspapers.”

Still, there is little doubt about which side of the political spectrum Purkiss sits on: this week branded Rishi Sunak a “lying b***end”.

Tory opposition can also be found in the burgeoning field of so-called “centrist dad” podcasts.

The Rest is Politics, hosted by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart that is part of Gary Lineker’s Goalhanger group, is one of the most downloaded podcasts in the UK. The pair’s success has translated to the stage, too, with their live shows selling out the Royal Albert Hall.

Recent political turbulence and the division created by upheavals such as Brexit have also given rise to specialist publications that occupy a powerful position on the Left of British politics.

The New European, which was launched in July 2016 in direct response to the Brexit vote, raised £1m from readers in 2022 and turned its first profit last year.

Novara Media was founded in 2011 and soon became one of the most vocal outlets supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership. It has almost 15,000 monthly donors.

Novara media team
Novara Media's team has found success in catering to the Corbynist end of the news cycle and amassed 15,000 financial supporters

“The story of media before was that you had to be big to make money – that was the basic lesson of media,” says Douglas McCabe, chief executive of Enders Analysis.

“But actually, the story of the internet is that when companies or publishers do one single thing much more narrowly, but do it really well, they will tend to succeed.”

Bashing the Tories has become so attractive that even Joe Media has gotten in on the act. The company began life in 2010 as a male-focused social media publisher, focusing on football and amusing memes. However, it has since found a new life as a Left-leaning news outlet, albeit it has failed to make the strategy pay and was rescued from administration last month.

Staunchly Left publications and commentators have enjoyed large audiences by offering critiques – fair or otherwise – of the ruling Government of the day. The procession of once-in-a-generation crises that the Tories have had to face have thrown up amble ammunition for their critics.

“It’s in the nature of news that no news is good news and good news is no news,” says Patrick Barwise, professor of management and marketing at the London Business School. “A lot of journalism is about things that have gone wrong.”

Purvis draws comparisons with the febrile political atmosphere in the US and cites the example of Pod Save America. The podcast, which is hosted by former Barack Obama aides, surged in popularity during the Trump presidency, but saw interest wane when Joe Biden entered the Oval Office.

Now, with a second Trump administration on the cards, there has been a revival of interest in the show. In January, it increased the number of weekly episodes from two to three, saying there was “too much going on”.

“If you look at the States, there has been a whole blossoming of media businesses built around being either pro or anti-Trump, which didn’t really exist on that scale before,” says Purvis.

“So polarisation can be quite a healthy model, particularly for social media and partisan websites.”

For partisan outlets and individuals in the UK whose side has finally won, will there still be a viable business model?

McCabe says a “recalibration” is likely, especially during the first year of a Labour government.

There are already signs some commentators are starting to change tack. Owen Jones, a Guardian columnist and erstwhile Corbynista, has already begun to turn his fire on Sir Keir Starmer, insisting that neither the Tories nor Labour have the answers to Britain’s problems.

Following Blair’s 1997 landslide, the “whole tone of media in the UK just completely changed”, according to McCabe. The press did not want to attack a landslide-winning prime minister.

This time is different. “Everything is contestable. And if it’s contestable then media, whether it’s traditional or very specialist, are all going to still be very valid voices in the market space,” adds McCabe.

With no signs that political polarisation is abating, and as audiences continue to flock to specialist publications and outspoken voices, there is still money to be made in forthright views.

The shift in power may even hand an opportunity to GB News, the embattled broadcaster that counts several Tory MPs among its roster of presenters.

If Sir Keir Starmer wins power, the Right-leaning channel will have plenty of ammunition to help them win new audiences.

McCabe believes even some of the anti-Tory publications may have a future as those on the Left curate their own content bubbles.

“The options for individuals to create their own content, and for consumers to go out and find news in different ways, all of that will just become a little more common,” he says. “It’s a very different sort of world.”