In 2004, when the internet was still new, Chris Anderson, then editor-in-chief of WIRED magazine, coined a phrase, “the Long Tail”, to describe the way that businesses like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes were disrupting the business models of retail behemoths like Blockbuster Video, Barnes and Noble and Tower Records through their ability to supply both breadth and depth of consumer choice.
The impact, he suggested, was to transform a 20th century business model, the cultivation of a mainstream based on marketing and a lack of alternatives – a “hit-driven culture” – into a 21st century model where niche content, considered cumulatively, would account for an ever increasing proportion of market-share and be a driver of growth.
In the new economy, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, their businesses depending on successful speculation about what content to stock, and then aggressive marketing of the titles they had backed, were displaced by retailers that instead learnt to act as aggregators, organizations that were set up not to anticipate and dictate to consumer demand, but instead to listen and respond, to create the conditions where consumer demand could reveal itself, and then to nurture that demand.
Albeit within the limited realm of consumer behaviour, “long tail” theory indicated early how digital technology would marshal processes of democratisation and diversification to disrupt old hegemonies and establish new ones.
2015 is the year that patterns of Long Tail disruption have presented themselves on the mainstage of British party politics.
Driven by the internet as a tool of social organization and mobilization, the old hegemons – Labour and the Conservative party – have seen their traditional support bases eroded by organisations formed around the apparently “niche” concerns of devolution, green politics and euroscepticism.
The Liberal Democrats, who for decades held a monopoly on the idea of presenting an electoral alternative, were smashed by a world where alternatives abound.
Most recently, and most dramatically, the Labour party itself has seen a surge of support in what many had considered to be its further-flung niche.
At first glance, the current confluence of forces, in terms of prospective electoral success, appears to present a gift to Conservative hegemony, death to Labour and progressive politics more generally.
Bolstered by a parliamentary majority of 12 MPs, we are witnessing a government going about its agenda of a radical and punitive austerity with the zeal of a party that enjoys a more convincing mandate.
Meanwhile, the Labour party, decimated in Scotland, distrusted on the economy in England and Wales, and plagued by challengers to the left and to the right, has abandoned the centre ground for what many assume to be a tried and test path of failure, the electoral “wilderness” of the left.
So runs the analysis of the beleaguered right of the Labour party as well as the triumphant Tories, and as long as the hegemonic thinking of the old world prevails, this quite possibly represents the shape of things.
A Labour party caught between Blairite and Bennite visions of control cannot fail to alienate key constituencies.
Move to the left to win back Labour heartlands in Scotland and the North of England, and the key English marginals that secured New Labour’s power inevitably stay blue.
Return to the centre, as the modernisers wish, and the forces that have driven the rise of the Greens, UKIP, the SNP, will continue to cut the party from its roots.
Labour is a movement in the grips of an identity crisis and the hegemonic battles of the 20th century, the race to the centre ground, it would appear, have found their ultimate fulfillment in the vision of George Osborne.
Seen with the eye of the 21st century, however, the current conservative ascendancy is simply a house built of straw, an accident of the electoral game that lasts only as long as Labour continues to play that game instead of looking at a wider reality where progressive politics, stimulated by activity in its long tail, manifests a widespread, diverse and proactive opposition to Tory rule, a popular majority.
If the Labour party can align itself with that movement, adopting the role of aggregator rather than failed dictator, it could well emerge as the Netflix of parliamentary politics, not the Blockbuster Video, and the Conservative party, dispatched back to its heartlands, would be exposed as little more than a minority interest group, rooted in the persistent defence of privilege.
Carried by revolutions in the way that we, as a society, communicate, it is the centre-ground itself that is moving beneath our feet and the challenge of electoral politics today is neither to match the Tories at their own game, nor to outbid them with another kind of hegemony, but rather to harness the power of the “long tail” of progressive politics in Britain, to recognize its inherent energy and plurality and to unify.