RIP NLP: Five lessons from the life and death of New Left Project

If we want a diverse and democratic media landscape, we need to figure out how to fund it.

Alice Bell
6 August 2015
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A small station of the UK left shut up shop last week, as New Left Project announced that, after five years, nearly 1500 articles and over a million visitors, it was to cease publication.

It might well be tempting for centrists to claim NLP's closure as a sign of the death of the radical Left ("Lo, victory! Take that you head-in-the-cloud Corbymania! Jowell shall be mayor!"). But it probably says a lot more about the health of political media in the UK than that of the left. 

With an eye on the future, here are five lessons radical left media in the UK can take from the life and death of the little bit of the web that styled itself New Left Project.

1. Hierarchies are dull. Collectivise, it’s so much more fun. 

I was a member of the NLP editorial collective from early 2013 to mid 2014. One of the first things I learnt was how creative, efficient and liberating collective co-management can be. NLP editors often argued. But it was, on the whole, the healthy sort that aired different sides to an issue and meant we could robustly solve problems. We had a strong internal communication system – facilitated by Googlegroups, Trello and a schedule of face-to-face meetings – and a reasonably well thought-out distribution of labour. It left me wondering why any similar group would want to limit themselves with something as unreliable and stifling as a leader. 

2. There’s still a space for long-form writing in radical left media.

At its best, NLP showed that radical left long-form needn’t just be a matter of male, pale and stale “more a comment than a question” droning on. NLP wanted to give space for complex, detailed and challenging issues to be unpacked, and on the whole they succeed in this. The strongest NLP content did this without allowing those issues to get stale, and was an aid to strategic practical action, not an impediment. The archive will remain online, and I’m sure several of the essays will still be used for many years to come. 

3. But essays alone won’t change the world. Even if they’re very well typeset. 

The NLP editors often talked about increasing its media pallet – producing shorter reactive blogposts, adding photography, poetry, events, podcasts and videos, or simply publishing less but insisting our long form was more highly polished. But we struggled to change. This was partly a capacity issue but I also felt there was a slight snobbish preference for academic styles, slightly too in awe of academic credentials. The social construction of academic discourse being what it is, I worried this meant we weighted our output towards the archetypal angry man who wants to go on and on in detail about why some other man is wrong. From where I sat, all too often NLP seemed to be replicating the social barriers around political debate you might expect such a radical left project to smash. If nothing else, the focus on the essay could make NLP feel a bit stale and insular at times. In comparison, Novara Media is unashamedly intellectual but manages to avoid the more problematic ways academia can exclude, and actively embraces a host of media forms. 

4. Creating media spaces is relatively easy now. Let’s build spaces for offline interaction too.

One of the things NLP helped show was how easy it can be to carve out a bit of media space online, especially compared to similar projects in the 20th century. NLP also played a role in a developing social media landscape where writers and readers were much less isolated. The sense of community social media can convey is incredibly important in helping movements grow, but the web can only take us so far. We need offline spaces too, including spaces of privacy. There are plenty of people working on this issue, but it’s a challenge that could probably do with more attention. NLP often talked about running events and several NLP editors have moved on to focus on community organising, but NLP itself never really managed to move beyond a website. In comparison, Red Pepper actively engages with activist communities, actively participating in campaigns way beyond the responsibilities of a simple ‘media partner’.

5. Diversity takes resources. Fundraise.

Unfunded projects are reliant on people’s spare time, and spare time is a privilege many simply don’t have. The patriarchy, white supremacy and other forms of oppression can just be so damn time consuming for those they don’t favour. Those who hold social privilege are the most likely to have spare time to give to volunteer media, so it is all too easily skewed to their world-view. NLP managed to be a lot more diverse than the group of male graduates who founded it and would take time to challenge itself on power and privilege issues, but it always struggled to really express diversity. We often talked about raising money to solve that problem, but never really got around to it (not least because we were all pressed for time). As the NLP editorial collective conclude in their closing post, if we want a diverse and democratic media landscape, we need to figure out how to fund it. 

RIP NLP. You did something pretty cool, for a while at least. You’ll be missed. I mean, where else could you read a Compulsory Purchase Order for One Hyde Park? But one of the key things activists can do by opening up new media spaces is offer a platform for currently marginalised voices. And that offer cannot come with the price tag of working for free. If NLP taught us anything, it’s that any truly radical project will prioritise fundraising. 

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