The Labour movement column
It is impossible to say what will be the defining issue or moment of the coming excruciatingly long election campaign. It could be the economy, public services, fiscal policy, optimism or pessimism for the future and a whole host of unforeseens besides.
What can be said with absolute certainty is that it won’t be the ephemera that decides this election: whether David Cameron’s Adam’s apple was air-brushed in a poster, whether some Tory blogger has fallen out with a tweeting MP, or any other gaffes, ruses and gags which will appear in an internet browser near you over the next five months. All this will be rather good fun for political junkies and hacks with column inches, tweet characters and blog space to fill. But it will largely pass the rest of the country by, other than for the occasional giggle. And boy are we going to need a few of those.
Beyond the trivial background noise, what will the influence of the web and social media be on the coming election? The answer is: surprisingly little. It won’t be myegotisticalblog.com wot won it. But equally the influence of the web and social media can’t be ignored.
Where blogs and Twitter – which is essentially a cross between blogging and social media such as Facebook – will have a degree of influence is in helping to define the media agenda, though that shouldn’t be overstated. Twitter will start to have an impact on activist information and organisation. The real power of the web will be seen in elections after this one – the critical mass just isn’t there as yet. And yes that was said in 2005 and 2001 as well so take it as you wish!
Whichever of the parties has a post-election leadership election, that could be the moment – but even that may be too soon unless there are potential candidates who are already on the case. If so, they’ve done well to keep it under wraps. Perhaps the leaking of a post-election web operation for a leadership bid could be one of the gaffes of the campaign?
Independent party websites will have the most influence – on activists and strong supporters in the main but on the media to a certain extent too – but only a small number of them will do so: LabourList, ConservativeHome, Liberal Democrat Voice are the obvious examples and Liberal Conspiracy – though difficult to pigeon-hole in party political terms – will have something to say and contribute. Left Foot Forward may also sneak in there too as its product – evidence-based progressive analysis – is unique and of value to activists, candidates and the media alike.
A few individual blog sites will also be part of the election conversation: Iain Dale (who almost passes as a one man independent party website), Guido Fawkes, and Tory Bear on the right; Hopi Sen and Next Left for Labour; and Mark Reckons and Charlotte Gore for the Lib Dems. Blogging MPs will go quieter as election day approaches. But the biggest hits will be the two exceptional political polling sites: Political Betting and UK Polling Report – especially if they’ve got some statistical tricks up their sleeves as baseball statistician Nate Silver had in the US election with his www.fivethirtyeight.com.
The party sites will basically be there as information mines. Though they do seem slow off the mark – e.g. with video – with anything other than press releases. Labour and Conservatives both have campaigning tools that are similar to those seen in the US elections. But only the hardcore and web literate activists will use them. What the parties haven’t done is organisationally embed these tools with their web-site, social media and doorstep campaigning. My.barackobama.com was part of a broader strategy of grassroots motivated campaigning. Whoever gets this integration and guided decentralisation right will politically surge. None of the parties have; so they won’t this time – it’s too late to put the broader organisational strategy in place. Online fundraising will be miniscule whatever the claims.
Iain Dale believes that email is still the most important web technology. He’s half right but where do you get the addresses from? This makes it more disappointing that none of the parties have achieved this alignment of web, social media, and organisational strategy. Let’s scale down the BarackObama.com 13million email list by 80%. Which UK party has 2.5million email addresses? Exactly, none.
Beyond the parties’ web presence, campaigning sites will appear on individual issues. The quality of these will be very variable. Tory Stories launched by Jon Cruddas and Chuka Umunna to highlight Tory failings in local government seems to have got off to a good start. Farmsubsidy.org is another good example. But campaigning sites still seem to be long-term plays. They are unlikely to have the ability to seize the agenda during an election campaign.
All the normal mainstream media mix of commentary and blogging will turbo-charge the whole thing. The Times’ Comment Central, the New Statesman’s Staggers blog, The Spectator’s Coffee House, the FT blogs, and Guardian’s Comment is Free are the pick. We don’t have the type of cable news coverage that they have in the US so much of that sort of chatter will take place on newspaper websites. One new addition this time round which will add to the quality of the coverage is the Channel 4 News Fact Check site which is modeled on US sites factcheck.org and Politifact. If Channel 4 get it right, then it will be a must visit website. Aggregation sites such as Politics Home have the potential to become the Real Clear Politics of the UK. I already use it more than the BBC website if I’m honest.
What does all this add up to? It certainly generates more heat than light. There is actually considerable quality in the UK web and social media space now – if you have the time to look for it. If you are interested in politics you will be on-line and accessing more than just newspaper websites. What this doesn’t constitute yet is a new means of doing politics. That’s the element that remains disappointingly under-developed.
The wider web conversation is still at the periphery. The bridge to the mainstream happens as a result of a few individual bloggers in the main. It is still the case that the blogosphere feeds off the mainstream media rather than the reverse as a rule. Party attitudes and behaviour reflect and maintain that status quo which is short-sighted. The occasional bloggers’ lunch is not sufficient and often counter-productive.
A lot will be written about the web and politics during the course of this election. Much that gets attention will be gimmicky. It’s easy entry, quick exit technology so expect rapid change both before and after the election. The number of established political online brands independent of the mainstream media can be counted on the fingers on one hand. That doesn’t mean that the web isn’t significant. It is. It’s just that not many people in politics have worked out what it’s for yet or how to reach beyond familiar political audiences into the mindset of the wider electorate. That is the real test. It will be met. But just not yet is my hunch.
Anthony blogs at http://www.anthonypainter.co.uk