The web is vital – but let’s not miss its broader lessons for our politics

29th December, 2012 11:41 am

During the 2010 general election campaign, and for a year or so leading up to it, a standard issue question fired off by the media was, “What impact will the internet have on the outcome of the general election?”

Iain Dale and I discussed it for an hour at the BBC College of Journalism, hardly ever in disagreement in spite of the differences in our politics.

I also discussed the matter on Sky News with Tim Montgomerie one blurry Saturday morning. Again, we echoed each other closely: the web would not – would never – be the deciding or even defining factor in determining the outcome of a general election.

Those big elections, we tended to agree, would always hinge on key issues and, to a slightly lesser extent, personalities. Jobs, schools, hospitals, wages, foreign policy – those things matter. Strength, trust, clarity, resilience in leadership – these attributes will always be important too.

While the internet was a still a new-ish tool to understand and to harness in electoral politics in 2010, most people felt it would not set the tone of debate, nor would it alter the general course of a national election.

So it proved.

And yet, two and a half years later, the still rapid development of the web is again playing a role in our national, and indeed global, discourse about how we conduct our politics.

After the impressive innovation of the 2012 Obama campaign, the role of digital engagement in politics is firmly back on the agenda.

Google and CNN recently hosted a discussion on how the various presidential campaigns built digital tools to improve their fundraising and Get Out The Vote operations. Forbes published analysis at the end of the cycle calling 2012 “the first digital election”. The Harvard Business Review also got stuck into the mine of data. And Time magazine’s summary provides all the numbers you need on Obama’s digital mobilisation: £690m raised online; 45 million Facebook likes; 358,000 real world events organised through the Dashboard technology; and more.

At LabourList, too, Mark has been diligent in championing the need for Labour to continue to improve its online organising and its emails, suggesting Brewer Street could do with a big beast like Alastair Campbell to beef up e-communications.

More recently, he’s highlighted the role of Matthew McGregor in directing Obama’s rapid response team in the US and called on the party to hire him to run digital operations. Anyone who knows Matthew will know he’s one of the most impressive campaigners out there. His involvement would unquestionably be a boon for Labour.

All of this debate is well and good. Political parties should be looking to improve their digital communications. There is a huge opportunity for individual politicians, in particular, to harness the open nature of the web to interact with members of the public, to answer their questions, to recruit and mobilise volunteers – as Stella Creasy has done so effectively over the past eighteen months.

What concerns me, though, is that in the haste to think about how the internet can inform and inspire our politics specifically, we are missing some of the broader cultural and social trends that underpin why the internet has become such a powerful tool in the first place.

First, and most obviously, many people have lost trust in the large, often faceless and remote institutions that once were the backbone of our establishment.

As YouGov’s recent “Trust Tracker” showed, there is diminishing trust in every former pillar of our society – from family doctors, to judges, to news journalists, to politicians on both sides – except for people in large businesses who were already at a very low bar.

This is significant in understanding the role of the internet in society and in politics because Web 2.0 generally, and social media in particular, are self-selective – that is, people choose their own digital content, news, politics, and even social networks based on their pre-existing views, interests and relationships.

This is a good and a bad thing.

Self-selection allows individuals to bypass many of those remote institutions that have done so much to destroy trust in our society. People are now free to choose to access information, commerce and even public services from those organisations or individuals with whom they already have a relationship of trust, leading to potentially even stronger bonds.

But for people in politics, self-selection can lead to a dangerously closed culture that cuts many campaigners off even further from the people they seek to serve, exactly because they gain information and views from too narrow a cross-section of society based on their pre-existing interests. In practice, digital media can therefore entrench closed political networks and mindsets, rather than open them.

As I wrote in a long-ish piece in the last edition of Total Politics, this can lead to a dynastic, self-preservationist and even somewhat timid culture that shuns innovation and new voices. That is not how the rest of the country operates, and it is dangerous for our politics.

These frustrations are also articulated in Joe Hayman’s book British Voices. There, I rambled:

“there’s still the same group-think that there was when people were meeting in smoky pubs in Westminster. I follow Westminster journalists and they all follow each other – they don’t follow John who lives in Stockport. Until [the internet] leads to a revolution in housing or social care, it is not going to be the great democratising tool it’s held up to be. Until it translates into people feeling like they’ve got more power in their life, they’ll continue to be angry.”

As the Labour Party promises new policies in 2013, it should also seek to apply some of these broad cultural lessons to improving its organisation. There are three things the party can do right away.

First, CLPs around the country, as well as the party centrally, should seek to better understand supporters. How would they like to contribute? What unique skills do they have that they can bring to the table? What type of political or social events might they like to attend, or host? Digital engagement is key to learning more about the people the party seeks to bring on board, and then keeping them motivated.

Second, they should remove as many of the practices that are prohibitive to involvement as possible, and encourage autonomy and expression, online and off. That means losing some of the stuffy GC meetings and giving members the tools and templates to run their own campaigns, street-by-street, in the communities they know best and on the issues that matter most to them.

Third, they should remove some of the politics from their digital communications. The party’s Facebook page, for example, is bannered by an image of young people knocking on doors. Great, but that’s a very niche thing to do, even for the politically motivated. How about a photo of people laughing and interacting, or a visualisation of what the party stands for or has achieved for the country? How about some behind-the-scenes photos and unique invitations?

Elements of the party’s digital output have improved immensely over the past few months, but a text, email or phone call from a volunteer when I’ve personally been affected by government policy, and at a time other than election time, would enthuse me more than a seemingly random missive which is in fact in response to a remote statement in parliament. That’s the sort of user-led approach that only an organisation in touch with its people can adopt.

These changes are relatively minor, but each might do a little to help make the party more open, more accessible to people who don’t already share our obsession with politics. They would apply learning from cultures and sectors away from politics that are better at understanding their target users. And they would help achieve something everybody wants: making the weird world of politics more relatable, more real, to people.

  • Stuart Bruce

    Interesting post and it’s absolutely right to put the emphasis on what can be done locally and to ‘hard bake’ digital into everything that the party does. However, there is an inherent contradiction with the idea of hiring someone/anyone to “run the digital operations” as this allows the other newly appointed directors to abdicate their responsibility to make digital core to what they do. The risk of this approach is that digital becomes a silo and a ‘bolt-on’ to the party’s core activities. This might have been the right strategy a few years ago, but is the wrong strategy today. Labour does not need a digital director, it needs the political and party leadership team (especially the recently appointed directors) to get its act together and truly understand how essential it is to make digital their responsibility instead of simply paying it lip service. It then requires the hiring of experts in every department who have both the specialist expertise and digital expertise. The first being the most important. Digital specialists are pointless unless they have real expertise in whatever it is they are trying to use digital for.

    • telemachus

      Technocrats needed to serve the message men.

  • telemachus

    Infiltration and message.

    Track the major tweeters and engage them to mutual benefit. Use these and the blogs to not just publicise the positive but ensure all the world and a dog know the blemishes of the opposition.
    We can in fact all do it, and in respect of the Tories, will be helped by the right wing bloggers who do a good job in shooting down Cameron, Osborne and co-workers.


  • Comment Featured Labour MPs give Corbyn a “lively” reception after Syria position decided

    Labour MPs give Corbyn a “lively” reception after Syria position decided

    Meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party are now never unremarkable. This evening’s saw one of the biggest gatherings of lobby journalists outside Committee Room 14 at 6pm on a Monday in a very long time. Just two and a half hours after the Shadow Cabinet met to decide Labour’s position on Syria, leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn stood to address Labour MPs and peers about the outcome. It was, apparently, a bizarre scene. The two appeared […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Europe Featured Leaving the EU would put Britain’s economic security under risk

    Leaving the EU would put Britain’s economic security under risk

    Terrorists bring death and destruction to the streets of Paris… Europe faces its biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War as thousands of refugees flee conflict in Africa and the Middle East… world leaders gather in Paris at the UN climate change conference to find solutions to the looming global climate crisis… These are some of the biggest global challenges facing us today, challenges that require urgent action, challenges that can only be solved at international level, in cooperation […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Labour to have free vote on airstrikes in Syria

    Labour to have free vote on airstrikes in Syria

    Labour MPs will not be whipped on how to vote on proposals for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and the party will not take an official stance on the issue. When it comes to a House of Commons debate, Jeremy Corbyn will argue against, while Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn will speak in favour of intervention. Both will make their cases from the Labour frontbench. This follows a lengthy meeting of the Shadow Cabinet today, lasting almost two hours. Reports […]

    Read more →
  • News Corbyn writes to Cameron to demand two-day debate on Syria

    Corbyn writes to Cameron to demand two-day debate on Syria

    Jeremy Corbyn has today called on David Cameron to allow a two-day Commons debate on proposed intervention in Syria. The Labour leader is currently discussing Labour’s position on airstrikes against ISIS in a Shadow Cabinet meeting, with sources suggesting he has offered a free vote, but with the party taking an official stance against intervention. You can read Corbyn’s full letter to the Prime Minister here: Dear David As of this morning we have not had a clear proposal from the […]

    Read more →
  • Featured News Labour release results of member consultation on Syria

    Labour release results of member consultation on Syria

    Labour have released the findings of their policy consultation on intervention in Syria with members over the weekend – claiming it shows 75% are opposed to airstrikes against ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn sent out an email on Friday evening to members and supporters asking for their opinion on how Labour should approach the Government’s proposals for intervention in Syria. The party have today said that 107,875 people responded to the consultation, of which 64,771 were confirmed as full Labour Party members. Of those 65,000 […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends