A few months ago, I was one of the few outsiders taking an interest in the Lib Dem leadership contest – not because I backed Chris Huhne over Nick Clegg, but because I wanted to see how important the internet had become to political campaigning in this country.
The short answer? It hadn’t. Neither candidate blogged, and their websites were uninvolving affairs: Huhne’s had the candidate draped strangely across the masthead, while Clegg was captured seemingly mid-yawn.
But worse than the websites themselves was the lack of imagination. Months into the contest, only The Spectator had bothered to buy up such search-engine keywords as “Nick Clegg”, “Chris Huhne”, “Lib Dems” and “Lib Dem leadership”. Clegg’s site even announced that it was “A site supporting Nick Clegg’s campaign to become leader of the Liberal Democrats”. Perhaps they were hoping to imply that a constellation of other sites were backing the Clegg campaign – but the result was that a casual surfer on Google would have found that claimed to be Clegg’s official homepage.
The Lib Dems aren’t the only ones who have neglected their websites, as I pointed out yesterday. In fact, a basic lack of agility permeates all the parties’ online offerings. Why have the Tories not claimed online ownership of the phrase “clunking fist”? Why does Labour’s YouTube channel predominantly feature rather dull ministers making rather dull points and answering rather dull questions? WebCameron was an honourable exception, but even then traffic has trickled away.
Essentially, British politicians are still in what Tim Montgomerie,
the editor of this website, calls “send mode” – using the internet to
distribute your point of view. The step change to make is the
transition to “receive mode” – to ask your readers what they think, and
shape your policies accordingly.
Admittedly, entering “receive mode” has its problems: for example,
controversial suggestions are seized upon by opponents. Yet the
advantages stack up. In 2004, Howard Dean’s presidential campaign was
powered by the self-organising “Deanie Babies”, who provided not just
money, but advice as well – advertisements and posters were honed and
improved by online supporters, who also came up with their own
versions. As Joe Trippi, manager of that campaign, has said, it’s
absurd to think that a few people in your party headquarters have a
monopoly on political wisdom.
“Receive mode” has another consequence: the party is no longer the
be-all and end-all, but merely the centre of a movement – a network of
activists. It does not matter whether voters view your site, or see
your content elsewhere – as a YouTube video embedded on a blog, for
example. Nicolas Sarkozy, during the French elections, answered 1,500
questions posed and priotised by voters on Digg. The campaign produced
hundreds of short films, following Sarkozy around France, and built
links to roughly 1,000 bloggers, with 100 or so – from all sides of the
political spectrum – visiting their headquarters every week. In
America, likewise, putting existing bloggers on your staff is now seen
as an essential campaign tool.
Such online activism has the potential to strengthen a party
greatly, not least by re-empowering those stuck in constituencies which
are safely held by the opposition. A Tory supporter in a Labour area
can, thanks to ConservativeHome and other sites, make his voice heard
by his party – just as Bush-haters stuck in Red states have used
MoveOn.org to vent their frustration.
Is this a way for British parties to rescue themselves from
declining support, and declining turnout? Alex Hilton of LabourHome has
made the point that soon, they could have no choice: as membership
tumbles, there will be no one to trudge the streets at election time,
so the only way to contact voters will be through email lists.
Such lists could also be a fundraising tool: while people might not
be willing to become a member of a particular party, they may feel
passionately about Europe, or tax, or hunting. Parties are more likely
to win these individuals’ support by targeting them over such specific
issues – and what better way to do this than via the internet? Already,
people have filtered themselves into interest groups, whether on
Facebook, or Yahoo Groups, or any website you care to name. All a
politician has to do is reach out to – or microtarget – that
constituency; as a bonus, doing so gives the impression that you are a
leader and a party that is comfortable with technology and modernity.
At the moment, parties are not geared up for these new online
opportunities. But in the end, embracing “receive mode” could be as
much about survival as opportunity. In his book The Argument, US
journalist Matt Bai describes how the Democratic Party after 2004 was
hijacked by twin revolts from its super-rich donors, tired of being
treated as “ATMs on legs”; and from netroots activists, frustrated with
the ideological compromises clung to by the leadership.
It is not hard to imagine how similar frustrations – and a similar
insurrection – could break out within the ranks of the main parties in