Paul Campbell runs Effective Group and became involved in politics when setting up websites for Conservative PPCs. He has since established a dedicated service for Conservative MPs, and clients now include Mark Field, Nigel Adams, Nicola Blackwood, Julian Sturdy and Andrew Jones.
2010 was hotly anticipated as the General Election of the internet. YouTube virals were to spread the campaign message; Twitter and blogs were to dictate the news agenda; Facebook campaigns were to convert the young.
Yet in the event, television ruled supreme. A constant stream of news and analysis flowed from the televised debates, the breathtaking developments of the coalition deal glued the nation’s eyes to the screen.
Perhaps part of the web’s problem was that there was simply too much activity too widely spread to analyse and absorb properly. Web campaigning also proved tricky to direct specifically at one's constituents (many of the most prolific tweeters doubtlessly had a greater audience amongst political nerds than their electors) and had the potential often to do as much harm as good – just ask the ill-fated Labour candidate for Moray.
Nevertheless, for MPs new and old, utilising the web and its many applications will prove ever more critical in the years ahead. The campaign to win the next General Election starts now and freshly elected Tory MPs will be anxious to establish themselves as serious, responsive incumbents, building on their reputations as vigorous local campaigners prior to 6 May. Indeed the 2010 poll showed clearly that a well-liked and respected incumbent could see off pretenders often against all odds. Such reputations will no doubt turn out to be a vital buffer against any local backlash against spending cuts too.
The old Communications Allowance now removed entirely, no longer will MPs be able easily to fund constituency-wide newsletters, reports and surveys (unless local Associations are to be relied upon more frequently for time and resources).
It is for these reasons that getting started on creating a valued web presence now is so important. Put the work in and by the next election, the local MP’s website could be the go-to resource for local journalists, school children and constituents. It can also provide a base from which to respond quickly to new technological developments at low cost.
The world of the web changes breathtakingly swiftly, with the tools available to the 2010 intake worlds away from the landscape greeting new MPs in 2005. Back then, websites were simple utilities for a picture gallery, a description of the constituency and a basic archive of speeches and press releases. Now, they can be the tool for communication. Yes, there is Twitter and Facebook, all of which can be connected into an MP’s main website. But there are also things like RSS feeds that can alert local journalists and interested constituents to any new activity; inbuilt facilities for sending e-newsletters; immediate online surveys; interactive constituency maps; the capacity to upload a video of ones speeches or constituency visits and link into YouTube; the ability to post copies of newspaper articles; and, critically, a place for updating instantly MPs’ expenses in a world that demands transparency.
New websites are responsive and flexible, with features added or taken away the more or less relevant they become with web developments. There has even been an iPhone app produced as a way to get in touch with your MP. And, of course, today’s websites can now collect email addresses and even link in with casework databases so that when election time arrives, you know which of your regular web followers are actually electors.
The internet’s value as a true constituency-level campaigning tool may have been limited in 2010 but come 2015 (or whenever the next election comes round), those who use the web smartly are likely to be handsomely rewarded. There is no time to waste. New MPs and old alike must seize their chance to build upon the advantages of incumbency.