The 2010 general election and new media

January 20, 2010

parliamentMatthew McGregor is the Director Blue State Digital’s London office. The opinions expressed are his own.

The 2010 general election will be the first closely British election in which the internet will be an important factor. The last truly close election in 1992 was fought in a way unrecognisable to campaigners today. In 1997, most of us had yet to use email. In 2005, YouTube was barely three months into its existence.

So how will new media impact on the contest between the parties — and how will independent organisations use the potential of online media to insert themselves into the process?

Perhaps the most obvious difference for members of the fourth estate will be the encroachment of bloggers on the “old” media’s hallowed turf as the arbiters of what constitutes the news of the day.

Blogs are increasing the echo chamber through which the most actively engaged voters will get their news and opinion from, and bloggers are increasingly confident in their ability to break news stories that the old media will follow.

It will be interesting to see the extent to which the media cycle is affected by the blogging cycle. The impact on the media itself is likely to be the bigger factor, with no blog in the country yet commanding a sufficient readership to be a player on its own. We won’t see an “It was Iain Dale wot won it” headline in this election at least.

Politicians can now communicate directly with their constituents more effectively and more easily than ever before. The number of politicians using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has exploded over the last year – and some are even pulling it off. The jury is out on how genuinely effective this is. While most MPs would be delighted to have 800 people come to hear them at a public meeting, having that many views on a stilted to-camera video is unlikely to become the brave new internet world that some seem to hope.

Another factor affected by the explosion of new media outlets will be the “gotcha” moments in this election.

Many British political observers will have heard of George Allen, once a potential Presidential contender, only because he was famously holed below the waterline in the 2006 Virginia elections after being caught on camera using a racial epithet.

Already, one Liberal Democrat in a key target seat for that party, Greg Stone, has resigned as a candidate over inflammatory and unpleasant comments made on blogs. In the 2008 London Mayoral election, Boris Johnson’s transport promises were exposed as hopelessly underpriced — by the candidate himself, when he admitted to a member of the public (who happened to be a Labour supporter with a flip cam) that his policies would cost ten times the amount previously advertised.

But the most important new media development — and the real lesson from the Obama victory if politicians are willing to learn it — is the power that new media gives parties to energise and organise their supporters across the country to bring in unprecedented and powerful community campaigns.

The potential for this type of organising to cross the Atlantic has been best demonstrated not by a party, but by a small anti-racist campaign group, Hope Not Hate.

Starting with half a dozen dedicated campaign staff and an email list of 6,000 people, Hope Not Hate used compelling and timely email campaigns to encourage people to take tangible actions against the BNP – organising letter writing campaigns in local areas where the BNP were seeking to hold fundraisers, pressuring advertising firms to drop BNP ads, raising funds to publish more and better anti-BNP leaflets.

This activity lead to some incredible moments in the run up to election day. For example, the enthusiasm generated online lead to an unprecedented turnout for Hope Not Hate’s first campaign day — when the organisation used every piece of literature that they had printed for the entire campaign in a single day.

In response, the campaign asked those same volunteers to fund a second print run, and received in one 48-hour period more online donations than they had in the whole of 2008. Of course, as soon as the printing was complete, supporters were asked to volunteer to get the new materials out in the communities targeted by the BNP.

The fact that an organisation with just a handful of staff was able to distribute three million pieces of anti-BNP publicity in a four-week period, using just the enthusiasm of supporters and some simple new media tools to organise it, speaks for itself.

Their efforts in the European elections were not enough to stem the collapse amongst mainstream parties, but showed the potential for using the newest techniques in support of the more traditional campaigning methods.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 has long been a source of fascination and jealousy amongst UK political operators, and has become a short-hand description for how new media can affect the political process. The focus of commentators and politicians on blogs and other fashionable social media means that the wider use of new media as a tool for organising — its most powerful potential — has yet to break through in Britain.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The Labour Party and Hope not Hate are evil twins. As it has become increasingly difficult for Labour to canvass (threats of violence)they have outsourced the work to third parties such as HnH and UAF the unions etc. The idea of HnH is to identify BME voters and tell them their bodily presence in Britain is under threat from the BNP: discourage white Brits from voting BNP or encouraging them not to vote at all telling the electorate as third parties that none are worth voting far.

Who funds and supplies logistics for HnH it is Labour everyone knows it but this article does not mention it. The Conservatives have not grasped that as they work against the BNP they also work against the Conservatives. If Cameronidiot thinks this election is going to be a walk in the park for his party with the amount of BME people in this country now and groups like HnH he is truly an idiot.

Posted by | Report as abusive

I thought Hope Not Hate was a Blue State Digital customer? In which case, shouldn’t the piece declare the connection given it praises Hope Not Hate’s campaigning work so much?

Posted by Mark Pack | Report as abusive

Lots of food for thought here – it’ll be interesting to see how the 3 main parties react to issues when they come up, covering off the “reactive” using Social Media as well as just the proactive.

We did a piece of research in to how well they’re represented on search engines ( ers) which will obviously become even more important with the integration of twitter and blog results in the Google results page.

Posted by Henry Elliss, Tamar | Report as abusive

Hope not Hate is was set up and is funded by the Labour party to stop people from voting for the BNP. This corrupt Labour party are also not averse to tampering with easily accessable cardboard ballot boxes they introduced.

Posted by Charles Ansome | Report as abusive

Hope Not Hate and U.A.F are the Militia of the Labour Party, supported by Lib/Lab/Con MP’s and funded by Communist Trade Unions to keep the B.N.P out of politics and hold the top spots in politics for the Three-Main Identical Parties.

The sad thing is people actually think the Parties have different views.

Posted by The Red Baron | Report as abusive

Interesting post Matthew! One area I think will prove critically important is whether the political parties can monitor and understand the sentiment of the election chatter online. They are inherently and by definition control freaks and the fact that they can get feedback from voters above what the research and polling companies can provide them will be seen by them as gold dust.

At Tamar, our first political analysis was jumped on by the Labour Party and they were all over it like a dirty rash, but it did highlight that they are constantly tracking and listening to what is going on online. What this did highlight is that they are using digital channels to be proactive and get their important messages in front of voters, as per your examples, yet they are able to go into defensive mode when they feel that their messages are being diluted and threatened.

Profit-making organisations are waking up to the fact that the consumer now owns the conversation and that brands need to become solipsistic in their approach. If the political parties do not entertain the same approach will this lead to eventual failure to connect with their voters?

Posted by Jeremy Godfrey, Tamar | Report as abusive

Social comments and analytics for this post…

This post was mentioned on Twitter by JoshFeldberg: The 2010 general election and new media – Reuters UK (blog)…

Posted by uberVU – social comments | Report as abusive

[…] for social media and the UK’s political process. The last general election was held when Youtube was a mere 3 months old and Twitter hadn’t even been launched. A year on from observing Obama’s successful campaign in […]

Posted by Political Campaigning with Facebook: Fan Pages vs Groups | NCVO Campaigns Conference 2010: A New Politics | Report as abusive