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.

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