UK political parties take mixed approach to social media

By Rachel Gibson
April 22, 2010

RachelGibson- Rachel Gibson is a professor at the Institute for Social Change in the University of Manchester. The opinions expressed are her own. -

The three main parties have clearly moved into full battle mode since the UK election campaign starting gun was fired on April 6th. And while the pounding of pavements and pressing of doorbells will no doubt be crucial in producing the swings needed in key marginal constituencies, the online technology driving these targeting efforts seems to have advanced a step or two since the last election.

Taking a leaf out of the Barack Obama presidential campaign management handbook, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats have all set up ‘hub’ sites on the web to recruit volunteers and spread their messages virally.

Labour’s effort – membersnet – and the more self-referential myconservatives and Lib Dem Act are all variants of the MyBarackObama.com or ‘MyBO’ website as it was more affectionately known, launched in early 2007 by the then U.S. Democratic presidential candidate.

While the value of MyBO in terms of votes and dollars delivered is still the subject of some debate, it clearly represented something new and different in the field of campaign management, offering ordinary voters a do-it-yourself toolbox to help their candidate.

With only a little technical know-how but sufficient enthusiasm MyBO users could set up blogs, personal profiles and groups within the site to connect with like-minded others.

Emails could be personalised and sent on to friends outside the site to persuade them to support Obama. For the most enthused there were opportunities to sign up to host fund-raising events and house parties and even access party databases to download contact details of likely local Democrat voters to phone and canvass.

Aside from promoting a new level of self-organising among supporters, however, the biggest pay-off for the official campaign staff was the generation of a ready-made list of willing helpers sorted down to the neighbourhood level, who stood ready to be mobilised in advance of critical primaries.

Whether this more devolved model of e-campaigning can work in the same way in the UK elections is an interesting and increasingly important question for the parties to address.

Significant declines in membership levels in recent years make the prospect of a fresh pool of quickly mobilised campaign labour very attractive.

Investigation of the sites, however, reveals a rather mixed picture in terms of how far they are willing to go to put these new amateur foot soldiers through their paces.

While the Conservatives appear at first glance the most sincere in their flattery of MyBO, presenting users with a ‘dashboard’ of activities precisely as the original did, closer inspection reveals that aside from embedding a fundraising widget in one’s facebook profile, opportunities for the more participatory and ‘freelance’ forms action present on MyBO are fairly thin on the ground.

Indeed the main goal for the site appears to be to harvest email addresses for local candidates. Labour, and the Lib Dems have taken some step further toward the MyBO model, particularly in terms of its community-building component.

Users can post extensive profiles in which they explain why they joined the site, talk about their experiences of the campaign through their own and others blogs, post videos and create groups. Users can also create their own campaign events and invite others to attend in a nod to the ‘outsourced’ Obama model.

Overall though the UK parties online efforts do appear to fall some way short of the devolved system of campaign management and message distribution pioneered in the last U.S national election.

There are a number of obvious factors to consider in accounting for such reticence – lack of voter enthusiasm and more restrictive rules on fund raising and data protection to name but a few.

However, the parties own strong internal hierarchies and adherence to a mantra of message control since the Blair victory of 1997 are no doubt also helping to create an inertia and even resistance toward this looser and more ad-hoc grassroots style of campaigning.

Whether continuing declines in membership and the resources necessitated to fight elections in the future will tempt the three main players into experimenting more seriously with this ‘open source’ campaign model, remains an open question.

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