The 2010 election was billed as ‘the internet election’ , but just about every election since about 2001 has been hyped to be the internet election and one of them was.Â The general feeling is that 2010 wasn’t the internet election after all, which is what the Hansard Society are saying in a new report.Â I sort of agree, and sort of don’t.For a start, what does ‘the internet election’ mean anyway?Â What would it look like?Â Â I can’t recall anyone who was predicting it really explaining what it meant, which makes it difficult to say whether it happened.
If, by ‘internet election’ people mean that voters will all surf the net, visiting all the parties’ web sites, following all their local candidates’ Twitter feeds and reading their blogs and discussions on their Facebook groups, then making their minds up based on that and direct marketing-type e-mails then not only was 2010 not the internet election but neither will any future election be it either.
Back in June the Hansard Society posted something about 10 online campaigning lessons learned from the 2010 election.Â None of them seem to be wrong, but they don’t go anywhere near giving a complete picture.Â I did like number 2 though:
The more effective the tool, the less sexy it is; Think databases and email.
So true.Â We are still a long way from having the whole country online, and even futher from having all the online people using the internet to find out about politics.Â It will probably never happen.Â A smart website might look good and be well-received by the small percentage of the population that see it, but you will get far more benefit from a decent database that records where your supporters are, where the floating voters are, and manages how you can target yoru message to them – whether it is by new technology, old technology or no technology.
Where the internet, backed up by well-organised information, can have most use for political parties is in co-ordinating and directing their other activities.Â Even if elections continue to be won and lost on the doorsteps that does not mean the Luddites are right – internet-based activity can encourage more people to get involved in the old-fashioned grass roots campaigning and get them allocated in the most effective way.
Having said that, there are ways in which future elections could become very different, thanks to the internet, and 2010 showed signs of how that could happen.Â There were many single-issue campaigns that used the APIs of the various MySociety projects to good effect – some better than others.Â Â As a candidate I received plenty of emails generated by websites about topics like hunting, Trident, Robin Hood taxes, and many others.
There was some official party advice about responding to such emails, but I expect the advice will be very different next time round.
Each campaign had slightly different tactics and all had some good and bad points.Â In the future there may come to be some sort of standard, taking the best points of each campaign, and maybe there will be a lot more aggregation of campaigns.Â It will be harder for candidates to justify a position of not answering these questions, and it will be easier to find their answers.
In return, these online campaigns will have to make it easier for candidates to respond.Â Some of the emails I got were expecting me to follow a link to a pdf file containing a pledge of some sort or other, print it out, sign it, and post or fax it back somewhere.Â Who has time for that if they are receiving dozens of emails a day?Â Â Even incumbent MPs will find it hard, let alone candidates who still have a day job to do and no administrative support.
I think there has to be a certain understandable reluctance on the part of candidates to want to make pledges on everything as well.Â They may have an opinion on something but not a huge amount of knowledge and will not want to be committing to anything they might find out to be impractical.Â For example, there were campaigns asking candidates to pledge to join a particular all-party group on some topic.Â As a non-anorak I don’t even know if I can promise that – I don’t know if these groups have limits, I don’t know how many you can join, how much time they take up, and so on.
The other frustration for a candidate was receiving the same email many, many times after having responded once.Â Â This could have been improved by having the web site record the first response so that subsequent visitors would give their postcode and then be told what their candidates think instead of just generating a new email.Â Far more efficient.
The top tip for candidates is to save all your responses and then when duplicastes come along you can copy and paste from earlier emails.Â Â It saves time and keeps you consistent – it feels wrong to not reply personally, but get over that: the questions were computer-generated text after all.
The next stage of all this will be when the collated responses are kept and compared to voting records to hold MPs to account – and perhaps this is where the real reluctance to reply comes from.Â Â It is already easy now to look up MPs’ voting records, in the future it will be as easy to compare their voting records to what they said in elections.
I think this is where the internet will make the most visible difference: not in the political parties’ campaigns but in the campaigns of pressure groups and other single-issue groups.Â Most of these had electronic campaigns that looked like they were knocked up when the 2010 election was called.Â In the future they will be written beforehand, and be better.
That doesn’t mean the political parties will not see the internet change what they do, but it will not replace the knock on the door, the phone call or the leaflet through the letterbox.Â If we all just sat at home and blogged, tweeted and commented on forums we would not achieve anything.Â Those things have their place, but their impact is largely second-hand.
There are many excellent political blogs out there, but their postings will be read by a very, very small number of non-aligned voters – probably a statistically insignificant number.Â So that brilliant post about the closure of a local hospital ward will not be read by any of the voters affected by it – but it *will* be read by people who are knocking on doors and will give them information to backup what they are saying and it will be read by some people who are then motivated to become one of those volunteers.Â In some cases it may get picked up by a local newspaper – that is about the only time it will get to the attention of the floating voters, the few who actually read newspapers anyway.
All very rambling I know.Â I may expand on one or two specific points in the future.Â This is somethign I have been meaning to write about for a few months and never got round to.Â I have finally done it in part as a response to comments from Richard Symonds on earier posts.
He has been complaining about a perceived lack of activity on behalf of the Labour party to the savage axe-swinging of the coalition.Â One answer is that the actions that will make the difference are not necessarily the one that will be visible to him.Â We could all write blog posts about how bad everything is, and lots of people do, but that is not going to get a message out to voters ready for when they have the opportunity to change the government.Â That will be done by getting more individuals signed up to knock on those doors – which is happening.Â I don’t know about Crawley, but the membership of Horsham party has increased by 15% since the election already. The next step is to get those new members (and the old ones) motivated to get out there and engage with voters directly.
All of that will be happening behind the scenes.
Owen’s response about what he is doing up in Rugby is interesting.Â I’m sure he appreciates how few floating voters will read what he writes – but it is not wasted effort.Â Knowing what is going on there may well persuade a few people to join up and I hope that anybody knocking on doors up there is a regular reader.
It is not clear how campaignign will change in the future and even less clear how I will fit into it – except that it will preferably not be as a candidate and will still involve a lot of footwork regardless of what I do online.