Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Have a very Partisan Xmas

The Conservative and Labour Party are giving us a treat for Xmas, both a little bit of fun but conveying a strong party message. For a whole £5 you can buy the Conservative supporter in your life Ed Miliband's Policies for Britain, a 204 page notepad. Yes folks its blank, but its a fun notepad.
Less costly, but allowing fun everyday between Dec 1st and Xmas is the Coalition Advent Calender, behind each is a broken promise to remind you why Labour argue you should not trust the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.
All good clean fun, and all very festive, but as both can be shared an opportunity to get a message relayed across social networking sites.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Vodaphone's failed viral campaign #mademesmile

Its a great idea, you want to get a bit of positive word of mouth. You start an online campaign and so do a bit of crowdsourcing. You find an appropriate hashtag (the symbol which placed before a term allows searching and grouping of tweets) and invite Twitter users to say what 'makes them smile'. In theory it creates a buzz about the brand and gets coverage online and offline. More importantly, in theory, it associates the brand with the making people smile. Well this was what could have happened for Vodaphone in a parallel universe when they offered free phones to those who told the world what made them smile.
The major mistake was to not take into account the environment for the brand. If you are a brand ticking along just searching for a bit of positive coverage it can work fine. Tetley, the tea company, invite users to send in pictures of their mugs to 'The Gaffer' at @tetley_teafolk; it seems to be going ok but Tetley don't have enemies. Vodaphone face significant criticism for not paying taxes in the UK. UK Uncut, campaigning against cuts and tax dodging, invited their followers to hijack #makemesmile. Very soon it became a trending topic, the content said it all. See this article for examples.
Just like Labour's #changewesee, Vodaphone managed to attract opponents which shaped the messages at key times. Conservative/LibDem supporters placed a lot of observations of negative changes they saw on Labour's site. The lesson is that letting the online crowd have control over your message is a dangerous one, but the outcomes can be predictable. Basically if your brand is in trouble, possibly avoid giving your critics a space on your own website to say what they think. It can end up with your opponents getting the positive coverage and not you!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Election 2010: party expenditure accounts released

The Electoral Commission has released full details of the party and candidate expenditure from the 2010 UK General Election. There is a lot of detail but there are two key headlines. Firstly is the overall party expenditure compared to one another. As the first graph shows, the Conservative party spent twice the amount as Labour, £16 to £8 million, the Liberal Democrats spend was just over £4 million. When one considers the outcome, it seems Labour got a better bang for bucks; or of course the actual spend has no impact in terms of votes. The disparity between spend and outcome though is quite stark. Of course the Ashcroft funded target seat campaign may explain this, that the money was channeled into specific areas as opposed to a largely national spend but one must wonder about return on investment.
In terms of wise spending, the Conservatives spent an inordinate amount on advertising while Labour focused on direct mail (unsolicited material to electors). That is the one clear difference in terms of communication strategy.
Looking at the overall figures for how spend was used (above graph) we get a degree of an idea of how parties campaign. Spend on direct mail is virtually equal across the major parties suggesting this is the key route used to reach voters. How effective this is is questionable, much direct mail goes straight into the bin, but with targeting and personalisation there is now a finely-honed direct mail strategy. Advertising is high spend and the Conservatives clearly led, with hoardings most heavily used and often carrying negative messages. Interestingly market research is central to each party's campaign, so informing the direct mail strategy, you can even see a bit of green showing the Green Party were equally serious about targeting. What does it all say about the professionalised, or strategy led, election. Awareness using advertising aside, it seems it is the direct route with communication targeted as well as possible that is the prefered mode of communication. Directly to voters, using a range of persuasion tools, yet under the media radar. The online media could be a supplementary means for delivering such messages, especially email, but they lacked the databases, one wonders if this will remain a a feature for the next contest?
Graphs taken from EC website

Friday, December 03, 2010

Will bare breasts deter Muslim Fundamentalists?

That is from entering a country, not if they are in the course of a terrorist act that if all the women stand up and rip off their tops will they suddenly stop what they are doing and run away. But the idea is serious, the Dansk Folkspartie (Danish Peoples' Party) believe that if they include candid shots of topless women on Danish beaches will will deter fundamentalist Muslims from choosing to settle in Denmark. Writing in the Telegraph, Praveen Swami quotes their foreign policy spokesman Peter Skaarup arguing: "I honestly believe by including a couple of bare breasts in the movie, extremists may think twice before coming to Denmark". Swami argues this is flawed as many young Muslims are obsessed with sex, his article has also lots more analysis and is well worth a read. The flaws are obvious but wonder if in branding a nation using certain images they can attract or deter people choosing to migrate to and settle their - an interesting poser for nation branding!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Will Facebook messaging replace Email? Probably Not!

Email is on the decline as a communication tool, and some claim were are observing the start of a trend which sees other forms of online communication taking over. In particular, some claim, the new integrated text, chat and messaging service offered by Facebook. A recent Pew Report highlights the use of a range of technologies for communicating, Text remains on top, followed surprisingly perhaps (or to me anyway) by phone calls (Cell and landline have daily use by 30-38%), face-to-face and then online with email languishing at the bottom with 11%.
As the Pew team note, however, this is demonstrating that different tools are used for different groups. Closest friends with whom we share phone numbers are texted and spoken to, and we are likely to see some of them each day and so have 'real' conversations. There are then a wider circle of friends who we communicate with online, they will be within our Facebook network and some linked to via instant messaging services aided by their prevalence across smart phones. Email is now the most formal level of communication. It has become the equivalent of a letter in the modern age. Young people will communicate formally using email but are unlike to use this for informal communication with their friends.
This suggests that email will not die, but its use will be modified. It also suggests a more social dimension to communication that needs to be understood perhaps. That tools that can be used to communicate directly to individuals are only appropriate for certain types of communication. There may be a use of social networking for promotion, but it is not a channel for advertising but socialising across geographical spaces. Equally, communication tools are no longer built for a purpose only but shaped by usage and to understand how to communicate you must firstly understand how people communicate to one another and want to receive communication from different sources - friends, organisations etc. Usage sets the rules, and it is not necessarily the usage built into the design. Food for thought perhaps

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A thought on representative democracy

I am leading a session on representation with my students on Friday and thought I would offer some thoughts, not on the content but on the general concept of representation within a democracy. Of course, we know how representative democracy works. Every five years or so (normally) we elect individuals to represent the geographic area in which we live and they disappear off to parliament to work on our behalf. Implicit in the UK system is that this is a very broad interpretation of working on our behalf, and often it is the good of the country that is the key driver for decision making, though party whips tend to control voting. There is very little sense of delegative democracy happening, where MPs will vote in the way a majority of their constituents direct, and no mechanism for actually gauging public opinion by constituency anyway. So there is a question regarding how representative democracy is at the very simple level. Who do MPs work for is a big question, they rely on the party for their position as MP, they can be deselected, and on their party leader for a career beyond the backbenches, but technically the voter is the employer as many state on their profiles on Facebook.

Perhaps in light of the expenses crisis the assumption is that most MPs actually work for themselves anyway; this would be unfair as many do a good job as servants of the constituency. They promote a range of local causes as well as defending individual and group rights and taking cases to councils and beyond. They also act as advisers and give weight to campaigns. It is said there are divergent levels of service, with those MPs who enjoy safe seats being more relaxed about their presence locally and those in marginal seats being very keen to be seen as the defender of all things local. But the key thing here is being seen. Many MPs in safe seats so the same job as those in marginals, they just don't need to shout as loudly about their work.

Often representativeness of parliament is linked to the age, gender and ethnicity balances, while some predicted parliament would be younger, more feminine and more representative. This was not the case, with only a 2% increase in female MPs. But does that matter? While there perhaps should be a 50/50 split, with the geographic link it would still mean one-sided representation at the constituency level. The big question is about feeling represented. There are a range of value-laden 'should' demands of MPs in terms of how they should act as representatives (beyond expenses and all that relates to that type of behaviour), but many of these are quite unrealistic for any individual MP representing up to 100,000 people while also having a full time job in parliament. This puts the onus on the represented to go out of their way to be 'represented' and so show they have power; but in turn that is impossible if everyone actually did simultaneously demand the time of the their MP. MPs are not the only route to representation, but the fact that they are the formal democratic link places a burden upon them.

So students (or anybody) both for discussion here and in class, how can representative democracy work more effectively? What mechanisms can strengthen the links and ties between MP and those they represent? What realistic models are there for representation? And, a really big question, does the day to day campaigning nature of politics get in the way?

Friday, October 08, 2010

One negative perspective of political campaigning

While walking down the street in Edinburgh one day a Member of the Scottish Parliament is tragically hit by a bus and dies.
His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance. "Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter. "Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around here, you see, so we're not sure what to do with you.
"No problem, just let me in," says the MSP.
"Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."
"Really, I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven," says the MSP.
"I'm sorry, but we have our rules."
And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the lift and he goes down, down, down to hell. The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.
Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and blether about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the Scottish people.
They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne. Also present is the devil, who really is very friendly who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that before he realizes it, it is time to go.
Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the lift rises. The lift goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him.
"Now it's time to visit heaven."
So, 24 hours pass with the MSP joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
"Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity." The MSP reflects for a minute, then he answers: "Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell."So St. Peter escorts him to the lift and he goes down, down, down to hell. Now the doors of the lift open and he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and rubbish.
He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the rubbish and putting it in black bags as more rubbish falls from above.
The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder "I don't understand," stammers the MSP. "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of rubbish and my friends look miserable. What happened?The devil looks at him, smiles and says, "Yesterday we were campaigning. ....Today you voted."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Conference season is over: but who cares about Conferences?

I have been advertising my blog to my new students as a 'learning resource', yet nothing has appeared here for a while. Ooops, books, journal articles and life got in the way, so has Twitter! Too easy to share a link. However, given that we now start a new period of politics in the UK, parliament reconvenes, a spending review is imminent, and a coalition government now has to show substance as well as unity, I thought I would add a few thoughts on what to expect based on the events of the conferences.
Party Conferences are strange events. They were once spaces for deliberation. Where the party met and set a direction. Well sort of anyway. Perhaps that is more the ideal than the reality, but the often bitter arguments that took place in history show them to be more about the party meeting than presenting itself to the nation. As James Stanyer records in his book covering the evolution of conferences, they are now far more a media event than a place for policy making. And the media play a key role in translating events to the wider public, but they also need to make a story about each conference.
The Liberal Democrats perhaps had the toughest job. Conference is supposed to be a place for policy debate, easy when you are the third party but not so when you are junior partners in a coalition; and they are junior albeit punching above their weight. Leader Nick Clegg had to sell the coalition, the tough decisions, and also position these within Liberal Democratic values. Tough tasks which in the end the media suggested he did well but the talk of splits was constant and all those questions about whether Vince Cable was on message or really a socialist did not help the cause. Their problem was the multiple audiences, not only the party but the media, their Conservative partners and the voters they hope will stay loyal and those they need to persuade to support them in the future. Tougher given that most of these audiences will be served more by the media than by live coverage of events.
Labour in a way stole the show. The dramatic finish to the leadership contest saw brother beat brother and the media handed a fantastic soap opera story line. The Milibands became a modern day Cain and Abel, a real life Grant and Phil Mitchell. Ed, the victor, became 'Red Ed', and Neil Kinnock got 'his' party back. For an opposition party the first conference after an election is less important. It is more about rallying the troops and showing an element of acceptance, humility and setting out a course for reform. But the story was one of factionalism and David Miliband's exit was interpreted a number of ways: petulance, disappointment, disillusion, rejection of the result. Ed Miliband has a long journey but perhaps as a new leader his start was unhelpful and could be compared to the treatment of William Hague as incoming Conservative leader in 1997. Rejection of the party by the voters allows for negative coverage, criticisms of the choice of leader override positives, their history is more important than their future. The continuing story will be whether Ed buries Blairism (whatever that was) and New Labour, and how he can unite the party as a positive opposition monitoring government.
The Conservatives was, in contrast, the damp squib that never really lit up coverage. When the big story is that Conservatives are split over reforms to a universal benefit you know that there is little to say. Cameron's performance equally was seen as solid but unexciting. Abandoning his script-free style, this was a careful speech that seemed to spend equal time attacking his predecessors and thanking his supporters: not much policy really just a little more flesh on the 'we are in it together', 'Britain needs you', Big Society narrative of society he has been developing. The interesting aspect was his expressed commitment to the coalition and partnership with Clegg.
So they return to parliament, for Labour it is rebuilding a brand around Ed Miliband to engage those who are dissatisfied with the coalition. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats need to retain their own identities and present an unified image as a coalition, simultaneously. The media will be looking for disunity in the coalition and the partner parties, as well as signs of socialism from Red Ed. Should be an interesting time to study political communication!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The 'Online' Labour Leadership Campaign

Looking at the party websites created for the election there were two key functions. First they provided information for floating or wavering voters around the key issues - mostly mapping on to the key concerns as identified in Ipsos MORI polls. Second they gave space to activists and tried to mobilise them by creating a sense of community, providing urgency and giving hope, and putting them in contact with one another to create an offline community. The leadership campaign does not face the challenge of reaching the floating voter, people who are often less involved in the issues and if they do visit party sites are searching easy cues to help voter choices. The potential leaders are speaking to an active and involved audience, Labour party members and activists who will determine who the leader will be through the act of voting as well as through activism on behalf of the leaders. Given the power of the Internet to connect organisations to the more involved publics one would think this would be a key campaign tool.

What is surprising firstly is the bracketing off of the campaign site from the MP's site with only David Miliband providing a direct link and his brother Ed linking via a news item. Andy Burnham's site can be found easily via Google, Abbot and McDonnell do not feature and none of the sites are that prominent. Though there are references to a site for Ed Balls, all that can be found is his MP website, this does not mention the leadership race. So the first issue is a lack of search engine optimisation or enmeshing between different platforms. Constituency facing websites funded by parliament cannot of course be used for government campaigns but a link is not breaking the rules; so one feels the first opportunity is lost.

Websites are now a key promotional tool. These are the single place that an individual can present themselves as they wish their potential supporters to see them. Looking at the websites of the Milibands and Burnham what so far can we assess of their campaigns?

David Miliband has gone for the weblog style and so all news items can be shared and commented on. All comments are positive - so far - but this is about giving an impression of accessibility. It maps on to the ethos of the get involved section which copies many of Obama's techniques in terms of organising local events. There is however a lot of promotion - the wall of faces of supporters; but it maintains the mixture of information provision and interactive elements that appear to be emerging as a new model of Internet campaigning.

Ed Miliband's site is pretty much the same. It is slightly less crowded, there is no wall of supporters but the blog style presentation, comments and sharing features and links to social networking sites all mirror the style of his brother's site. This reinforces the idea that there is a style of campaigning site - a genre as Foot and Schneider suggest - and candidates and parties at general, local and European elections, as well as contestants within this sort of race, are increasingly adopting and adapting to their objectives.

A different approach is however adopted by Andy Burnham. You cannot enter the site without signing up to his campaign; this is immediately off putting for those who are unsure and concerned about giving away personal data. On the plus side it provides Burnham with all the emails of those who sign up and gives him permission to contact them. Then what happens, nothing. You sign up you get the confirmation email and you get the Mail Chimp sign up confirmation; there is no campaign website it is just a splash screen. So he offers no information about what a Burnham led party would be like, why he wants to lead; all material that is essentially staple to convincing of the seriousness of his campaign or the validity of his candidacy. Perhaps he is relying on more face-to-face forums, perhaps on personal contacts or other communication means, perhaps he believes that the majority of his supporters are offline, or perhaps he feels the resources needed are too great and not cost effective. It is unusual however in the modern era.

The extraordinary choice made by Burnham aside, clearly the Milibands have recognised the value of the Internet and are using it to both connect with their supporters, activists and party members. The sites are slightly different in that the top half of David's page is about him and the promotional aspects; Ed focuses more on the Web 2.0 features and the site is simpler and less cluttered. Both however fit to the new style of political campaign websites, information and interaction are both represented, often in equal measure, in order to provide the impression of openness and accessibility as well as the sense that there is a community of support around the candidate. It is all still about promotion but of a more co-created variety than has traditionally been the case.

PS: If anyone has an address for the sites of Abbott, Balls or McDonnell do let me know; I did try to find them!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review: Game Change

There are usually a few books that come out after each US Presidential election, but 2008 really seems to have led to a whole industry of writing. The first, and in my opinion best, overview of the campaign was Dennis W. Johnson's Campaigning for President; a book that takes an overview of the key innovations and explains why Obama won. As an edited collection it is able to cover a lot of ground with contributions from a range of academics - to understand what the campaign was about this is the one to buy. But for those who wish to get inside the campaign Game Change is something quite special. Subtitled 'Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime', this tells the insider story of relations between those contesting the presidency, between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates and details the biography of the campaign. Authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin are journalists and the project seems to have been approached from the perspective of an investigative journalist. Interviews have been conducted with a range of front line and back room operatives central to the campaign and the picture painted is one of both strategic thinking and deployment of resources as well as pragmatic seat of the pants flying that at times verged on panic. Wonderful stuff!

So what do we learn from this? The story of the bitter rivalry that blew up between the Clintons (Hillary and Bill) and Obama is striking. When the visible aspects of this were only the negative advertisements, to get a sense of the personal side to the contest is fascinating. In particularly Hillary Clinton's blinkered disbelief that the 'upstart' would not only take her on but force her to accept defeat. The chaotic organisation, or at times disorganisation and disfunctionalism within Clinton's team is also striking; this contrasts with Obama's slick operation that, although not without its problems, kept on top of strategy and perhaps this led to the emphatic victory in the race. Biden was a temporary spanner in the works, but soon got his game together and he is a marginal figure in the story largely. The John Edwards story is a further sideline but nonetheless an amusing aside, as he stumbles along badgered by his wife and dogged by rumours of an affair and subsequent love child it is clear why he never made any impact and never got a position in the Obama administration.

The McCain story is shorter and details the thinking within the campaign as they drift from frontrunner to being dead in the water to the emergent victor (of the nomination) in a matter of months. Again the disfunctionalism in his team is striking, but the real story is Sarah Palin. Her introduction, rise to stardom and then public and private meltdown, with hints of her verging on psychological collapse, is a fascinating and somewhat tragic story. The decision to include her in the campaign was ill-planned, and without full checks on her ability or background. While she showed herself to be an initial competent performer this did not withstand interrogation. Her brand crashed and burned very quickly, those advising her were probably as much to blame as McCain for choosing her and Palin herself.

The focus stays on Obama and the Clintons a lot, perhaps as that was where the real story of the 2008 campaign was. There is little said of the online machine Obama's team built; beyond this being a rich source of campaign finances. Also there is much about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright issue, yet little about some of the other events of the campaign - Joe the Plumber does not feature for example despite his name being constantly referenced by McCain in the third and final debate. In fact the latter stages of the fight seem to be a footnote when compared to the detail on the process of winning the nominations, a time when Obama and Clinton where the big game in town. However, despite some detail some readers may expect to feature being absent, it is a fascinating read - an series of in-depth insider accounts of a campaign written in an accessible style and at times reading like a political thriller. Great fun, but also a great insight into the world of the political strategist

Friday, May 07, 2010

So what now in UK politics

Quite a night, and one of those you realise that had you gone to bed early at 10 or 11, got up early at 6 or 7, you would probably have not wasted so much time watching talk about an exit poll that started off being treated as being highly spurious but turned out to be fairly accurate. It seems we are now in the unknown territory of a hung (or balanced) parliament, though this may not be fully certain. Adding in the notionally safe seats that are yet to declare at 10am Conservatives have 298; Labour 254 and LibDems 54. There are a further fifteen that are marginal or clearly unpredictable. If the Conservatives were to seize all of those they would be on 313, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats unable to gain more so requiring more than a LibDem-Lab Alliance while the Conservatives need only to team up with some of the 17 others (of course some alliances are far more likely than others). So the election outcome is still to be decided and it will be London and the North West that are most likely to make the decision.

The results may well remain unpredictable, and often seem to be linked to a constituency based context. In adjoining constituencies there were swings to Plaid Cymru from Labour and the reverse declared within minutes of each other. Lembit Opik lost, possibly due to the high profile of his love life over politics, but other Liberal Democrat personalities like Adrian Sanders and Mike Hancock seemed to cruise home.

The polls may well have been fairly accurate. The dip the Liberal Democrats experienced seemed to carry through to the election result and there may well have been some hovering pencils in a number of seats. Perhaps the fear campaign regarding a hung parliament, pushed by the Conservatives, had an impact on floating voters decision making.

We are now in a situation of manic spin, like reeling drunks high on caffeine (which some of the party spokespeople may actually be by now) they are all claiming that no-one has won and no one will accept defeat until the very last moment. The UK is now having its Belgian political experience, sadly Herman von Rumpey is unavailable to mediate and sort out our problems (though as EU President he may have some influence).

On the final note, I do feel sorry for all those MPs who were hard working but lost their jobs on the back of national swings. Two I really feel for having met them are Andy Reed and Jim Knight, both good local MPs who hung on against the odds previously.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The online election battle

Some interesting stats based on election search trends among on line users. Firstly the post debate interest in Nick Clegg seems to be continuing and he may well now be far better known then he was a matter of days ago. While there seems to be interest in Samantha Cameron, there is less so in David himself as he lags behind Gordon Brown, though this may not reflect actual traffic to sites of course, only searches!
1. nick clegg +500%
2. david cameron wife +180%
3. gordon brown +120%
4. samantha cameron +110%
5. labour +110%
6. david cameron wiki +90%
7. david cameron twitter +80%
8. conservatives +50%
9. conservative party +50%
10. david cameron poster +40%
The LibDems can also find great comfort in the numbers of fans they have on Facebook, though they lag behind the Conservatives.
Equally this appears to be a doubling of fans across all parties indicating heightened interest in all things election related. Does this indicate that the Internet is becoming a significant source of information for voters, and so also a significant battle ground that for the first time will be ignored at the parties' peril?

I never knew Iain Dale was in Bucks Fizz - or why MPs shouldn't dance

A Total Politics video encouraging us to make our mind up. Some 'interesting' lip-syncing and dance moves from a variety of MPs and candidates. Have to say Alastair Campbell is the only one who seems to keep his dignity.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Labour's Manifesto Launch Ad: Smart or Dumb?

This is the advert promoting the manifesto of the Labour Party of the UK. Given that this is engaging it may get seen quite a lot of people, I can see this doing the rounds on Facebook etc. But is this a smart way of communicating their message, making simple and easy to digest and understand. Or is it dumb, or rather too dumbed down, trivialised and lacking substance. It could be seen as the bullet points for a grand plan, or a series of rather vague promises. It could be seen as patronising or reaching out and making policy relevant. What does anyone think?

Monday, March 29, 2010

And so it starts

There was even discussion in the Belgian version of Metro newspaper last week regarding how negative the UK General Election campaign would get. This was a reaction to the rehiring of M & S Saatchi and speculating how they would use attack advertisements; there was also talk of Lynton Crosby returning: the man who thought it a good idea to call Blair a Liar during the 2005 campaign.

For this to work the receiver must accept and recognise the criticism, if they do then the Conservatives may have an impact with this; if the receiver does not see it as justified then it will be rejected and the Conservatives will be seen more negatively. I note the media picked up on these so they now have received wide coverage and cannot simply be used to shore up support among devout Conservatives - those most likely to support any attack on Gordon Brown. It is a risky strategy and one that could put off many of those unsure how to vote. The reason is that this gives no positive reason to vote Conservative, only a reason not to vote Labour. If they are not avid consumers of political information they may only be exposed to a series of negative messages from each side - result being abstention. The problem often seems to be the case that strategists focus on a game between the key players within a bubble of their own construction; the effects more widely are not always considered and the result is that the voter is not placed at the heart of the campaign. The big question is whether the hard sell approach works in politics - I see little evidence of this!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Perceptions of leadership

An interesting report from the Institute of Leadership and Management on perceptions of the major political leaders in the UK, business leaders (Richard Branson, Karren Brady and Rupert Murdoch) as well as three other major national leaders (Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy). The report highlights the problems all parties face in winning over public opinion during the forthcoming General Election.
The main finding relates to their Leadership Quotient (shown above), on which Gordon Brown is bottom (Branson top) but none of his two rivals come out of this well it has to be said. Cameron is highest on 5.66 (out of 10); in a context of Branson scoring over 8/10. Clegg is in a close second with Brown lagging behind. But when looking at the qualities behind these, Cameron scores badly for integrity; Clegg for leadership abilities; Cameron does very well for communication and engagement and, while Brown scores worst for having vision, no party leader is perceived to be clearly possessing vision.

The representativeness of the sample is dubious, or at least in terms of representing the UK electorate, as 21.1% would vote for other parties which suggests they are unusual compared to the mass electorate or are not UK voters. When looking at voting behaviour however, Cameron is not winning over all the disaffected Labour voters, the split is even between him and Clegg. The overall reports concludes that Brown should work on communication and engagement; Cameron on demonstrating ability and integrity; Clegg meanwhile needs to also demonstrate ability to lead. "Gordon Brown in particular has a real challenge. While he has a core of strong supporters who rate him highly, the problem is the low opinion of the majority. Many of these people have moved away from Labour and have deep reservations about his vision, his communication skills and his ability to engage them, and build commitment."

While none of this is in any way earth shattering, it is interesting that these judgements match much media commentary regarding the leaders and generally reflect doubts already voiced widely. What it really seems to show is how close the contest is and perhaps what little overall differences there are between the leaders as overall packages. None has the support awarded to Branson, or indeed Barack Obama who has second place but is deemed as being better at communication and having the highest integrity. Perhaps the challenge for both leaders is to erase those last minute doubts that many voters may experience - do they trust either Brown or Cameron fully, and who do they trust most?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The WOM election?

Missed the original article by Douglas Alexander in the Guardian, but he argues that 2010 will be the word of mouth election, all about people talking politics to one another and convincing friends etc to vote, perhaps, and further vote for a particualr party. it is a theory, though his claim that "elections have always been won by getting out there and talking to people" may actually be less and less accurate over recent years. True it may be that doorstep campaigning wins over far more voters than a television advertisement (party/political election broadcasts are nothing more than this), as may long term communication within constituencies from their MPs, but whether people talk politics unprompted is questionable.
But actually Douglas Alexander is talking about 'word of mouse' in 2010 or he seems to be veering that way in the video, he wants people to contact friends and tell why they should vote Labour - extended the change we see message via the keyboard and mouse. Oddly though, the email going out to Labour list members does not reinforce the message of contributing to the campaign but receiving. The invites are then about signing up to the party Twitter feed, becoming a fan on Facebook or getting the iPhone app - this enables the party to communicate to you and does not automatically mean involvement. The idea of word of mouth online is a good one, while donating your Facebook status to a party (as was allowed during the 2008 US presidential campaign) may not win votes, an endorsement from a friend just might. But will they actually encourage public endorsements, from members or supporters, by word of mouse? Politics is still something that some are very reluctant to talk about, especially party politics. Also it may not be cool to be into politics, let alone to support a party, and can support for any of the current parties in any way be spun as cool? It is an idea though and as a mobilisation tool a good one, provided there are more like those who currently cheerlead for Labour on Twitter (see @bevaniteellie as one very vocal example).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Is electoral politics in terminal decline?

Two bits of data suggest this is the case. A sharp decline in turnout which never dropped below 72% 1945-1997 (with a peak of 82/83% 1950/51) but in 2001 fell to 59% and only rose 2% in 2005 despite some arguing the contest would be closer. There are a number of factors that drive turnout, one being the extent to which votes matter. While many voted in 1992 to try to ensure victory of Labour or Conservatives, and again in 1997 to kick out the Conservatives it seems, the foregone conclusions of 2001 and 2005 would clear depress turnout.

One reason for that is engagement in party politics itself. Tribal politics, which pitted capital against labour, is a feature of history and what has resulted is a lack of ideas in politics and a convergence around the centre ground. In order to differentiate themselves, parties enter into empty oppositionalism and attack politics. There is a lack of a narrative underpinning party manifestoes and so it is more about selling a party as 'least likely to cut core public serices' than competing approaches to governance. Research suggests that this process of marketisation of political policy making and campaigning has a sclerotic effect on voter engagement. It simply promotes a ‘hard sell at any cost’ approach using bold statements that focus on image not substance. While it is argued this is a response to lowering engagement and involvement, so political messages must require only peripheral processing and not deep cognitive engagement, this lack of interest may actually be exacerbated by the style of communication.

Turnout figures also however mask a stark political reality; that not only is there a lack of choice but that there is also a representational divide in Britian. In 2005 the highest turnout was 77%, the lowest 34%; some voters were engaged! There is a big disparity between Marginal and Safe seats! The former see a keen contest fighting for every vote; the latter see little contest and are likely to have a lower level of representation from their MP. This may seem a contentious point, but having moved between constituencies in recent years I note receiving newspapers, flyers and a significant amount of literature from both the MP Annette Brook across a four year period, as well as her opponent in the 2005 election. In four years within the Poole constituency I have not heard anything from MP Robert Syms, nor even seen him in the media: it would appear he makes no effort to publicise his work for the constituency at the very least.

The separation between an air war (via the mass media) and the ground war (on the streets and doorsteps) can be highly important in terms of maintaining a representational connection as well as achieving electoral victory, and could be crucial in 2010. The Air war is likely to be highly negative aimed at getting committed voters out and convincing those who already lean towards one party or another. The negativity will appeal only if the receiver agrees with the foundation of the attack; if they feel it to be inaccurate or too personal the sender will suffer. The Ground war, in contrast, will be about persuading by personal contact and making policy relevant to lives and localities. But only the key voters in the marginal and target seats will see a ground war; this two tier system will remain as long as the UK uses the first past the post voting system. Voters need to be asked and convinced, most are not!

A further set of indicators relates to trust in politics (standing at 24% currently) and general interest in participation. 80% are interested in politics (though this drops to 35% in the most deprived areas which are also likely to be safe Labour seats) yet only 15% are interested in an active role and only 27% feel they have any say in how the country is run. Self-efficacy in the UK is very low and, following the expenses scandal, can only be lower.

Leader debates may be the one positive element in the air war. Controls demanded by the parties will reduce audience spontaneity though. On the other hand, they may also be more like PMQs and full of rhetoric and attack and not setting out clear reasons for electing any of the participants. So the debates may only be peripherally processed and not play a role in providing informed choices. The media will also have a key role to play. The danger here is that focus will be on minute performance issues and political substance will be ignored or forgotten. This may be the case with much media coverage of the contest, their perspective being of a horse race with a focus on strategy as opposed to political choice, and highlighting personal failings and gaffes; does this encourage particapation?

Much has been said about the effect of the Internet, that it will come of age in 2010 and that there may be an Obama-isation of political campaigning. Parties will try to use the Internet to increase awareness but UK politics lacks an Obama, and the parties find it hard to develop participatory campaigns. centres around local candidates in marginals but struggle to gain supporters. In the marginal seat of Mid Dorset and North Poole, candidate Nick King has four supporters and has raised £150; not exactly demonstrating high engagement – perhaps the product (politics firstly, perceptions of elected representatives, and the party, not Mr King) is the problem! Activists will be trying to innovate and mobilise but can they touch the hearts and minds of the masses?

Due to the Internet, more voices will be heard, and some will be new ones, but largely they are megaphones for the parties. Greater co-production of the campaign will occur but outside party sites, and a lot will be satirical. Labour’s change we see site, I am told, gets more negative ‘Changes’ than positive and there are a few ‘negative’ changes shown on the related Facebook site; debate online regarding the site then centres on censorship rather than the aim of the site which should provide citizen endorsements of Labour’s tenure. The fact that the majority of pictures are uploaded by Labour candidates and activists tells us that either ordinary citizens do not see positive changes or they cannot see the point in engaging.

Because of all this, turnout is likely to show the same mixed pattern as in the last two contests with engagement being higher in the marginals. There may well be a slight average increase if the contest stays close however. It is highly likely that voters will select the best MP, locally, or the least worst leader and some may remain unsure till very late in the campaign. But will anywhere near a majority engage and become involved in electoral politics generally, let alone in the campaign of one of the parties. Based on current indicators related to the voting system, the level of negativity already circulating, and the nature of engagement online via party sites and across Twitter, it seems not. It will be a dirty fight and for many engaging in that fight will be anathema despite the powerful arguments for making an informed choice.

But does this suggest electoral politics in in terminal decline? Probably. Politics needs to be made relevant beyond key voters in marginal constituencies, perhaps this suggests revising the voting systems; it also needs to be part of everyday lives, suggesting better communication. Policy making should be closer to the people, either via effect representation or forms of direct democracy. Ideological space needs to be reconfigured to match modern society and the emotional and personal aspects of the leaders need to be discussed intellignetly to enable both personal and political involvement. News values need to be changed, as does the spin culture within politics; which we accept feed one another. Political communication needs to think not about victory but reception; victory at any cost may be pyrrhic and empty in terms of perceived trust and legitimacy when all that has been achieved is a depressed electorate bored with negative attacks. These were just some of the suggestions, perhaps a combination of all would reverse the negative social trend towards politics?

This is an overview of a debate held on March 14th at Bournemouth University featuring the author, Prof. Barry Richards, Dr Dan Jackson, and Roman Gerodimos.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is Twitter really fundamental to democracy?

Twitter is probably the most over-hyped tool on the Internet, possibly due to the vast array of celebrities that share their interesting, and often not so interesting, thoughts (and promote themselves) with a rather large audience. It is certainly the fastest growing Web 2.0 tool, in terms of uptake at least, and a great source of information. From F1, to cricket, to who is visiting Downing Street, to what offers are on in your local branch of Top Shop, its there and perhaps easier to access than the range of different pages you would need to access from your PC or mobile phone to get the same level of up to date information. There is also the commentary provided by some on their daily diet (for breakfast on March 17th 2009, Stephen Fry had a bowl of fruit) and the one sided @'whoever' conversations that are like listening to someone on the phone and trying to guess the topic. But it is both growing and has uses, but is it really enhancing democracy?

Talking to the BBC, Evan Williams says that it is. The key example of this, or least the one highlighted in the piece written for BBC Online, is that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has signed up. Williams says "[He's] using it to give these sort of inside peeks from the White House and behind the scenes. He's definitely using it as part of their strategy and supporting Obama. So that seems important because it's really changing the game there." Oddly the tweets from @presssec are not exactly profound (see left) and very similar to the daily information feed that Downing Street offer that are about official visits and suggest little more than demonstrating the President is busy. Its all about image management basically and is both informational as well as political in reality.

So this is not really about democracy. It may demonstrate some air of transparency but this information could be found easily if wanted. What it does achieve is making it more accessible to a wider audience as you can choose to receive it directly rather than having to search the White House website. Interestingly those who are commenting on conditions in Iran or China are perhaps playing a greater role in true democracy but Williams, or the article's author, seem to overlook these.

Will Twitter aid democracy during the UK General Election, indications are not hugely positive. The majority of activity seems to be to make sustained attacks, or rebut enemies attacks, using a public feed to do so. Some may only receive one side of the argument of course, as they group around their own party's cheerleaders, however if you wished to gain a general overview of politics there seems little that is designed to enhance participation. Labour's #mob monday is designed to mobilise activists and there have been a few 'doorstep' references that are parties trying to get momentum behind local campaigning. But really this is about self promotion in the lead up to an important electoral contest, not about the promotion of voting. Parties may say there is a link between the two, others might not; I can see some of this being engaging but at other times being hugely off-putting - like with everything on Twitter, it depends who you follow! Thus such claims are rather bold, and suggest believing your own hype. Sure, if it can be used to make political decision making more transparent or allow suppressed voices within authoritarian regimes to be heard internationally it is a great tool. But largely that represents a small percentage of content and there is no aggregator that separates serious campaigning political communication from election communication designed to persuade an audience. Some sections of the Twitter audience will switch on to global politics, some to party politics, some to celebrities, sports and their friends; they will choose how Twitter is to be used for them and the majority usage in terms of content and follows may determine how the tool is perceived as a way of communicating messages, to whom and what content is appropriate given the audience. As with every new online tool it has potential, but that potential is both positive and negative and there are multiple uses; what is heard will determine how the tool is perceived and what sort of individuals choose to use it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Just who is being bullied here?

It has become a fair question, is it Gordon Brown who is being bullied by a hostile media; Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline - just to maintain balance and perhaps due to the whiff of blood the pack now have; the Conservatives who some allege to be behind Pratt sticking her head above the parapet? Its all really a bit bizarre.

At any point anyone in a position of power can be accused of bullying, people management is a skill which some have and some don't. What the atmosphere is really like inside No. 10 Downing Street is not fully discussed. It is either very tranquil and calm and the leader is benign, or everyone appears to be in constant fear that Gordon Brown will explode in a rage - my suspicion is there is a lot of the former and a little of the latter but that certain events get exaggerated to make a good story. Whether some staff have or do feel aggrieved is something that should firstly be handled internally and not used for political capital at the end of the day; there are after all procedures that any organisation would expect its employees and employers to follow.

What has become rather odd is that some fairly vague allegations supplied by Andrew Ranwnsley and published in yesterdays Observer have become a huge story; tales of Brown's temper are old news and I remember Andrew Marr asking who is Gordon Brown about 4-5 years ago in a BBC special - the opening music was 'Monster' by The Automatic. Brown denied one thing, ever hitting anyone. Mandelson denied a little more than that. Then Christine Pratt waded in to tell the world that her helpline has received calls from employees of No. 10.

Whatever the political argument this is a breach of confidence and as much has been said several times. Why she did this is open to question and the finger has pointed at the Conservative party as engineering this as part of a personalised dirty tricks campaign. Not out of the question and sadly a part of politics - McBride et al are part of a long tradition here. The damage to the NBH organisation and perhaps the Conservatives if links are proven could be serious, especially if there is no evidence that Pratt's claims are truthful. It has certainly brought NBH into the spotlight and a posts here and here have been circulated arguing "if you call the National Bullying Helpline for help, because you believe you’re being bullied at work, and you follow their advice, they might tell your employer that you are the bully, call your grievance vexatious, and leave you in a worse position than when you started". Of course the opposition parties are calling for an enquiry while Labour deny all allegations. The whole affair seems a huge mess to be honest and I tend to agree with Mandelson's comments (which I rarely say) he suggests ""I assumed that this was a storm in a teacup manufactured by somebody who wanted to get some good headlines for his book... It now looks like more of a political operation that's under way, directed at the prime minister personally." I would not personally accuse Andrew Rawnsley, but it does seem rather a convenient series of events and the idea of Pratt talking because she felt that the government was in denial is a rather odd line of argument.

Politics is perhaps becoming too personal and this is a symptom of this. Brown as a figure polarises public opinion. Cameron is not exactly more popular but not as unpopular. But neither should be seen as an endorsement. Attacks seem to be more and more personal, particularly against Brown, and from a wide range or sources. Within the hypermedia age anyone can say anything and it become a piece of political/election communication. Perhaps this is Christine Pratt's role, it was a personal move for political reasons, any more would be an accusation and even this is conjecture. But there is a big why question and it relates full circle to where I started with this ramble. Who is being bullied here? Brown is constantly under fire for being himself, one wonders how much sympathy such attacks earn him and reinforce images of the 'nasty' opposition. It may not matter who did what, to whom, or why; it is public perceptions that matter and it may be that these attacks actually help Brown far more than the range of oppositional forces think as they continue these attacks.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is it ever appropriate to call your opponent a scum-sucking pig?

I blogged a matter of days ago about people getting into trouble for inappropriate tweets. It was based on observations of Twitter usage. It may be the people I follow, but it has become increasingly partisan and polarised in recent weeks and there has been a lot of attack, rebuttal and counter attack. Sensible, objective voices become marginalised and the medium loses its power as a way of engaging some people in more rational political discourse - noted by Andrew Chadwick on Twitter yesterday - a shame. What is the result, that Twitter scandals become magnified and part of what is now bound to be one of the most negative campaigns with no clear separation between what is party generated and what is independent.

That is a different story, and I wanted to highlight two episodes to explore how Twitter seems to be used during the election campaign. In the UK, one contribution to the 'I've never voted Tory' hashtag was under the name of David Wright MP (Labour obviously) and included the elegant argument "because you can put lipstick on a scum-sucking pig, but it’s still a scum-sucking pig". David (pictured right) claims his feed was hacked, which may well be the case, for all we know it could have been hacked deliberately to cause trouble for him or the Labour party - all things after all are possible. The fact that follow-up tweets which were not later deleted included 'must've hit a nerve" suggests claims of hacking are questionable however. The story then escalated and Eric Pickles waded in to demand an apology, this was published on Iain Dale's blog and also picked up by the media. Did he, didn't he, does it matter, who cares; all interesting questions. What it is though is symptomatic of the political discourse on Twitter, which anyone can be drawn into, but once drawn in it becomes difficult to retract (impossible to edit) a tweet and then you have to find some form of excuse.

Similar rows are bubbling across in the US, in Ohio, where there will be a by-election following the death of Senator John Murtha. Democrat candidate Jennifer Brunner is using a tweet by COAST and organisation supported by her opponent Rob Portman (left), which read "John Murtha dead at 77. Good riddance bad egg" as an indication of his character. Her campaign, which has much broader and substantial criticisms of Portman, includes the line "Ohioans are decent people, and we "get" what people are about by what they do" - perhaps as relevant to the reference to Murtha, his links to COAST, and his opposition to spending and taxes (the campaign covered by COAST) over which political arguments are raging.

Twitter seems to be increasingly used as a campaign tool. But is it a wise tool? Well any tool is only as wise as the user and that in many ways is the problem with Twitter. We can suggest that the use of short phrases that can be broadcast to a huge audience is very attractive to anyone running a campaign. But are the short phrases well thought out? One may imagine that the 'I've never voted Tory' hashtag is something viewed only by Labour supporters, no these are monitored very widely. Thus the imagined and actual audiences may be very different. It is ok to produce these simple slogans, but do they actually have broader ramifications when they are as negative as those used (maybe) by Wright or Portman? There was a flurry of excitement when it was revealed that the Conservative Central Office wanted to approve all tweets, not such a silly idea. But, while MPs and PPCs may be controllable, the broader party twitterers cannot. This is where the bulk of negativity comes from and, as Andy Chadwick noted, the outcome will be that there will be a small and highly polarised conversation taking place that replicates the yah-boo of the Westminster floor. It will be of little value to anyone and probably will be nothing more than an afterthought to the election. Sad, for a time I thought it may be the great tool of mobilisation; or will this negativity actually mobilise people?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Can you get in trouble for Twittering inappropriate comments?

We know that there have been cases of people being sacked for their Facebook status updates, Twitter seems even more immediate and often is used very unwisely by some. Politicians can tweet from the floor of parliaments, commenting on everything from the rationale behind policy to the tie worn by the speaker (tweets sent during the election of the UK Speaker of the House of Commons evidenced some of this); but are there every repercussions? It may be easy to think you know who is reading your tweets, you have an imagined audience rather than recognising that the world could be listening. Here is a story that Joto Fritz shared with the Democracy Online Forum:

There was a case in the Parliament of Lower Saxony, Germany in December 2009. Helge Limburg, a member for the Greens, used his Twitter account during the debate on the 2010 budget and posted that the speech of the Interior Minister reminded him of HC Strache and Gerd Wilders, two right-wing politicians in Austria and the Netherlands and called him an "unbearable agitator". This was made public during the debate by a member of the FDP (Liberal Party) who read the entry out loud. This led to a heated debate and an excuse [apology of sorts, DL] by Limburg "for the choice of words, not the content". The debate then ended peacefully. So no charging or conviction but heated debate due to statements made on Twitter.

At a forum on the use of social media in Westminster early last year, that well-respected communication expert Derek Draper did comment on the immediacy of Twitter and that he could read comments about himself speaking at events while he was speaking and then use them to steer his speech. You could also use them to attack the opposition also, if they are tweeting. One does wonder when the first case will be brought that questions whether a tweet constitutes libel - surely it must - or slander. Given that it will be one of the election battlegrounds it may be interesting to see if anyone will wish to shout foul when tweeted about or if it will all be just part of the rough and tumble of election campaigning.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why I love UGC

The real bonus with Web 2.0 is that it easily facilitates ordinary web users to create their own content and contribute to campaigns. This was forwarded to me by one of my students, no name! I guess they lean away from the Conservatives!
After a little investigation I found a lot of different posters, all of a similar vein though perhaps less blunt, floating around on Twitter. The site where these originate is very simple and allows anyone to generate the words to fit around the now famous, possibly airbrushed, picture of Cameron. It is a creation of Andy Barefoot who supports neither Labour or Conservatives, maybe a Liberal Democrat (??) and his site has a few more sophisticated versions. But the power of these is that all those online activists can create them, circulate them, some may go viral, a lot of people have a laugh but, in political terms, it may have an impact on overall perceptions of David Cameron. This may not be based on the message itself, though they may be reminders of negatives linked to Cameron's history or persona, the above links to the Labour 'Dave the Chameleon' video and his background in public relations as negatives. But such offhand allusions to a negative message that makes this powerful; impact is based mainly on the fact that people we know (our friends on Facebook, Bebo and social networks or those we follow on Tumblr and Twitter or email contacts) do not like Cameron and oppose him as prime minister. I wait to see the same done to Labour and Gordon Brown, or is deemed too easy a target?

Monday, January 18, 2010

New style of government or new style of gimmick

As the ever-interesting (and I do mean that) Dizzy informs readers last week, the Conservatives are clear winners in engagement online. Whether this is old versus new, so there is more interest in the Conservatives because Labour have been around, and in government, for a long time, is a question? It could be that the engagement tools are the right ones, or that people want to engage more with the Conservatives, perhaps as they are seen as the next government, this is not an analysis of the audience unfortunately beyond simple indicators of engagement.

But the party seems to have a new strategy, one that will allow greater public participation in government. They want someone to design a platform, and will offer £1 million, that will create an online public sphere. If you are wondering about the idea of the public sphere, this should be autonomous (possibly in this case), inclusive (definitely), political (as before - and clearly) and rational. A space where people are able to find solutions to common social problems. Such ideas are surrounded by much hype and are attached to many ideals of democracy. There are two ways of looking at the notion of creating public spheres, it can be hailed as a means for getting people empowered and in touch with government, as in the case of this article by Tim Bonnemann, but there are dangers.

It is easy to source a crowd online, after all this was achieved to create the UK's Christmas number one single, or at least to block Simon Cowell. But what sort of crowd will be sourced? You can find a crowd that will decide that hanging is the best deterrent for serious crime, would that be good policy though? Would this allow minority opinions to be voiced? Or just those of extremists? Would it break the spiral of silence or create a new silence, of the majority perhaps? Most worrying would it abrogate the responsibility of a government over decision making, or indeed would a government be tied to the crowd by the terms and conditions of participation. Of course these negative outcomes can be avoided, to an extent, but they need to be considered. Initiatives that bring the governed and government closer together are all worthy of support and encouragement, the danger is though that these initiatives can be ill-considered gimmicks rather than real proposals for public participation in the democratic process. It may take more than £1 million to not only build the interface but also to ensure all the checks and balances are in place; that or we may find a place for consultation and participation that becomes unusable as anything but to embarrass the government that thought it up and paid for it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Its going to be a dirty fight

There is a lot of money being spent on playing up the Conservatives, with a glossy backlit ad dominating Piccadilly Circus at one point over Christmas. But the majority of campaigning, in this period of phony campaigning, is on the cheap and on the web and via email. The above is from Labour which I have been forwarded twice this morning already. This will perhaps be the major impact the Internet will have on election campaigning. YouTube allows anyone to get a video out to an audience (few may watch it but it is a route to publicity). Facebook and Twitter does the same with these photo-shopped ads. It may replace the street hording as it is possible to target them a little better, but may get the same views. They are only peripheral cues, reminders of campaign messages and slogans that will only appeal to those already converted, but they will be used and lot and may encourage some to turnout if they are worried about Cameron caring for the less well off or Brown's various (in)competences!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Will online campaigning make a difference?

It seems there is a received wisdom that the Internet played a crucial role in the 2008 US Presedential campaign - and everyone is asking much the same of every other country's election. In this vein, there is a fascinating article on the Channel 4 news site which asks whether online campaigning will be an important feature of the forthcoming General Election campaign. There are real advocates who proclaim that the Internet could fundamentally shift the style of campaigning. Toby Flux from Labour Matters says in the piece that hits, clicks and tweets really count and that 2010 will be the "first general election of the social network age" he, like Labour's Twitter Tsar, believes news stories which break online will dominate the campaign. Others are more circumspect, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes suggest much of what happens online will be swamped by the deluge of coverage across mainstream media, and I guess their websites also which can steal the audience away from the parties.
It almost seems that Labour want it to make a difference, though perhaps this is dangerous unless they have an online strategy that is yet to be launched as the Conservatives are massively ahead in terms of the blogosphere and the sophistication of their homepage - not to mention the number of MPs using social networks or microblogs. While Kerry McCarthy may be right in saying that online tools can reach younger voters, she may also contradict herself when observing that too much online political communication is in-fighting. It can, as Fawkes says, mean that bloggers (MPs or not) are simple preaching to the already converted and not really encouraging anyone else to become involved.

The key thing seems to be Obama, everyone wants to emulate him and his success. The Conservatives have already tried to create an Obama-esque social network and many consider his model of campaigning to be something to emulate. This misses the point in a number of ways. Former Liberal Democrat communications manager Olly Grender argues in the piece that the campaign "has to have the charisma and hope and excitement of the Obama campaign to add magic dust and that is nothing to do with new media"; it was the man, his image and what he stood for that drew in the audience not his social network. One must precede the other! Also the campaign organisation was very much a grassroots operation that empowered activists, some of this work could be done online, so it worked, but you cannot contrive that and create an activist base (Shane Greer agrees, he just said so on BBC News 24) - perhaps the Conservatives will garner both the enthusiasm and the will to create an offline and online activist base that will push MyConservatives as an important tool - Perhaps! Labour have a less public network for supporters, perhaps avoiding the fanfares and brickbats such tools can bring you.

It seems the media are playing up the idea of an online because it is new, and it is in many ways as the advances in online technologies have facilitated a higher level of use to make it a way of reaching a lot of people. But you cannot guarantee an audience. Perhaps Iain Dale is right, confirming the Downes and Mui thesis that email is the killer application - if you have a big enough database you can reach a lot of people and mobilise them. Perhaps they can also be pulled to other online campaign tools and drawn into the campaign. The Conservatives are far more organised in using email strategically. I hear from them once a week, I signed up to Labour from three emails and have received nothing - either I am on a blacklist or they just don't want to talk to me, or they are not using their database very well (anyone from Labour know the answer?). Liberal Democrats are less frequent and the e-newsletter is less flashy, but they also seem to have grasped email.

Online campaigning needs a pull - an audience needs to be drawn to the sites of parties, their social networks and their Twitter feeds. Obama provided a pull unique to him it could be argued (I think it was unique to the time and mood); in the context of low trust in politicians generally; when the party leaders have been around for a while; when support is not unequivocal for either party and many may be voting for the least worst option, parties in the UK need a big pull factor if the Internet is going to be a vote winner either as a tool for activists or for voter engagement.

Is Brown really Britain's worst dressed man?

GQ magazine have published their best/worst dressed man list, something which is usually of little interest to someone like me (probably as I would fall into the latter category - before anyone else says it!). It is unclear exactly who all the panel of experts that determine the rankings are but they include fashion designers/gurus/experts. Interestingly Gordon Brown has come out as worst dressed, though he is in interesting company with Boris Johnson, Russell Brand and Peter Stringfellow, and only narrowly beats French President Nicolas Sarkozy into second place. David Cameron, in stark contrast, is eighth and the write up talks of him being Britain's next prime minister - which does make one wonder if the review is politically biased in some way.

The bigger question is though, is Brown really that badly dressed. How could this be given he must have a wealth of staff to advise him on presentation (though admittedly they have had little impact in a number of areas thus far). Is there a lingering perception of him as someone bad presented and badly dressed that overrides our reading of each individual appearance? Is there a bias against him regardless? It is interesting that he emerges bottom, especially when the story on the BBC news site is accompanied by a picture of him looking quite smart - or is that just me? The question is, is it just Gordon who never quite looks right, or does he actually dress badly?