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.