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.