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!