Home > Election, Media > Another first internet election?

Another first internet election?

Once the Christmas break is over, the election campaign will step up. The Conservatives are expected to launch a poster campaign and Labour has promised to respond with an internet campaign. This raises the old question of what role the internet will play in the campaign.

I say it is an old question, as it was said 2001 would be the ‘first internet election’ and the same was thought of the election in 2005. Yet in both of those campaigns, the internet played a relatively minor role. There were some important uses, such as vote swapping sites. Yet I remember going to a seminar in 2005 where most of the participants were disappointed that the Internet had not transformed the way people campaign.

Will 2010 be any different? This is something already being debated (for example Demos/Prospect debate earlier this month) – and expectations will be high following the Obama campaign. The lessons of the US election are possibly of limited value for British politics. Much of the breakthrough in the States was in the use of the internet in fundraising, reportedly facilitating small donations. Whether this can be repeated here is not so clear. There are  reports of the internet being used in the same way in some constituencies. In the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses controversy and with the current financial situation, I’m not so sure a mass of people will want to hand over their money to politicians. It is, however, going to be a closer election, so maybe that will change things.

There are other differences that distinguish the American experience. The internet has been used to build networks of supporters. This may arise more naturally in the US, where campaigns are focused on candidates, than in the UK where supporters are already organised through political parties.

The bloggers in the US also responded to particular failures of the mainstream American media. While the media in Britain has its shortcomings, they are different to those in America. The online media here may need to remedy different failures of the press and broadcasters. The recent announcement of televised party leaders’ debates also suggests that one of the main events of the campaign will be focused on the traditional media.

If the internet is to play a prominent role in the coming election, it may be in less expected ways which fit with the specific features of British politics, rather than transposing methods from overseas.  It is unsurprising that the development of campaign techniques in the US has occurred quickly. This is not just because of the state of technology there – they also have a larger number of elections, which allows greater scope for experimentation. The candidate centred nature of American elections also means there are a larger number of separate campaigns each testing the various uses of the internet (as opposed to the more centralised party led campaigns). This provides a larger pool for campaigning techniques to be developed through processes of trial and error. While it may take more time to develop, a political role for the online media more tailored to the British system may emerge in the long-term, as the various methods are tried and tested.

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