I’m doing a couple of events along this theme tomorrow, so here is my first stab at collecting some thoughts:
If the 2010 general election can be summed up as “the XXX election”, it was first the TV election, with very traditional TV formats dominating. TV debates have been around since Sweden in the 1950s, and our debates were 90 minutes long without adverts, fancy graphics or cut aways to journalists standing live outside an empty street. This was old-fashioned TV taking on a new role.
It wasn’t just the TV election; it was also the election where the voting system did what it wasn’t meant to do. Proponents of first past the post like its habit of providing one party with an overall majority even when the most popular party isn’t that popular. This time it didn’t.
With traditional TV triumphant and the voting system failing to deliver on its own terms, how did the internet do? Perhaps the internet’s most important contribution was in polling. Internet polling has both brought quicker polling in its own right and also helped move the phone polling industry into also offering far quicker polls than used to be the norm. This meant that coverage of the outcome of the first TV debate in particular was determined by what people told pollsters and not by what media owners told editors. Without the reputable poll results to box them in, would the partisan media have reported the first debate in the same way? Almost certainly not.
More generally, the internet’s role looks to have been like that of mobile phones. Both have become essential to the day-to-day working of people in politics. Both speed up communication, eat away at the idea there is time off from work, are not quite as reliable as you’d like and open up numerous new possibilities. But neither have, as yet, fundamentally reshaped our politics.
Blogging and tweeting certainly gave me a higher profile during the campaign – and one that wouldn’t have been possible in pre-internet days to myself. In the end, fun (and hopefully productive) though much of that was, having an ex-political party staffer appearing in or being quoted by the media is much more business as usual rather than a new way of doing politics. Looking at the range of Liberal Democrat pundits regularly called on by the media, there was a sprinkling of bloggers to vary the usual mix of MPs, ex-MPs and the like. It was a different circle of political faces, one opened up to some new – and very good – people, but still fundamentally a relatively small pool of people.
Social media did give a few people their moments of unwanted fame with the smattering of occasions when a politician saying something foolish or offensive online was thereby exposed for all to see, with far more consequences than a muttered comment would have had in the past. But in (another) sign of the continuing power of old media what was the biggest blunder involving a politician saying something unwise? Step forward Gordon Brown and the radio mike (first invented c.1949 – there are some conflicting claims).
Despite numerous predictions – which I believed too – there was no major ‘gotcha’ event triggered by citizens catching politicians on film making a gaffe during the campaign, but citizen journalism had its moment on polling day evening. The photos, film clips and tweets of people unable to vote spread the story quickly and got it into the mainstream media at a time when the media did not have much else to report. That , in turn,meant the problems got more mainstream media coverage than they would have – and increased the damage done to the reputation of our electoral system and the Electoral Commission.
Where does this all leave us? In the end, the election was primarily about what politicians did and how the public voted rather than about technologies and techniques. And you know what? That doesn’t seem so bad at all.