The internet and the general election – of 2001

After last month’s trip down memory lane looking at how internet campaigning worked in Brent East in the 2003 by-election, here is the piece I wrote for the Hansard Society after the 2001 general election (when I ran the Liberal Democrat online campaign). As with the Brent piece, it shows how many principles have stayed the same even as different internet phases have come and gone. And no, the power to draw up sensible imprint rules for the online world mentioned below still hasn’t been used.


Perhaps the most notable Internet innovation during the 2001 general election was the ability to punch the Deputy Prime Minister from the safety of your armchair. Despite the pre-election hype by Internet enthusiasts about using the Internet to involve the public and improve communications between politicians and voters, the most popular election-related uses of the Internet were jokes and games, often indiscriminately poking fun at all politicians simply because they were politicians.

In that sense, the Internet failed quite spectacularly to improve the quality of democracy and indeed may have helped to increase cynicism about, and hostility to, the political process.

However, it would be unfair to judge the efforts of political parties and others simply on these grounds. A more realistic evaluation is that, against a background of widespread apathy and an election with a result that was widely predicted, the Internet’s ability to make a difference was decidedly limited.

For the Liberal Democrats, it was a highly successful way of providing key groups of people with the information they wanted and we wished to give to them. What the Internet did not do was to increase significantly the numbers of people interested in such information. It could make obtaining the information easier, but it could not make people want the information in the first place.

UK Website

The overall tone of the Liberal Democrats’ UK website, www.libdems.org.uk,[1] was deliberately straightforward, with an emphasis on information rather than technical gadgets, and policy rather than humour or games. The slightly serious “what you see is what you get” approach was designed to complement the party’s national General Election message, and in particular the approach Charles Kennedy took during the campaign.

When the General Election was called, the daily number of visitors to the website increased about four-fold, and in the last week increased again by nearly three-fold.[2] The most popular days were the day of the election and the day after, repeating a pattern seen in earlier elections such as the London Mayoral and Assembly elections and the Romsey by-election.

The website was designed to appeal to three particular groups:

  • Journalists / lobbyists / pressure groups
  • Supporters / members
  • Floating voters, particularly with specialised interests

With the increasing number of media outlets covering UK politics, it was essential to use the website to head off as many journalists’ queries as possible. Otherwise, the press team would not have able to cope with the volume of queries. Recent press releases, the full UK manifesto, candidate biographies and background policy papers were particularly popular.

For supporters and members, the website provided an easy way of drawing people into greater involvement with the party, particularly if they lived in an area where traditional Liberal Democrat grassroots campaigning was weak. Just as shopping over the Internet is becoming an increasingly normal and popular activity, so joining a political party over the Internet – rather than ringing or writing – is becoming an increasingly important source of new members.[3]

The website also provided a new range of ways for people to take part in political activity and campaigning, such as sending electronic postcards to friends or downloading wallpaper which others in their office would see. One particular benefit of such electronic campaigning is that it allowed people to become involved who would otherwise find it difficult to take part in traditional local campaigning for reasons such as long working hours, transport difficulties or physical infirmity.

For floating voters our particular aim was to provide a range and depth of policy information which meant that, whatever their specialised interest, they should be able to find out the detail of interest to themselves. Our approach was very similar to that of a Sunday newspaper with its numerous sections – provide a large volume of information and let people choose for themselves those parts that are of interest to them.

Many of the people who made use of this information were interested in a particular policy area rather than in politics in general, so detailed information on the issues they wanted to find was important.

The Liberal Democrat website included comprehensive candidate biography information, along with contact details and election results. A postcode search facility made it easy for people to find their candidate.[4]

These features were designed to meet the two most common questions that come up during elections – “who is my candidate?” and “how can I contact them?” For an increasing number of people, going to the Internet is the natural way to find the answers to such questions, with previously popular methods – such as going to the local public library – declining in importance.

Supplementing the public website was an extranet (private website) to which candidates and their campaign teams had access. Along with regular email bulletins it provided the usual range of internal material – policy briefings, sample artwork etc – which all parties have distributed in the past by post.

By the end of the campaign, the extranet and email were clearly the default sources of information for most candidates. For many campaign teams using the post already has a rather antiquated feel about it.


Complementing the website were a variety of email communications, including a daily news bulletin and a series of campaign updates for people who had previously signed petitions online. This national activity ran alongside local grassroots campaigning, collection of email addresses and despatch of messages.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the email campaign was the volume of very positive responses received back from members of the public who had been emailed.

For some recipients, being contacted directly and personally by candidates was a welcome experience, and people appreciated the fact that candidates were making efforts to contact voters and explain why they wanted their votes.

Of course, there was also some negative responses, in particular from a small minority of people who had forgotten that they had given the Lib Dems their email addresses and so made lurid accusations about spam, data protection and the world ending.

Candidate websites

Nearly a third of Liberal Democrat candidates had a local web presence,[5] which made the Lib Dems the most enthusiastic users of websites at a local level. Perhaps not surprisingly given the Liberal Democrats’ traditional emphasis on grassroots campaigning, the development of this local network of websites was an important supplement to the UK wide, Scottish and Welsh sites.

Superficially, many of the websites appeared very limited in content. Compared to the range of technical possibilities displayed on many commercial websites, it is easy to dismiss them as failing to make good use of the Internet’s possibilities.

However, many of the sites were designed quite specifically to meet a small number of basic needs and this did not require impressive looking technology. As mentioned above, two of the most common questions candidates face are “who are you?” and “how do I contact you?” Very simple and small websites can, and did, answer these questions for a wider audience.

Just as an item of direct mail can be very effective without including a colour insert, free pen or discount voucher, so a website can be effective without including streaming video, Flash animations or on-line games.

One of the major changes in candidates’ sites in the year running up to the election was the increasing emphasis on providing the right policy content. The party’s main national themes, such as extra investment in public services paid for by modest and sensible tax increases, were increasingly echoed on local websites.

Election law

Much election law is still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. There has recently been a burst of modernisation and new legislation – election expense returns no longer refer to the cost of sending telegrams! Nonetheless, several studies of e-campaigning have highlighted potential problems with applying existing election law to e-campaigning.

From the perspective of the Liberal Democrats, many of these concerns are misplaced. Or, more accurately, they highlight ignorance of exiting election law provisions and practice.

Two examples of this are the VoxPolitics Primer and the Hansard Society’s guide to e-campaigning and the law, both of which raised issues related to election expenses.

Reading one or both, the casual reader would get the impression that these were new problems. In fact, all political parties have been dealing with such issues for several years. The election expense returns from all parties for the London Mayor and Assembly elections in 2000 contain provisions related to Internet campaigning. The same applies to the national election expense returns from the 1999 European elections. In this case, it is the political pundits and Internet pioneers who are lagging several years behind the political parties.

The number of issues for which changes in the law or regulations would be sensible is relatively small and in some cases already provided for – such as the power given under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to draw up rules for imprints on items other than printed materials (e.g. emails or video tapes).[6]

Candidate information

Outside of the political parties, the General Election saw numerous websites that promised to have comprehensive databases of candidates, their biographies, election results and links to local websites. Some offered all of these items, and some only a subset, but a common theme was the contrast between the claims made for the comprehensive nature of the information compared with the actual quality of the data.

The overall quality of these sites was highly variable. Only rare exceptions – such as the BBC – met their own grand descriptions. Even otherwise good websites, such as the Guardian’s, had numerous gaps in their data that could have been filled simply by comprehensively taking the information published on the main parties’ sites.[7]

From the outside, it appeared as if many of the organisers of these websites were genuinely surprised by how much effort was involved and, for whatever reason, were not willing or able to allocate sufficient resources to make their own sites anything more than a slightly random and incomplete subset of the information available on a combination of party’s own sites and the BBC’s site.

From the feedback the Liberal Democrats received directly from members of the public, it appears likely that the incomplete nature of this information often unfairly disadvantaged candidates. For example, a member of the public who failed to find a site for their local candidate might assume that therefore they did not have such a site, rather than question whether or not the source they were looking at was comprehensive.

To be fair, political parties themselves may in future have to make their own information more readily accessible for people compiling such databases. Whilst the Liberal Democrat website had a comprehensive set of biographies, there was no one-click download option which made it easy for people to take this information and populate their own databases.

Many other similar areas of election information have, over the years, had a shake out of information sources with a relatively small number of authoritative sources now being widely used by the media. For constituency sketches there is the Almanac of British Politics, for local election results and estimates of new boundaries there are the works of Thrasher and Rallings and so on.

It will be interesting to see if there is a similar shakeout of online databases for the next general election.

Was America the right place to look?

A final word about America. Developments in American politics and American use of the Internet are often rightly trailed as a foretaste of what will happen in Britain. To an extent, the American experience of the Internet in politics fits this pattern – the hype appeared in America first, as did the subsequent sobering up and more hard-nosed evaluations of the impact of the Internet on politics.

However, America is very different from Britain in one significant way. Each candidate in American has to build a campaign team and grassroots network largely from scratch for each campaign. In both the States and in Britain this sort of internal use of the Internet, particularly email, now has a well-established history of effectiveness. However, in Britain – with its much stronger party machines – there is much less need for this activity and therefore the Internet may well always be a less important tool than in America.

In another respect, though, Britain is similar to America, but different from many other countries. This is the use of a winner-takes-all first past the post election system. In such elections a tiny margin of voters can make a huge difference to the result. What we have seen in both the 2000 Presidential election and the 2001 general election is the limitation of the Internet in making a noticeable change in national shares of the vote. But, with first-past-the-post a small number of votes in the right places can make a very noticeable change in the result – and the Internet is very well-suited to this sort of targeting.
[1] The Lib Dems had purchased in advance a number of variations on this website address, and some other variations were already owned and used by non-Liberal Democrats. However, despite the concerns expressed in advance by some Internet commentators, the public seem to have found it easy to locate the correct “official” Lib Dem website. None of the alternative web addresses purchased, e.g. www.liberal-democrats.org, generated anything more than a trivial amount of traffic.
[2] The previous peaks in website interest had occurred at the time of the budget and party conferences. One of the more bizarre and smaller peaks occurred at the time of the Florida count as large numbers of Americans appeared to stumble by mistake on the Lib Dem website thinking it a Democrat Party website. Some even managed to get as far as sending in strongly worded messages via the feedback form without noticing that they were on a UK website that had no connection with Al Gore!
[3] Approximately 1.5% of the party’s membership is now made up of people who joined the party via www.libdems.org.uk between 1 January 2001 and 10 June 2001.
[4] All the main parties used different databases but all suffered from noticeable error rates in locating postcodes in the correct constituency. This appears to be a problem across the industry – the quality of the postcode/constituency matching databases available has plenty of scope for improvement.
[5] 205 out of 639 as of June 6th. This includes dedicated candidate websites, candidates with existing websites that were used during the election, local party websites which featured election candidates and borough or county websites which featured election candidates. This count does not include regional or national websites that featured candidates. All the party’s MPs standing for re-election were contactable via the Internet with either their own website, a public email address or both.
[6] Clause 143(6).
[7] For example, contact information for Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat candidate in Hornsey & Wood Green, was available on both the national Lib Dem website and her own local website since early 2000. However, the Friends of the Earth, Politicos and Guardian election databases were launched many months after this information was made available on the Internet and all failed to include it until a direct personal requests were made to add it.

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