How the internet is changing British politics – and what 2010 will bring

In February 2010 I gave this talk as part of the “Distinguished Practitioners Series” at Nottingham University:

Good afternoon, and thanks for inviting me to address you today.

The first time I visited Nottingham University was just over 15 years ago for a job interview when, in their wisdom, the panel decided not to offer me the job – and as a result rather than moving on from a PhD to a career in academia I instead moved off into computing and then politics – including 10 years at Liberal Democrat party HQ which I twice ran the party’s general election internet campaign (2001 and 2005).

I suspect the jury is still out on whether I should thank or curse Nottingham for that decision…

But my roots in academia – my PhD is in nineteenth century elections and I worked in a couple of university IT departments – mean I’ve always had a particular interest in how academics and other outside pundits view the fields in which I’ve worked.

A common theme when I’ve been working in politics has been that what interests academics and others commenting or judging from the outside is frequently not what has interested me, working away on the inside.

Sometimes, that’s for good reasons – such as an outside view also being a fresh pair of eyes, not lost in the day to day mad dash to keep a show somehow on the road without enough hours in the day or hands on keyboards.

But often it hasn’t been for good reasons – and that is where three factors come in to play: the lure of data to hand, the bad reputation of politicians and a lack of understanding of objectives.

On data – there is a strong lure of using the data to hand, often a set of statistical data, even if the data is not really the right starting point for answering the questions. So you see questions shoehorned to fit the data rather than new data gathered to fit the questions.

The most obvious example is the use of Alexa data on website traffic even though the Alexa data is of very dubious quality. Yes, it’s public and it’s free and it’s got lots of numbers – but when compared with data from other sources, it frequently comes out poorly often painting a different picture from the true one as I’ve shown looking at the traffic to Guido Fawkes and Malcolm Coles has shown with online newspaper data.

The second reason why academics and pundits often talk about the issues which don’t concern those on the inside is that generally politicians and political parties have a bad reputation in the UK, so people can be too ready to leap from “they’re not doing things the way I would do them” to “they must be wrong”, rather than “I wonder why?”

More than once – or twice – or even a dozen times – when I’ve heard someone pontificating, I’ve muttered or thought, “Yeah, but have you ever run a winning election campaign?”

I acknowledge that is a slightly double-edged point, with the risks of defensive, myopic outlooks, but too often people assume that not knowing the hows and whys of running an election campaign isn’t an impediment to understanding how the internet should be used in them.

Third, there is often a lack of understanding of objectives. Perhaps most frequently this comes up when talking about interaction and consultation online. The simple fact is that political parties in the UK do relatively little online consultation over policy, even taking into account recent initiatives such as the Conservative Party’s forays into Google Moderator. And political parties have frequently been criticised for this.

But that criticism skates over several key wider questions.

Should a political party tell the public what it believes, or should it ask the public what it wants? That’s a dilemma beloved of political theorists and party policy makers over the years – from long since before the internet came to prominence – and of course there is no easy answer to it.

But also, how can you have a democratic policy making process in a party if you give policy making power to the public?

And finally – and I say this partly tongue in cheek, but also partly seriously – if everyone goes out and consults the public on policies, well – there’s only the one public. They will give the same answers – so you’ll just end up with all parties having the same policies.

Is that really desirable?

The four audiences for online political campaigning

So with that preamble as to ways in which matters often look very different from the inside than they do from the outside, I want to give you a simple model of the internet and political campaigning which illustrates this mismatch in a different way – but also highlights where those on the outside should look, or even – bearing in mind the audience here today – may want to do research.

There are essentially four audiences a political campaign can seek to reach or interact with via the internet – the public, the media, supporters and the internal party audience:

  • The public at large – because in the end it’s the public that fills in the ballot papers
  • The media – because journalists increasingly pick up or research stories online – so what is said online shapes not just online reporting, but newspaper reports, radio pieces and TV slots.
  • Supporters – because all parties want and need to turn supporters into helpers and helpers into activists
  • The internal audience – because a happy, united, well-informed party can achieve so much more than one divided and kept in ignorance

In addition, all four of those audiences exist both at the national and the local level. I’m fudging matters a little with that distinction – particularly if you look at things from a Scottish or Welsh perspective (what is national?) – but I’m sure you get the basic point, and the difference between a Parliamentary candidate trying to get the interest of the local newspaper from a Shadow Minister trying to catch the eye of The Guardian.

Putting that together we have this grid:

Audiences for online political campaigning

There are two things which strike me about this grid.

First, if we consider what people talk about when pondering political campaigning and the internet, it is dominated by thinking about the national / public perspective.

There’s a bit about the national / media perspective (particularly when talking of Twitter), a fair few references to the national / helpers combination (think Barack Obama), a little of what is done to reach the public locally (witness the studies of MPs’ websites) – and that’s pretty much it.

Of the eight cells, one gets a lot of attention, two a fair amount, one a bit – and the other four almost nothing:

Internet's impact on political campaign: what pundits talk about

So immediately you can see the problem – or, if you are thinking about research in this area, the opportunities.

Just consider a few basic questions seeking to establish the facts behind some of the cells in this grid:

  • What proportion of their members do political parties have email addresses for?
  • What proportion of helpers in election campaigns are recruited online?
  • What’s the typical audience for a marginal seat MP’s website?

And so on.

It’s not just that people on the outside do not know the precise answer to these and similar questions, it’s also the case that most people have no idea what the scale of the answer is. Do parties typically have the email address for 30% or 80% of their members?

Of course, there are those in the parties who know and who – for understandable reasons of confidentiality in a competitive electoral system – do not like to say publicly.

So despite the huge amount of outside commentary – and the not inconsiderable volume of academic research – there are so many of these basic facts where, for the outside world, the answer is, “sorry, not got a clue”.

But I hope that this grid gives you a sense of how the impact of politics on campaigning looks from the inside.

The internal audience for online politics

Going back then to the original grid and to talk through it in more detail, let’s start with the internal audience.

The existence of online tools has already, in one respect, completely altered the way politics is done.

It used to be the case that there was relatively little internal communication that a national party could do with its members and not that much more which local party organisations could do. Mailing all members was a time consuming and expensive process, as was mass telephoning. Meetings rarely get to the armchair members.

So whilst the internal audience could be worked, it could only be done so using a very limited set of tools.

Now, however, thanks to email and texts and websites and Facebook and blogs and Twitter and YouTube and more, it is possible to communicate with those internal audiences regularly and effectively. It can still be tough to get to a large audience, but it’s not expensive and it is possible.

Possible not just for the traditional official sources of power, but for others too.

ConservativeHome is a striking example of this. It is not an official party website – indeed far from it, it has an explicit editorial line which means they are often arguing for changes to the party and its policies.

Yet in a recent survey they conducted of Conservative candidates in winnable seats, they found that 96% used ConservativeHome as a source of information compared to only 13% using the official Conservative Party website.

Even allowing for a possible skew in the data by virtue of ConHome readers being more willing to take part in the survey that’s a dramatic result – and one which is not a criticism of the official Conservative website but rather a reflection of how much the sources of information which people use have changed.

Party hierarchies are no longer in control of that internally focused flow of information. That’s not a starry-eyed prediction about the future; it’s the reality which has already arrived.

The traffic in this respect isn’t all one way. The new tools are open to the old power structures to use too – a point made about politics and the internet more generally by Evgeny Morozov, especially in an excellent article for Prospect magazine.

It’s also true in the specific niche I’ve been talking about – internal communications in the political environment. The new, internet-fuelled elites do not have to look that different from the old.

Let me give you a visual example of this – with this set of mugshots of the people who run the many party-affiliated blogs in the UK:

Political bloggers in the UK: Will Straw, Alex Smith, Stephen Tall, Mark Pack, Tim Montgomerie, Iain Dale and Jonathan Isaby

You could quibble a little over who I’ve included and who I’ve left out (does Iain Dale count as a Conservative blogger? is Left Foot Forward a Labour blog?) but even with a few changes, the set of photos would look remarkably similar: a collection of white men. If you extend to popular more independent sites, such as Political Betting, UK Polling Report or Guido Fawkes –it’d be more white men you add to the list.

Extend the list to Liberal Conspiracy and – finally – in the form of Sunny Hundal the white, if not the male, streak is broken.

That’s not to say there aren’t many, very good, female political bloggers. But overall, despite political blogging being a relatively new field which started up long after women got the vote, the idea of equal pay for equal work became widely accepted as obviously right, and so on – the highest profile political blogs – judged by criteria such as which ones journalists say they read or MPs say they rate – are no more an advert for diversity than the make up of Parliament. In other words, not much of one.

It’s a curio as to why this is the case – especially when, on the ONS’s figures, the majority of bloggers in the UK are female (and the majority of internet users are now female too), but that would be a talk in itself for another time.

My point here is simply whilst individually each of the people on the slide probably has far more political influence than they would have had in a pre-internet age, at an aggregate level that the new elites are not always that different from the old elites.

[UPDATE: This point is echoed by research in the US: “Contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the Internet is not changing the socio-economic character of civic engagement in the United States. Just as in offline civic life, the well-to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities”.]

Another example of the ‘old’ power structures being able to use the internet to retain or reinforce their position was the situation many Liberal Democrat MPs found themselves in after the ousting of Charles Kennedy. On the particular morning in January 2006 when a sequence of Liberal Democrat MPs spoke out publicly, saying that they were no longer willing to serve under Charles Kennedy, those MPs were – at that moment – greatly out of step with the views of the party members in their constituencies.

Yet courtesy of email, blog, websites and text messages they were able to communicate quickly and in detail with members, to explain their position and to turn around people’s views.

The problems you can face when you do not make use of such channels were illustrated more recently in the so-called Snow Plot to out Gordon Brown, where the prime movers – Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt – were not of the online Labour community and partially as a result therefore the online chatter amongst Labour activists was dominated by opponents of their actions, with very little counter-argument.

By ceding the online space, the plotters left it to loyalists to generate the background noise against which Labour MPs judged whether to speak out or not.

At this internal level, and at the logistical and administrative levels, the internet revolution has really already happened.

Email briefings, online submission of artwork, internal reference websites and more – most party organisations would stagger near collapse if the internet was turned off.

From this administrative perspective, 2010 won’t be the first internet election; it’ll be the third internet election.

There also have been important changes to the power relationships within parties – even if politics overall has not been remade.

That’s a theme I talked more about at a Hansard Society meeting in early 2009:

And because that change in internal party dynamics has already taken place, I suspect that if we were to look back on this year on 31 December, surveying the impact of the internet on politics, we will conclude that the biggest impact took place not during the general election but in the summer after polling day. (That’s a point I’ve expanded on in this article.)

At least one political party will be in major crisis over the summer. If there is no overall majority, then at least one other party – not just the Liberal Democrats, but quite possibly also the SNP and Plaid – will be facing regular tough debates over what it should do. And a third party will be in government but facing unpopular financial choices with most likely sizeable internal disagreements over which way the party should head.

It’s against that background that the ability of the internet to bring like-minded people together, helping them to find each other, to organise, to campaign and to publicise, will see a massive shift in the balance of power within political parties compared to the similar periods in past decades.

Recruiting and motivating supporters

Having now talked at some length about the impact of the internet on the internal audience – at local and national level – I will largely skip over the question of its impact on the recruitment and motivation of supporters – which has after all had some attention courtesy of Barack Obama.

Except to make the observation that it is widely acknowledged the success of Obama’s online campaign largely came in raising funds – to spend on TV adverts – and recruiting volunteers – to then make phone calls and go door-to-door. In other words, the success of his online campaign was about making it fuel offline campaigning with money and people.

For more on Obama’s campaign and its use of the internet see the excellent analysis of the lessons for online communications from Barack Obama’s campaign over on e.politics and also my slightly cheeky list (after all he is US President; I’m not) of seven failures of the campaign at a meeting in 2009. It’s been written up with a commentary/response by someone who worked on the Obama campaign.

Reaching the media via online politics

Moving on then to the media. Given how often the US is used as the frame of reference in such discussions, I think it is worth highlighting an important difference in the media between the US and the UK.

In the UK we are well served by national media outlets – TV, radio and newspapers – which have large national audiences and give extensive coverage to politics. In the US such national, popular coverage of politics had been largely missing – leaving a gap for the likes of Daily Kos and Real Clear Politics to fill.

Without that gap in the media landscape in the UK, matters play out slightly differently. Here, it is more a matter of how and where and why journalists find stories that then get coverage in the mainstream media. And in that process, the internet has secured a massive role.

Again, that’s not a starry-eyed prediction about the future; it’s the reality that has already arrived.

Let me give you an example. Late last year you may have seen a story on the BBC about election law and imprints, which contained a long quote from me. Where did the story come from?

It came from a team at the BBC who hunt out possibly interesting – and so far unreported – stories online. The BBC found a blog post from me on the topic, gave me a call and a few days later there was the story, followed shortly after that by an MP raising the issue with the relevant minister.

However, if you simply take the BBC story at face value you wouldn’t see the blog connection: it neither mentions nor links to my original blog post, even though it was generated by it and you can trace the direct line from my blog post to a minister having to answer.

I picked this example in part because it highlights the danger of the frequent practice of trying to trace influence online by following links. It gets back to my earlier point about the risk of using the data you have in front of you – public links on the web – rather than looking for the data that would answer the actual question.

Influence does not always beget links.

A common example of this hidden influence is the use of Google by journalists. It’s a common pattern when speaking to BBC journalists, particularly their general reporters who may initially not know that much about a story they have to cover.

They certainly have expert colleagues they can refer to for advice and information – but even so, both to save those people’s time and in order not to look too ignorant themselves, the first port of call is often Google. It is used as the basic research service when then helps phrase the right questions to the experts.

Make yourself, your issue or your knowledge prominent online and media influence can flow in all sorts of ways.

Twitter is the apple in the eye of the media influence cycle at the moment, with journalists, press officers and politicians regularly exchanging messages back and forth and passing around stories.

But again, don’t forget the local angle. The supply of digital photographs by politicians to over-stretched journalists who are no longer based in the newspaper’s catchment area and are juggling more than one title may not have the current glamour of Twitter, but it’s still a part of the change in media relations that is taking place.

And at the local level there is now often that gap in the coverage of politics and council issues which, similar to the national gap in the US, leaves open the opportunity for new forms of media – whether from citizens or from politicians – to fill the space.

The hard data available, even within parties, is rather patchy on this but I’m pretty confident in saying that it’s far from uncommon for an MP’s online audience to now exceed the offline readership of their local newspaper.

Where there is more than one party active online – feeding out news – one can perhaps take a fairly relaxed view of this shift from third-party news provision to competitive news provision from different points on the political spectrum. But where the shift is from one newspaper (even one with a very opinionated editorial line) to one party, there is a much less healthy outlook for local news provision.

Again, though, we come back to one of my initial points. How widespread is this shift? Is it overall a shift for the better or the worse? And again, the answers are very thin on the ground.

Reaching the public through online political campaigning

Turning, finally, to the public – and a public that is so online that more adults use the internet than vote in general elections.

My focus when working at the Liberal Democrats, particularly when running the party’s online general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005, was very much on the local. The reason is simple: it’s at the local level that the audiences predominantly exist.

Although much of the external punditry is about national online campaigning and the public, the numbers are stark.

If you look at the film clips put up on YouTube by any of the main parties, only the most successful get more than 10,000 views. Yet it takes 10 million votes give or take a bit to win a general election. There’s just a complete mismatch of scales there:

Local and national audiences on YouTube for politics

But look at audiences at the local level and they are often equal to a significant proportion of the constituency electorate.

The balance – or rather imbalance – between local and national audiences also comes through in a calculation I worked out a couple of years ago. In constituencies with well-developed local Liberal Democrat websites, for every one visit made to one of the party’s national sites by someone living in the constituency there were three visits to the local site.

Local is where the online audience is. [UPDATE: Subsequently I’ve heard Mat McGregor of Blue State Digital talk about the size of Obama’s email list which prompted the realisation that in terms of email addresses per voters for that party/candidate, there are many candidates and elected officials in the UK who have larger email lists than Obama had.]

So when I worked at the Liberal Democrats the emphasis was much more on providing people at the local level with the tools to use in their own patch than on the national internet perspective – even though Ming Campbell’s innovative use of Facebook generated probably the most positive story The Sun ever wrote during his time as party leader.

Even Twitter – often dismissed as not being a tool for local political communication – has a local angle, as shown by the survey Lynne Featherstone MP did of her Twitter followers:

Lynne Featherstone Twitter survey

This local use of social media may be about to get a significant boost from Sky’s plans for its general election coverage. It is going to take local content from Flickr, Twitter, blogs and YouTube to help populate its constituency profile pages – potentially giving a significant extra boost to those who use such tools and use them well.

Different styles of communication

Having taken use of the internet in political campaigning and broken it down into these eight constituent areas, there are some cross-cutting themes I’ve neglected.

I’ll wrap-up by talking about one of those: the style of communication.

The internet, and more recently social media in particular, encourages, enables and favours two-way communication. Dialogues, not monologues. A discursive rather than a didactic style.

This presents some real challenges for those seeking public office, because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to communicate one-to-one with the public and also to do other things.

Imagine a constituency with 70,000 constituents. If a candidate gives them each just 2 minutes, that’s 2,333 hours or – if the candidate works 8 hours a day, every day, just on one-to-one communications with them, then it would take 292 days to work round them all just the once. And that’s without allowing time for anything else.

The future then is most likely to rest with one-to-many forms of communication , which allow personal communication and interaction but also provide some economy of scale in such dealings. Facebook’s profiles and walls are a good example of this.

Arising from this three are some grounds for cautious, moderate optimism about restoring some of the sense of communal politics which used to exist when people went to public meetings to hear politicians speak.

Because when different people comment on an MP’s Facebook profile, or when residents comment on a councillor’s blog or party members respond to their party leader’s tweets, people are not communicating one-to-one in private in the way they do when they write to a politician. Rather, it is more of a communal event – and that’s very welcome.


So, what to conclude from all this?

Not all dramatic technology changes have a wider impact.

The technologies, costs and availability of colour printing have changed remarkably in the last couple of decades. Our doorsteps, with both political and pizza leaflets, are much the more colourful for all that. Neither politics nor the pizza industry have really changed as a result though. [UPDATE: this is a theme I’ve subsequently talked about in greater detail in Lessons from the disappearing phone boxes for the internet and politics.]

There are some areas where the internet has already had a major impact on politics – especially in the internal field. There are some areas where we may yet see interesting trends develop – notably in a more communal sense of politics.

And when you look at that grid, there’s an awful lot that had been only very little enumerated or analysed.

Therefore, whilst the impact of the internet on politics may be a nuanced and mixed picture, there is no doubt one winner – political scientists who have many fields of future research open to them.

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