- 1 Office for National Statistics, “Internet Access 2010”, Statistical Bulletin, 27 August 2010 (...)
1In 2010, there were 38.3 million internet users in the UK. This represented 77 per cent of the total adult population. Of those, 30.1 million accessed the internet every day or almost every day, equating to 60 per cent of all adults.1 Against such a backdrop, the 2010 General Election was, in the months leading up to it, widely presented as promising to become the first true e-election in Britain. The growing prominence of blogs, social networks and the like was heralded as evidence that a new era for politics in the country had begun. Yet as the campaign unfolded, attention shifted to the so-called “bigotgate” or to the TV debates. The number of people who commented on the first of these on Twitter on April 15 – over 38,000 – seemed impressive but only until compared to the nine million who watched it on their television. The balloon deflated.
2In 2005, following Michael Howard’s resignation and three successive General Election defeats, David Cameron was elected to head the Conservative Party. At that time, American politicians like Howard Dean were still experimenting with the use of communication and information technologies (ICTs) in the political field, devices such as YouTube and Facebook were in their infancy while others, like Twitter, hadn’t even left the conceptual stage.
3In the United Kingdom, attempts at harnessing the potential of the internet were being made as access to broadband connections spread but such efforts in the political sphere had yet to evolve beyond sporadic initiatives from an isolated vanguard. The maturation of Cameron as leader of the opposition party therefore coincided with a rising, more elaborate, professional and systematic adoption of the internet by the main British parties in general and by the Conservatives more specifically.
4Focusing on David Cameron and his party in the run-up to the 2010 General Election as well as during the election itself thus seems appropriate in trying to chart the evolution of internet-related practices in British politics so as to try and understand how far they have contributed to the elaboration of the wider Conservative project, determine how much of the process involved is also relevant to other parties in the country and what lessons, if any, can be drawn from such an analysis about the impact of these relatively recent developments on the British political landscape.
5Since the first experiments with ICTs in the political sphere in the 1990s, parties have developed a wide range of tools which can be broadly classified into four separate categories, though overlaps may occur given the versatility of many of them. These four categories illustrate the various objectives political organisations have sought to attain via the use of such techniques, namely concerns pertaining to broadcasting, organisation, participation and strategy.
6The transmission of information was indeed the first area to be influenced by the introduction of internet-related tools in politics and still constitutes one of the major priorities of parties decades afterwards. While Tony Blair courted Rupert Murdoch, the Conservatives had Google’s chief executive as key speaker at their conference in 2006 and Cameron invited Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg to Downing Street four years later. Part of it is obvious PR, but not exclusively. The main benefits of broadcasting by those means are threefold : immediacy, minimal mediation, and comprehensiveness of contents. Whether for completing the coverage from the more traditional media or for bypassing them altogether, whether for building new relationships with their audience, or strengthening older ones, whether for adopting more attractive and convivial formulas for communication or more in-depth ones, whether as a vehicle for proactive drives or instant rebuttal of attacks on the party-line, promises of significant benefits have resulted in the development of a broadening spectrum of instruments in the last few decades.
7The webpage devoted to the Conservative 2010 manifesto on the official party sit2 is representative of the most straightforward form of data conveyance. At the click of a mouse, a reader-friendly, colour copy of the complete topically-organised document is available for downloading. A large-print version as well as an MP3 audio one are included too and a Braille equivalent can be requested for free via the email link provided.
8However, parties have progressively graduated to more elaborate ways of putting across and amplifying their messages, both at election time and in between official campaigns, from providing basic textual contents to making use of various formats. The webcameronuk’s YouTube channel3 is one such example, allowing party headquarters to directly broadcast a large number of videos, be they recordings of speeches, interviews of senior figures, behind-the-scene shootings or official Party Political Broadcasts (PPBs). WebCameron was granted the Hansard / Channel 4 Innovation Award,4 the New Statesman New Media Award5 and also received an honorary Webby in the Political Blog category.6
9Besides the party official website, the tools available for broadcasting have become increasingly numerous, from GoogleDoc to i-Phone applications, from the Blue blog7 to emails, from the downloadable ringtone of Gordon Brown’s “Saving the World” gaffe8 to the SorryfromGordon website, from the Wheel of Misfortune game to Conservative profiles on Flickr,9 Twitter10 or Facebook.11 Besides, the use of most of these broadcasting tools is not confined to an elite within the party but has become the prerogative of a growing number of actors, from ministers to activists, from collective bodies operating from the inside to more loosely affiliated outsiders.
10The transposition of traditional forms of advertising to new media has also been frequent as well as forays into more innovative territory, or various combinations of both, for instance, the appeal to vote Conservative on polling day on the front page of YouTube. The most commented experiment in that sector has however been the initiatives related to search engine optimisation, with an expert in the field hired by the Conservatives as early as 2007 and to targeted advertising mostly via the GoogleWord auctioning system. Thus, a sponsored link to details relating to the Tory plans on health would appear next to the results for a search of the acronym “NHS” on the most popular search engines, Google and Yahoo in particular. At different moments, before and during the official campaign, the Conservatives also bought “Gordon Brown”, “Labour Party”, or the name of Work and Pensions secretary James Purnell on the day he resigned his position.
11Moreover, the internet provides a myriad of websites catering to more or less broadly defined audiences, facilitating the targeting of advertising. Thus, messages warning single persons against potentially detrimental effects of the Labour government’s budget cuts were posted on the online dating site uk.match.com with links to alternative Conservative proposals. Social networks such as Facebook also offer to display calibrated ads on very specific profiles only, according to criteria ranging from gender to age, location, occupation, hobbies, marital status, number of children, or involvement in various campaigns with aims such as saving the NHS or opposing the 2008 so-called beer tax.
12Even though in the period from Cameron’s election as party leader in 2005 to his appointment as Prime Minister in 2010, some tools received greater attention than others according to shifting opportunities, strategic priorities or financial capacities, the coalescence of platforms and devices was in fact becoming the norm, with the party firing on all cylinders to make sure its message was getting across to the public. The video entitled “5 Tweetable Reasons to Vote Conservative”12 posted by Halifax Tory candidate Philip Allott on the day the date of the General Election was officially announced epitomizes such a trend : a condensed selection of items from the party written manifesto in under 140 characters to fit into messages sent via Twitter, posted on Allot’s channel on YouTube, with a link to his personal website at <http://www.allott4halifax.co.uk/> as well as one for embedding the video into emails and sharing it on social networks such as Myspace, Bebo, or Orkut.
13The combination of various tools has also been a characteristic of the British parties’ efforts from an internal perspective. According to Mark Pack, current co-editor of the Liberal Democrat Voice blog, head of the MHP communication consultancy and former head of Innovations for the Liberal Democrats in charge of their 2001 and 2005 internet General Election campaigns :
[…] 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.13
14However, beyond such increasingly capital yet rather elementary instruments, new ones were introduced by the Conservatives in the years leading up to the 2010 General Election. Their major focus was on favouring organisational improvement at various levels of involvement, both local and national. The myconservatives.com platform, partly modelled on its American predecessor, MyBarackObama.com, and launched in October 2009, was the party’s main initiative in that sector. It enabled volunteers to support a campaign on a specific issue or a candidate, to make donations or raise funds, to do some phone canvassing, leafleting or door-knocking for the party, making it easier to connect with other activists, set up events and promote them via the provision of video guides, briefing documents on policies, downloadable posters, a virtual phone bank or yet Google Maps’ applications.
15Intended as a vector of internal dialogue and campaigning organisation, the myconservatives.com site doubled up as an ancillary recruiting channel as registration and involvement were open to paid-up members and external activists alike thus bridging the gap between the two spheres. And indeed, favouring participation from parties both inside political movements but also not officially and directly affiliated to them, has been among the most propitious, if occasionally romanticised, contributions of the internet to political life in the last decade. The Conservatives have widely used the tools developed for such purposes and initiated several crowdsourcing attempts. Jeff Howe, a contributor at Wired Magazine often credited with coining the term, defines it in the following manner :
The act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.14
16For instance, in January 2010, David Cameron launched the party’s draft health manifesto and asked for questions from the public to be submitted online, pledging to answer those which would gather the most votes from web-users. Similarly, a few months later, the Conservatives asked for online suggestions from the public so as to frame their response to the Labour government’s last budget.
17Yet, alongside tools enabling the party to trigger a dialogue with a wider audience, the internet has also generated a substantial array of targeting devices progressively integrated into the party’s strategic machine, for advertising has not been the only sector influenced by new possibilities on that front. Talks about the digital divide and concerns about the possibility that the development of ICTs may penalise those who, for various reasons, might be unable to exploit their potential, tend to obscure the fact that from a cynical yet pragmatic point of view, reaching out to the largest possible audience might be ultimately less profitable to parties than their capacity to engage a minority of key voters. Whether or not specific groups of people can tip the scales one way or another and determine the ultimate outcome of an election has been the subject of much speculation in the past, yet most parties have been working on the assumption that such an hypothesis cannot be altogether ignored.
18Technological progress has made it increasingly possible to identify such groups, be they swing voters, marginal seat ones, particular demographics, etc., and to interact with their members. Merlin, the Conservative database software introduced as early as 2005 but still experiencing operating problems five years later, constitutes one of the major innovations in that department, building on experiments from their competitors but moving further faster. Several steps beyond Blue Chip, the Tory previous data-centralising tool, Merlin is designed to offer augmented possibilities. For example, it enables any account-holder and no longer only agents at national or local headquarters, to enter information into the system. Door-knocking members can therefore submit in real time voters’ concerns, reactions to proposals, etc., which in turn enable the campaign managers to update the canvass cards printed for the next team of volunteers as well as affect the national strategy.
- 15 Experian, Optimise the Value of your Customers and Locations, Now and in the Future, (...)
19Socio-economic parameters as well as records of previous voting intentions can be used to determine the areas in a constituency with the highest proportion of likely voters. Data from polls and surveys conducted by the party are also fed into the system. All those elements are then channelled through Mosaic, a piece of software for classifying voters into a variety of groups or household types, such as “Corporate Chieftains”, “Squires among Locals” or “Serious Money”, depending on combinations of factors and information gathered from national census statistics, the electoral roll, council tax returns, consumer credit behaviour, etc.15 Such details are used to organise campaigning on the ground and to tailor messages to voters, conveyed either through online media but also very frequently through offline ones such as direct mail or phone calls.
20The association of different tools serving a multiplicity of objectives has therefore been a key characteristic of the Conservatives’ use of the internet and ICTs more generally since the election of David Cameron as leader of the party. In several instances, such tools were integrated to a wider strategy designed to help the new leader overcome the major challenges he was to confront when he took over the responsibility for overseeing the progression of his movement in the five years which preceded his accession to the premiership. Consequently, in most respects, outlining such a progression and charting the evolution of internet-use in the party reveal concurring difficulties and attempts at finding solutions for them, hopes and frustrations, theoretical frameworks and limits in implementation, achievements and mistakes.
21The obstacles David Cameron and the Conservatives had to overcome in that period were daunting. The party he inherited in 2005 had still not recovered from its abyssal 1997 defeat with over half its MPs losing their seat, its lowest share of the vote since 1832 at 30.7 % and the party virtually extinct in Scotland and Wales. Its popularity with the electorate was still at a low ebb, its image tarnished, most of its positions seen as outdated, irrelevant or offensive. The party itself was in a very poor shape, split by years of internal feuding, getting to grips with its fifth leader in less than a decade. As an organisation, it had to come to terms with a severely declining party membership, local bodies ageing and in disarray, and headquarters with only a small fraction of the means, both human and financial, available in the Thatcher years. The following testimony from Archie Norman, appointed by William Hague as Chief Executive of the party in 1997, attests to such a paucity once the Conservatives returned to life in the opposition.
- 16 In Peter Snowdon, Back From the Brink : The Extraordinary Fall and Rise of the (...)
“George [Osborne] didn't even have a proper list of phone numbers so he could let [his colleagues] know when the next meeting was”, a fellow aide recalls. “Eventually, we installed a new telecom system. Even then we only had two computers connected to the internet in the entire building.”16
- 17 Peter Oborne, “The Mean Machine”, The Spectator, 20 November 2004, <http://www. (...)
22Cameron’s predecessors had made various attempts at remedying the situation, launching for example regional call centres or the Vault software,17 a basic computerised system for trying to define the profiles of Conservative voters. However, the party in 2005 was still a dim shadow of the affluent and disciplined political weapon it had once been and its 2010 General Election performance from a technical point of view is to be assessed against such a dire backdrop only a few years previously.
- 18 James Crabtree, “David Cameron’s Battle to Connect”, Wired Magazine, 24 March 2010, (...)
Its website, built before the 2001 election, had what Maude now quaintly calls a “homemade” quality. Even in 2005, the party had no web strategy, nor a team to implement it. This was a time, one adviser recalls, when “the person who ran the website was also the same person you rang up if your Outlook broke.”18
23The bafflement over the still inadequate functioning of Merlin over five years after its adoption is partially due to such contingencies. The Conservatives were among the first political bodies in the United Kingdom to experiment with the internet for political purposes. As early as 2006, they launched WebCameron, George Osborne and various party advisors visited the United States to study the initiatives from their American counterparts ; dabbling with YouTube started the same year and with Google Ads the following one. Implementation was however conducted whilst the party was fighting an uphill struggle to regain some of the ground lost since the 1990s.
24Yet the internet and ICTs more broadly speaking have provided David Cameron and his team with tools which often coincided with the objectives of the moment, contributing in particular to a modernisation drive which was a PR exercise but also marked a deeper trend within the party. The parallel with the launch of Cameron’s leadership campaign, with its “Change to Win” slogan is striking : careful, none too natural, arrangements meant to project the image of an informal, youthful, relaxed candidate alongside a seemingly genuine willingness to answer in-depth open questions from journalists on the project itself, posturing often described as lofty or shallow together with attempts at fleshing out the rhetoric with substance.
25The motif of regeneration was ubiquitous in this campaign, just as it had been for Tony Blair a decade earlier for somehow analogous motives. It was foremost in Cameron’s speech at the 2005 Party Conference :
We have to change and modernise our culture and attitudes and identity. When I say change, I’m not talking about some slick rebranding exercise : what I'm talking about is fundamental change, so that when we fight the next election, street by street, house by house, flat by flat, we have a message that is relevant to people’s lives today, that shows we’re comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead.19
26Applying new technologies to the furtherance of such ideas as well as being seen doing it therefore fitted into this broader framework and made sense both for technical and more directly political reasons.
27The phrase “Brand Decontamination” has become commonplace to describe the attempts at ridding the Conservative Party of some of the most electorally damaging leftovers from the Thatcher and Major years and ICTs contributed to that process. The choice to focus communication efforts on David Cameron himself rather than on the party, though it triggered accusations of egotism and presidentialisation of the function, was however coherent with such a strategy and Cameron’s blog on his Indian trip in 200620 is to be seen as an illustration of it, together with the launch of WebCameron shortly afterwards whereas the official party site had to wait until 2009 to be restored.
28This re-branding of the Conservative Party and its leader also involved a renewal of the themes and positions associated with it in the minds of voters as issues which had in the past played in their favour, were compromised because of measures with ill-fated consequences taken by the last Conservative governments or because of Labour’s skill in capturing them. The economy or crime were such cases and in this evolution too, ICTs and the internet in particular proved instrumental as they contributed to the renewal of the party’s ideological arsenal.
- 21 Richard Cracknell, Social Background of MPs, London : House of Commons Library, (...)
29David Cameron and his colleagues acted on the belief that the party had lost touch with the needs and expectations of the electorate. With an average age for members of over 60, only 9 % of its MPs being women against 28 % for Labour in the parliament elected in 2005 and no member of an ethnic minority in the parliamentary party,21 the organisation was felt to have become increasingly unrepresentative of the diversity of the population of 21st century Britain. His predecessors had drawn similar conclusions previously but without managing to turn around the tide. As party chairman, Theresa May had famously warned at the Conservative Conference in Bournemouth in 2002 :
There is a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the nasty party.22
30“A base too narrow” to make a national victory conceivable was clearly May’s conclusion here. Likewise, Cameron was determined to avoid the costly preference of placing party sentiment above the rest of the country’s priorities and ultimately, above electoral success despite the difficulty of doing so while safeguarding internal support for his project. Building on Michael Howard’s 2003 pledge to “preach a bit less and listen a bit more”,23 the party therefore developed several tools to do so in order to broaden the base of the movement and reconnect with the public. The internet offered most of them.
31Shortly after becoming leader of the party, Cameron appointed six policy units to try and generate constructive thinking on various issues such as the quality of life, public service improvement or economic competitiveness. Crucially, these groups comprised outsiders. For instance, the deputy chair of the Social Justice Policy Group was Debbie Scott, Chief Executive of Tomorrow’s People,24 a national charity, while anti-poverty campaigner and musician Bob Geldof took part in the work of the globalisation and global poverty unit.25 ICTs enabled the party to extend the principle even further as the draft Health manifesto or the response to the Labour budget mentioned earlier attest. The CameronDirect townhall-style meetings where the party leader answered open questions from a mixed audience, were conceived along the same lines of inclusiveness and dialogue and were supported via online tools, whether for advertising the events themselves or afterwards, for broadcasting videos of them.
32Such experiments also fit in with the emphasis laid by David Cameron on the public’s “social responsibility to play an active part in the community [they] live in”.26 Just like the decision to publish in 2009 Shadow Cabinet members’ expenses claims through GoogleDoc matched the rhetoric of transparency adopted as part of the anti-sleaze side of the decontamination drive. Just like the Red Tape Challenge site,27 encouraging web-users to report regulations they find excessive, supports the current government’s will to cut bureaucracy and encourage individual initiative.
33Broadly speaking, the web provided means of collecting ideas, airing them out, having them available but without systematically committing to their implementation. These tools have also been used by the Conservatives to convey the party message and even more crucially, to materialise otherwise abstract concepts such as openness, inclusiveness, social responsibility or transparency. They were therefore both vehicles and objects of demonstration in the party’s strategy as they were integrated into the wider theoretical discourse of its leader and major spokesmen.
34Moreover, if encouraging dialogue with a larger and more diverse audience made sense from an ideological and electoral point of view, it also had its advantages from a strictly organisational perspective. Indeed, Cameron’s stress on the necessity for change and modernisation was rather unpalatable to a significant part of his own followers. Involving outsiders at various stages of the political process, for campaigning for instance via the MyConservatives.com platform, was also a means of circumventing internal opposition, or at least attempting at diluting it into a larger whole and of gaining some legitimacy for the whole endeavour.
35However, ICTs also had more positive consequences on the relationship between the leadership and the rest of the party. For a start, the importance granted to inclusiveness did open the door to a number of talented outsiders who brought their knowledge and expertise to the party with them. Blogger Guy the Mac highlights the way the internet eased his way into direct involvement at a time when the party was opening its gates :
- 28 Email to Author, 2 March 2011.
For outsiders starting cold there seemed no way to raise one’s profile in order to crack the party system we are stuck with. Blogging gave me an outlet to start to raise my profile, so if circumstances arise in the future, I may be able to at least point to something which gives me some political credibility. I did find though I was very quickly contacted by someone from Conservative Central Office and the real-life activities kind of grew from that.28
36Furthermore, the internet provided Web-proficient candidates and local associations with the means to level the playing field in dealing with party headquarters, or at least, to “raise their profiles” too by producing creative and effective contents. Allot’s video, referred to earlier, is one such example but far from the only one. MPs such as Nadine Dorries29 or John Redwood30 took up blogging along with activists like Steve Tierney.31 Others have preferred social networking like James Cleverly.32 At the local level too, though to a lesser extent and with certain discrepancies, the internet has been used as a tool for broadcasting, engaging the public, organising campaigning and elaborating tactics.
37Instruments such as Merlin have also, to a certain extent, contributed to favouring a form of dialogue between the centre and the periphery, between headquarters and local bodies though in more limited proportions than initially expected. The internet nevertheless meshed in particularly well with some of the strategic objectives of the Conservatives, demonstrating once again their relevance to the party’s major priorities in the years leading up to the 2010 general election.
38In the run-up to the 2005 campaign, Cameron had been close enough to Michael Howard and his team as head of policy coordination to realise the danger for a cash-strapped party with limited forces on the ground to spread itself too thin in constituencies. Merlin and Mosaic participated in an attempt to allot still inadequate resources in what was hoped to be a more productive manner. 2005 was also the year the Conservatives won fewer votes than in any post-war election.33 It drove home to the party leadership the worrying reality that it was no longer the logical, automatic alternative to Labour as the government’s unpopularity would not translate into renewed support but rather served to strengthen other movements like the Liberal Democrats. The necessity to reach out to a wider public, geographically but also socially or demographically, was therefore assisted by internet-related tools. Cameron’s successive live chats on Mumsnet in 200634 and 200935 were thus intended to attract a part of the electorate whose support was deemed essential to a Conservative victory at the polls. Propitiously, a number of the population segments identified as crucial in this respect coincided with those whose use of the internet was the most proficient. Women but also youngsters or dynamic executives were among those two categories as both key voters and accomplished web-users, hence the pertinence of a strategy integrating ICTs in dealing with them.
39Other initiatives had rather similar goals but were also designed to take part in the rebranding exercise mentioned earlier. A version of the 2010 manifesto available online was entitled “A Contract for Equalities” and focused on the party’s policies for tackling racial prejudice, for instance. Cameron answering the questions of the readers of Pinknews.co.uk,36 the online gay news service, was another such case. These online undertakings were in keeping with the party’s executive’s attempt at ground level to require from local associations that they should choose their constituency candidates from an A-list including a majority of women as well as entrants from ethnic minorities, especially in relatively safe seats.
40The outcome of such practices aimed at reaching out beyond party boundaries remains open to debate. On the one hand, a poll conducted for The Observer in September 2011 revealed that 42 % of the British electorate would never consider voting Conservative, a figure which, according to Tim Montgomerie, a former aide to Iain Duncan Smith, has remained unchanged since 2004.37 On the other, the proportions of women (36 %) and 24-35 year-olds (35 %) voting Conservative at the 2010 General Election were the highest since 1992,38 though admittedly only moderately above their 2005 equivalents. Such data highlights, in this area of convergence between the party and ICTs as in others, the possibility of a gap between ambitions and eventual results, as well as the challenge of assessing and then tracing potential alterations to the political scene back to specific technologically-related initiatives due to the multiplicity of elements to be factored in the equation. All the more so as the progressions of the Conservative Party and of ICTs in the run-up to the 2010 election share a complex, as well as a non-linear nature.
41Thus, in several instances, the Conservative Party’s online activities seemed to fit particularly well into the wider project set up in the perspective of the 2010 election in the years leading up to it. It was in part deliberate, but also because, on different occasions, internet-connected solutions proved singularly suited to the needs of the Conservatives and to the party’s responses to them.
42Undoubtedly, several other factors played in favour of the Conservatives in their attempt at developing online tools for action. The fact that the party was in opposition, i.e. less tied up to the contingencies of government and with more time to experiment, together with the nature of their core voters – mostly suburban, middle-class professionals – and of the ones the party was trying to attract, are among them. The personality of David Cameron, his age, the modernising outlook of his plans, his relative fluency with the medium are others, especially if compared to his counterpart in Labour ranks.
- 39 “Team Cameron has consistently pursued modernisation on ten fronts”, Conservativehome (...)
- 40 Jane Green, “Strategic Recovery ? : The Conservatives under David Cameron”, Parliamentary (...)
- 41 Peter Dorey, “Faltering before the Finishing Line : The Conservative Party’s Performance (...)
43The illustration of the capacity of the Conservatives to make use of a comprehensive array of internet tools as well as the fact that the angle they chose for their 2010 campaign seemed particularly suited to the use of such tools do not however attest to the success of Cameron’s modernisation drive beyond a strictly technical perspective. Indeed, no consensus has been reached on that point. In 2009, the Conservativehome blog39 acknowledged that modernising efforts from the top team on matters pertaining to social justice, civil liberties or immigration seemed promising. The following year, the increase in the number of Conservative female MPs elected to Parliament from 18 to 48, for instance, or the willingness of the party to join the Liberals in a governmental coalition could be seen as pointing to a similar direction. Nevertheless, more qualified analyses or even works stating the contrary abound. Jane Green, for example, suggests major limitations to the party’s recovery40 while Peter Dorey argues that Cameron failed to convince “voters that it had sufficiently and genuinely changed since the 1980s and 1990s”.41
44Moreover the propitious coalescence between message and medium in the Conservative case is not meant to imply that only parties sharing the same objectives, perspective or strategies can benefit from integrating such tools in their political arsenal. In the United States, the opponents of George W. Bush whom Eric Boehlert referred to as “the liberal blogosphere”,42 initially managed to make use of online technologies much more efficiently than their adversaries. In the UK, the distinction was less clear-cut. Some fringe movements or anti-establishment ones or yet single-issue campaigns indeed managed to produce powerful results in their exploitation of the new possibilities offered, often with scarce resources but with no obvious advantage to more liberal causes. The Green Party in Brighton43 or Respect in Birmingham44 and Poplar45 led notable online campaigns.
45As far as organisations contending for national power were concerned, the Conservatives seemed to have the edge. Their communication via emails, for instance, was more widespread.46 It may also be argued, that they demonstrated more prudence in experimenting with various technologies though the CashForGordon47 fiasco illustrated the fact that they were not immune to mistakes. Cameron was mocked for trying to keep in check his party members’ outbursts on Twitter48 but at the end of the campaign, the number of embarrassing incidents related to unwise comments on social networks, blogs or sites was indeed lower for the Conservatives than for Labour.
46Nevertheless, their competitors progressively caught up with, and even in some sectors, overtook them. The Liberals, for instance, with their generally younger audience and members, may be said to have been more at ease on social networks thanks to the experience of various participants drawn from the ranks of charities and campaigning groups championing environmental causes or fighting tuition fees, among others. The loosely affiliated “Rage Against the Machine” Facebook Group49 with over 140,000 supporters at its peak attested to this. The Labour team claimed to have gained the upper hand in search engine optimisation50 and boasted the highest number of followers on Twitter before the official campaign started according to a report released by marketing consultancy Apex Communications in April 2010.51
47However, evidence from the same report points to a phenomenon of convergence between the three major parties in the UK in their use of the internet rather than to significant discrepancies and a look at the online political landscape confirms such a trend. All parties experimented with crowdsourcing, all launched a platform intended to help volunteers campaign more efficiently, all developed data gathering and managing software, with Labour’s Excalibur launched as early as 1994 by Peter Mandelson as an earlier and more basic version of the Tories’ Merlin. The Digital Debate on YouTube52 gathered all three party leaders and all three in turn took part in the Mumsnet live chats.
48Similar online solutions were called upon to answer similar challenges, be they voter apathy, declining membership, a necessity to restore a tarnished reputation or to raise their profiles, to renew their image, broaden their electoral base, bypass the traditional media, manage internal struggles or deal with restricted resources.
49In all three cases, though some attempt at rationalising the process was occasionally noticeable, there did not seem to be any master plan for a systematic and comprehensive adoption of ICTs integrated to the party strategy at all levels of the party machine. Individual initiatives, one-off experiments born out of sheer necessity, chance encounters, mutual interest or skill were the norm rather than the exception, with parallel pursuits run at both the national and local levels, both from inside and outside parties resulting in a motley assortment rather than a homogeneous and concerted whole.
50Moreover, such practices confirm that technical progress, as it widens the range of possibilities open to parties, is not neutral to their evolution as political bodies. Yet they also indicate that its potential is obviously related to their capacities to exploit it and this aptitude, or inaptitude in some cases, has in turn been revealing of the British parties’ hopes and weaknesses, priorities and limits in the first decade of the 21st century. The problems in the rolling out of Merlin, alluded to earlier, are illustrative of this phenomenon for they reflect more general difficulties experienced by David Cameron and his team in carrying out their project, emphasising the fact that ICTs are not adopted in a vacuum but depend for their effective use on a multiplicity of factors.
51The run-down character of the party organisation Cameron inherited was one such factor. Neither campaign headquarters nor most local associations were in a position to exploit the opportunities offered by ICTs to the full, busy as they were remaining afloat while trying to come to terms with the damage of three General election defeats in a row. Even though technologies such as the internet can help overcome organisational challenges, they are not a miracle cure in themselves for otherwise deficient party machines. Their capacity to deliver must rely on a solid organisational background and in the case of the Conservatives but not exclusively, this was not a given.
52Besides, the choice to experiment with new tools is not only a pragmatic decision with strictly technical repercussions but also a political one. It supports a strategy or goals which may not be shared universally and thus reveal areas of tensions within a party and these were not lacking in the Conservative movement of the 2010s. Despite his clear victory over David Davis in the 2005 ballot for the leadership of the party, Cameron was not granted an unconditional mandate for change by his fellow Conservatives and suspicions as to his objectives and methods did remain widespread. This undoubtedly impacted on the willingness of activists and local bodies to play along with initiatives emanating from party headquarters such as Merlin or MyConservatives.com and therefore, ultimately, on their efficacy, as they were on occasions regarded as gimmicky contraptions from the “Brat pack” or else as a further threat to local independence in a wider context of tensions related, for instance, to the A-list episode or to the expenses scandal.
53Likewise, turf wars for control over various aspects of political action inevitably affected the ability of the party to integrate ICTs into their larger project. Ideally, to result in significant achievements, their use for political purposes is to rest on a certain degree of collaboration between the individuals or the teams responsible for the technical dimension and those in charge of communication, policy or campaigning, or in the case of the Conservatives, Central Office, the Press Office, the IT section or other decision-making bodies within the party. The adoption of new tools, online or not, necessarily implies a shifting of boundaries in the prerogatives of various actors and stepping on toes occurs which may not be conducive to the most harmonious of working relationships. Such was the case here again.
- 53 Patricio Robles, “10 Common Social Media Mistakes”, Econsultancy Blog, 31 March (...)
- 54 Malcom Coles, “Election Memo to Party Leaders : Please Sort out Your Terrible Websites”, (...)
54Furthermore, the seemingly endless possibilities offered by online tools and other such instruments were confronted to very non-virtual constraints of time, cash, or skills when adopted by parties. The more sophisticated the technique, the more planning, expertise and investment it requires and the more training too. Yet they were not always equal to the task. Training, for instance, was a sector sorely neglected by parties. Patricio Robles, contributor to the Econsultancy blog advising businesses on online marketing issues, defines “Not training employees” as one of the ten most common social media mistakes made by beginners in the field.53 The appropriation of Merlin by local volunteers also suffered from such a flaw while specialists’ blogs overflow with exasperated comments from programmers and other computer experts about some of the rather basic mistakes made by parties’ web teams from a technical point of view.54
55Thus, contrary to common belief, ICTs do not provide a means for doing politics on the cheap, either literally or more figuratively unless a movement can rely on a large number of dedicated, autonomous and competent activists willing to devote considerable time and energy to a cause which British parties couldn’t do in the run up to the 2010 election.
56Likewise, online tools often give users a feeling of speed, of immediacy as everything seems to happen faster on the web. Yet building meaningful relationships or influencing the image of a party, even with such tools, remains extremely time-consuming and necessitates long-term focus and consistency over time. This was generally not a luxury David Cameron and his closest collaborators could afford as they tried to weather one storm after another, changing tack to try and adapt to circumstances and to the priorities of the moment, torn like their opponents between polar needs such as keeping onboard core voters and attracting new ones, or preparing for the future while safeguarding the values of the past.
57Despite the fact that the new instruments made available by technological progress seemed particularly suited to the Conservatives’ message, they could not make up for its occasional ambivalence or confusion, a reality acknowledged by party chairman Eric Pickles in a 2009 interview. Referring to Barack Obama’s campaign for president of the United States, he wrote :
- 55 Eric Pickles, “The Conservative Party is Streets Ahead of the Opposition when it Comes to (...)
I don’t doubt that the Presidential campaign’s ability to harness grassroots support and in addition to raise millions from small donations was impressive and a master class for all political parties. But the thrust of my comments to The Daily Telegraph […] was that some politicians and media commentators have bought in to the suggestion that it was the internet war that won the election. I disagree. It was not a case of the traditional “it was the Sun what won it” being replaced by “it was google that got it”. […] To believe that the online campaign was a silver bullet that if replicated will guarantee electoral success not only misses the brilliance of why Obama won, it also risks us kidding ourselves into a complacency that getting our web presence right guarantees a win. Obama won because he communicated with the American public in a way no politician has done since Reagan. He spoke directly to the American public increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by the political process. Obama gave them hope, a vision of the future and importantly offered Leadership they “could believe in”.55
58This quotation from Eric Pickles also highlights a discrepancy between an awareness, in some cases, of the theoretical prerequisites for making the best possible use of online campaigning and yet the limited capability of party executives to act accordingly, thus suggesting that not all the levers for action rest in their hands for bearing upon the factors mentioned earlier. Despite the organisational difficulties referred to above, the occasional floundering in resolution, technical glitches or changing priorities can account for the gap between theory and practice too. It confirms however that online tools do not exist in a void but are cogs in a much more complex and composite apparatus, constantly interacting with a variety of other components, both inside the party and outside.
59Their relationship with the more traditional media is another illustration of such a phenomenon. Sites, blogs, networks, etc. have not drastically supplanted newspapers, the radio or the television but forced them to adapt and evolve. Real-time tweets during the three TV debates, journalists from the written press doubling up as bloggers, TV anchors reading live from online comments all attest to a new, constantly mutating balance between complementary and interconnected elements rather than mutually-exclusive ones.
60An approach focusing on the capacity of political actors to appropriate the latest innovations inevitably exposes a gap between the fast-moving pace of technologies and the much slower processes inherent to parties with often several laborious stages between the availability of the instruments, the understanding of their potential from a political perspective, the decision to make use of them, the recruitment of staff skilled enough to hope to do so, the first experiments, the attempt at integrating them into a wider strategy, the endless negotiations for converting sceptics, training newcomers, the actual implementation and the debriefings for post-operative fine-tuning.
61Additionally, by the time such a cycle can be completed, some of these tools have become obsolete, or like Myspace for instance, are no longer the potent medium they had been only a few years previously. Many of those which were in the limelight in 2010, such as Facebook, YouTube or Twitter were not even known to the wider public five years earlier for the previous General Election, let alone to parties.
62However, concentrating on the most recent devices or the most visible ones often conceals some of the most subtle and often meaningful changes to political life brought about by the internet and technical progress in general in the last decade. Mark Pack, for instance, in the article mentioned above, presents such an unspectacular yet significant variation. He reports how a blog entry he wrote about the need to adapt the election imprint rules to the internet age was picked up by the BBC, thus initiating a debate on the topic in the traditional media and resulting in an MP raising the issue with the relevant minister.56 The internet connection may not be immediately perceptible, nor arguably the most decisive in the process, yet neither is it inconsequential.
63As the press or the public increasingly rely on online resources for retrieving data about any topic, the capacity of political actors to act upon such an aspect could become increasingly critical in years to come. In this sector, the latest tweet from a candidate, the remodelling of a party website or the most recent experiment on YouTube might be less influential than the less noticeable advances in targeting mentioned earlier, or in programming to make various contents more search engine-friendly, or for cultivating strategic relationships with prominent bloggers, meta-blogging editors or executives from major Web 2.0 multinationals.
64Likewise, from an internal perspective, the capacity for local activists to download leaflets and posters or to organise by themselves events via online tools might prove less crucial than the participation of similar tools to a progressive opening of parties to a rising class of computer-savvy, loosely affiliated semi-professionals who may end up challenging traditional members from within. Which of these more or less salient facets will be given priority by parties in the years to come, if any, remains to be seen, as well as whether or not they will manage to make the most of the opportunities being created, let alone anticipate on future turns of events.
65Yet, what is undeniable is that if ICTs have indeed offered new possibilities to parties, they have also generated new difficulties for them which will be far less short-lived than the latest gadget. Campaigning for one thing has been strongly affected. Whereas in the past, designing campaign material such as posters or PPBs was the privilege of an elite with substantial means and skills, and broadcasting was strictly the prerogative of a limited number of agents, ICTs have dramatically lowered the barriers to such acts. Mere hours after the launch of the “We Can’t Go on Like This” and “I’ve never voted Tory before” poster series by the Conservatives, dozens of spoof versions of them were available on the Mydavidcameron.com57 site, resonating far more than the official versions and basically ruining their effect. On Election Day, while The Sun front page pictured David Cameron, Obama-style, with the message “Our Only Hope” written underneath,58 its “Nope” parody, manufactured through an online template, was viewed over 100,000 times, its popularity encouraged by redirection on Twitter.
- 59 Alastair Campbell, “Has the Political Poster Virtually had its Day ?”, The Times, (...)
66The new opportunities for interactivity with the audience in that sector will undoubtedly force parties to adapt. Trying to enlist such creativity via crowdsourcing initiatives was their main answer, yet its outcome did not match expectations. In a Times article entitled “Has the Political Poster Virtually had its Day ?”,59 Alastair Campbell suggested building on the American experience of the Obama campaign to favour peer-to-peer communication rather than top-down conveyance as an alternative solution. More generally, the degree of control over the party message experienced during the reign of Campbell as director of communications and strategy in the Blair years will be difficult to replicate in the near future as channels for broadcasting have multiplied exponentially, though the number of them whose genuine influence deserves such control may be lower than initially imagined.
67Public scrutiny is another practice which ICTs and the internet in particular have facilitated. Inconsistencies during the TV debates for instance, were immediately reported on Twitter and Facebook just as was the decision to omit “gay and straight” from the speech Cameron gave on April 6, 2010 whereas the phrase had been in the initial press release and on the party site. Online platforms such as the Straight Choice60 collected election leaflets and therefore made it easier to analyse campaign promises and then compare them to actual delivery while the Democracy Club61 proposed to question candidates about their precise positions on a variety of issues. Unless these micro-exertions are relayed in the traditional mass media, they are as yet not enough to challenge existing practices but they contribute to a larger demand for greater accountability from elected representatives in Britain.
68Such scrutiny still takes time, energy and intent which the vast majority of web-users prefer to spend on other pursuits, yet the politicians who have been willing to play the game of online politics and, as a consequence, have gained a better understanding of such possibilities acknowledge the benefits they have derived from it in terms of responsiveness to the concerns of constituents, or for broadcasting data more relevant to a local audience and yet simultaneously worry about less positive developments. Charles Barwell, President of the National Conservative Convention who served on the party’s Board from 2007 to 2011, expresses concern over the new demands generated by online tools for political representatives :
- 62 Email to Author, 22 February 2011.
As politics becomes ever more 24 hour active, and politicians are expected to be consistently available, ever fewer really talented people who have strong experience outside the professional political sphere will be prepared to be candidates for election. This is a bad thing for our global democracy.62
69No splash in the pool thus but a series of ricochets, more or less visible, more or less intentional and guided, more or less relevant or crucial to the evolution of British politics in the near future.
70More broadly speaking, talks of 2010 being the year of the internet election have died down. The revolution has not taken place. Technological progress has not radically altered the British political landscape. Yet neither has it left it completely unchanged, adding another layer to the age-old edifice, inflating even further the existing maelstrom. For the multiplicity of new instruments available used by a variety of actors for a plethora of goals challenges the appropriateness of drawing clear-cut, indubitable conclusions carved into stone as far as the impact on British politics of ICTs and the internet more specifically are concerned. All the more so as evidence from the 2010 campaign seems to point to diverse, often conflicting directions simultaneously, making the attempt at elaborating universal generalisations even more delicate.
- 63 In March 2010, the Labour Party launched, via Saatchi & Saatchi, its advertising agency, (...)
71The practice of crowdsourcing illustrates such a difficulty. On the one hand, it has been the opportunity for citizens hitherto uninvolved in political action to develop their creativity, to take part in the democratic dialogue between candidates and the public they are meant to represent, or to bypass the traditional hierarchy of parties. It has in turn provided political organisations with valuable insight into the expectations of their electors, with the possibility to help manufacture innovative contents, or to engage citizens from outside their usual pool. Nonetheless, it has also loosened their ability to control some areas of campaigning, generated a tremendous amount of data or contributions which they were rarely equipped to deal with. Its reach has proved limited to a disappointingly narrow profile of participants, often left bewildered or even angry at the apparent lack of responsiveness of their interlocutors within parties. The embarrassment over the “Fire up the Quattro”63 poster produced via a Labour crowdsourcing contest but which ended up being more flattering to David Cameron than anything the Conservatives had designed, highlights the risks of such operations for parties and explains why the potential of this category of tools has been left relatively untapped, making it even more problematic to assess their true relevance to political action in the future.
- 64 Andrew Chadwick & Philip N. Howard, The Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics(...)
72This is true of other categories as well with an equal capacity to bring about disparate offshoots. Blogging is another, for instance, with its capacity to be a genuine vector of popular expression together with a vehicle for formulating the basest, most offensive comments and attacks on the most elementary principles of democracy and human respect, sometimes on the same page. This many-sided nature of online tools accounts for the kaleidoscope of often contrasting conclusions reached by academics across the world as to their potential in the political sphere. Some of the most representative of them are summed up by the contributors to the Routledge Handbook of Internet Politics published in 2009.64
- 65 L.K Grossman, The Electronic Republic : Reshaping Democracy in the Information (...)
- 66 Dick Morris, Vote.com, Los Angeles : Renaissance Books, 1999.
- 67 Neil Washbourne, “Information Technology and New Forms of Organizing”, in Frank (...)
- 68 Anne-Marie Greene, John Hogan and Margaret Grieco, “E-Collectivism and Distributed Discou (...)
- 69 Grant Reeher, Steve Davis & Larry Elin, Click on Democracy : The Internet’s Pow (...)
- 70 Jenny Pickerill, “Environmentalists and the Net : Pressure Groups, New Social M (...)
- 71 Norman Nie & Lutz Erbring, “Internet Society : A Preliminary Report”, IT and Society, vol (...)
- 72 Brigitte Le Grignou & Charles Patou, “ATTAC(k)ing Expertise : Does the Internet Democrati (...)
- 73 Benjamin Barber, “Which Technology and Which Democracy ?”, in Henry Jenkins and David Tho (...)
73Thus, Grossman, for instance, has pointed to the positive influence of the internet on participation in the USA65 while Morris has defended the thesis that it has contributed to a renewed empowerment of the public.66 Neil Washbourne,67 Greene, Hogan and Grieco,68 or Davis, Elin and Reeher69 all strengthen the case for a truly democratising capacity of the internet as a vehicle for political action. Its abilities to generate meaningful collective action, both online and on the ground, to widen the range of participants to political action or to devolve authority from the centre to a more diffuse group of activists have all been put forward. Yet some research questions such hypotheses. Jenny Pickerill, for example, suggests that online activism could be a poor substitute for real world action70 while Nie and Ebring call attention to the possibility that it could favour isolation rather than communal endeavours.71 Grignou and Patou touch upon the resilience of the power of experts in the field,72 whereas Barber expresses concern about the eventuality of a rising form of electronic populism via such tools.73
74A profusion of new opportunities, in the hands of various actors, for reaching a multiplicity of objectives and therefore, an assortment of possible repercussions from ripples to waves. Or even a single initiative revealing contradictory trends. Offering web-users the chance to address politicians on an equal footing through the posting of questions, for instance, may also be a means for a party to harvest email addresses for later use without participants being fully aware of the fact: greater accountability together with new grey areas in the same breath. A Facebook profile or a Twitter account which can be opened in the local library with a minimal investment of time, skill and money, and yet which cannot become truly efficient political weapons without significant investment in the same time, skill and money. Evidence from the first decade of the 21st century therefore highlights the necessity to move away from utopian versus dystopian frameworks of analysis to more qualified assessments of the impact of ICTs on the British political landscape as a vast, complex network of interactions and interconnections is revealed and often opposite trends come to light, with parties trying to come to terms with current developments with varying degrees of success in a constantly evolving environment.
- 74 Elizabeth Harrin for “A Girl’s Guide to Project Management” <http://www.computerweekly.co (...)
- 75 <http://www.totalpolitics.com/blog/27828/top-50-uk-political-blogs.thtml >, last accessed on 20 June 2011. See also Mark Pack, “The Male Dominance of Online Britis</http> (...)
75Besides, the example of blogging, among others, illustrates the possibility that online tools could offer a rather accurate, if partial, reflection of contemporary politics in Britain – with for instance, the blog award of the year granted in 2010 to a woman74 whereas none of them made it to the list of the top twenty political blogs for the same period75 – and yet, that they could also, through the new opportunities they create, contribute to bringing about a series of consequential alterations to political life in the country. That they should echo or consolidate existing practices therefore doesn’t mean that they might not be simultaneously transforming such practices.