Monday, 12 April 2010
Working the web Obama-style
I was at a breakfast this morning hosted by NESTA entitled "Will it be the Web Wot Won It?" about the impact of digital communications on the election campaign. There was a consensus that while this time round the impact would be limited, by the time of the next general election (assuming there isn't another one later this year) things would be very different. Of course this is so, although there are legions of pundits telling us otherwise. They cite the success of Barack Obama in engaging millions of people in his election campaign and would have you believe that we are on the verge of a social revolution in this country too. It is utter nonsense. The context in which Obama pulled it off are completely different to the situation we find ourselves in the UK in 2010. The USA has no national print news media to speak of; it is difficult and time-consuming for candidates to make an impact. The absence of a national newspaper and the sheer size of the country means that a higher proportion of people use the web to get their news. Even if this was the case here, the reality is that the structures of the political parties here are too rigid at the moment to allow the kind of engagement that Obama encouraged. In this country if you want to get involved you have to join the party. You have to go to dull party meetings. You have to pay subscriptions. You can't just turn up to a coffee morning, see if you like it, make a few calls or give out a leaflets one Saturday morning. Oh no. But this is what the Obama campaign did so well. They got people to do a little, if they wanted to do more, they could. If they didn't that was fine too. The campaign was also brilliant at keeping people informed about the strategy, themes and activities going on in their area. As a result on the weekend before polling day, 4 million calls were made to voters in swing states by volunteers. It is hard to imagine local party leaders yielding control like that in this country during this campaign. If they want to take best advantage of the opportunities brought by the web, they are going to have to be a bit more relaxed.