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Robert Colvile: Britain's political parties have yet to grasp the internet's potential

Colvilerobert Robert Colvile authors his second article exploring the internet's impact on politics.

A few months ago, I was one of the few outsiders taking an interest in the Lib Dem leadership contest - not because I backed Chris Huhne over Nick Clegg, but because I wanted to see how important the internet had become to political campaigning in this country.

The short answer? It hadn't. Neither candidate blogged, and their websites were uninvolving affairs: Huhne’s had the candidate draped strangely across the masthead, while Clegg was captured seemingly mid-yawn.

But worse than the websites themselves was the lack of imagination. Months into the contest, only The Spectator had bothered to buy up such search-engine keywords as “Nick Clegg”, “Chris Huhne”, “Lib Dems” and “Lib Dem leadership”. Clegg’s site even announced that it was “A site supporting Nick Clegg’s campaign to become leader of the Liberal Democrats”. Perhaps they were hoping to imply that a constellation of other sites were backing the Clegg campaign - but the result was that a casual surfer on Google would have found that claimed to be Clegg’s official homepage.

The Lib Dems aren't the only ones who have neglected their websites, as I pointed out yesterday. In fact, a basic lack of agility permeates all the parties’ online offerings. Why have the Tories not claimed online ownership of the phrase “clunking fist”? Why does Labour’s YouTube channel predominantly feature rather dull ministers making rather dull points and answering rather dull questions? WebCameron was an honourable exception, but even then traffic has trickled away.

Essentially, British politicians are still in what Tim Montgomerie, the editor of this website, calls “send mode” – using the internet to distribute your point of view. The step change to make is the transition to “receive mode” – to ask your readers what they think, and shape your policies accordingly.

Admittedly, entering “receive mode” has its problems: for example, controversial suggestions are seized upon by opponents. Yet the advantages stack up. In 2004, Howard Dean's presidential campaign was powered by the self-organising “Deanie Babies”, who provided not just money, but advice as well – advertisements and posters were honed and improved by online supporters, who also came up with their own versions. As Joe Trippi, manager of that campaign, has said, it's absurd to think that a few people in your party headquarters have a monopoly on political wisdom.

“Receive mode” has another consequence: the party is no longer the be-all and end-all, but merely the centre of a movement – a network of activists. It does not matter whether voters view your site, or see your content elsewhere – as a YouTube video embedded on a blog, for example. Nicolas Sarkozy, during the French elections, answered 1,500 questions posed and priotised by voters on Digg. The campaign produced hundreds of short films, following Sarkozy around France, and built links to roughly 1,000 bloggers, with 100 or so – from all sides of the political spectrum – visiting their headquarters every week. In America, likewise, putting existing bloggers on your staff is now seen as an essential campaign tool.

Such online activism has the potential to strengthen a party greatly, not least by re-empowering those stuck in constituencies which are safely held by the opposition. A Tory supporter in a Labour area can, thanks to ConservativeHome and other sites, make his voice heard by his party - just as Bush-haters stuck in Red states have used to vent their frustration.

Is this a way for British parties to rescue themselves from declining support, and declining turnout? Alex Hilton of LabourHome has made the point that soon, they could have no choice: as membership tumbles, there will be no one to trudge the streets at election time, so the only way to contact voters will be through email lists.

Such lists could also be a fundraising tool: while people might not be willing to become a member of a particular party, they may feel passionately about Europe, or tax, or hunting. Parties are more likely to win these individuals’ support by targeting them over such specific issues – and what better way to do this than via the internet? Already, people have filtered themselves into interest groups, whether on Facebook, or Yahoo Groups, or any website you care to name. All a politician has to do is reach out to – or microtarget – that constituency; as a bonus, doing so gives the impression that you are a leader and a party that is comfortable with technology and modernity.

At the moment, parties are not geared up for these new online opportunities. But in the end, embracing “receive mode” could be as much about survival as opportunity. In his book The Argument, US journalist Matt Bai describes how the Democratic Party after 2004 was hijacked by twin revolts from its super-rich donors, tired of being treated as “ATMs on legs”; and from netroots activists, frustrated with the ideological compromises clung to by the leadership.

It is not hard to imagine how similar frustrations – and a similar insurrection – could break out within the ranks of the main parties in Britain.

'Politics, Policy and the Internet' by Robert Colvile is available on the Centre for Policy Studies website. You can read a summary of its argument in The Daily Telegraph.


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