2015 will be an internet General Election, just not in the way you expect

With the 2015 General Election fast approaching, the Crick Institute for Understanding Politics have been thinking about what different strategies political parties are using to engage the public in politics. In this post, Nick Anstead, Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics, looks at what role the internet is going to play in the coming months. He argues that whilst the term ‘internet election’ is often hyperbolic, it is nevertheless going to be an important feature of the campaign, albeit in more subtle ways.

“This general election belongs to the age of the Internet.”

This quote might have been taken from any number of recent publications about the upcoming UK 2015 election, but it is actually rather older than that. It was said in March 1997 by Paddy Ashdown, speaking to the Independent newspaper.

Ashdown’s prediction turned out to be premature. The Internet of 1997, in all its dial up glory, had a minimal impact on the election campaign. In political communication terms, the contest is far better remembered for the reinvention of the Labour Party as New Labour, masterminded by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, and the decidedly low-tech communication solution of the party’s pledge card.

Every UK election since has seen renewed predictions that it would be the fabled Internet election, almost inevitably followed by post-election explanations as to why the Internet had failed to live up to the hype. For example, in the aftermath of the last election in 2010, political commentator Iain Dale argued described the Internet as “all but an irrelevance” to the overall course of the campaign. Similarly, the BBC’s technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones (who had been charged with covering the Internet-related aspects of the campaign) wrote that the election would ultimately be remembered as a televisual rather than a new media event.

Why does the political commentary in the UK enter into these cycles of revolutionary optimism followed by recantation? Part of the answer can be found in comparing the British experience of online campaigning with the United States. In the US, the Internet seems to be both more significant generally and also have had a profound role in shaping particular campaigns. Certainly, it is very hard to tell the stories of Howard Dean’s run in 2004 and Barack Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 without referring to their seeming mastery of technology, and how it allowed them to reach out to would be supporters, build grassroots movement and smash fundraising records.

We should not be surprised, however, that the UK has not seen a replication of the American experience. There are a number of reasons why US politics seems to lend itself to online mobilisation. American parties are relatively weak institutions in comparison with their European counterparts. Furthermore, because of primaries, which can be contested between candidates from a variety of positions within the federal or state government, US parties have a higher rate of internal competition. US campaign finance law employs donation rather than spending caps as its primary regulatory instrument (the exact opposite of the situation in the UK), which has shaped a culture of relatively small political giving, which is very conducive to online fundraising.

For these reasons then, if UK commentators continue to look for a British “Obama moment” in online campaigning, they will be disappointed. But we should not write off the idea that 2015 will be an “internet election” of sorts. We just need to look for something quite different from the US model. In fact, it could be argued that the Internet and its capabilities are already having profound consequences for how politics is practiced in the UK.

There are a few areas where this is already evident and will be more so in 2015. The first is what Rasmus Kleis Nielson of Oxford University calls the mundane effects of the Internet revolution. His argument is that tools as simple as email are altering how political actors communicate with each other, which is changing the way in which campaigns are run and the speed they have to function at. Twitter might now be having a similar effect on how politicians and journalists interact and share information.

Another area where the Internet is driving profound change is in the polling industry.  2015 looks likely to be the most polled UK election of all time, also featuring a greater variety of polls than ever published before – whether that be constituency-level surveys, sub-UK opinion polls in Scotland or Wales, or polls of other important demographic groups. Some of these polls will be traditional telephone surveys, but many of them will be Internet panel surveys. There can be no doubt that this far cheaper method of polling has created huge disruption within the UK polling industry, and partially explains both the quantity and variety of polls that will be published in 2015.

Perhaps the very biggest election story in the UK in 2015 will relate to vote distribution, however. That is, not how many votes parties win, but instead where they win them, and the number of seats in Westminster this allows them to claim. Essentially, parties are rewarded for distributing their votes efficiently within the UK electoral system. While much vote distribution is down to historical circumstances, parties also work hard to focus their resources on the places where they can really make a difference. In 2015, new technology will play a significant role in this process, with parties seeking to harvest as much data as possible, and combining it with their own legacy canvassing data, as well commercial databases such as Mosaic. Using such datasets to segment the electorate and target resources more efficiently can make a huge difference. Furthermore – in an election where much has been made of the rise of smaller parties – this may be one area where large, established parties still hold a significant advantage. Database management, is after all, very expensive and requires considerable expertise.

Viewed in this context then, 2015 will likely see evolutionary use of the Internet by parties, rather than revolutionary change or an “Obama moment”. But new technology will be no less important to the course of the election for this.

This post originally appeared on the Crick Centre for Understanding Politics blog. It gives the views of the authors, and not the position of Democratic Audit UK, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before commenting.

Nick Anstead has been Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science since 2010. Since arriving at the LSE, Nick’s work has mainly been focused on the intersection between the study of British politics and political communications. He blogs at nickanstead.com and can be tweeted at @nickanstead

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