Thursday, 23 April 2015

#GE2015 - UK General Election 2015 and New Political Communication: Preliminary Thoughts

© Xpolode
Twitter: @RidgeNewman

Early on in the 2015 General Election cycle, the Tories publicised a MyConservatives revamp, but completely dropped it (very quietly). They have tried also to bury evidence of WebCameron and its output altogether. This raises the question of whether internet innovation in politics is primarily a tool for opposition parties, rather than parties in government. The jury is still out on that and it remains a question requiring deeper analysis over time. The advent of coalition politics at Westminster has complicated this question further with the definition of the government party(ies) and opposition party(ies) being rather more cloudy than before.

However, further to my recent book: ‘Cameron’s Conservatives and the Internet: Change, Culture and Cyber Toryism’ (Ridge-Newman 2014) one question I have been asked, and feel able to shed some light on, is how the 2010 General Election e-campaign (#GE2010) compares to that in 2015 (#GE2015).

Firstly, the use of social media seems to have become more normalised as (1) a standard way of organising campaign events; and (2) having a shop front for local campaigns. Some candidates have begun investing their campaign funds in targeted Facebook advertising.

Candidates are reporting that this has helped to (1) raise their profile in their constituency campaigns; and (2) improve interactivity with potential constituents. This is something that wasn't being done so much in 2010.

Moreover, candidates seem more generally aware of the role of social media in their campaigns, especially Facebook and Twitter. In #GE2010, these practices were evolving through a learning and copying culture at the grassroots. Therefore, it is now less evolutionary in its user culture and more standardised in terms of practice. In a democracy and media sense, the use of Facebook and Twitter has now reached a maturity that has facilitated and shaped the ways in which the campaigns are informed and mediated.

The rise of the populist parties is significant in #GE2015. Their impact was more muted and less pronounced in #GE2010. Ukip in particular, but also parties like the BNP and EDL, appear to be targeting Tories on Facebook, friending them and then linking them to their online propaganda, which tends to be highly visual and low on text. EDL social media participants tend to use symbols of Englishness, e.g. St George and the flag. Ukip are decorating their social media pages with purple and gold branding with often prominent displays (profile and cover photos) of the pound sign | ‘£’ and images of the Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

The Conservatives, Labour and Ukip have used an inbound marketing technique, which, to date, has been more commonly associated with marketing practices in the commercial sectors. In order to gain access to these parties’ main websites, the individual is presented with a landing page. At first glance, it would appear that in order to gain access one should submit an email address and other personal data, like, for example, a postcode. Armed with this data, the parties are likely to directly target and market the individual in the run-up to the election using the submitted personal details (primarily an email address); and the parties’ internal CRM systems and market automation tools (MATs), like, for example, Marketo and HubSpot. The hyperlinks allowing the individual to bypass this step is discreet and hidden. However, with a bit of searching it is possible to access these websites without providing personal data.

These parties have taken a significant step forward in their approaches towards more standardised commercial marketing practices. In comparison, it would appear that the BNP, Greens, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and SNP have either not considered/been in a position to use this technique or deemed it to be unhelpful to their campaign efforts.

At present, the sense that I get is that #GE2010 was more experimental and organic, but in #GE2015 there seems a greater confidence across the parties to use online techniques in more aggressive and targeted ways, with fewer attempts at gimmickry.

The Tories have extensively expanded their use of email. It is more personalised and integrated with a range of other online campaign mechanisms for telephone canvassing and signing up to campaigns.

But it raises the question about digital overload. How are ordinary members and activists responding to this approach?

Votesource is an new cloud-based and networked database, commissioned and implemented by CCHQ; and developed by the people who built Merlin and Blue Chip (the two technological predecessors to Votesource). However, it was rolled-out very late in the day (two months before the election). There have been user interface issues, including crashing, poor user connectivity and slowness in inputting and accessing data. Many of the aging people in the party have found it challenging to adapt to, especially with a lack of effective training.

Technology is only as good as the capabilities of the people who design it and the people who use it. As in #GE2010, there appears to be still a significant technological and age divide in the Tory Party. The more techno-savvy individuals are young, but they are largely used for their muscle on the ground to deliver leaflets etc.

Although Votesource, as a cloud-based version of Merlin, is a technological step forward in terms of remote access, the party is poorly organised when it comes to implementing their databases in good time and training users to interface with them effectively.

Therefore, the activists and members who are expected to use the technology, tend to get irritated and demotivated. I have called this a latent culture of grumpiness in local Conservative Associations, which appears to stem from imposed and poorly organised initiatives by the central party. This grumpiness has become a constituent feature of the Cyber Toryism of #GE2015. #GE2010 Cyber Toryism was much more rooted in technological enthusiasm and innovation at both the top and bottom of the Conservative Party.

New found love? The English, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party (SNP)

A Reflection on England and Scotland for St George's Day: I think I understand why the English, and those that I observe within the Conservative Party, are quite taken with Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP).

© The Sun
Sturgeon has a Thatcher-like quality that the Conservative Party still yearns for in its post-Thatcher leadership. Both women were/are strong leaders - seeming to excel above their male contemporaries in what has been largely and historically a man's world. Sturgeon's style, including her stance, direct delivery, clothing and nerves of steel all seem reminiscent of the Iron Lady. There have been claims about subsequent party leaders being the sons of Thatcher. However, I suggest that we may now be seeing this in actuality in Sturgeon. Sturgeon could quite possibly be, in terms of political style, a child of Thatcher.

I get a sense that, not only the Conservatives in England, but the English in general are particularly dazzled by Sturgeon's recent TV performances. The Thatcher-style is clearly attractive to English voters, given Thatcher's remarkable electoral achievements. The English have a track-record in their admiration for strong and prominent British women, including Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth II, and Princess Diana.

The general discourse I engaged with after the main leaders debate led me to post:

‘In listening to a range of commentary and debate in the #LeadersDebate aftermath - seems The English are quite taken with SNP's Nicola Sturgeon.’ (ARN Facebook, 3April 2015.)

Since then, this appears to have persisted. Perhaps it is because the English see in Sturgeon the same passion, commitment, sincerity and determination that they so admired in Thatcher. This seems to be something that British voters are craving in general from the existing Westminster elite parties and politicians, who are largely appearing to be uninspiring and generic (all except for Boris). That is why the Farages and Sturgeons of this election seem to be so appealing to the press and public alike.

It has led me to wonder repeatedly whether at the General Election 2015, 7 May, some English people will be searching for an SNP box on the ballot paper, which, of course, will not be there. Furthermore, it has led me to wonder whether the SNP might even consider fielding candidates in targeted areas of England now they have a greater appetite for Westminster. Stranger things have happened.

That said, for all the qualities the English and Tories admire about Sturgeon, the English and Welsh in general tend to find the SNP's central aims abhorrent. Nationalism in Wales is in a much greater minority and the English would far rather leave the EU than say goodbye to the United Kingdom.

Therefore, in order for the SNP to effectively appeal to the English with any real political longevity, the party would have to significantly rebrand and do a better job at convincing voters that its long-term agenda for Scotland to leave the UK has been well and truly dropped.

Of course, for all the rhetoric that comes out of the Conservative Party in relation to their inherent Unionist agenda, the rise of the SNP in Scotland, and the potential wipe-out of Labour in Scotland, could, in one way, be a significant electoral benefit for the Tories.

The great fear for most Conservatives is that the Tories may not reach significant enough seats in the Commons to block a coalition between Labour and the SNP, which the Conservatives would view as disastrous for Britain. I suspect it would be a view held by the majority of English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters and political parties as well.

‘My thought on the #LeadersDebate: The UK has just developed a multiple political personality disorder!!’ (ARN Facebook, 2 April 2015.)

It would seem that the rise of the smaller parties has led to greater confusion in the British electorate, and perhaps more so in England, about where to place one's vote. The greater choice in viable party candidates is not necessarily accompanied by greater political literacy amid the electorate and, as such, it could create a significant number of undecided voters in key target seats right up until election day. It could also impact on already canvassed voters who had given a decisive vote pledge to parties on the doorstep, only to switch at the last moment. This means that the parties' Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) strategies might not be designed to factor in a potential ‘multiple political personality disorder' in Britain and, thus, the results from this election could be all the more interesting.