The first gentle steps towards the Internet - Part 2
Alastair Campbell continues the story of Labour’s Internet discovery. He argues that modern technology will change the way politicians communicate, and how party’s campaign.
Now out of government, and therefore deprived of a great support system, I have had to learn to do things for myself a lot more. Allelujah, I can do email, though I still struggle with attachments. I have a blackberry. However, as some readers may know, I am inclined to hit the wrong key from time to time, as when I joked with a friend that he should tell the BBC to "**** off and cover something important for once", only to discover that I sent it not to my friend but to the BBC, thereby providing Newsnight with a lead story to salivate over on an otherwise quiet news day.
Despite that, I persevered and I am now as addicted as the next man to the little toy on my belt. But I am still way behind the curve when it comes to using the Internet. It may be my proneness to addiction that holds me back. I see people who seem incapable of leaving it alone, and I don't want to be like that. So I use it sparingly, and usually by asking Fiona or one of our three children to find for me what it is that I am seeking, and print it out. I know, I know, still pathetic, maybe even more so to be involving my kids, but there we are. We are what we are and it takes all sorts to make the Internet go round, or up, down, across.
However stupid all of the above may seem to those for whom the Internet is a second home and a first language, I have a better understanding than when I was in Downing Street of how much it matters, and the potential it has to reshape political communication. And I do know it will matter more as time goes on, though to be frank we in the UK are well behind our campaigning colleagues in the US when it comes to its use.
The Labour party launched its website in 1996, to limited interest and even less effect. Indeed, more effort went into producing CD roms than web-based material. The 2001 election was the first in which the Internet had an impact on UK electoral politics. This was driven by the dotcom boom in the late 1990s, and was as much about making news through the conventional media by being seen to use the new, than it was about really using, or even understanding, the potential that was there. We were certainly well behind the Americans in their election a year earlier, when Al Gore came pretty close to claiming invention of the Internet as a way of expressing his modernity and grasp of new economics, and when maverick candidate Ralph Nader's "Nader's Traders" were well plugged in to the new ways of doing things. But even in the States, and certainly in the UK, the mainstream parties were way behind some of the special interest groups in how they used the Internet.
Then the conventional "old" media realised they had to adapt, and that had its impact on politics too. The BBC and other broadcasters, and most of the main newspapers, started to deliver online packages and the parties followed this up with dedicated web chats, information about local communities, policy positions on the key issues. But it was all very basic.
In the 2005 election, we had moved on somewhat. We had seen how, in the 2004 primary campaign in the US, Howard Dean made a considerable impact, including a rise in the polls, through the use of a dynamic and innovative website, which also helped him to raise substantial sums of money. But perhaps more important than that, he developed support networks which broke out of the traditional forms of association with political parties and brought to national politics a new cadre of activists - many of whom never had to leave the privacy of their own homes to support him.
At the Labour party, we had Americans in to help show us how to do it better for the last election. They were too polite to say it, but I think they were shocked at how basic we were, and also at how little most of our politicians understood about how this could help them.
It may be a generational thing. Research in the UK after the election showed that 28% of UK Internet users went online to get political information - this equates to 15% of the population. This is still a long way behind other sources. 89% of people cited TV as a source of political information relevant to the campaign, 70% said newspapers. But among young people aged between 18 and 24, the figure rises to 33%. It is still not high enough to be able to claim a "revolution" in political communications, but it may suggest a trend towards it.
The last election also saw the first use of online advertising by a political party with both the Labour and Tory parties taking out ads on online news sites with a political audience.
The appeal of all this, in our very aggressive media marketplace, in which news and comment have become fused in so many of our papers and broadcast outlets, and in which 24 hour news has become a journalistic talking shop, one reporter often being interviewed by another about what others say in their newspapers, is that it offers the prospect of more direct communication. Also, just as the public have grown very canny about techniques of political communication - how could they fail to given the media's obsession with exposing and criticising so-called "spin"? - so they are very canny about media spin too. The Internet gives them the chance to put themselves in the driving seat so far as access to political information is concerned. They can decide what they want to see and read, and go and find it. They can have their opinions, and go to find the arguments that help maintain them, rather than have anyone tell them what to think.
But we should not overstate all this. I believe one lesson of the last election is that the web is unlikely quickly to replace TV as a medium to broadcast communications to mass audiences. I think its future for politics lies in different directions.
• in the building of campaigning networks, like that which exists to get basic messages to tens of thousands of Labour Party supporters aimed primarily at encouraging them to campaign for the party
• in fundraising - The Labour party in 2005 was able to raise substantial sums through well targeted emails encouraging people to donate.
• Local information - one of the most popular features of our campaign - not least for campaigners - was a post code search function that distilled massive national facts, figures and statistics, to local examples of real change and progress in news schools, hospitals and jobs.
The area most in need of development is in how you turn this into a genuine two-way process of debate and engagement. The best of our MPs have picked up on this and developed really exciting ways of re-engaging with their constituents. But it is slow, and I think even the best would admit that pressure groups still lead the way. They do not always have the resources of the major parties but they make up for it with technological know how and entrepreneurial spirit. Make Poverty History was a brilliant example. Regardless of whether it was or it wasn't, people felt this was a two-way dialogue. Political parties are still driven by "one to many" communications, rather than trying to imagine - and bring about - "one to one".
For the parties to get better, politicians need to understand the web more, but I know from my own experience it is an uphill struggle. Only now are young politicians coming through who are familiar with its capacity and relaxed about some elements which intimidate some of their older colleagues, me included.
As with so much in the world of change, this will be driven by young people, the very people politicians need to reach out too most if we are to reverse the decline in political engagement and the rise in cynicism. It means understanding that we now live in an age where anyone under 30 relies on the web as one of their main communications channels, and where for anyone under 20 it is their core communications channel. To connect with these people political parties are going to have to view the web as an essential part of their campaigning mix rather than an optional extra. They should also see that with the press as negative as it is, with TV and radio reporting as frenzied and press influenced as it is, that is an opportunity not a threat. Even I, technophobe that I am, can see that.
• Alastair Campbell was director of communications at No 10 Downing Street from 1997-2004.
For part one (published yesterday) click here.
Originally published as part of AOL’s Discuss series.
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