The Election Will Not Be Televised: The Internet Will Revolutionise the Parties' General Election Campaigns. for Our Leading Politicians, It Is a Great Leap into the Unknown

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), August 24, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Election Will Not Be Televised: The Internet Will Revolutionise the Parties' General Election Campaigns. for Our Leading Politicians, It Is a Great Leap into the Unknown


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


For politicians and journalists, British general election campaigns are the equivalent of playing an album they have not heard for a few years. A prime minister names the big day and all of them discover that the old tunes are still there. They know instinctively how to dance to them.

Over recent decades, the music has started up each day at the morning press conferences. The Liberal Democrats offer their latest soundbites at about 7am; they get an early hit on the media outlets, and the conscientious journalists drink some strong coffee. After the Labour and Conservative morning conferences, the leaders buzz around the country delivering speeches in key marginal seats. They also give interviews to an army of broadcasters and newspapers in which they more or less repeat what they have declared a thousand times before. The disciplined choreography is rarely punctuated by discordant or upbeat notes. I suppose John Major appearing in Luton on a soapbox in 1992 was odd, a little silly, but not a spectacular, game-changing moment. Neil Kinnock getting carried away at the Sheffield rally during the same election fuelled prejudices against him, but the wariness was already present. Since that campaign, elections have come and gone, with Labour predictably winning them--the reverse of the 1980s, when formulaic election campaigns were brief pauses during Margaret Thatcher's long reign.

But with the next election only months away, everything is about to change. The rhythms we have come to know so well are seemingly gone for ever, like a distant waltz that is no longer played. Across the parties and within the mainstream media, there is a widespread assumption that the internet will transform the campaign in revolutionary ways. There is plenty of evidence for this, from the main parties' obsessive interest in the way Barack Obama used the internet to raise cash and engage more directly with voters to the increasingly influential political blogo-sphere, where news and comment are available around the clock.

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Gordon Brown's close ally Ed Balls has told the Prime Minister to stop worrying so much about the newspapers and focus instead on what's online. Brown has followed this advice in part. He has shown a greater interest in the internet, not least with his infamous appearance on YouTube, in which he put the case for changes to the arrangements for MPs' expenses, although his awkward delivery gave him the air of a man trying out his new camcorder with an experimental monologue. He has also twittered about the National Health Service while on holiday.

The other part of Balls's advice has not been followed. Brown still reads the newspapers when he wakes up, which means by the time he's had his first cup of tea he is probably pretty miserable. Labour strategists are spending a lot of time working out how to engage with the voters on the internet and thus bypass the largely hostile conventional media.

Senior Conservative strategists expend much energy in the same quest, but they are also nervously ambivalent, wondering what this great leap into the campaign unknown will really mean. They are haunted by a fear that, for all their intense advance preparations, they are no longer in control of the agenda: instead, the internet will control the so-called political control freaks.

One of the Tories' media advisers tells me of a possible nightmarish sequence that could wreck their carefully laid plans. After an early-morning press conference in which David Cameron and George Osborne deliver their latest slogan, news reaches them that an obscure Conservative candidate has gone outrageously off-message with some spontaneous remarks at a local meeting. In the past, the chances were that such a casually reckless intervention by a nonentity would go unreported. But in the era of mobile-phone cameras and YouTube, the Tory adviser suspects that film of the candidate delivering the calamitous words will be available almost immediately to every broadcaster in the land and become a major news story, derailing the party's agenda for the day, possibly for several. …

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