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Digital politicking will put the snap into 2005 election

Recently Tony Blair has being trying to communicate directly with voters, attempting to circumvent the mediating role of the press wherever he can and rekindle his relationship with the British public, writes Robin Grant, digital director at Proximity London.

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His appearances on chatshows have sometimes made the whole thing seem more like speed dating than an election campaign. However, it still came as a surprise when I checked my inbox and there was an email from the great man himself.

This was in the midst of "the battle of Margaret's shoulder" and Tony was keen to tell me that "Labour is the party of the NHS. Always was. Always will be."

Labour is using email as a key rebuttal tool and as a way to energise and motivate their supporter base. So too are the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, both of whom sent emails within minutes of Gordon leaving the dispatch box, outlining their take on the budget and their alternative spending plans.

This is a massive change from the 2001 election, where none of the parties had an online strategy to speak of, other than a basic web presence.

There were a few isolated events of note, among them a viral game TBWA\ commissioned for Labour, which was a version of 'Pac Man' featuring William Hague munching teachers, policemen and hospital beds. Then there was the text message sent out during election week -- "Cldnt give a XXXX 4 last ordrs? vote Labour on thrsdy 4 xtra time".

The main party websites were then left to stagnate until last year's conference season when Labour toyed with blogging and the Conservatives re-designed their website borrowing heavily from the trail blazed by Bush's site in the US elections.

Labour and the Lib Dems have since followed suit, bringing them broadly in line with each other but still far behind best practice in the US (this may be more a reflection of their relative budgets than anything else).

The Lib Dems are at a massive disadvantage when it comes to their spending power compared with the other two main parties, but this election they may have more of a chance to level the playing field. During the US election, the Democrats raised 60% of their campaign contributions online, and the Lib Dems are seeking to emulate this.

They've started running a major banner advertising campaign on The Guardian's and The Independent's websites, which show a picture of Bush and Blair side by side with the line "Lost trust in Blair's Labour? Time for a real alternative" with a "contribute" button underneath. This, of course, links through to their online donations page with a personal message from Charles Kennedy. Very well done, and potentially extremely effective.

Labour's defence to this Bush-baiting could be led by a celebrated US Bush-baiter, who it has hired to run its internet campaign. American Zack Exley was John Kerry's director of online communications and is infamous in the US for his humorous slurs against his opponents, which fits with Labour's strategy perfectly.

A wildcard role could be played by blogs. After their unprecedented effect on the US election, it remains to be seen what impact the nascent blogging scene will have in the UK, but already we're seeing some very interesting things happen.

BackingBlair.co.uk is a protest voting site accompanied by an extremely well done Orwellian parody of Labour's campaign. It is run by a coterie of disgruntled A-list UK bloggers who want "Labour In. Blair Out", who are prepared to advocate voting Tory to achieve their aims. They are generating a lot of buzz and Labour HQ is said to be rattled. We'll have to wait until May 5 to find out if they needed to worry or not...

Robin Grant is a digital director at Proximity London and an expert on social software and eDemocracy. He also editor of the political blog www.perfect.co.uk.

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