21st Century Politics?

2010 was the year UK politics was supposed to enter the 21st century and we all experienced the first ‘digital’ election. Obama had paved the way in 2008 and everyone assumed with the debates as a focal point, Twitter, blogs and other social media platforms would have a significant impact on the election.

But this didn’t happen and in the UK we’re still waiting for the breakthrough moment. In the USA, things are advancing rapidly, last month saw the launch of Chirpify, a new service offering voters the ability to donate to a campaign through Twitter, a week after the Federal Election Commission approved the trialling of donations by text. On the face of it, although useful this is nothing truly groundbreaking, until you compare the donor technology in the UK to the US. Parties here are constantly looking to diversify funding and attract more small donations from voters and party sympathisers. But there is no easy or convenient way of doing this and little research appears to have been done in adopting similar methods in the UK (Possibly due to issues with electoral law and ensuring donors are on the electoral register, if anyone knows more about this I’d love to hear from you)

Where we are seeing slow progress in the UK, is the adoption of digital tools to enhance the campaign experience.  In the US, Blue State Digital and Nationbuilder are providing a set of tools which allow campaigns to structure themselves almost exclusively within a digital structure and get past the need for spreadsheet tables and data entry by hand.  YourKen represented the last major attempt by a campaign to utilise one of these technologies, but after the launch it was barely mentioned.

What these tools should represent is an opportunity to engage with activists and voters outside of the traditional pool, as well as a far more efficient way of managing a campaign. At the moment, they are still seen as being secondary to the traditional campaign process. The Yes! To Fairer Votes campaign, was the one serious attempt to place new technology at the heart of the campaign, but unreliable software meant this was never the case and local campaigns were forced to resort to running the campaign with excel spreadsheets and a lot of paper.

Despite these setbacks, enthusiasm seems to be growing. BetterTogether, the unionist campaign in Scotland is making use of Blue State Digital software to provide the online presence for their campaign and John Prescott is using Nationbuilder to power his bid to be an elected police commissioner. Both these campaigns are worth keeping an eye on because of their very different target audiences, BetterTogether have to appeal to and mobilise support from the whole Scottish electorate, while Prescott can focus on a much more localised message.

One genuinely innovative tool which has been launched in the UK is Labour Exchange. Although still in its early days, the premise of the website is incredible in its simplicity. Too often in politics, volunteers are expected to just knock on doors or help with the phonebank and a site which allows volunteers to showcase their talents and community organisers/candidates to advertise for specific jobs will do a great deal to make volunteering more worthwhile and engage those who are unable/unwilling to engage in traditional canvassing. If it proves a success,  and I expect it will, don’t be surprised to see copycat sites launched by every other political party.

A final mention should go to Menshn, the ‘not a twitter rival’  Twitter rival launched by Louise Mensch and Luke Bozier. I’ve not had a chance to properly play with this yet, but its focus on bringing like minded users together looks like an attempt to  modernise BBS boards and cater for the brief snappy messages that Twitter encourages.  It’s too early to tell whether it will have any real impact on social and political discussion, but Mensch should be applauded as a rare example of a politician who is not only comfortable with the digital era, but willing to innovate within it too.

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