2010 and the unseen internet election

To dismiss the role of new media is to misunderstand them.

People I both like and admire appear to have been queuing up in the past week to declare that this was not the internet election after all. First Jon Snow, writing in Saturday's Times, described the past four weeks as "The internet election that never happened". A day later Peter Preston, in his media column in the Observer, declared: "TV has dominated this campaign: the rest of the media were spear-carriers".

In fact, both articles are more nuanced than those headlines suggest. Nevertheless, as a piece by Steve Hewlett on the Today programme this morning underlined, there seems to be some glee -- a little Schadenfreude -- in passing judgement on the medium that didn't bark.

But much of this commentary misunderstands the role of new media and its influence on our politics. In all election campaigns, there is a ground war and an air war -- and the internet was always going to be far more effective in fighting the former.

As we wrote in our leader "Lights, camera, reaction", the week before the campaign got under way:

Despite the growing role of new media as a conduit for political conversation, most people will get most of their election news mediated through the usual channels -- television and newspapers. Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere are a useful, increasingly essential, means of talking to the base (energising volunteers and activating the activists), but they are far less potent when it comes to reaching out to and persuading floating voters.

In the words of Joe Rospars, Barack Obama's director of all things web during the 2008 presidential campaign, new media is about the "mobilisation of real people". And to that end, the verdict on the 2010 election will be much kinder.

Take the Labour Party. Its overarching campaign may at times have been quixotic, even chaotic, but its new media operation will likely be regarded as a success. It used social media -- its own MembersNet network of 30,000 activists, Facebook and Twitter campaigns such as #labourdoorstep -- together with less glamorous email lists and databases to co-ordinate the staples of electioneering: phone calls and face-to-face encounters.

In the closing two weeks of the campaign, I'm told that Labour supporters knocked on 900,000 doors. In 2005 it was struggling to make 50,000 face-to-face visits a week.

The party also built a virtual phone bank that allowed members of the party to make constituent calls from the comfort of their own homes -- or via the discomfort of the streets using a phone bank app for the Apple iPhone. In all, 60,000 calls were made using this system, a fraction of the total, but calls that would otherwise not have been made.

Encouragingly for the party, grass-roots campaigners didn't wait to be asked before using the technology -- witness the #MobMonday Twitter campaign, inspired by 24-year-old Grace Fletcher-Hackwood and her fellow activists in Manchester.

Labour also hitched a ride with other non-party activity, notably Clifford Singer's MyDavidCameron, which has changed the way we look at election posters for ever and, more immediately, forced the Conservatives to change their advertising agency. Back in January, Gordon Brown was encouraged to drop in a reference to the "airbrushed" David Cameron during PMQs, bringing what had been an online in-joke into the mainstream.

The Labour Party was not alone in harnessing the web but -- activities like Singer's aside -- the real point is this: internet electioneering is largely invisible to the wider public, it's not designed for the mainstream. Rather, it is designed to get the vote out. Studies in the United States suggest that door-to-door canvassing can increase turnout by up to 11 per cent.

Will it work? We'll know in 36 hours or so.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.