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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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