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.

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

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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left