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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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