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20 August 2009

The election will not be televised

The internet will revolutionise the parties’ general election campaigns. For our leading politicians

By Steve Richards

For politicians and journalists, British general election campaigns are the equivalent of playing an album they have not heard for a few years. A prime minister names the big day and all of them discover that the old tunes are still there. They know instinctively how to dance to them.

Over recent decades, the music has started up each day at the morning press conferences. The Liberal Democrats offer their latest soundbites
at about 7am; they get an early hit on the media outlets, and the conscientious journalists drink some strong coffee. After the Labour and Conservative morning conferences, the leaders buzz around the country delivering speeches in key marginal seats. They also give interviews to an army of broadcasters and newspapers in which they more or less repeat what they have declared a thousand times before. The disciplined choreography is rarely punctuated by discordant or upbeat notes. I suppose John Major appearing in Luton on a soapbox in 1992 was odd, a little silly, but not a spectacular, game-changing moment. Neil Kinnock getting carried away at the Sheffield rally during the same election fuelled prejudices against him, but the wariness was already present. Since that campaign, elections have come and gone, with Labour predictably winning them – the reverse of the 1980s, when formulaic election campaigns were brief pauses during Margaret Thatcher’s long reign.

But with the next election only months away, everything is about to change. The rhythms we have come to know so well are seemingly gone
for ever, like a distant waltz that is no longer played. Across the parties and within the mainstream media, there is a widespread assumption that the internet will transform the campaign in revolutionary ways. There is plenty of evidence for this, from the main parties’ obsessive interest in the way Barack Obama used the internet to raise cash and engage more directly with voters to the increasingly influential political blogo­sphere, where news and comment are available around the clock.

Gordon Brown’s close ally Ed Balls has told the Prime Minister to stop worrying so much about the newspapers and focus instead on what’s online. Brown has followed this advice in part. He has shown a greater interest in the internet, not least with his infamous appearance on YouTube, in which he put the case for changes to the arrangements for MPs’ expenses, although his awkward delivery gave him the air of a man trying out his new camcorder with an experimental monologue. He has also twittered about the National Health Service while on holiday.

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The other part of Balls’s advice has not been followed. Brown still reads the newspapers when he wakes up, which means by the time he’s had his first cup of tea he is probably pretty miserable. Labour strategists are spending a lot of time working out how to engage with the voters on the internet and thus bypass the largely hostile conventional media.

Senior Conservative strategists expend much energy in the same quest, but they are also nervously ambivalent, wondering what this great leap into the campaign unknown will really mean. They are haunted by a fear that, for all their intense advance preparations, they are no longer in control of the agenda: instead, the internet will control the so-called political control freaks.

One of the Tories’ media advisers tells me of a possible nightmarish sequence that could wreck their carefully laid plans. After an early-morning press conference in which David Cameron and George Osborne deliver their latest slogan, news reaches them that an obscure Conservative candidate has gone outrageously off-message with some spontaneous remarks at a local meeting.

In the past, the chances were that such a casually reckless intervention by a nonentity would go unreported. But in the era of mobile-phone cameras and YouTube, the Tory adviser suspects that film of the candidate delivering the calamitous words will be available almost immediately to every broadcaster in the land and become a major news story, derailing the party’s agenda for the day, possibly for several.

The Conservatives have even more cause for worry after Alan Duncan’s supposedly private comments about the poverty of MPs were posted on YouTube and the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (profiled on page 32) reminded voters in his rant against the NHS about the narrow reach of Cameron’s modernising leadership. If the Conservatives have lost control in August, by far the quietest month of the political year, they could be in deeper trouble during an election.

Labour is fearful, too. Brown and Peter Mandelson were architects of the highly disciplined 1997 victory, even though they hardly spoke to each other at the time. They are used to operating in the old ways and will probably find it harder than the more youthful Tory leadership to adjust to the wildly unpredictable impact of YouTube and bloggers giving their round-the-clock analysis, more potent in some ways than 24-hour broadcast news, where the reporters are heavily constrained by strict rules of impartiality.

The next election will therefore feel unrecognisably different for political leaders, newspapers and broadcasters, the trio that, in their diverse ways, are used to planning the campaigns without having to take into account other external factors. In a curious way, although competing with each other noisily, they are all desperately trying to adapt to the impact of the internet. There are parallels between the decline in political parties and the crises facing conventional media outlets. They suffer similar questions of identity as they seek to extend their appeal beyond a declining core audience. They are troubled by the internet, but they are tentatively aware of its potential.

Yet, for all their difficulties, newspapers and magazines continue to play a distinctive role, in print and on the internet. Those writing for the mighty (and mightily subsidised) BBC website can offer only news and a very limited degree of interpretation. No broadcaster has the freedom to write the equivalent of the informed columns available on newspaper and magazine websites. We need informed comment as much as ever.

As usual, most of the influential newspapers will be on the right during the election campaign. The Times has wisely moved upmarket over the past year or so, aligning its news pages with its already impressive comment pages. But politically it opts for a narrow range; most of its columnists skate between ultra-Blairism, disdain for the current government and strong support for David Cameron and George Osborne. The Telegraph could move into the Times’s old position of being a broadly centre-right paper of record with a wider range of voices that includes Mary Riddell, a well-informed columnist on the centre left. Nonetheless, the Telegraph is recognisably rooted on the right. They are joined in different ways by the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, the Mail on Sunday and quite a few of the other Sunday tabloids.

In contrast, the Guardian’s political voice is far from clear. Recently, three of its columnists and a lengthy editorial screamed for Brown to go, without explaining what would follow and how. The newspaper’s leader writers evidently have no feel or sympathy for Labour or the centre left, happily proclaiming recently that “Labour is toast”, as if that were the end of the matter. They are more generous to the Cameron project, taking at face value claims that the party has modernised. I am reminded of an observation Harold Wilson’s old friend Marcia Williams made to the Guardian’s senior political columnist in the 1970s: “While the Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party, the non-Conservative papers go out of their way to be fair to the Conservative Party.”

Similarly, some of the strongest – or at least loudest – voices in the world of political blogging are on the right. They vary in range and tone from the libertarian-right Guido Fawkes to the more traditional ConservativeHome. There are also the relentlessly Thatcherite economic pro­clamations on the Spectator’s Coffee House forum, where the spending axe is wielded with unnerving relish. All are addictive; I read them several times a day. More importantly, so do BBC producers, frequently inviting the authors on to their outlets. The recently relaunched New Statesman website reads like a breath of fresh air as writers dare occasionally to put the case for a government policy and to challenge the notion that Cameron and his party are the crusading progressives in politics. But they are the exception, and I note that some of the contributors are hammered over this, attacked by other columnists and bloggers for being cowardly in their subservience, when they are being brave in challenging popular fashion.

Without much of a constituency in the media, Brown becomes more insecure, which is why, up until the summer break, he kept announcing daft initiatives in the neurotic search for a rare good headline. Cameron and the Conservatives will be under much more pressure from their supporters in the media to move rightwards, ­especially in relation to economic policy. I recall Tony Blair observing to me during his first term that the Conservatives’ supporters in the media were not helpful to their party, as they always urged the leadership to move to the right. They are still doing so. Brown, like Blair, seeks to woo these mighty battalions, too, which is partly why his leadership has been of uncertain sound.

So, everything has changed and nothing has changed. The next election will be a roller-coaster ride during which no one will be entirely in control. At the same time, the news will be beamed largely through a Eurosceptic, small-state and anti-public-spending prism – a familiar challenge for a Conservative leader seeking support from voters whose political sympathies are not necessarily shifting rightwards, and for a Labour leader who needs to get a hearing from media that remain largely hostile to the centre left.

Steve Richards is chief political commentator for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman

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