The right turns on to technology

2005: New media - The British left holds up Howard Dean's US campaign as a model. How wrong

An insurgent political campaign, led by a political newcomer, energised against an unpopular in-cumbent, fuelled with tens of millions of pounds and running off state-of-the-art technology. For the upcoming British election, which party most resembles this description? None of them.

This type of campaign, pioneered by Howard Dean's run for the US presidency in 2004, grips the imagination of the tech-nophile left. It has precious little to teach British politics. Instead, if the Labour Party wants an exemplary campaign that uses technology to energise its supporters and defend its record, it need look no further than George W Bush's Republicans.

The Dean model should be rejected for three reasons. First, it proved that a new candidate could use technology, such as the website, to organise disparate groups of supporters. This is next to useless, however, when you already have conventional organisations in place. Attempts to start a Labour Party version of Meetup in London failed precisely for this reason; there is already an organisation, namely the old-fashioned constituency Labour party.

Second, Dean used the net to raise a great deal of money in individual small amounts from a large number of people, rather than relying on large amounts from a small number of people. This certainly turned the American campaign financing model on its head. Yet it is irrelevant in a system where there are strict legal spending limits on parties and candidates.

Finally, Dean showed that an unpopular incumbent could energise people to use technology to get involved in politics in great numbers. This is all well and good, but not much use for a Labour Party that is itself the unpopular incumbent seeking a third term in office.

Yet there is a bigger danger lurking in the legacy of Dean. It assumes that technology aids the left. At first the notion seems beguiling: a populist left-wing candidate armed with nifty computers mobilises the political instincts of a dormant populace and throws the rascal out of office. But there is no reason to think that it is true. In fact, this time around, the American right ran by far the more technologically savvy campaign. And even more worryingly, it did so by beating the left at its own game.

Usually, the left has an advantage in the political "ground war" of local politics and volunteer organisations. The right, fuelled by wealthy donations, in turn holds the advantage in the advertising "air war". Yet this time, it was George Bush's Republicans, rather than John Kerry's Democrats, who used technology to empower their base and send their volunteers on to the streets.

Chuck DeFeo, Bush's online campaign manager, outlined the Republican strategy at a conference held recently by Harvard University's Berkman Centre for Internet and Society.

His description of the web-enabled election had little to do with the "emergent" community of disparate voices so belo-ved of progressive bloggers. Instead, he described a campaign that mixed grass-roots activity with a level of convenience well suited to citizens who have little time for mass politics.

"Before the internet," said DeFeo, "anyone who wanted to help would have to go down to the campaign office on a given day. They would then be put on a bus to a specific district and asked to run around delivering leaflets all day to people they didn't know."

The Republicans thought this inefficient and unenticing. So rather than that, they used clever databases combined with geo-location mapping software to give their supporters a "highly individualised list of 20 people, all of whom lived near your house, who you could target at a time that works for you".

Speaking at the same conference, Kerry's online campaign manager, Zack Exley, bemoaned the American left's obsession with technology. "The left thinks that doing grass-roots politics is doing neat things with technology," he said, "and that by finding new cool ways of talking to each other online we can win elections."

Exley found himself "answering criticism that our campaign was too top-down, too centralised, that we didn't foster online community and discussion". However, both camps realised that a sense of online community wins few votes.

Instead, each tried to get hold of potential supporters' e-mail details, amassing more than ten million addresses between both camps. The complex databases that stored these addresses were used in turn to raise money and co-ordinate volunteers with the campaign on the ground.

The Democrats combined their databases with old-tech telephones to help supporters in blue states call potential supporters in swing states. The Republicans had developed a system that allowed supporters, as DeFeo put it, "to knock on your neighbour's door, tell them you lived three doors down and that your kids go to the same school, and then explain that you are supporting the president and that they should, too".

None of this was emergent or bottom-up. It was a careful mix of clever technology and old-style command-and-control campaigning.

And it was the Republicans' localised version that worked better. DeFeo claims that while the Democrats flooded US cities with vote-canvassers, the Bush campaign "worked to channel common energy and enthusiasm where it was most productive - in 'walk the vote' or 'neighbour-to-neighbour' plans".

This plan, as we saw, delivered plenty of votes. British political parties that want to learn the lessons of Bush's success rather than Dean's failure would be wise to do the same.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, We punish the man, but protect a corrupt system