Why the campaign trail is littered with broken promise

Optimistic claims that the internet will have an influence on the outcome of May’s general election in the UK are wide of the mark. And not just because politicians’ hopes for the medium are out of line with their command of it.

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The 2005 UK general election is, I have read, the one where the internet will make the running. It won’t, for three reasons. First, the web is fundamentally unsuited to political campaigning. Second, despite the arrival of blogs and other devices, the parties have little more idea how to use the medium than they did four or even eight years ago. Third, there is so much online chicanery – mostly mischievous rather than malicious – that it has a looming credibility problem.
Having said that, I have found a couple of ways forward that might just make it useful by the time the next election comes round – one from the US, the other from Henley-on-Thames.
The good news about the main party websites is that they have gone backwards since 2001. Then, we could sign for mobile phone message alerts, play games and, were we inclined, visit Labour’s ‘youth’ site, cringingly named RUUP4IT. We are spared such fripperies this time.
It is a waste of money pouring huge resources into a party site. Websites are brilliant at handling complexity, but they are useless for snappy slogans. They are also invisible, except to people who seek them out. They have some obvious roles – publishing the manifesto, giving local contact details – but as propaganda tools they are meagre.

Conservatives build a better site


I looked at websites for the main UK parties, plus some fringe ones. They are a dull bunch, though there is the odd flash of inspiration. The ruling Labour party’s site is poorly organised – the sections are neither consistently labelled or arranged, and it is all but impossible to see where you are. The manifesto is a strange Flash-driven facsimile that is hard to read. But it is provided with an ingenious device that allows you to tap in your profile to receive a list of promises that will affect you. Neat, though the promises are so broad that the point of personalisation is rather lost.
The Conservatives have a better constructed site. It is navigationally coherent and uses the same template at different levels. The home page has a particular look with, to the right, ‘What we will do’ listing five promises. Issue pages share the same look, with the promises tailored to the subject. Competent, but hardly exciting.
On the Liberal Democrat site, journalists may be baffled by the fact that News leads to a list of 6,000 releases without any classification, while each ‘issue’ section has its own set of releases. Confusing. The treatment of the manifesto is interesting, however. It has borrowed from the investor relations industry to produce an ‘interactive PDF’ – a photographic reproduction of the document, but with proper indexing and a search engine.

Supporters unsupported


The content of all sites is what you would expect: ‘we are great, the others are rubbish’. The parties should look more closely at the way American sites are going. As with US corporate sites, the web is regarded principally as a practical tool. The Democrats do their share of rubbishing, but they also provide a big Take Action section, with pages telling you how you can contribute, raise money or build your ‘team’. Similarly, the Republicans spend much effort online helping you organise a GOP House Party.
The closest a UK party comes to the US approach is left-wing maverick George Galloway’s Respect. There is practical material here, such as downloadable posters, and the site benefits from the experience of anti-capitalist and other groups, who have long used the web to organise.

Direct engagement with issues


The smaller UK parties have smaller sites, and are all the better for that. The UK Independence Party has a scary purple and yellow look, but does at least have a straightforward frequently-asked questions page posing the obvious challenges: ‘Why are you opposed to the EU?’. Why don’t the mainstream parties use this obvious device? Veritas, which split off from UKIP, has an even more bilious colour scheme, but offers a nice short manifesto.
The Green Party site is disappointing. I thought it would tap the experience of environmental campaigners, and expected to find discussion areas, such as those that flourish on Greenpeace.org. Nothing, and the navigation is misleading.

Attention to detail neglected


With one notable exception, quality did not improve on individual politicians’ sites. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat shadow chancellor has “Read what the press have said about me recently” as a main link. When I clicked I got the message: “No documents matched your request”. Poor Vince.
This shows a danger of the medium – it is complex and it will let you down unless you keep a close watch. Austin Mitchell, the voluble retiring Member of Parliament (MP) for Grimsby, has a blog on his site (austinmitchell.org) – he writes a piece, and in principle readers can post comments, thus creating a conversation. If he wonders why his stimulating pieces have failed to generate any comments, I can tell him – there is no way to post them.

Some life in the old blog


So can blogs work? We are told they were influential in the US elections, and maybe they will be in the UK. But I found only one that had real life – the one belonging to Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP for Henley-on-Thames.
His latest column is on Zimbabwe, and has 1,000 words in it. Five days after it was published, a further 9,000 words had been attached by other people. This blog has legs.
But Mr Johnson is not as other MPs are. He is a television celebrity who edits a national magazine, the Spectator. He is a genuine eccentric, so people want to know about him. And his Wodehousian turn of phrase make his columns an entertaining read. He may not be quite up there with Stephen King, whose forum at www.simonsays.com had 355,908 posts when last checked, but for a politician he is not doing badly.

Whose voice is it anyway?


There are political blogs as engaging as Mr Johnson’s. Try this, from the Labour ‘spin doctor’ Alastair Campbell (alastair-campbell.blogspot.com): “Not that they have any bloody chance but the Liberal Democrats have finally launched their excuse of a campaign”. But sadly this is a spoof (at least I think it is). Indeed, most political blogs I found were either spoofs or ‘proxy blogs’ – produced ‘on behalf’ of a politician.
How can you tell what is real and what isn’t? It is sometimes difficult, especially when genuine copy verges on self-parody. On Labour’s site, for example, we have Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Campaign Diary: “Well, that was a relief – safely adopted by the Sedgefield Constituency Labour Party to stand as candidate on May 5”. Or, from Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s ‘Prescott Express’ page: “And finally there was a birthday on the bus, so John led the way with a tuneful, rendition of Happy Birthday”.
Of course, Mr Johnson’s blog could be faked. But I will be amazed if it is, because few people write as he does. And his surely is the formula that needs to be studied by politicos wanting to get blogs working real magic next time. Can you manufacture a Boris Johnson? I bet they will try.

First published 20 April, 2005
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