Mark Leftly considers how our political parties are using digital media tools to engage with the electorate in the run up to this year's election
Mark Leftly is business correspondent at The Independent on Sunday, where he covers a variety of beats including property, mining and energy. He previously worked at The Business and leading trade weeklies Building and Property Week.
David Cameron does not really look that much like a Dalek or comedian Harry Enfield's Tim-nice-but-dim character, yet the spoof mock-ups of the Conservative Party leader certainly imply as much.
With more than 9,000 hits in its first five days, mydavidcameron.com is a web sensation allowing members of the public to airbrush a recent Tory poster to show the prime minister-in-waiting in the worst possible light. Some of my best friends are poor is a slogan added to one adapted poster, buttressing Labour's attempts to create the impression that Cameron is merely an out-of-touch, Eton-educated toff.
It is difficult to judge from this website whether politics has become very silly indeed or, in fact, incredibly sophisticated.
The UK is suddenly spellbound by the digital media ideas that, according to many political observers, were responsible for propelling Barack Obama into the White House as America's first black president.
By registering Democrat Party and floating voters online, engaging them in Obama's ideas on issues such as healthcare reform, his campaign team managed to enlist 13 million potential supporters. When signed up, they were able to find similarly minded people in their constituencies, effectively creating local Obama strongholds.
'We used it to fundraise. We used it to get people to attend events,' says Matthew McGregor, London-based director at Blue State Digital, the online technology group behind the campaign.
Now Britain's major political parties are looking to ape that success ahead of the coming general election.
Core votes or more votes?
The potential of digital media for political campaigning is tremendous. Blue State Digital got involved in early 2009 in an online campaign, entitled Hope not hate, aimed at diminishing the impact of the British National Party (BNP), particularly in the north west of England.
'The campaign is now one of the most powerful databases in the UK,' argues McGregor. Over 12 months, 140,000 people have signed up to the campaign which helped to diminish the BNP's vote in the north west between the 2005 and 2009 European elections. Online, these people signed petitions against the BNP and recruited friends. This has led to them joining training sessions offline - in the real world.
Jen Pufky, account manager at Insight Public affairs and a former staffer for Hillary Clinton, argues: 'The party that is most successful this year will be the one that uses social media most effectively.'
Pufky also worked for Labour on the 2005 general election campaign. She says that the party was using text messaging effectively then, reminding people where and when to vote. '2005 was the election of mobile phones, 2010 will be about social media tools. The Conservatives in more recent years have been leading the way, particularly with blogs such as Iain Dale's Diary.'
By the middle of last year, Dale's blog had built up a monthly audience of 160,000 readers. Press from opposite sides of the political spectrum - The Spectator says Dale is 'Westminster's early warning siren', while The Independent says he has 'a mind like a meat cleaver' - are astounded by his influence.
Dale's Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK is published in association with public affairs group APCO Worldwide. David King, director at APCO Online, says that Labour is making the mistake of using its web presence 'to focus on issues that rally the troops'.
For example, LabourList is a website that has Twitter feeds, blogs and news updates and describes itself as 'Labour's biggest independent grassroots e-network', while LibDem Voice, is essentially a collection of blogs and news that in King's words 'preaches to the converted'.
Even the aforementioned mydavidcameron.com site 'might get attention, but is not going to get the same mileage' as a serious use of social media, argues King.
The Conservatives have cast their nets wider, targeting occasional and floating voters by producing sites that get readers to interact. Cameron recently launched a draft NHS manifesto using a Google application that allowed potential voters to ask questions about the policies. More than 40,000 people voted on which of those questions Cameron should answer, and he later did so on a YouTube feed attached to the site.
'The Conservatives have been making an effort to go beyond the core vote and party faithful - there is some pretty clear difference between the parties,' says King.
Should Labour worry?
Colin Byrne, chief executive at Weber Shandwick, says that Cameron's relative youth - he is 43 to Gordon Brown's 58 - means that he quickly 'bought into' the social media ideas introduced by Steve Hilton, the party's director of strategy. No doubt Hilton is influenced by his wife Rachel Whetstone, vice president of public policy and communications at Google.
And when Brown finally did use social media it was to make a disastrous appearance on YouTube. Last May he issued a video response to the MPs' expenses exposé, but his awkward smile and strange facial movements were ridiculed.
'Poor old Gordon's appearance and the Damian MacBride email scandal [MacBride, a close aide of Brown's, sent an email proposing to smear senior Conservatives with malicious web rumours] knocked Labour back a bit,' says Byrne.
However, Byrne has some words of comfort for the prime minister. Weber Shandwick conducted a survey last year that showed 65 per cent of voters were more influenced by traditional media than online influences.
Moreover, it is not clear that Obama's digital strategy would work in quite the same way here as online influence is far greater among American voters where 'a major newspaper goes bust weekly', argues Byrne. Although the major UK newspapers are struggling with declining advertising revenues and poor circulation figures, they are still prominent.
However, the survey did show that five per cent of voters base their views on social media - a significant minority in close elections typical of western democracies.
What the Tweet?
One area that many Labour MPs have embraced is tweeting messages and news updates on Twitter. David Miliband, the foreign secretary and potential Labour leadership contender should the party lose the election, is particularly well known for his tweeting and has more than 6,600 followers.
Indeed, Labour has arguably taken a lead on the Tories in the Twittersphere. Public relations agency Edelman UK has developed an analysis programme called 'TweetLevel'. Using an algorithm that takes into account the quantity and quality of tweets as well as the response to them, Edelman found that Labour had 58.2 per cent of the most influential MPs in November, compared to 19.7 per cent for Liberal Democrats and 15.3 per cent for the Tories. With the vagaries of the UK electoral system, Edelman estimated that this would give Labour 550 seats, against 63 for the LibDems and 14 for the Tories.
This 'Tweetatorship' has subsequently become more dramatic. Updated figures, compiled for CorpComms Magazine, suggest Labour would currently win 594 seats and the Tories would have none on the basis of the power of their tweets. Miliband, his brother Ed, the secretary of state for climate change, and former cabinet minister James Purnell were among the 50 most influential politicians.
'No one would argue that Twitter on its own would win you an election,' concedes Marshall Manson, Edelman UK's director of digital strategy. 'However, it shows that Labour was more active over Christmas.'
So, increased tweets during a traditionally quiet time politically, shows that Labour MPs are trying to get their message online ahead of the impending general election.
Waggener Edstrom Worldwide has Twendz Pro, a programme adapted here to measure the number and type of tweets about the political parties. Using a 30-day window to the week ending 15 January, Twendz Pro suggests that the Conservatives have a greater 'potential reach', or number of people that will see messages about the parties. The Conservative reach is estimated at 2.4 million, to 356,000 for the LibDems and 338,000 for Labour.
However, the impact of the parties is similar: the number of positive tweets about the three parties ranges from 28.42 per cent (Conservatives) to 35.68 per cent (LibDems), suggesting that none has a decisively better image than the other.
John Silk, senior digital consultant at Waggener Edstrom, says: 'There is not a huge margin between the parties at the moment. Any party could still win this space [the online constituency], someone just needs to come up with a great social media strategy.'
To be or not to be yourself?
If Brown's YouTube performance was embarrassing, one unexpected social media success has been former deputy prime minister John Prescott.
Last year, The Guardian praised Prescott's blogs for their 'good humour' and ability to 'engage with his readers'. For example, he showed an everyday touch with a blog criticising London mayor Boris Johnson over travel fare increases: 'Luckily, I have a pensioner's freedom pass.'
'From a bit of a laughing stock, Prescott has become a proper blogger and Twitterer,' says Ben Atfield, co-founder of public affairs search consultancy Ellwood and Atfield. 'He's confident enough to be himself, he speaks straight, matter-of-factly.'
And, ultimately, that is what many voters want from their politicians: to talk and present ideas and arguments to them in an adult fashion. If there are new mediums through which to get these messages to voters, politicians must get more adept at using them.
cpc09 (Conservative Party Conference) 1
lab09 (Labour Party Conference) 2
Labour party 3
BBC Question Time 4
David Cameron 6
Climate Change 9
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, chose Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to announce his new youth training policy demonstrating a new use for digital media.
Clegg, who eschewed the podium and press conference format favoured by politicians, warned that politicians cannot ignore the new mediums if they want to 'connect with the next generation of voters'.
But his enthusiasm for new media is unmatched by many of his contemporaries. Tweetminster, a website that describes itself as 'the place where real life and politics tweet', found that just over 110 MPs currently tweet and that most of them, 65, are Labour.
Clegg's party are the next busiest tweeters, with 23 active users, while the Conservatives, whose leader David Cameron once famously likened tweeters to 'twats', have just 16 participants.
However, the situation changes when it comes to the prospective parliamentary candidates. Of the 221 candidates who tweet, 35 per cent are Conservatives while 28 per cent are Labour.
But a BBC survey that asked Will social networking sites influence your vote? received a surprisingly high proportion of respondents who answered No, and said that what they really wanted was to be listened to.