Tim Montgomerie

The next general election will be won and lost on the internet

The next general election will be won and lost on the internet

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Most elections produce a defining campaign event. In 1979 it was Margaret Thatcher’s enlistment of Saatchi & Saatchi and the ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ posters. In 1987 it was the party political broadcast that became known as ‘Kinnock The Movie’. The year 1992 is remembered for the Tories’ devastatingly negative tax bombshell broadcasts.

The next campaign is likely to be remembered as Britain’s first internet election. It will certainly be the first election when a large proportion of stories is broken by bloggers. It could be the first election when the best political ads are made on the home computers of political geeks rather than in the glassy offices of expensive advertising agencies. It will be the first election when the mainstream media aren’t just fact-checking the politicians but when they’ll get bias-checked themselves. As Google’s CEO recently told Matthew d’Ancona on The Spectator’s Coffee House blog: in this new political era everyone has a camera-phone, everyone is a blogger, everyone is a reporter.

If I were the campaign strategist for a major political party, I’d certainly be investing heavily in the internet. People now search as much as they email. I would want my party’s official website to be at the top of every search page. I’d be even more keen for surrogate sites that scrutinise my opponents to be at the top of the Google results screen. I would be sending interns on to the campaign trail with rival candidates. Armed with £150 mini-cameras they would be watching everything — seeking to record the kind of gaffe that cost George Allen his US Senate seat and presidential ambitions after his allegedly racist remark was ‘YouTubed’. I’d also be gathering long lists of email addresses — carefully categorising people according to the issues that motivate them. In the battle of email acquisition the Downing Street petitions have given the government a big advantage.

But in this new world the campaign staff of political parties and traditional media will have a much smaller share of power. The editor of BBC1’s Six O’Clock News will still be a force in the land but ordinary citizens will no longer be passive consumers. When Peter Roberts of Cheshire started a petition on the Downing Street website he lit a fuse that produced one of the year’s biggest political stories. More than 1.8 million people signed Mr Roberts’s petition against road pricing and changed the terms of the national debate on the issue.

Philip de Vellis recently produced what is called a ‘mashup’ of Apple Mac’s Think Different advertising campaign. Using off-the-shelf editing software he took clips from the original advert and merged them with images of Hillary Clinton repeating empty soundbites. The former First Lady and presidential contender was portrayed as a Big Brother character straight out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. More Americans have watched Mr de Vellis’s advert than have watched any official commercial.

Inspired by de Vellis’s ‘Vote Different’ video, and by the more famous Swift Boat Veterans who derailed John Kerry’s presidential bid, my guess is that some disaffected group of British voters will soon come up with something similar of their own. They’ll direct their fire at Gordon Brown or David Cameron and post their broadcast on a video-sharing site that is beyond the easy reach of UK regulators. It will be harder-hitting than anything that a political party would be happy to be associated with. And like most viral hits, it will probably be a lot funnier, too.

None of this is to say that everything produced by the internet will be better than the efforts of conventional journalists and ad agencies. Ninety per cent of blogs, discussion boards and homemade videos are unreadable or unwatchable. But simply because of the sheer scale of creativity that the internet has unleashed, the best are better — particularly when they are produced by people with real understanding of the subjects in question. Critics of the internet also underestimate its ability to guide people through the junk and towards the jewels.

But the gatecrashing of the propaganda monopoly long enjoyed by the established parties is only the beginning of the political revolution that will be produced by the internet. The next steps will deliver changes that will make YouTube videos appear as old hat as those 1979 Saatchi ads.

The internet has already changed the media and other businesses but the biggest changes are still to come. Many predict that most print newspapers will have closed by 2025 as more and more young people rely on websites for news and comment. Old-fashioned, top-down politics is just as vulnerable as the dead tree press.

Few people understand all of this better than Joe Trippi. Trippi ran Howard Dean’s internet campaign in 2003/04. Dean didn’t win the Democratic nomination but his campaign showed what might be possible: 600,000 internet users, through their fundraising and grassroots campaigning, briefly propelled an outsider candidate to the status of frontrunner. Trippi wonders what will happen when a campaign has enlisted millions of web-based activists. Barack Obama is already on the way to building such an online army.

Trippi, who is in London next week for a Bebo-sponsored conference on the internet’s transformation of politics, wrote a book about the lessons of the Dean campaign, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. For him, the internet age is not so much the information age but the empowerment age. Whereas television involved square-jawed talking heads telling us what to think, the internet gives every citizen a voice. ‘You have the power’ was Howard Dean’s catchphrase at every rally. For Trippi, the internet is the ‘simple and radically democratic idea that a million computers are always better than one’ and that ‘a million people are always smarter than the biggest corporation’.

This creative side of the internet isn’t properly understood by Britain’s political parties. They still see the web as a way of providing superior distribution channels for unchanged messages. They are in ‘send mode’ — analogue politicians in a digital age. The political parties that prosper in the internet age will embrace ‘receive mode’. The most successful parties will be online communities mixing news, debate and policy formulation. As every year passes, the distinction between politicians, journalists and think tanks will become more and more blurred as they each resemble one other.

Stage one of the internet’s impact on politics is already seeing voters evolve from passivity to activism — writing blogs for existing parties and perhaps giving money to them. Stage two will see the real revolution. Coalitions of voters that are unhappy with the existing parties will have the power to fundraise themselves, develop their own slate of candidates and construct a political manifesto. If our existing political parties do not find a way of building online communities that channel that power, they will die.

Tim Montgomerie is editor of ConservativeHome.com.