Online campaigning may be crucial to the winner's success, as suggested by Harriet Harman's 2007 deputy leadership win, a disparate electorate and the myriad opportunities now afforded by social media

How leadership candidates should run their internet campaign

Just last week I wrote a piece for Progress entitled ‘Was 2010 the internet election?‘ – essentially looking at the mixed levels of online activism in the general election.

But perhaps 2010 might really be the year of the election won online, namely the choice of the Labour party’s next leader.

In essence there are three factors that make the online aspect of the leadership contest interesting.

Firstly, with a packed field of at least six candidates (four of whom are grey suited men in their forties), candidates have to risk something to rise above the rest. There were six candidates for Labour’s deputy leader in 2007 and Harriet Harman took risks online and prevailed; I was her web designer in that campaign.

Secondly, with finances for each candidate’s campaign limited to £1 per Labour party member (and hence something just over £150,000 per candidate) direct mails and telephone call banks are going to be few and far between. Web campaigning is proportionately cheaper.

Lastly, two thirds of the electorate – Labour party members and members of affiliated organisations – are based all over the country and hence cannot easily be met face to face. Many of them will be adequately motivated by the contest to Google candidates before casting their votes.

The longer campaign timetable – with voting only taking place in August – gives candidates some time to get their web presence in order, and can also keep the buzz about the campaign alive when the mainstream media have moved on to other matters.

So what should the candidates be doing?

At the very start a good web campaign needs the wholehearted engagement of the individual candidate herself or himself. As Obama’s campaign in the USA demonstrated, this involvement from the top is vital, and if a candidate is not asking fundamental questions about how the internet is radically changing politics and society then they do not deserve to lead the party in the future.

A simple and clear campaign website will be the main component of any candidate’s strategy. Why is that individual different from the rest of the field? What is their message, their edge, and their promise? WebDesignerDepot provides some excellent advice on the design and web message, while George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant should help to hone the language.

Campaigns need to also have a relentless focus on content and avoid neverending internal arguments about the shade of red to use on the campaign site.

Beyond those basics, building a conversation with the electorate is the way to gain a comparative advantage and build a genuine campaign; the web (and particularly social media) is not about broadcasting but also about interacting and listening.

At the very least it should be possible to comment on the content of a candidate’s website, with sensible and constructive comments receiving follow-up. This discussion can also be fostered on a Facebook fan page and through careful use of email newsletters. Debates offline should reflect those online and vice versa. Video should also be used if the candidate is good in front of a camera, but films need to be kept very short.

The candidate (rather than campaign staff) should be active on Twitter, adopting the same model that Stella Creasy used to great effect in the general election in Walthamstow – developing genuine conversations and interactions. The ‘I don’t have time’ argument need not apply to Twitter as it works so well on smart phones, and if a candidate does not have an iPhone or BlackBerry that had better be the first campaign expense.

Last but not least there is definitely scope for candidates to use some genuinely interesting web technology, marking them out from the field. The Labour party has been criticised for not involving members in policymaking, so an experiment using wikis, Google Wave or an equivalent to brainstorm and crowdsource policy ideas would be most welcome. Geolocation systems – from the simple use of Google Maps on a candidate’s website through to augmented reality, Foursquare, iPhone applications and Layar have not yet been exploited in politics – maybe now is the time?

Photo: CLUC 2009

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  • Rana

    Great article very clear and well expounded. would be interesting to know what and how Harriet used the internet back then in 2007. was she very involved, and what web presence does she have now? she could benefit from it now

    also two-way comms between party members and the party – does the party have the staff to deal with incoming ideas? EdM was doing it on twitter with the manifesto but can there be something more formalised?