Close-up: Will this year's election be digital?

How will the internet have an impact on political campaigning this time around, John Tylee asks.

To understand why Britain's political parties are so ambivalent about the internet, look no further than a new website called Vote For Policies. The site claims to offer informed and unbiased information to voters. Visitors can examine the policies of six UK political parties on a range of issues without knowing their identities. Having chosen the policies they agree with, they are shown which parties those policies belong to.

At the beginning of this week, after more than 82,000 hits on the site, the Green Party has roared into a lead of more than 10 percentage points over the rest. What's been happening is intriguing the party image-makers.

Some suggest it could be the precursor of how the internet may fundamentally change how parties will have to dance to the tune of a newly empowered electorate.

Shaun McIlrath, the executive creative director at Iris, which is handling the Liberal Democrat ad campaign, asks how soon it will be before thousands of voters unite on the internet to tell a political party that their votes are in the bag if they make demanded modifications to their policies.

"Probably not during this election and, maybe, not even the one after that," he says. "But it will happen eventually. That's when we'll get proper democracy."

The internet's impact on the upcoming poll is already being felt. Labour says it won't be running nationwide billboard advertising, partly for financial reasons but also because it believes it can achieve similar impact via the internet - especially with the hard-to-reach voters, such as the young.

"While there's no substitute for knocking on doors, there's no doubt about the growing importance of the internet in helping us reach a lot more people," Kerry McCarthy, Labour's new-media campaigns spokesperson and the MP for Bristol East, says.

However, she believes the internet will come into its own during the next election, mainly because of the arrival in Parliament of a new generation of young and internet-literate MPs.

This time around, the internet's role is uncertain. "Nobody knows how it's going to turn out," Richard Huntington, Saatchi & Saatchi's strategy director and one of the leaders of Labour's account team at the agency, says.

"The internet will count, but so will things such as direct marketing and house-to-house canvassing," Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, a professor of communication at Queen Mary University of London, points out.

"However, we're also seeing a renaissance of political posters. It's important the parties don't neglect these tried-and-trusted staples."

However, it is these staples that are, conversely, the biggest targets of the internet's biggest downside in electioneering - the lack of control that scares politicians witless.

Only four hours separated the launch of Labour's poster depicting David Cameron as the 80s TV detective Gene Hunt and the appearance of a Tory spoof of it on digital billboards.

David Jones, the Euro RSCG worldwide chief executive, says that digital, and especially social media, is already changing the speed of action and reaction to each other by both parties.

"Online is the place where people can take creative work and repurpose it," Huntington says. "The internet is forcing us to produce ideas that can be easily spread."

The pervading thought is that 2010 has only seen politicians dipping their toes in the water. Not only does everyone agree that it will not recreate the globally admired Obama campaign, but it will also be at least one, if not two elections, into the future before the internet's real political weight is leveraged in the UK.

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AGENCY HEAD - David Jones, worldwide chief executive, Euro RSCG

"The biggest difference between this election and previous ones is the power and influence of digital and social media. Digital is setting the agenda and changing the speed of action and reaction by the major parties.

"Our response to Labour's Gene Hunt poster was up on digital billboards within four hours, with the Sunday press concluding that Labour's poster had backfired.

"Digital has also changed the speed and immediacy for agencies. Briefs come in with one-hour turnarounds and neither the client nor the agency considers it unusual. These are the new rules of the digital election game."

PLANNER - Richard Huntington, strategy director, Saatchi & Saatchi

"The internet will play a fundamental role in the election but not necessarily in the way the parties might expect. The fact is that nobody knows what's going to happen.

"What's certain is that you can't compare it to the Obama presidential campaign, which was more about e-mailing and much less about social networking.

"We also know that, because of the internet, creating a spoof-free political ad is impossible. What we now have to do is produce ideas that are easily spread and suitable for online distribution.

"The internet is massively risky for the parties while offering them significant rewards. But they certainly can't ignore it."

CREATIVE - Shaun McIlrath, executive creative director, Iris

"This is the first General Election where voters have had real access to the major parties via the internet. But there's still a long way to go before it really comes into its own.

"The advantage of this is that it creates more voter involvement than ever before and it will be interesting to see how it affects turnout on polling day.

"But it's a double-edged sword. The internet is risky for politicians because it allows the electorate to vent their frustrations.

"Parties using the internet successfully must have a clear strategy. This is particularly important when engaging with young voters. Simple propaganda won't work with them."

ACADEMIC - Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, professor of communication, Queen Mary University of London

"The internet will have an important role to play in the election, although how great its influence will be is hard to know. It certainly won't be on anything like the scale of the Barack Obama campaign in the US.

"The problem is that it's very difficult to control and you're always vulnerable to being counter-attacked by somebody venting their anger against you on YouTube.

"Nevertheless, it will be an important means of communicating with young people who don't turn out in large numbers to vote as well as those heavy internet users in marginal constituencies."