News Analysis

What lessons can UK politics learn from Obama's use of IT?

Rebecca Thomson

The American election may have done for the internet what Kennedy's election did for television. Both Obama and McCain used the web to an unprecedented extent.But it was Obama's innovative use of IT and digital marketing that gave him the edge.

Obama relied on technology to mobilise an army of volunteers. He used social networking to connect with them, giving them ways to get involved and join the campaign. They sent out e-mails and texts, and handled the responses from the public. His website made it easy for supporters to donate, contributing to a campaign fund in the area of $650m.

In comparison, with a few exceptions, the adoption of web technologies by British politicians has so far been limited. Social networking and other internet technologies may provide a route to the "youth vote" that MPs yearn for, but web campaigning in the UK is "still-born" here, says Paul Flynn, Labour MP and member of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

"Obama's use of the internet was technically sophisticated, engaging and provided the get-up-and-vote stimulus," he said. "Web election campaigning is still-born here. Nothing has worked for the main parties. It is the far-right that is winning hands-down.

"Web campaigning needs a new political vocabulary, style and humour - far removed from the stultifying prose of traditional party literature," he says.

Nick Body, an IT consultant who has worked for all three main political parties, says that the status quo cannot last. Web 2.0 and social networking sites are "all about" personalised content, offering politicians a way of communicating with voters that is not possible with television or newspapers.

But while there may be lessons to learn, there are differences in the UK that cannot be ignored. Greg Jackson is director of online media strategy for the Labour party's online technology partner, Tangent Labs. He says, "Everybody in politics is looking to learn from what Obama's been doing in terms of increasing involvement of grass roots supporters.

"But we cannot emulate it, because the American political system is very different to ours." The campaigning process goes on for two years in America in Britain it is only a few weeks, and politicians have little notice of when elections will be. It takes time to built momentum via web campaigning, he says.

And while Americans were asked to choose between two candidates in one presidential election, in the UK 650 MPs are elected, with campaigns mixing national and local messages.

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, shadow secretary of culture, media and state, agreed, saying, "Although we can learn from America about how best to use the internet there are some significant differences. Barack Obama raised huge amounts of money from his internet following but we do not have the same sort of presidential election cycles here."

Despite the differences, the growth of the importance of technology in politics cannot be ignored. David Evans, government relations manager at the British Computer Society, says UK politicians are still learning the new tone, style and dynamics needed for web campaigning.

Politicians need to overcome their fear of the unfamiliar and embrace the opportunities it provides. "Obama's team have clearly got their cultural differences but there is a lot to learn.

"Hardly anyone in UK politics is doing it. The parties have not got there yet, and MPs are nowhere near where they could be. Politicians need to see it not as a threat, but as an opportunity to express themselves."


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