British politics and the internet: why I disagree with Seth Reznik

Blue State Digital (BSD), one of the key firms behind Barack Obama’s campaign, is certainly an impressive outfit which gets the internet. But that makes all the more surprising the piece published today on The Guardian website by Seth Reznik about British politics and uses of the internet.

Let’s take a few quotes:

Ken Livingstone, despite his disappointing loss, was one who learnt those lessons. Working with BSD, his campaign set out a range of ways in which barriers to involvement could be torn down. Instead of hiding activist events behind password-protected firewalls, any Londoner could find information about ways to join in, with nothing more than their postcode.

Err … the idea that the public should be able to go to a Mayor candidate website and find out how to join in dates back to 2000 and the first London Mayor elections, when the website for Susan Kramer (the Lib Dem candidate) did just that, as I’m sure did others. (Hey, Susan’s site back in 2000 had localised information, credit card donations, email lists and even a blog – written by a cat.)

Likewise, the idea that any member of the public should be able to put a postcode in on a site and find out things they can do dates back many years, across all parties in the UK.

Perhaps more importantly, it seems to me that Ken Livingstone, far from learning the lessons of Obama & co, precisely failed to learn a key part of them. Because faced with a welter of allegations against his record, he repeatedly and notably failed to engage with the details of them, instead usually going for broad knocking rhetoric. Contrast that with Obama and, for example, his lengthy, detailed and highly eloquent speech about race. Obama took on the arguments of his critics in detail; Livingstone didn’t.

Easy to read and timely emails allowing for individual supporters to take action were the foundation for this engagement.

I can now (just!) literally say people, including me, have been doing that for over a decade in the UK. No doubt about it, Obama’s campaign did their emails very well, but again this is hardly earth-shattering novelty.

It will be even more interesting to see how the technology can be used as a means of holding London’s new mayor to account, not just through blogs or websites but in generating mass action through email, for example in Progressive London’s campaign against Transport for London price rises.

Certainly will be, but you know – emails and websites have been used to try to hold the London Mayor to account and to campaign on issues they are responsible for since the very first day of us having a London Mayor. It will be interesting to see how this continues to evolve, but it seems to me any sensible discussion on this should be based on what has or hasn’t been done in the past rather than writing as if we’re now at year zero and don’t know anything that Americans haven’t come and told us.

ConservativeHome and WebCameron are seen as tough hurdles to beat.

ConservativeHome yes, but WebCameron? Even amongst internet-savvy Conservative activists I speak to, WebCameron is frequenlty seen as largely a damp squib that hasn’t come even close to meeting the original hype and ambitions for it, with the supply of new content having been heavily scaled back.

As I said at the start, I’ve no doubt that Blue State Digital know their business, but you know, internet campaigning has been going on outside the US for quite a few years now.

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This entry was posted in London and Online politics.
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