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Election special

June 2010


Has this election really been influenced by the internet?

Maybe; this has been the first election when the great majority of internet users have broadband, and their own computer rather than share a family machine.

It is the first election since the birth of Facebook and Twitter, and since the BBC iPlayer and the like have been available.  It is the first election since YouTube arrived, and putting short bursts of video on a website became possible.

It is the first election when the main parties have spent serious money on their websites and had the chance to buy internet advertising that could work.

But did any of this make a difference? 

In one area, it certainly did; the finances of elections have been affected by cyberspace for ever, and I very much hope that as a consequence we have now seen the last of any suggestions that political parties should receive tax-payer funding.  I’ll explain what I mean.

One of the great changes the internet has wrought is making the collecting of small amounts of cash in large numbers amounts easy, cheap and worthwhile; that alone has transformed many businesses.

This was the first British election when all the parties have had the option to solicit money effectively from you and me online – and this, in particular, seems to have worked.

Regular internet users are now well used to dishing out cash online and a persuasive website can easily release a tenner from us if it can be done painlessly with a few clicks.  These days, this is especially true if the site includes a short but convicting video; it personalises the appeal in a very compelling way.

I was very taken, for example, with the efforts of many candidates (from all parties) to collect small donations to their particular campaigns by putting a convincing video on their website;  click the ”Donate” button alongside it, put in your card number, and it’s done.  No need to go to a jumble sale or whist drive; no need to be a party member.

This is just what the Obama campaign did so well; indeed, they collected far more than they needed and the average donation was only a few dollars.  Scale this down to the British level, and you realise that collecting large sums from small donations is a pretty painless business, if you get it right.

The Conservatives, for example, set up, through which individual constituencies could channel their online fundraising, and some other promotional work. 

This website is an expensive and studiously cool piece of work, aimed firmly at the under 40’s (although the coolness of it was often rather undermined by photos of the middle aged candidates in their blue suits) but overall is a very slick effort.  I dread to think what it cost.

In particular, it was very easy to scan through the appeals from the candidates, and if, for example, you wanted to help a specific chap’s efforts, sending him a few quid has never been easier, wherever you are.

You don’t even have to be on the electoral roll if your donation is less than £200, so imagine the power that gives a determined political internet marketer.  If a candidate spent some time building up an email list of people who are interested, and might read his emails, think how much easier raising money becomes; one quick email to the list, and in comes some cash.

It will be fascinating to see the final figures when they are published, but I strongly believe that huge sums will have been raised online during the campaign.

So I hope that this new and significant stream of potential income will put an end to the demands by politicians that their parties be funded in some way by the tax-payer.  This has always made me cross; not content with wanting us to vote for them and put them into power, they also want all of us to pay for them to try in the first place. 

It’s a barefaced cheek but perhaps the rise in successful internet fund-raising will finally demonstrate that if they can’t raise the cash they need from their own supporters, online or some other way, it’s probably because no one wants to vote for them anyway.