Blogs and the election

Next year there is going to be a UK general election and for the first time blogs are going to be involved. This new element to the campaign is going to have a big impact on the blogosphere and I have been pondering how things might develop.

Before I am accused of talking bloggocks I said involved. Certainly not decisive, not even important but in some form blogs will be part of the overall campaign mix. We saw in the US elections that during the long campaign stories buzzed around the blogosphere, sometimes making the mainstream media sit up and take notice. The British blog scene has grown up over the past year and the politically active and media savvy know all about political blogs now.

So what can we expect?

Firstly I think there is a pretty good chance that all the major parties will launch campaign blogs. Probably they will incorporate a blog element into their official sites rather as the Labour Party did during the party conference. One of the problems those running campaigns from the centre often have is keeping local activists focused on the core issues, ensuring that they remain not only ‘on message’ but are synchronised — they focus on the same issues as the centre on a given day. There is no better way of doing that than through a blog that activists can turn to every day to read briefings and get campaigning suggestions from. The idea of a daily briefing issued to all party activists is now possible through emails and blogs.

Activists can take their cue from a blog and get answers to the questions they are hearing on the doorsteps but more importantly parties can go straight to the voter with their message bypassing the journalist. Obviously a blog is not going to have the same size audience as a leaflet through a door or even a newspaper article but there will be a substantial number of voters who will search out information on the parties through the internet. Why wouldn’t there be? People google for all manner of things and there is no reason to think they wouldn’t google for information on the Tory’s health policy or any other issue. No campaigner would want an undecided voter to be able to easily access a snappy hostile attack on their policy but not find an equally accessible policy statement from their own party.

So far none of the three major parties have a party blog. You would imagine that they have them in the development stage but I think the wise campaign manager would get the blog launched and live well in advance of the campaign itself. Every blogger knows it takes time for a blog to reach its audience and an official party blog is no different. If the party managers think merely unveiling a blog on the first Monday of the campaign will mean activists or voters logging on on Tuesday morning they will be making a big mistake. Any blogger will tell you it takes weeks, months to get attention in the blogosphere and build up both a regular readership and the all-important google rating.

If they think a press release and a link on their official site is going to be enough to launch their blog they should also think again. The clever campaign manager will understand how internet traffic works and take advantage of the networks of party supporters that already exist online.

In this respect it looks like the Lib Dems are well ahead of the game. Take a look at this site which already brings together Lib Dem supporting blogs in one place. It looks informal but gives the party a place where its message can be instantly transmitted out to scores of supportive sites which will be read by many more people. That tells me that either the Lib Dems understand how blogs work or Lib Dem bloggers are gearing themselves up for an active role in the election. I see no such signs from the other two parties.

There is also a chance that some candidates will launch blogs and my hunch is that, as with Jody Dunn in Hartlepool, it is probablty candidates fighting to take seats, rather than those defending, who are most likely to use blogs. Although one has to wonder whether the negative aspect of Dunn’s campaign will deter some candidates from venturing into a live media such as blogging.

Will any of this affect the already established blogosphere? It is hard to see how it could not do. Over the past two years most of the popular British blogs have been preoccupied with international issues rather than the domestic political scene. But it is inevitable that as the general election grows closer and media coverage focuses more on the domestic political scene, blogs will follow.

That won’t be much of a change for obviously partisan blogs such as Conservative Commentary but it may change the character of other sites. Some bloggers may opt to sit back and observe and comment on the campaign while others will feel the need to get actively involved in supporting their preferred party. It will be interesting to see how the different sites respond and how their readers react.

In many ways the campaign will tell us how important blogs have become in the UK and how seriously politicians take them. If the parties think that the electronic debate is worth influencing, bloggers might find emails arriving from a party HQ pointing them to certain stories or offering corrections or rebuttals to items found in the media or online. If they don’t, that suggests that either blogs don’t have enough impact yet or that campaigners are missing a trick.

It is certainly going to be an interesting few months and while there is plenty for the party campaigners to ponder bloggers will also have to think how they are going to handle the campaign. Will they put themselves at the service of the party they support or will they retain an independence and distance?

If the history of blogs is anything to go by, we will probably just make it up as we go along.