In the words of Will Bailey from the West Wing, “Something weird is happening. We’re winning.”
Polls schmolls. It’s a volatile period; the most you can say with any certainty is that the race has closed up a bit. If we stick at 25% on the day, I’ll be very happy. No, I’m talking about this. It’s a Facebook group.
So what! I hear you cry. Were you not always opposed to Facebook political campaigning as lacklustre, overdone and counterproductively irritating? Why yes, I was, and am. Official political campaigning on Facebook is almost uniformly awful, tedious, uninspiring drivel. I can’t cope with my Facebook profile any more because I’ve given in to too many of those bloody “Lib Dems For Smaller Bankers Bonuses and Larger Coffee Tables for All!”-type invitations. The only function official Facebook groups can perform well is to make contacting people easier. In terms of winning hearts and minds and whipping up popular sentiment, they’re about as effective as Arnold Rimmer in smarm mode.
This group however, is not official. Yes, if you look through the membership now you’ll find all the usual suspects, but when I joined about a week ago, the group had about 13,000 members. And I was at first shocked, and then beside myself with joy, to realise I didn’t recognise a single bloody one of them. Lest you suppose from this that I have some kind of scary person recognition database built into my brain, let me assure you that I have. I know everybody in the online Lib Dem world – or at least their names and gravatars. Every councillor, every activist, every half-affiliated sympathiser who has ever commented on Lib Dem Voice. Not because of clever networking, I hasten to add (my idea of clever networking is to return phone calls within the same week), just by hanging about in the yellow bit of the internet so much. Tragic would be my middle name if it wasn’t Emily. There’s very little goes on online to do with the Lib Dems that I don’t know about. And I didn’t know about this.
And I love this one:
And to think a couple of months ago we were impressed with people playing around with mydavidcameron.com. This group is heading for 100,000 members. They range from committed supporters who have looked up the policies and liked them, through those mainly motivated by electoral reform, to some people who just know they like the sound of the Lib Dems and feel they’re being hoodwinked by the current state of affairs.
They had and have one thing in common, though. All of them – perhaps especially the last group – are absolutely incensed by the fact that they keep being told not to vote Lib Dem, either because it’s a “wasted vote” or because it will let one of the other two in. They’re incredulous about this. Why would anyone take such an instruction seriously? The relief in the wall posts from people who’ve just joined is palpable. Why should I listen to this self-serving bullshit? Why would I believe any newspaper anyway? And thank god there are lots of other people out there who feel the same as me. They mention the self-interest of the old parties, the lazy misinformation of the media, the innate daftness of not voting Lib Dem because they won’t get enough votes to win. They get it. To coin a phrase, they really are thinking what we’re thinking.
But if I’m giving the impression that it’s an entirely negative group with fuck-you-system overtones, I should correct it. They exhort each other to make sure they’re registered to vote, they quote bits of the manifesto at each other, they positively demand to know how they can help campaign. Very early on, I remember someone suggesting that the group should try to get an official sponsor on board, a Lib Dem MP maybe? Get them on board? My god. There isn’t an MP in Britain who wouldn’t beg to be a part of what you’re doing. They’re joining your group anyway. This is what they – the good ones, at least – dream of happening. A genuine grassroots movement that reassures them they’re on the right track, and that they can tap for volunteers. In fact, every so often someone pops up from a local party and asks for help. I’m told one of the parties who did that got six replies within a couple of hours.
And if you think that group and its outputs are impressive, consider this:
So far as I know, someone made that, for no money, without official say-so, because they wanted to. All this is only telling us what we instinctively know - that command-and-control political campaigning must evolve to survive, and that bottom-up can look as good as or better than top-down because it has superior resources. No-one is paying these people to do these extraordinary things. Ashcroft himself couldn’t buy it – there are too many people involved.
How much did the Tories spend on their derisory poster campaigns anyway? Whose idea was it to put Dave’s face on the side of whacking great buildings like a pompous mekon giving advance notice of his invasion? And a six-foot gravestone, for god’s sake? Did anyone actually think about how that was going to look in meatspace, as opposed to on a monitor screen? How, given free choice from a wealth of pictures of Gordon Brown looking like a gargoyle with unnatural appetites, have the Tories managed to pick a relatively inoffensive picture of him for their latest efforts? Whatever happened to #cashgordon, after we’d all stopped laughing at its spectacular fail? Whatever happened to the idea – freely promoted by dead tree media without question – that the Tories were doing the most advanced online campaigning?
It always sounded like total bullshit, and it was. A spectre conjured by briefing a sympathetic media with the message, “This is what is happening on the internet.” As if seeing it in a newspaper might make it true (this is quite a revealing glimpse at the Labservative mindset, actually). I’m still waiting for the Tories’ brilliant online campaign to make an appearance and it still hasn’t.
None of this means, of course, that the grassroots Lib Dem campaign taking shape is going to have a huge impact on this election. Online campaigning still only reaches a small section of the population, and the bulk of that section is young – some of them are too young to vote. But the reach can only grow, and the effects of online campaigning leech out into newspapers and into media consciousness anyway. It already looks like it’s given us a lasting slogan in “I agree with Nick”, admittedly with a little help from the Prime Minister.
Rob has started to collect examples and is twittering when the blog is updated, so if you see anything you think should be added, go and let him know. Regardless of what happens in the election itself, this stuff needs to be recorded so that it can form the raw material for half a chapter in someone’s definitive monologue on how internet politics changed in 2010.