Politics 2.0.co.uk

[This article about how politicians in the UK are using the Web appears in the February issue of N-TEN.]

by Monique Cuvelier, Talance, Inc.

Back when everyone was saying Al Gore “invented the Internet,” no one rolled their eyes more than the Brits. Back then, the very notion of Internet-based technologies was enough to send British eyes into one-eighties, never mind the marriage of politics and social media. The idea of the Queen appearing on YouTube? Patently ridiculous.

What a change a few years can bring, because there she is, on YouTube’s Royal Channel with her annual Christmas speech and video clips of Prince William flying a plane.
She’s not the only UK leader who has gone digital, as politicians are looking to social media tactics to gain more youthful support.

Our politicians are starting to investigate the possibilities of social media as a way of accessing younger audiences,” says Sara Waddington, managing editor of FUMSI, an online publication that tracks the information industry. “We have a general election coming up and a lot of middle England is dissatisfied with this government’s taxation stance, so it will need to look at ways of attracting new voters from different age ranges and groups.”

With the next general election looming in 2009, politicians are beginning to mirror their American counterparts in hopes of winning more votes. Until recently, the Brits didn’t need to be so cozy with social media. In the last three general elections, the UK population was voting — for Tony Blair. Oasis’s Noel Gallagher was New Labour’s wingman and famously visited Blair at 10 Downing Street for celebratory drinks. Blair was hip, young Britons felt empowered, and the War on Terror yet hadn’t begun.

Now Blair is gone, the War on Terror is dragging on, and many young voters especially feel jilted by campaign promises that never materialized. So, they’re not voting.
British politicians are flirting with social media to see if they can win them back.

To wit:
* The Conservatives launched webcameron, their glassy Web 2.0 home where readers can view leader David Cameron’s blog or read guest bloggings by the likes of John McCain.
* Left-wing Liberal Democrats launched Flock Together, inspired by how Howard Dean tapped MeetUp.com to gain grassroots support for campaign planning and local meetings. Those who need a constant jolt can use the site’s Twitter page.
* Before he stepped down, Tony Blair hired Zack Exley, John Kerry’s presidential campaign director, who directed Internet operations for the Labour party. He is largely credited with helping Blair with his third consecutive victory.

But it doesn’t go much beyond flirting. The social media relationship hasn’t quite developed into the deep embrace American politicos have. The Queen, for instance, mistakenly referred to “OneTube.” While Barack Obama’s chaotic MySpace page boasts 281,141 friends, the only “Gordon Brown” profile on MySpace has four friends and a lack of proper punctuation.

UK politicians may be slower than their American counterparts to adopt social media, but as one recent study from the UK communications regulatory body Ofcom indicates, they’ll catch up. The UK has higher usage of Facebook and MySpace than the rest of Europe, with one in four UK adults tapping into social networks 23 times a month. Those are numbers that are hard to ignore, no matter what side of the Pond you’re on.

Monique Cuvelier is CEO of Talance, Inc., a company that helps nonprofits – in the US and abroad – understand better how to use technology through online courses and websites. She has been writing for UK-based publications since 1996. Learn more at www.talance.com.

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