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Digital election: Cheltenham

Rory Cellan-Jones | 13:40 UK time, Thursday, 22 April 2010

For our latest digital-election effort on the Daily Politics, we decided it was time to leave cyberspace and head into the real world. To be precise, Cheltenham.

We wanted to know whether digital techniques were actually being used on the ground, and whether they could make any difference in what is a key marginal.

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The Liberal Democrats first took the seat back in 1992, but in 2005 their majority over the Conservatives shrank to just over 2,000. With boundary changes the majority is now a notional 316, making Cheltenham the Conservatives' target number six.

You might not expect an affluent somewhat sleepy spa town to be a hive of digital activity; somewhat to my surprise, I found plenty of evidence.

There are three main areas where new media tools can help in political campaigns - communication, organisation and donations - and I saw evidence of all three.

The Conservative candidate Mark Coote says digital tools have helped him organise his campaign, with younger supporters assembled via Facebook and the whole process of canvassing organised online or on the phone without having to hold constant meetings.

He's also benefitted from a fund-raising appeal on the ConservativeHome blog which raised more than £2,500 for his campaign.

And action from Conservative HQ appears to be helping him - I noticed when I did a Google search for his Liberal Democrat opponent Martin Horwood that one of the sponsored links was to a David Cameron YouTube video.

Mr Horwood has a fairly bog-standard website, and he too has tried to raise funds online - though he admits that donations have been pretty small.

But he has become a keen Twitterer, and says it's made a real difference - he's even won a new supporter after responding to a question on Twitter.

With very scant resources, and struggling to make an effect on the race, the Labour candidate James Green is even keener on digital tools - from Twitter to YouTube. Why? Because they're free.

I came away from Cheltenham with the impression that a lot had changed about campaigning since 2005.

Would you ever run for Parliament now without some kind of social-media presence to energise your supporters and spread your message just a little further? But will it be digital what won it? Of course not.

This election belongs to a rather older technology - television - and now all eyes in Cheltenham and elsewhere are focussed on tonight's TV debate.

You can get a full list of the candidates standing in Cheltenham here.


  • Comment number 1.

    Cheltenham is a tourist spa town situated on the edge of the Cotswold Hills. Therefore, wrongly or rightly, I would’ve expected plenty of cyberspace literacy, which would beat out townhall type of meetings because the keyboard is closer than the townhall(s).
    The largest employer is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) the very presence of which caused me to think “"Conservative” territory. Thus I’d expect Conservative candidate, Mark Coote to acknowledge that digital tools have helped him.
    As Mr. Horwood (LibDem), I'm puzzled how he would know that “twittering” has indeed made a difference. I mean people can commit in twitter to the LibDems, but the reality may be different.
    I would run for Parliament NOW without some kind of social-media presence to energise my supporters and spread my message just a little further? But then again, I’d want to take advantage of my personal appeal as a public speaker, shake hands, look straight into some eyes, and tell people in-person that I care about them. I care about their future.
    Television is a good medium; I set my eyes on debates. TV is the second best thing to actually being here, there and everywhere.
    Apparently, there's another plan afoot: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will answer questions asked by the public, with their answers broadcast on YouTube and Facebook. Facebook and YouTube users can post questions in either text or video format under the categories of economy, health and education, law and order, foreign policy and miscellaneous. The public vote on the most popular questions. The most popular questions are presented to the party leaders. The politicians have pledged to respond ten days before the election. We really can’t judge the effectiveness of this type of process until we see what the voters want to ask. Though I must admit, the new process marks a topsy-turvy to the usual process of top-down traditional media questioning to bottom-up grass-roots questioning.
    It's a shame that the responses and questions can’t be delivered live. I wonder why not. It seems importent to me that political leaders, unprepped as to the social network questions, should be asked the questions on live television so that the public can witness the comfort, discomfort, or the limbo in between.
    Contrary to your opinion, I see the internet as a valid place for impulsive and impersonal political discussion, and I'm not sold on the process.
    p.s. I had to smile when I noted this Party in the Cheltenham listing: "Monster Raving Loony Party". Apparently. There are 26 definite candidates so far with names like:
    Sam Thing, Flying Brick, Crucial Chris and Top Cat Owen.

  • Comment number 2.

    Although it isn’t possible to say exactly how much of this was attributable to Facebook, there is no doubt that the launch of the application and the surrounding media activity had a significant impact in raising voter awareness of the looming deadline and encouraging unregistered voters to sign up. All of these are people who may not otherwise have been able to exercise their democratic rights, and we think it’s great that we have been able to support the Electoral Commission in reaching them.


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