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The Online Election: Ask The Candidates


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The Online Election

The 2015 general election has been branded the UK’s first true social media election.

Parliamentary candidates sent 54,905 tweets within the first week of campaigning as they tried to increase the reach of their campaigns and engage their constituents on a more personal level.

Social media use in the UK has increased greatly since 2010 and, while some MPs are adept social media users, others have struggled to understand the emerging channel.

In November 2014, the then Labour MP for Islington South and Highbury, Emily Thornberry, was accused of snobbery and resigned from her position as shadow work and pensions secretary after posting the following picture on Twitter.

Emily Thornberry Tweet

We invited a selection of local parliamentary candidates to discuss how they have used digital communications as part of their 2015 election campaigns.

We contacted candidates from five local Hertfordshire districts based on their proximity to our office. These were: Stevenage, Hertford & Stortford, St Albans, Broxbourne and Hemel Hempstead.

We then asked Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP and Green Party representatives the same four questions:

  1. Have you seen a move towards online campaigning in the last 5-10 years?
  2. Do you feel that online campaigning via social media has improved your campaign and the overall reach of your campaign?
  3. Do you see social media as the key way to engage with your constituency or do you favour traditional methods?
  4. In the future, would you support the introduction of online voting to increase voting numbers?

We received responses from ten candidates:

  • Mark Prisk (Hertford & Stortford) and Charles Walker (Broxbourne) for the Conservative Party.
  • Sharon Taylor (Stevenage) and Tony Breslin (Hemel Hempstead) for the Labour Party.
  • Susan Van De Ven (Stevenage) and Michael Green (Hertford & Stortford) for the Liberal Democrats
  • Russell Secker (Broxbourne) and Alan Borgars (Hemel Hempstead) for the Green Party.
  • Chris Wright (St Albans) and Adrian Baker (Hertford & Stortford) for UKIP.

We also received a response from the UKIP candidate for Stevenage, David Collins, who declined to participate as “completing surveys is not top priority at this point.”

Read their answers below.

Question 1

Have you seen a move towards online campaigning in the last 5-10 years?

Green Party

Alan Borgars:
Yes, I have clearly seen a move towards online campaigning in the last five years, particularly amongst younger candidates like myself (I am 24 years of age and a frequent Facebook/Twitter user), and I believe it will be here to stay.Russell Secker:
Definitely! It is far more affordable and ecologically sound.

Labour Party

Sharon Taylor:
YES, via Facebook and Twitter.Tony Breslin:
I think that many campaigns have been really effective online in the past few years. The objection to the Tories selling off our forests and the mass email campaigns to try and halt the privatisation of the NHS come to mind as particularly powerful online campaigns.

UKIP

Chris Wright:
I’m new to politics and still work in the IT world on a daily basis – and sadly the answer is no!Adrian Baker:
Yes.

Conservatives

Mark Prisk:
Yes there has been a shift towards social media. I use my website, twitter and support local social media websites on things like Facebook.Charles Walker:
Pressure groups are involved in online campaigning, the quality of which is variable. Many colleagues are on Twitter, some find it useful others wish that they had never started.

Liberal Democrats

Susan Van De Ven:
Yes.Michael Green:
Yes – I find this complements traditional methods.

Question 2

Do you feel that online campaigning via social media has improved your campaign and the overall reach of your campaign?

Green Party

Alan Borgars:
It has substantially improved and widened my campaign, given that many people get their news from online sources not the traditional offline sources.Russell Secker:
Definitely, again! Especially with the 18-30 demographic.

Labour Party

Sharon Taylor:
YES, I can reach more people in a way they appreciate.Tony Breslin:
We have used our campaign Facebook page to show everything I’ve been up to in Hemel Hempstead during the campaign and I’ve been using my Twitter feed to keep people up to date. I hope it has allowed us to reach people we might otherwise have missed and allowed many people to contact me directly.

UKIP

Chris Wright:
I’m on twitter but don’t use it probably as much as I should. The challenge is resources – UKIP St Albans is relatively new and we don’t have masses of helpers like the old parties.Adrian Baker:
Yes.

Conservatives

Mark Prisk:
The web is very important to reach out to groups of people and on specific issues. I deal with many emails from constituents.

Liberal Democrats

Susan Van De Ven:
Yes.Michael Green:
Yes it has increased the reach and makes it a lot easier for us to share our news quickly and efficiently. For example our newsletter works well as in email as it allows us to get our message out quickly and at lower cost than if it was sent by print. However there is a downside to using social media as I can’t guarantee who I am talking to is in fact a member of my constituency.

Question 3

Do you see social media as the key way to engage with your constituency or do you favour traditional methods?

Green Party

Alan Borgars:
Both traditional methods and social media are needed in campaigns to engage with as many voters as possible-street greeting, canvassing, door-knocking, tweeting, Facebook campaigning are all useful.Russell Secker:
It is all going towards social media, mailing leaflets and doorknocking (sic) is labour intensive and pretty hopeless. I prefer to engage with interested constituents by email.

Labour Party

Sharon Taylor:
BOTH – There is a place for talking face to face or via a telephone.Tony Breslin:
I think that social media and traditional methods both have their place. I love being out talking face to face to people and hearing their concerns. Sometimes social media becomes a way of broadcasting views so its great to spend just as much time out and about listening.

UKIP

Chris Wright:
I use traditional means – but one day will have a communications team using social media outlets.Adrian Baker:
Partly. We still need the leafleting and being visible, but with email I can reply directly to 30-50 emails a night from constituents who are actually interested in what I stand for on issues that concern them. Answering 50 emails in person is surely more effective than knocking on 50 random doors.

Conservatives

Mark Prisk:
I still favour knocking on doors, street stalls and leaflets to ensure we reach as many people as possible.Charles Walker:
I do not use social media, preferring traditional campaigning methods such as personal letters and high-quality printed literature.

Liberal Democrats

Susan Van De Ven:
Not everyone uses social media. Social media is a powerful and valuable tool but it can lead to judgments made too quickly.Michael Green:
I do not believe it is a case of either or. Whilst I see social media as a key way to engage with my constituents, I believe it is complimentary (sic) of other more traditional methods as not all members of my constituency use social media.

Question 4

In the future, would you support the introduction of online voting to increase voting numbers?

Green Party

Alan Borgars:
I do support electronic voting to increase voter numbers, but I believe first we need to make sure that fraudulent voting is not any more likely under electronic voting than under paper voting before we implement it.Russell Secker:
Definitely. Putting Xs on paper ballot papers is so 19th Century!

UKIP

Chris Wright:
Yes, it is inevitable, and therefore we should test it and find a foolproof way of stopping fraud!Adrian Baker:
Yes. If we can manage online banking, why not this? It should ONLY be open to use on election day too, not for days/weeks before. Far more would vote then.

Labour Party

Sharon Taylor:
YES – To move with the times and reach more constituents.Tony Breslin:
Not sure. I think that voting at polling stations is still the best way. Voting is an important civic duty that should be taken seriously and I fear that a move online might make people click quickly and think less about the choice they are making.

Conservatives

Mark Prisk:
I don’t favour online voting. The chaos in the US elections leaves me to believe that pencil and paper is still the most open and transparent approach.Charles Walker:
I would not support the introduction of on-line voting. Previous changes to the way that we vote have increased the incidence of electoral fraud.

Liberal Democrats

Susan Van De Ven:
No. Transparency is fundamental to the integrity of our elections and I’m not convinced that on-line voting would be able to demonstrate publicly that it has been managed and carried out fairly and properly. Trust in politics is a big problem and at the very least we need confidence in the process of elections.Michael Green:
I took part in a pilot for online voting in 2003 in St. Albans. Online voting was popular amongst a younger audience and proved successful in convincing people to vote later in the evening. For example those that had been working till 9 were more likely to vote if they could do it from the comfort of their own home rather than go back out. However I believe this shouldn’t be introduced until the correct safeguards have been set up to prevent fraudulent (sic) voting.

Summary

The general consensus from the candidates interviewed is that although online campaigning is becoming increasingly important, its use is sometimes limited by the resources they have available and a reliance on more traditional methods.

Interestingly, all political parties, bar the Conservatives, seem to favour a move to online voting in the future.

We want to know what you think. Do you prefer to learn about political issues online? Would being able to vote online encourage you to vote in future elections? Have your say in the comments.

Candidates we did not hear back from:

ConservativesLabourLiberal DemocratsUKIPGreen Party
Mike Penning, Hemel HempsteadKerry Pollard, St. AlbansRabi Martins, Hemel HempsteadHoward Koch, Hemel HempsteadJack Easton, St. Albans
Anne Main, St. AlbansKatherine Chibah, Hertford & StorfordSandy Walkington, St. AlbansDavid Platt, BroxbourneSophie Christophy, Hertford & Stortford
Stephen McPartland, StevenageEdward Robinson, BroxbourneAnthony Rowlands, Broxbourne Graham White, Stevenage
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