Social media and UK politics – a match made in heaven?

With election fever in the air following the string of recent political party conferences I thought I’d ponder how social media will be used by the political parties in the run-up to next year’s election to engage with people like me (i.e. young, male, successful and brilliant).

First things first, we can’t talk about online political campaigns without first referencing the daddy of all campaigns – Obama’s 2008 presidential election. This was quite simply the best social media campaign that has ever been implemented, either on a political or commercial basis. It had all the ingredients: imaginative – tick, engaging & compelling – tick, innovative – tick, got people talking – tick, and most importantly, got results – tick. Using this at the benchmark then, how then do the UK strategies match-up?



Despite David Cameron’s “too many twits might make a twat” comments, Twitter is the politician’s weapon of choice when it comes to social media. The effectiveness and ease of the channel for bating the opposition and gaining publicity was highlighted by John Prescott’s #welovethenhs campaign to bring attention to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s criticism of the NHS on US TV.

In attempt to corral support, Labour and more recently the Tories have launched their own websites. The Tories’  –  is an ‘Obama-style’ campaigning website designed to drum up support in the run-up to next year’s general election, while Labour have their own social networking site, LabourSpace (see what they did there, they added ‘Space’ to Labour, as in MySpace….clever, very clever indeed). Now these are all well and good , but they are primarily preaching to converted rather than getting the undecided or swing voters to join the revolution (though I appreciate that’s what these sites were created for.)

So then, if we leave aside the fact that Gordon Brown is currently less loved than a ginger step-child and the next Prime Minister is a fore-gone conclusion, will social media influence the results of next year’s election? Well, to put it bluntly…. probably not.

First of all let’s make things clear, Obama didn’t win the U.S. election because of his social media campaign, he won it because he was the outstanding candidate – pure and simple. Combining a healthy dose of optimism and a spoonful of charisma, Obama offered the U.S. public something fresh, something needed. What his social media strategy did do however, was tap into the electorates’ latent desire for change. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube et al simply provided the channel in which he could engage with this audience of frustrated voters.

And it’s here that I think the majority of politicians (and indeed many brands and companies) are missing the point. If you are going to use social media, you need to create a compelling reason for people to engage with you, you need to add value. You shouldn’t simply create the obligatory Facebook, Flickr, Twitter pages so that you can tick the social-media box and move on.

The problem with social media and political parties is compounded by the fact that most of us Brits have an inherent mistrust of politicians, and are therefore unlikely to want to engage with the likes of Gordon, Dave or Nick. An Obama-style social media blitz is never going to work in the UK unless the political parties can find a USP (or message) that will resonate with the British public and then communicate it in such a way that people feel apart of the movement.

If social media can sell something as “unappealing” as British politics to the young, then it really could be a recipe for social change.