At this week’s Labour Conference, Deputy Leader Tom Watson announced the first stage of his ‘Digital Revolution’ – a new campaigning platform aimed at turning their booming membership into an army of cyber activists. The ‘My Labour’ network provides users with a swish new “Digital Membership Card” and a one-stop-shop for finding news and views from members across the country.
It’s a start, but Labour know they have a mountain to climb. The Conservatives were ferocious online at the last election, and built an effective and professional digital strategy with less than a quarter of Labour’s rank-and-file membership. So what lessons can Labour learn from the Tories “digital victory”, and how can they make the most of the young, energised base they’ve amassed under Corbyn?
1. Choose the right platforms
Labour invested considerable party resource in producing content for trendy and emerging platforms such as Vine and Tumblr. Although it’s often advised that organisations stake a claim on these newer networks, with the limited time and focus afforded by a General Election, such efforts are much better devoted to the established market leaders.
Building communities on platforms with few users, where content will receive few interactions and where accurate analytic information is sparse or non-existent, will provide little strategic advantage. This was summed by neatly by the Tories’ 2015 Head of Digital, Craig Elder:
“If you want to spend all day making Vines or managing a pretty Instagram account, great. But if you’re trying to reach a 40-year-old mum of two in Derby North who doesn’t use either platform, you’re wasting your time. You’re much more likely to reach her on Facebook, in the evening, when the kids have gone to bed.”.
2. Leave the echo chamber
Navel-gazing is an often remarked upon problem of the left, and nowhere is this problem more prevalent than on social media. Labour activists often assume that the more open and public-facing platforms like Twitter are the right place to foist their digital activism on the world; without once considering that their largely self-selecting audience is almost entirely made up of like-minded lefties.
Broaden your activists’ horizons! Facebook’s warren-like structure links users of varying political views, who’s association to one another is based on a deeper connection than a passing agreement over a hashtag. This is the platform that the Tories bet the house on at the last General Election, using the detailed demographic information Facebook amasses to target their messaging at users from across the traditional political spectrum.
Arming activists with the right tools to seek out and respond to these online enclaves would be a costly and labour-intensive operation, but it would be thousands of times more effective than sharing a #TheresaMustGo hashtag amongst the same hundred users ad nauseam…
3. Make the investment
Watson is right to see the potential of digital, but true success can’t be achieved on the cheap. At the last election, Labour spent less than £16,000 on Facebook advertising (compared to the Tories £1.2 million) and less than £1,000 on Google AdWords and YouTube pre-roll advertising (compared to the Tories £300,000). The recent membership boom has raised over £4.5 million for the party’s coffers; to win in 2020 (or sooner as the case may be), a fair amount of this windfall needs to be devoted to online campaigning.
If Watson is to be successful, he needs to do more than spruce up the Labour website and host a few webinars; he needs a precise strategy that targets a range of users from across the country with pin-point accuracy; and he needs to be willing to spend what is necessary to achieve effectively.