The 2010 general election
Lessons of 2010 general election
With presidential-style debates, social networking sites and Twitter rewriting the general election rule book, Nicholas Jones looks at what lessons we will take from the 2010 general election
The more the media diversifies in a world of digital communications, the harder it becomes to control the news agenda. The lesson of the 2010 general election is that political parties will have to up their game if they want to stand any chance of focusing voters’ attention on the key issues of future campaigns.
Party strategists and candidates were woefully ill-prepared for the unprecedented levels of interaction through social networking sites, and the unexpected fallout from the leaders’ televised debates.
New media thrived on three-party politics – as did a reinvigorated old media – and the emergence of Britain’s first peace-time coalition government since the 1930s was in part a reflection of the electorate’s ability to participate and challenge the old order.
Instead of campaign managers driving forward a policy-led debate through the traditional channels of press and broadcasting, a greater level of engagement by potential voters meant that politicians were often reduced to mere onlookers as events took on a life of their own. Viral graffiti artists transformed an air-brushed poster of David Cameron into the most mocked image of the election. After Nick Clegg was demonised by the Tory press, he became the beneficiary of a spontaneous online fight-back. Thirdly Gordon Brown’s disastrous encounter with Gillian Duffy and the ensuing furore over ‘bigot-gate’ proved how a vast online audience can turn a made-for-television feeding frenzy into an even greater sensation.
During the long pre-election build-up, there were all manner of predictions as to the way the media would perform: political parties talked up their chances of attracting votes through an Obama-style internet election, political bloggers thought they might be able to reveal stories that would command the news agenda and a new online commentariat was confident that national newspapers would have less impact than in the past.
Although internet campaigning did not achieve the breakthrough that party activists anticipated in terms of delivering votes, the rise in social networking did influence voting intentions. Communication via the web came of age for both the public and the news media. Online comments and conversations provided a significant supply of new
“Official websites were shunned as many potential voters preferred to talk to each other via social networking services”
information for journalists, and Twitter established itself as the must-see notice board for a political and media elite.
But while Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest played their part, newspapers, television and radio were still in the driving seat. The journalism of the national press remained the dominant force. Without the build-up in newspapers, which fed through to the broadcasters’ commentary, there would have been nowhere near the great sense of expectation which preceded each of the three leaders’ debates.
Once the programmes were on air, tele-
vision was in command but the impact of social networking was also making an immediate effect. Political activists started to tweet as they watched, live blogs gave their reaction and a flurry of messages and texts added to the mix. Online chatter was a useful source of real-time feedback when political correspondents started to offer their assessment. Even the political spinners got in on the act, with the Conservative Party issuing instant reactions to the leaders’ debate via email.
Within minutes of each debate finishing, instant opinion polls gave newspapers the chance to try to regain the agenda as they attempted to influence the direction of followup coverage. Press, television and the web fed off each other. The combined effect was that the anticipation and excitement generated by the three debates went on reverberating throughout the campaign for far longer than party strategists had expected.
Policies and themes that the parties were anxious to address were all but obliterated by the hullabaloo of presidential-style campaigning. Labour went as far as to accuse the broadcasters of failing to spend enough time in news bulletins analysing rival manifestos, so as to ensure that the alternative policies were ‘fully, fairly and properly’ covered.
But the complaints of the spin doctors were to no avail. Televised confrontations between the leaders created an unstoppable momentum. Two days after the first debate, seven opinion polls in the Sunday papers were indicating an unprecedented surge for the Liberal Democrats – one poll had them ahead of the Conservatives and another suggested Nick Clegg was the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill.
By gauging opinion instantly online,
54 | Total Politics | October 2010 The third televised leaders’ debate
The 2010 general election
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Timeline of election 2010
6 April Gordon Brown announces the general election date of 6 May 12 April Labour Party launches its manifesto 13 April Conservative Party launches its manifesto 14 April Lib Dems launch their manifesto 15 April The first leaders’ debate sees a confident performance from Nick Clegg thrust the Liberal Democrats into second place in the polls, and gives the country a new catchphrase: “I agree with Nick” 22 April The second debate, and all eyes are
Gordon Brown meets Gillian Duffy on Nick Clegg after his first, stellar performance. Most pundits and polls call it a win for him, with David Cameron a close second 28 April Bigot-gate blows a hole in the Labour Party’s campaign. After meeting GIlian Duffy, Gordon Brown is caught on microphone describing her as a “bigoted woman” 29 April The third and final leaders’ debate between Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron takes place, with most polls agreeing that Cameron performed best 30 April Tony Blair joins Labour’s campaign trail 6 May General election day 7 May Coalition negotiations begin. The Lib Dems start talks with the Conservatives. Cameron makes a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems 8 May Negotiations continue behind closed doors. Cameron and Clegg meet in
Cleggmania private while Clegg and Brown have a conversation over the phone 9 May While Lib Dem negotiations continue with the Conservatives, it emerges that Clegg had met Gordon Brown 10 May Gordon Brown surprises negotiators by announcing he will step down by September 11 May Cameron declares it is “decision time” for the Lib Dems. Gordon Brown goes to see the Queen to resign. Cameron visits the Queen and takes office 12 May The formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition is announced
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