How can Liberal Democrats use the internet to campaign more effectively?

This article was originally published in Liberal Democrat News on June 11th, 1999 and led to the creation of Lib Dems Online – which was highly influential in sorting out the party’s online presence. You can see a more recent version of my views on this on Slideshare.

According to a UK survey conducted by NOP last December, 23% of the adult population (10.6 million voters) used the internet in 1998 – and the internet was getting 10,900 new adult users every day – a million new voters going online every 90 days.

Since that survey in December, growth in internet usage has accelerated. PC prices have continued to fall and there has been an explosion in the number of free internet providers such as Dixon’s FreeServe, and BT’s ClickFree service. For anyone with a computer and modem, the cost of getting on the internet is only the cost of a local phone call. Once online, it is easy to get a free email account and free web-space.

The internet has taken off faster than radio, TV, telephones and videos did when they were introduced – and is continuing to grow faster than they did at an equivalent stage of their development. We should not be surprised if the majority of UK homes are connected to the internet in some way or another within 5 years.

With such rapid growth, the next General Election is likely to be the last one fought where successful internet campaigning is not critical to electoral success. It could even be the first one where it is. In the US, candidates are already using the internet to decisive effect. In recent state elections in Minnesota, an independent candidate called Jesse Ventura used an email mailing list and a web-site ( – alongside more conventional campaigning techniques – to defeat both the Republican and Democrat candidates for the State Governorship. Recent estimates are that candidates for the US Presidency will be spending up to $20 million on web adverts targeted by zip code, party affiliation and congressional district.

The internet can be a great opportunity for Liberal Democrats since it provides an opportunity for communication with the party membership and with voters that is fast, cheap, targeted and interactive. It plays to our strengths. As the internet grows, the mass media that big business and the unions have funded for Labour and the Tories are starting to decline in importance: surveys show that people with an internet connection watch less television. The kind of tailored and responsive communication that Liberal Democrats have championed through Focus leaflets and community politics will grow in importance – albeit electronically.

The most immediate priority on a local or national level is email. More people use email than surf the web. Internet users read their email more frequently than they visit any website, except perhaps the major portals like Yahoo and Excite – certainly much more frequently than they will ever visit a local or national LibDem website.

Within the party, email can enable us to share information, news, canvass results, artwork and campaign ideas quickly and cheaply. This already happens to some degree on the CIX conferencing system (, although CIX only covers a minority of the online party membership. Some local parties are also starting to collect email addresses and share information electronically.

At all levels of the party, collecting email addresses needs to become as automatic as collecting a postal address or telephone number from a new member – a line for an email address should be included on all membership application forms (including the official national one).

The Ventura campaign in Minnesota collected email addresses voraciously and used the resulting mailing list to generate volunteers, raise funds, get people to turn up to local meetings and instantly issue rebuttals in response to misleading or damaging stories about their campaign. Email can even be used to run informal national surveys, asking activists all over the country to go and survey 20 local voters and send their responses back to Cowley Street – much better than one of Blair’s focus groups.

As more and more party members receive information electronically, moving to email can help the party reduce both the cost and the environmental impact of printing out materials and posting them all around the country. Longer term, as we see the majority of party members on email, it can be used for consultation – and in the very long term, as the party becomes totally ‘wired’, it will enable us to experiment with new forms of electronic democracy.

Email will also become increasingly important in communicating with voters – and in allowing voters to contact us – although until the majority of voters are online it can not replace more conventional campaigning, leafleting and canvassing. As the majority of voters go online, they will expect to be able to use email to contact us. Not including a party email address on a leaflet will seem as strange to them as not including a telephone number or address.

Email provides more exciting opportunities for interactive communication with local voters than straight one-to-one communication. Sites like Topica ( make it easy to set up and administer opt-in mailing lists of those voters who express an interest in receiving information by email. Collecting email addresses from people who wish to receive information and integrating them with canvass data will enable us to instantly and easily send targeted messages to people interested in particular topics, or who live in a particular street, or who claimed a specific voting intention when canvassed.

Longer term, it will even be possible to provide people with interactive emails that show them exactly how a Liberal Democrat policy will affect them individually. The BBC did something similar after the budget with a web-page that allowed internet users to input data confidentially on their personal circumstances, and then calculated the impact of all the tax changes on their take-home pay. In time, we should be able to do the same with local council tax proposals, the penny on income tax for education, our alternative national budget or any other policy changes that affect voters differently according to their circumstances.

While email is likely to be the more important campaigning tool for the foreseeable future, this doesn’t mean we can ignore the web. The web is becoming an increasingly important source of information, particularly detailed information, as people begin to watch less television.

On a national level, it will remain important for our national site to have details of our policies, conference resolutions, candidates, manifestos and how to join or contact us. People will continue coming to our site looking for detailed information, and we need to provide it to them. Historically, we’ve been better than the other parties at doing this. There have been issues in keeping this information up-to-date in the past, but thankfully these are now being addressed.

On a local level, it doesn’t yet make sense for local groups to put a lot of effort into creating a complex web-site: a simple page linking people to the national web-site and telling voters how to get in touch locally will probably be enough.

While it is easy to build a web-site, it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to get people to visit it. There are more than 100 million web pages on the internet, and the majority get hardly any visits. Numerous commercial surveys have shown that building a web-site and expecting people to turn up and use it without heavy publicity is a waste of effort. Even if a local group creates an excellent web-site, most residents won’t know about it or visit it. For most local parties, by far the best way to reach voters with the information on a local party web-site remains unchanged from the pre-internet era: take the information on the web-site, print it on a leaflet, and push it through some letterboxes!

Indeed, it is likely that the biggest long-term party priority on the web is not going to be creating party web-sites – but learning how to get our messages onto the sites on the web that our potential voters visit most. While most web-sites are visited infrequently – there are a few – less than 10% – that receive around 90% of all visits, and these will need to be the focus. Using some web slang, we will need to learn how to go to ‘where the eyeballs are’.

Some of these will be national or local news and information sites, but long-term these are more likely to be the major so-called ‘portals’ such as Yahoo!, Netscape, AOL or Excite. These mega-sites provide internet searching facilities, tailored news, stock market results, football scores, travel services, horoscopes – anything they can think of to ensure that people spend as long as possible on their site. In the US, these services are getting more and more locally targeted. Some sites already provide their users with local news based on their zip-code. Even in the UK, entering your post-code into a site like will tell you your MP, crime rate, local council tax bands and local school results. As these kind of locally tailored sites take off we need to learn how to get national, regional and local party news served up potential LibDem voters. When people type in their post-code to find local information, we want their web-site to tell them how to contact their local Focus Team.

The internet is going to have as profound an effect on political campaigning as TV and radio did in their time – and sooner than we think. Learning how to use the internet to our advantage on a local, regional and national level is not optional if we are serious about winning elections in the 21st century.

More and more Liberal Democrats are already experimenting with online campaigning. To provide a focus for this activity, a group of CIX users are trying to identify how much interest there is in establishing an Associated Organisation called ‘Liberal Democrats Online’. If you are interested in being kept up to date for plans for such an AO, please send an email to, and you will be kept up to date on any discussions. If you have any comments on the idea, please send an email to me at and I will pass it on. I’ve also put together a collection of web-links to political sites, free internet providers, free email providers, free mailing list providers, how to join CIX and links about trends on the internet at Comments very welcome.


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