Two months ago, I wrote an article for Total Politics magazine about a new breed of political players - the e-campaigners. Having worked in online communications as editor of LabourList and then on Ed Miliband's digital-powered leadership campaign, and later in an Opposition Leader's Office frustratingly unable in its earliest days to come to terms with opportunities for digital mobilisation, I found cause in that article to be very critical about Labour's online communications.
The party was being hopelessly left behind, I wrote, both by the Conservatives and wider independent campaigns like Change.org and 38 Degrees. Labour campaign emails were infrequent, poorly targeted, badly written and, crucially, did not inspire real world action. Tweets were anodyne and curt. Facebook updates were repetitive and dull. And, most prohibitively, the party's main hub for online action, the Campaign Engine Room, was a disaster, "a brazen email harvester with little social or relational resonance" - more sickly accent wall than serious enabling platform.
Some of these problems were not, of course, limited to digital communications; a cultural torpor had inflicted the organisation at Labour's Victoria Street HQ generally. A number of talented people had left to work in the private sector or for shadow ministers they preferred to Ed Miliband. The newly selected General Secretary, Iain McNicol, had not yet had the opportunity to impose his positive vision on the party's operation. He will need to get to grips with a risk-averse corporate culture currently too concerned with hiring friends of the party rather than experts in their own fields, and with the default distribution of press releases, and adopt new enabling tools and techniques which unleash proper mobilisation.
And yet, even in those past two months, Labour's online communications have genuinely started to improve - and rapidly. The main Labour Party site is sharper and more action-oriented than it was. Ed Miliband's own campaign website has finally been redesigned to focus on the social. And strong video, created in large part by the able Tom Christian at Labour HQ, and augmented by independent agency Silverfish during high-activity moments like party conference season, have become more central to the Labour's online content creation.
Much of that new diligence has been led by Tom Watson, appointed in a Miliband masterstroke to the position of Deputy Chair and Campaign Coordinator in the recent shadow cabinet reshuffle. Watson, one of the earliest proponents of digital communications in politics, wrote his first campaign email himself - and said he wanted to "hit the ground running". He's done exactly that: his email was widely applauded and Labour raised thousands of pounds from that first attempt alone - and dispatches generally have improved over the past month.
Most reassuringly for me, the Labour Party has shown a new fondness for experimenting and even engaging in the digital space. After an internal dispute lasting several weeks over who would provide digital services to Ken Livingstone for London, the campaign is now run independently of the main party contractor, Tangent, on an industry-respected piece of mobilising software called NationBuilder, a toolset that will only further improve over time.
Team Miliband was also brave to stick to the Ask Ed series of Twitter chats - even after it was repeatedly hijacked by opportunist spoilers directed to wreck it by the Guido Fawkes website. And just yesterday Ed Miliband sat down in his Leader's Suite for a candid discussion with bloggers from Left Foot Forward, Liberal Conspiracy, LabourList and other popular centre-left online opinion formers about his progress so far and how he can improve.
Back online, there is still a great deal of work to be done, of course. The Campaign Engine Room remains a mess. The primary portal for members to self-organise to take real world action, MembersNet, is unintuitive and underused. Too much of the party's online content remains dry, press release-style broadcasts. Sue Macmillan, who led Labour's rapid improvement in digital campaigning in the immediate build-up to the 2010 election, has written a comprehensive report after consultation with dozens of digital consultants, party members and other stakeholders on what still needs to change. That document is thought to make a wide range of recommendations, including for a national rollout of NationBuilder technology; a strategy for attracting supporters to the party through more targeted single issue campaigns such as the pre-Copenhagen summit Ed's Pledge; and sharper use of social media, including by learning from the way brands including Manchester United use Facebook with such impressive results. Iain McNicol, and the leader's office itself, are keen to take heed of that detailed and creative report.
At long last, then, the Labour Party is showing signs that it can get it right online. They will need to. A friend close to Tory Towers at Millbank told me earlier this year that tech-savvy Conservatives are "under the hood, developing big new ideas that could shape the next election". That's one thing everyone understands about the web: it never stops moving.
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