Did the Mandelson-Campbell model kill off doorstep party campaigning?


Social media alone is not the answer to the lack of local political campaigning – and the small band of campaigners who are active are over-stretched

Some of you may have seen Puffles in the papers. Some of you may have seen lots of social media chatter. But as the following demonstrates, face-to-face contact matters.

I realise that in the near decade that I have lived in London, in the same place since we emigrated from Ireland in 2005, not a single politician has knocked on our door to ask us for a vote. I’ll repeat that. 

Not a single politician has ever knocked on our door.”

The above is a quotation from Emer Coleman – see her full article here. Emer has been one of Puffles’ biggest champions. Her blogpost by content alone is incredibly powerful. Given that she used to be the Deputy Director of Digital Engagement at Cabinet Office (and thus a former senior civil servant) makes it even more so.

“…there is something staggeringly arrogant about politicians thinking they don’t even have to get out of bed to secure our votes”

“Because if we matter so little to them perhaps its more important that we matter more to each other.” 

What this shows to me is that mainstream politics is broken at the foundations. People understandably are bypassing it because for the amount of effort people put in, the amount of impact they can make feels very limited.

“What’s this got to do with Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell?”

In the mid-1990s they set up a very powerful centralised communications system that ensured the then ‘New Labour’ were continually ‘on message’. The impact was that the party was incredibly consistent in its messages in the 1997 general election campaign, but also meant that anyone demonstrating independent thought was stamped down upon. At the time, political satirists lampooned the impact it had on Labour MPs and activists. Search online for ‘New Labour Joke Book’ and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the two men mentioned above think that way today – particularly Campbell who is a regular social media user on Twitter. But Alistair Campbell the man is not the same as the Labour Party as an institution. Changing the mind of an individual is a very different challenge to changing the culture of an institution. While a highly-centralised model worked in the mid-1990s with a limited number of widely-followed broadcast mediums, such as TV channels, radio stations and the print media, 20 years later it’s obsolete. The number of sources people get their news from is too diverse for a centralised approach.

Broken at the grassroots

One of the impacts of such a centralised approach is it takes away the autonomy of activists on the ground. Who wants to behave like an automated door-to-door knocking system? The result that those who were perhaps sympathetic to the party’s values but independent-minded ended up being alienated by the approach just as much as individual unpopular policies – for example the Iraq War which, as Richard Johnson and Cllr Ashley Walsh stated in their brilliant history of 100 years of Cambridge Labour Party, cost Cambridge Labour Party a number of supporters and activists in the early-mid 2000s.

Yet in the minds of the Conservative Party of the late 1990s, such was the impact of that communications model – it helped Labour win 3 general elections in a row, the incentive for party HQ staffers was to copy that model. This in one sense has cost the Conservatives because in the minds of a number of their activists, they are not able to influence party policy. Just as Blair and Brown were seen to have their fighting cliques, Conservative party policy is seen to be dominated by David Cameron’s ‘chummocracy’. Accordingly, some have jumped ship to UKIP.

The lesson? If people at the grassroots don’t feel they have ‘ownership’ of the policies and of the party, there is less of an incentive for them to be active campaigners.

The above bit in bold is basically what Emer stated, but applied to political parties. If party policy functions won’t make the effort to listen to their grassroots membership, why would they make the effort to campaign – or even vote?

Why social media alone is NOT the solution

I’m putting the above in BIG letters so people don’t misunderstand me. (Especially those that have a habit of repeatedly putting Puffles in the ‘Twitter box’ despite my continued statements to the contrary.

The difference between public policy and politics is that public policy ‘in principle’ focuses on evidence and the fine detail. (Although in my opinion too many think tanks often misses out or deliberately ignore the evidence – in particular the evidence bases that don’t match their political views). Politics on the other hand has a large ’emotive’ component to it. It doesn’t matter how good a particular policy is, or how intelligent an individual politician is. If there is zero emotive connection with the citizen, its impact will be limited. If the bond/relationship between the citizen and the politician or party is limited, the less likely they will respond and/or become active.

24 hours of Puffles the candidate – lots of chatter, ZERO impact

This moves on nicely to what for me is an important part of Puffles’ campaign: Finding out Cambridge’s current disposition for using social media to influence local democracy. Three of the key measurements (amongst others) I’m interested in are:

  1. The number of people that sign up to the very simple digital democracy challenge (see here for details and how to sign up)
  2. The number of new posts individuals post on local party Facebook pages
  3. The number of new ‘likes’ the local party Facebook pages get. (Click on the above-link in 1. to find the pages)

The impact in the first 24 hours?

For 1), THREE people have signed up to the digital democracy pledge

For 2) Not a single individual new post asking questions of local political parties on their facebook pages

For 3) Not a single additional ‘like’ for any of the local political parties

“Crikey – Puffles! You’re losing your magic touch!”

Not at all – I expected a very low response/conversion rate, but not perhaps as extremely low as that. But there are some very sound explanations as to why this is.

Close friendships are not the same as being acquainted with someone

As I have stated in previous posts – in particular on loneliness as a public policy issuehaving over 6,000 followers on Twitter is not nearly the same has having close friends that live locally. I made this very clear at the end of my previous blogpost.

“A final message for all those people who indicated support before and just after the announcement?”

Me and Puffles have stood up to be counted. And as things stand, we are alone. Not a good place to be with an anxiety disorder. We need you to stand by us as the going gets choppy. Because it will.

We can’t do this alone.

Why would anyone want to put themselves up for criticism and ridicule in such a public way? The first two responses to the Cambridge News article (see here) were abusive about (my) mental health. Time to change and all that.

This is not a criticism of anyone in particular, but my point is that my bonds of friendship with the people that I am friends with are simply not strong enough for people to be either willing or able to provide the level of support that’s essential for long term party political campaigning. Those that I am emotionally the closest to friendship-wise don’t actually live in Cambridge. Furthermore, most people have full-on commitments themselves and simply do not have time (and in some cases, the strong enough mental health) to take on some of the burdens associated with something such as this.

Legal bars from expressing support

Given my civil service background, many of the people I’ve met over the past 10 years work in the public or voluntary sector. This means that there are legal restrictions on anything they can say or post online publicly. I used to be in such a position. This means that although they might feel sympathetic, they simply cannot take the risk of being exposed in the mainstream media that involves elections.

Cambridge is perhaps not as strong on all things digital as people think it is

For me it’s too early to tell, but this is one of the things I want to test in this election: To what extent do the thousands of highly skilled and intelligent people in our universities and on the science parks are prepared to use social media to engage in local democracy? Hence why one of the areas I want to target with some face-to-face leafletting are the places where those people go.

“But in the grand scheme of things, you cannot expect to turn around a 24 year decline in democratic engagement in 24 hours!”


Cynicism in politics is almost in our bones. Notice how I hardly use the terms ‘politics’ and ‘politicians’ these days – now using ‘democracy’ and ‘activists’. Why do you think this is?

There is still a very long way to go till polling day – and I intend to continue with the theme long after it. But what’s clear to me already is that I am starting from an incredibly low base.

Want to help change this? See the pledge and take action.

For those of you round our way, remember this:

Cambridge. It’s your city. Be the change.


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