GE2015 – “The social media election”: Some lessons from the Rochester and Strood by-election

Many pundits and researchers are calling the UK general election of 2015 the first “social media” election. My own Facebook page seems inundated by posts from the Prime Minister on an hourly basis.  Social media is both cheaper and easier to use than traditional forms of political campaigning and may offer parties a platform to communicate with the disaffected youth vote. In truth the jury is still out on just how effective new media is engaging a wide number of voters but it cannot be denied that this new platform for political communication has been enthusiastically embraced by political parties and candidates.

My own studies focus on the use of New Media by political candidates at the constituency level. With mainstream party popularity declining, falling grassroots membership and squeezed financial resources parties simply don’t have the ability to competitively fight every seat for which they stand. In a party-centred campaign system such as the UK this spells hard times for many candidates. New media, websites, blogs, social media etc. may provide candidates with an alternative source of grassroots organisation, financing and the chance to promote their own policies rather than tow the party line.

Last year’s by-election in Rochester and Strood by-election caught the attention of the national media thanks to its unusual circumstances. The sitting Conservative MP Mark Reckless dramatically announced his defection to the United Kingdom Independence Party at the party’s 2014 autumn conference and quickly triggered a by-election for that November. Reckless’ position was not considered as secure as that of Douglas Carswell who had also defected to UKIP and subsequently won a by-election the month prior. David Cameron vowed to “throw the kitchen sink” at Rochester and put the party machine fully behind the new Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst. A competitive race is always the most interesting to follow and my pilot study from the Rochester and Strood provided some interesting conclusions concerning the candidates’ use of new media:

Overall social media is a normaliser rather than an equalizer: The two main candidates, Mark Reckless and Kelly Tolhurst made extensive use of social media with both using Twitter and Facebook more often than the other main candidates. Candidates from Labour and the Green party, had little chance to win and put little effort into their social media campaigning. (Table of candidate social media output including tweets, retweets and Facebook posts from 10/11/2014 – 20/11/2014)

Candidate Party Number of updates Total Daily  average
Twitter Facebook    
Mark Reckless UKIP 98 8 106 9.63
Kelly Tolhurst Conservative 109 31 140 12.72
Naushabah Khan Labour 46 1 47 4.27
Clive Gregory Green 51 18 69 6.27

 

However the “challenger” views new media as more important than the incumbent: Kelly Tolhurst’s social media output over the ten day period before the election was considerably higher than that of the incumbent.  This supports the theory that new media appeals to candidates who lack the name recognition and resource advantages held by the incumbent and provides and alternative platform for their campaigning

Local issues = swing votes?: In an analysis of social media content, the Conservative, Labour and Green candidates all favoured talking about local issues such as local hospitals and proposed property development, over national party issues, which were favoured more by the incumbent.

The “challenger” uses their website to further self-reliance / independence: Of the four candidates featured in the study Kelly Tolhurst’s had the most features which would represent an attempt to cultivate a personal vote including a personal manifesto or opportunities for visitors to the site to volunteer while also featuring very little information on the national party.

By-elections are expected to be especially party-centred by the Rochester and Strood election showed most candidates were promoting more local policies and attempting to cultivate a personal vote rather than rely on the party label. It will be interesting to see if this also occurs during the upcoming general election.

The full paper on the Rochester and Strood by-election is available for download from both Researchgate and Academia.edu sites.

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