My PhD thesis – New Media and its effects on candidate independence at the constituency level: A comparison of the United Kingdom and Japan

The last 30 years has seen what many writers describe as a decline in the power and influence of political parties. Writers such as Duverger, Lipsett and Rokkan and Sartori saw parties as being deeply integrated at an individual level with the specific constituents or social cleavages they were founded to represent. However the need for larger parties to appeal to a broad range of voters and the professionalisation of political campaigning saw a shift in both party branding and organisation. Since the 1980’s there has been a growing emphasis on the party leader as the representative of the party brand, with many voters choosing which party to vote for based on the leaders image. This was reinforced by the fact that political campaigning became more expensive, meaning only the national party organisation was able to fully utilise new forms of mass-media communication such as television. The result has been the growing power of the party leader. This has coincided with a fall in grassroots support of political parties and growing voter apathy in established democracies. In short parties are seen as drifting away from the electorate whose interests they claim to represent.

The past twenty years has seen a revolution in technology and communication which has transformed the world. The Internet has become a tool used on a daily basis for over three billion people around the world. The effect of this on politics has become the subject of the growing body of literature over the past 15 years. The internet was initially seized upon by parties as a way to circumvent the independently controlled mass-media and get their message directly to voters. Since the middle of the last decade, most notably the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama, the use of the internet has shifted from not only information provision but to campaign organisation. The internet provides parties and candidates with platforms for policy promotion, a way greater personalise/humanise candidates, an alternative way to organise grassroots support and to fundraise.

The aim of my thesis is to examine the effects that the Internet is having on political candidates at the constituency level. With the decline of party support and the growing expense of political campaigning it can be argued that there is a greater incentive for local candidates to appeal for the personal vote and not to rely on the party label to attract support. New Media, such as personal websites and social media accounts, give candidates the platform to run more independent and personalised campaigns. The study will look at candidates’ New Media use during elections – making a comparison between the UK (a party-centred campaign system) and Japan (a candidate centred campaign system). It is hoped that a comparison between candidates from two economically advanced democracies with very different traditions of campaigning will help to establish whether New Media is being used by candidates to pursue the personal vote, bringing them closer to their constituents and furthering their independence from the national party.

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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.