YourKen: can a website really change the game?

by Adam Richards

This week marked a big step forward for Labour in London and Ken Livingstone’s campaign to win back City Hall, with the launch of his campaign volunteer website, is clearly inspired by the success of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which did so much of the mobilising of his support during the Democrat primary contest, and to a lesser extent the SNP’s campaign during the recent Scottish elections.

The website is built on the same technology from the US-based company, NationBuilder. The founder, Jim Gilliam, talking about his tools said ‘too often, online efforts are seen as a sideline to the offline efforts of a campaign’.

The success of NationBuilder is bringing online and offline communities’ together, empowering volunteers and energising campaigns. And it works. One example makes the point. Thanks to an ingenious system 50 SNP party supporters instantaneously signalled on Facebook their “like” for a speech by Alex Salmond during the buildup to the Scottish elections; simultaneously a video of the speech appeared on their Facebook news feeds. That clever device meant that 60,000 people instantly became aware of the speech and had the opportunity to view it. Pretty powerful stuff.

The key theme that runs through is community  which is important to consider in light of recent events in London. Outside of the micro-community of the [extended] family the key next two obvious communities are those of interest and those of place- both in quite obviously in decline. Fewer people know their neighbours names now than in decades past, especially in London with its high levels of residential churn and population mobility.

In my view there is a third kind of community though, the most important- that of time-based, or temporal communities. These are communities that come together either intentionally or serendipitously, often as a one-off and to make a formal decision or declaration to take action at a moment in time. Like an election.

Rather obviously, temporal communities used to be much stronger in the past precisely because they were built on top of communities of interest and place. Political parties and trade unions, for example, used to be the social institution providing you support and a network, in a defined place where people knew each other. When you came together to vote, your views had already been shaped through other communities of which you were a part, and as a result the “floating” voter was less pivotal.

With the erosion of traditional structures of community and the advent of social media times have clearly changed. Indeed as Simon Fletcher, Ken Livingstone’s Chief of Staff wrote in Total Politics:

‘We need to find our votes wherever they are – including in areas that aren’t always such a priority for Westminster or local government campaigns. Ken Livingstone needs a 3.1 per cent London-wide swing from the 2008 election to be ahead in the first round of voting. That is an achievable target.’

Initially this statement sounded quite desperate to me but when you consider the characteristics of the 2008 election result and the most recent YouGov poll it is understandable as to why Fletcher is so upbeat about the potential of The first reason is that the polls can’t get much worse for Ken. Despite London being an overwhelmingly left-leaning city [Labour lead in London by 51 per cent to the Tories 32 per cent] only 63 per cent of London Labour voters would vote for Ken if an election were held tomorrow, with 19 per cent backing Boris.

Let’s take the positives though. In this light a 3.1 per cent London-wide swing from 2008 is not very much, considering a] Labour’s 19 point lead in the national polls and b] 19% of natural Labour voters are voting for Boris. This is a very large target group of voters to aim for also identified by Simon in his Total Politics article when he says ‘…local boundaries don’t apply here. Every vote across the whole of London counts.’


The challenge for Ken is clear then; concentrate his efforts on winning back disillusioned Labour voters, something that he has attempted by his ‘Tell Ken’ Tour but that the innovative 2-way text channel, by the same company that provided Ed Miliband’s text service during his leadership campaign and undeniably address.

The key element is that acts as a communications portal allowing Labour supporters to engage with one another. Combined with other features including prizes and profiling for the top volunteers each month it has the power to completely reenergise grassroots level activism.

As Mark Ferguson, Editor of Labour List comments:

‘Membership engagement has often been a real weakness of the party’s in the past – this could be a first step in reversing that.’

I had written in an earlier blog that the main problem for Ken is that,

‘he bares the scars of 30 years at the top of London politics- for every person who supports him- there is someone who doesn’t. Ken’s problem- a 66-year-old who is hoping to run a youthful city like London for a third time is that he needs something new- like the congestion charge, Oyster card or dare I say it- buses, to appear youthful.’

What does so well is address Ken’s weaknesses. That is, when compared to Boris’s very successful ‘doughnut strategy’ in 2008 where he concentrated his efforts on getting the core Tory vote out in outer London, Ken and Labour achieved very low turnouts in traditional Labour constituencies of inner London. Boris you could say beat him to the communities of interest and place.

Admittedly a lot of the success of is out of his hands, but with the election taking place at the midpoint nadir of the Coalition government, the timing couldn’t be better. Join the community.

Adam Richards is an architect and Labour member

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One Response to “YourKen: can a website really change the game?”

  1. swatantra says:

    No but a soapbox can. Get out and meet the people Ken.

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