Many overview studies of British politics—including all of the major textbooks—are weak on integrating the role of media in shaping political outcomes. But following Nick Clegg's and the Liberal Democrats' extraordinary surge in the opinion polls over the last few days, on the back of a winning performance in the first live television leaders' debate on April 15, is this neglect justified?
Time will tell if the "yellow wave" endures, but it is unlikely that support will deflate all the way down to pre-campaign levels this side of polling day.
In America, the internet has helped "insurgent" candidates with little initial support, funding, and campaign infrastructure. Howard Dean, the anti-war candidate who came from nowhere to having a shot at the Democratic party nomination in 2004, led the first major American campaign to harness the power of online networks.
Then there is Barack Obama. It seems strange today, but in the early phases of the 2008 contest, Obama was regarded by the mainstream electorate as a relatively obscure junior Senator. And in Hillary Clinton, he faced a formidable opponent with instant brand recognition and the initial support of the Democratic party elite.
In this British election, things are different. As Charlie Beckett argues, it is television, not the internet, that has played the predominant role in the Liberal Democrats' insurgency by raising public awareness of Clegg's approach as leader and of the Lib Dems as a party.
And yet, the internet is playing a significant role. The Times reports that in the 24 hours following the debate, the Lib Dems received £120,000 in small donations. By American standards, this is a paltry, almost laughable, sum, but by Britain's standards, for reasons explored elsewhere, it is dramatic. Precisely how much of this money was raised online is impossible to discern at this point. The fact, however, that the Lib Dems can name a figure with confidence so soon after the debate ended implies that the majority of it was online.
As Mark Pack has pointed out, the Lib Dems are now the only UK party to have a Facebook group—albeit an unofficial one—that has achieved a higher number of members than the subs-paying membership of the party itself. The group is called "We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!" and as of 10.30am today (April 19) it had 95,000 members, putting it way ahead of all of the other party political Facebook groups and fan pages, official or otherwise. The group takes its name from the successful online charity campaign to prevent the winners of 2009's X-Factor talent show from reaching the number one slot in the music charts.
The television debate acted as the catalyst, but the "we can get the Lib Dems into office" Facebook group keeps on growing. Mutual dependency between television and new media is what increasingly drives mediated electoral politics in the UK.
The yellow surge bears some of the hallmarks of recent American electoral insurgencies. Polling shows that the party is picking up significant new support from voters under 35. Clegg is presenting himself as a "fresh" alternative to the "old parties." He is inviting the electorate to "think differently." He presents an image of youth and vitality. During the television debate, this paid off, sparking hugely positive media commentary for the entirety of the crucial weekend news cycle.
For voters looking to punish MPs in the aftermath of the expenses scandal, the Lib Dems have an obvious advantage because they simply have fewer MPs and are arguably less likely to have been tainted than Labour and the Conservatives. The "we can get the Lib Dems into office" Facebook group could be evidence of this "outsider" appeal. Weakly aligned voters, especially the young to middle-aged, educated, middle-class citizens that dominate online politics, may be looking for something resembling a movement for reform. A hung parliament, leading to electoral reform as the price the Lib Dems will try to exact as a condition of supporting a minority administration, could be the key.
The internet is an insurgent's medium. We may be about to see it become a more prominent, if uncontrollable, force in the election campaign. The ways in which it interacts with broadcast media and the press is what we now need to analyse. This is a prominent theme in the new book I am currently writing in the small spaces between periods spent following what is turning out to be a truly fascinating election campaign...