I was convinced that the general election in 2010 was going to be the “Twitter election”. I built a web site (now sadly lost somewhere in cyberspace) that monitored what PPCs were saying on Twitter in my local constituency. But, all in all, it wasn’t very impressive. I gave a talk about how disappointing it had all been but then I forgot about it all.

But there’s another general election coming. And, surely, this one must be the Twitter election? A lot has changed in the last five years. Everyone is using Twitter. Surely this time some useful and interesting political discussion will take place on Twitter.

I set the bar a lot higher this time. Instead of just monitoring my local constituency, I’ve created a site that monitors all 650 constituencies in the country. Each constituency has a page, and on that page you’ll find a Twitter widget which displays a list I’m curating which contains all of the PPCs I can find for that constituency.

Well, when I say “I can find”, that’s a bit of a simplification. Obviously, finding details of all of the PPCs for 650 constituencies would be a bit of a mammoth task. But I’ve had help. There is a wonderful site called YourNextMP which is crowdsourcing details of all of the PPCs. And they have an API which allows me to grab their data periodically and update my information. If you have any information about PPCs in a constituency that they don’t already have, please consider adding it to their database.

After I found YourNextMP, it was just a simple matter of programming. I made heavy use of the Twitter API (via the Net::Twitter Perl module) and I’ve hosted the site on Github Pages (so I don’t need to worry if it suddenly gets massively popular). All of my code is available on Github – so feel free to send pull requests if there are features you’d like to add.

Oh, and obviously there’s a Twitter account – @TwittElection. Follow that if you want updates about the site or general chatter about the election campaign.

Today marks 100 days until the general election. I thought that was an appropriate day on which to officially launch the site.

Please let me know if you find the site useful.


Modern Campaigning

I got in touch with all of the Battersea candidates who aren’t publishing web feeds to ask them if there was anything I had missed. I only got a reply from one of them.

But that’s ok. They’re probably busy. Campaigning is a time-consuming business.

The response I got was marked as “not for publication” so I’m not going to quote from it. I’m not even going to say which of the candidates it was from. But I do want to paraphrase and reply to the main couple of points that were raised as I think they indicate a lack of understanding about digital campaigning that is probably more common than we’d like to believe.

Firstly, the candidate expressed a concern that starting to use something like Twitter would set up an expectation for two-way communication that would be hard to meet. And it’s true, of course, that I really like to see Twitter being used for dialogues rather than monologues. I’ve written about that several times. But given a choice between people using tools in ways I don’t really like or them just not using them, then I’m very happy to lower my standards. And it’s not like treating Twitter as a one-way medium isn’t even an unusual way to use it. Many people use Twitter like that. Here’s Tory MP Douglas Carswell telling me that he sees Twitter as a “RSS feed” – by which he means something that he publishes for people to read rather than something that he uses as a source of information.

Secondly, the candidate claims not to have the time to keep web feeds updated. And I think that just comes back to using the wrong tools (something else we’ve discussed on this blog). If your web site is run using decent software then it will be automatically publishing a web feed whenever you write a new entry. Tie that up with something like TwitterFeed and you’ve got an automatically updated Twitter account too. I know that the people standing for election will not usually be geeks who know this kind of thing but digital communication is important and I would expect that any candidate will be able to find a tame geek to help out with things like this.

The candidate heavily implied that “the old ways are the best”. That time spent knocking on people’s doors was far more useful than time spent playing with computers. And whilst I would never suggest that time spent knocking on doors isn’t useful and important I think that time spent playing on computers is just as important and has the capability of reaching a far higher percentage of the electorate far more efficiently. Imagine if candidates had reached a similar conclusion about campaign leaflets (“oh no, we need to actually speak to the voters – we can’t just leave a leaflet”) or party political broadcasts (“one-way communication can’t work – it needs to be conversation”).

It’s all about getting your message across to as many people as possible as efficiently as people. You might get away with it this election. But by the next one, a candidate who doesn’t use digital communication efficiently will look hopelessly outdated.


Constitutional Misunderstandings

This is the third time I can remember a Prime Minister handing over power to a successor from the same party without a general election. Wilson handed over to Callaghan in 1976 and Thatcher handed over (albeit unwillingly) to Major in 1990.

Every time this happens the same constitutional misunderstandings are heard. People start insisting that the incoming PM has no mandate and demanding a general election as soon as possible.

This pre-supposes that they elected the outgoing PM in some way. Which, of course, they didn’t. Here’s how it works.

  • Constituents elect an MP to represent them
  • Party members elect party leaders
  • The queen invites someone to be PM – this is is usually the leader of the party with the most MPs

That’s all there is to it. You elect your MP. You don’t elect the PM. It’s up to the queen to decide who she wants as her Prime Minister.

Yes, you can argue that it’s a silly system. And, yes, you can argue that it shouldn’t work like that. And, yes, certainly many people use their vote not to vote for an MP, but for a particular party or even a particular party system. But that’s not how the system works. If you’re trying to use the system that way then you’re not using your vote in the way it’s supposed to be used.

You expect to see that kind of muddled thinking from Have Your Say contributors (who are rarely the clearest-thinking group of people) but it’s particularly galling to see people like Boris Johnson perpetuating this misinformation. Of course, Boris knows how the system works. He knows he’s talking bollocks. What he says isn’t really his opinion, it’s just what he is forced into writing by the adversarial nature of our (effectively) two-party political system. But stupid people read his articles (and similar articles by other people who should know better) and believe that he’s speaking the truth. And so the misunderstandings are perpetuated.

Gordon Brown may well want to call a general election soon. But that’s completely up to him. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either stupid or deliberately trying to mislead you. Maybe both.