Tim Walker: Whatever you think of their policies, the Tories' web strategy is admirable

The Couch Surfer: You can collect fans on Facebook, but winning an election requires activists as well as slacktivists
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The Independent Online

It's phoney election season. The precise date of polling day has yet to be announced as I write, and since we therefore have no manifestos to pore over, we're forced instead to fill the remaining column inches between vague, confusing policy announcements with dissections of each party's campaign methodology.

"Deployment" of the leaders' wives, for instance. (FYI Samantha, a nearby stylist assures me that Uniqlo jeans and Converse are totally on-trend – good work!) Rather than fighting the election proper, they're all telling us exactly how they're going to fight it. In this sphere, at least, the Conservatives look rather interesting.

In this month's Wired magazine, James Crabtree reported on the re-boot of the Tory digital strategy. Whatever you think of its policies, the party's approach to the web is admirably forward thinking. When it came into possession of a leaked Government document, for example, it released it online and crowdsourced suggested amendments. As Alastair Darling delivered his budget speech, a team of Tory net-heads was buying up relevant search terms on AdWords, so that anyone Googling the main points of the Chancellor's announcement would be greeted by a Conservative Party advertisement on their results page.

They published the shadow cabinet's expenses using Google Docs, released a video game in which two Government front-benchers kicked the crap out of each other "Street Fighter II-style", and gave their leader his own YouTube channel, WebCameron, when YouTube was still an untested political tool. Not so long ago at Conservative HQ, one insider told Crabtree, "The person who ran the website was also the same person you rang up if your Outlook broke." Now Central Office supposedly has people vetting its prospective parliamentary candidates' tweets.

One advantage of the web is that prospective voters hear your Etonian accent far less frequently than they might on traditional broadcast media. So when the Conservatives became the first party to advertise on the music streaming service Spotify, it's surely no coincidence that they assigned the voiceover job to Eric Pickles, the resolutely non-posh party chairman. And Myconservatives.com supposedly provides local party activists across the country with campaigning tools, as My.barackobama.com did during the 2008 US Presidential race.

The Conservatives – or at least the right – have always been ahead of their rivals on the web: the early successes in British political bloggery belonged to budding Tory MP Iain Dale, ConservativeHome.com, and the right-winger Guido Fawkes (aka Paul Staines). Only now are left-wing and Labour-supporting examples catching up with their rivals. The same was true in the US until 2008, and Conservative representatives crossed the Atlantic to study first George W Bush's digital strategy, then Barack Obama's. George Osborne himself visited Silicon Valley to meet with some of its most forward-thinking minds.

Unfortunately, a lot of Tory candidates will be far less tech-savvy than the Shadow Chancellor, let alone his web team; last week opposition MPs expressed indignation at the idea of downloading policy information to their Blackberries while on the doorsteps of prospective voters.

And it's on the doorstep that the differences between Obama's strategy and its Conservative copycat may be most stark. Thanks to the power of his digital networks, Obama managed to get an army of eager young volunteers out to spread the word. Can the Conservatives manage that? Targeting specific voters is one thing, but having enough feet – or enough youthful, Converse-clad feet, anyway – on the ground to spread your message face-to-face is quite another. Sure, you can collect fans on Facebook, but winning an election with the web means generating activists as well as just slacktivists. Presidential candidates have two years to build an infrastructure of committed volunteers and teach them whatever tech expertise they require. British political parties are lucky if they get two months.

I had the local Conservative council candidate at my door last week, and suffice to say he was no thrusting young Cameroon. In fact, he was an elderly chap with his trousers pulled up to his moobs, who smelled a little bit like a jumper left out in the rain. BlackBerry-less, he was ticking off names on his photocopy of the electoral register with a Biro. And it was out of date, so mine wasn't even on it.

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