When I first joined the Conservative Party back in 2003 the phrase ‘digital campaigning’ was not even uttered at the grassroots level, whereas today it’s essential for every Conservative activist and pervades our daily lives.
I remember running three parliamentary campaign websites for the 2005 General Election and just being left to get on with it because nobody locally understood the benefits and advantages of a web presence. But to say digital campaigning didn’t exist would not be accurate – it just wasn’t as embedded at the local level as it is today. It’s easy to get mixed up in today’s turbulent world, and because technology moves at such pace it’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come as a party and how much as changed in a relatively short period of time. Let’s take a retrospective look at how things were in the 2005-2010 period.
The staple website of the Conservative Party’s grassroots supporters, ConservativeHome, launched in 2005 and was one of the earliest examples of a website that was about the Conservative Party that sat outside of CCHQ’s direct control, and I recall this caused quite a stir at the time. The party was uneasy about being unable to control every aspect of ‘the message’ and reflective harm, and although I am sure articles on ConHome have caused a stir in CCHQ over the years, few would doubt it has achieved significant good for the overall movement and the relationship between CCHQ and the grassroots.
As we look around today, we can see a proliferation of blogs and websites, of the right and of the left, all seeking to influence opinion and push a groundswell of activists one way or another. ConHome was the pioneer that triggered this influencer arms race, and it did it with a budget for graphics and even staff – something almost unheard of in the days before Twitter, Facebook, BuzzFeed and all the rest.
I recall two who were the very early team. Tim Montgomerie, the founder, who also had an ability to spot and nurture talent around him, and Sam Coates who later went on to join CCHQ’s digital team.
The influence of Montgomerie and Coates has had a lasting impact. This passing reference from one Boris Johnson in 2004 could only possibly be referring to the ConHome founder who had visited Boris in Parliament and convinced him to start blogging. In answering the question on why on earth would the then MP for Henley do such a thing he wrote:
The answer is that very persuasive man called Tim has recently been to my office in the Commons. He told me that blogging is the future. He spoke of the online community, and its rapid expansion. He said that newspapers were outmoded.
He spoke of a new kind of politics. He waved his hands and rolled his eyes. So I have acceded to his advice, and begun to blog.
He would continue to fill “the electronic ether” with yet more of his stuff for over 10 years, with the last post appearing in 2016 on the topic of US trade deals. The rest, as they say, is history.
ConHome wasn’t the only player on the field of websites that sit outside of the party structures but support the party. Tory Radio was set up in around 2005 by Jonathan Sheppard, which was a project ahead of its time in delivering insightful podcast interviews of senior Conservative politicians. The Party Chairman at the time, Francis Maude, even appeared on the show along with MPs such as Priti Patel who is now, as we know, the UK’s Home Secretary.
Montgomerie, Coates and Sheppard were joined at the time by two other main bloggers on the national scene – Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes – in addition to an army of other bloggers who I’m more than happy to talk about in future articles perhaps, but for now we are looking at the origins of digital campaigning within the Conservative Party of today.
The earliest mention of Iain Dale’s Diary in the Internet Archive dates to Tuesday 16th December 2003, making his blog an even earlier pioneer than ConservativeHome. Iain was a pioneer not just for his blog, but also as the first openly gay Conservative Party candidate at a general election.
As an early example of digital campaigning Dale’s Diary certainly stands out, and although it wasn’t able to move the needle enough for the candidate to win his seat at the 2005 polls it helped promote Iain to a national audience, leading him to be one of the other founders of 18 Doughty Street’s internet-based TV operation in late 2006.
That operation was a significant leap forwards in digital campaigning – and was ahead of its time. To tune in you needed to be able to run a Windows Media stream originally. It wasn’t until the end of 2007 we were able to move to a Flash-based system, and then 2008 when we started to venture into the world of IPTV set-top boxes. Each of the technologies just mentioned have since faded to obscurity or morphed into an offering we could have only dreamed of at the time.
The operation qualifies as digital campaigning, I would argue, because it was used effectively by several politicians to promote their platform. For instance, there was a 2-hour long interview with Boris Johnson ahead of him being selected by the Conservatives for the London Mayoral nomination. I also remember a brilliant interview by Donal Blaney with the then ambassador for Palestine and the debate between the two on the topic of firing rockets into the Gaza Strip. Naturally, it was a debate the ambassador lost, live and on air.
But it was clearly the Guido Fawkes blog that truly moved the needle of debate in the UK and pushed forwards the art of digital campaigning at the national level. Opinions were shifted and policy was changed off the back of a Guido Fawkes blog post. Indeed, careers were made or broken by the same.
I remember talking to the founder, Paul Staines, at the time and although he never hid from the blog at the time he enjoyed playing up as an anonymous blogger. This led to a somewhat infamous appearance on Newsnight where Staines had his identify protected only to be immediately ‘outed’ by Guardian journalist Michael White. I remember Paul telling me one of the inspirations for his blog was Popbitch, which centered on celebrity and pop gossip at the time. Paul and his team certainly managed to make the Guido Fawkes blog live up to and probably eclipse that inspiration and delivering the careers of top journalists like Harry Cole in the process.
Indeed, Harry Cole was also an early pioneer before his career lifted him to the dizzy heights of national newspaper journalism. Back in the 2005/2006 era Harry Cole founded the Tory Bear blog, which immediately gained popularity amongst young Conservative activists with its focus on gossip and goings-on in the world of youth politics.
Back in 2007 I saw the potential of Facebook to reach people and be used for digital campaigning. I immediately registered a Page for David Cameron as soon as the ‘Pages’ feature was launched. Yes, some of us are old enough to remember Facebook before ‘Pages’. I wanted to nab the property before someone from the opposition did, and back in those days you could do this without the fear of an immediate lawsuit being launched.
Instead, I took a call from CCHQ that basically went like this: “Look, we want to explore digital campaigning but we’re nervous about it. We’re glad it was you who set up the Page, but… “
I was expecting it to be a request to take down the page, but to my surprise it was a very different ask: “but we’re not sure what to do with it. Why don’t you run it for us for a while and see how it goes? Interact with people, reply to comments, put up posts. Show us how it’s done.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I was being told by CCHQ to basically be the Facebook persona of David Cameron. There was a catch though: “If you make a mess of it, we’ll deny we know you and say it’s a rouge profile.”
I dared to ask what if I make a success of it and the reply was: “You will have proven your point, shown us the way, and we’ll take it off you.”
It was the latter. After around 6 months of ‘being’ David Cameron on Facebook I got the call from the now restructured team who were ready to take it all on and bring it all in house. I was rewarded with a thank you at an event later that year from the Party Chairman, Eric Pickles, but that was it.
The new team also launched WebCameron, and there was an offering called “Digital Conservatives” that was essentially a web forum platform for members and activists. There was Grant Shapps and his Welwyn Hatfield Forum and before long there was an explosion in digital campaigning activity and online presence. Sites like Platform 10 were born in July 2007, in what ConHome identified at the time as “another sign of the strength of the right-wing blogosphere”. By this time, columnists like Peter Franklin were asking “is the Left useless at blogging?” and essentially goading the Labour Party to catch up.
But despite this explosion of activity around the Conservative Party, the party itself was still reticent. As late as 2009 the man who thanked me at an event was also calling for us all to be weary of Barack Obama’s success with digital campaigning and saying that doorstep campaigning and overall political messaging is much more important. ConHome at the time thundered back: “I worry that despite some excellent appointments, CCHQ still doesn’t quite get the internet.”
What a long way we have come from then in 2009 to where we are today where the Conservative Party is now investing heavily into digital and just finished its first ever online-online annual conference due to COVID-19 restrictions. We now have Conservative-leaning influencers on YouTube, Twitter and even TikTok. The party and its leaders now jump in where they once hesitated, and digital campaigning is now something that is extolled at all levels.
But it was the work of Montgomerie, Coates, Sheppard, Dale, Blaney, Staines, and Cole that set the environment for the Conservative Party itself to take the digital campaigning game seriously. I had the honour of working with all of them at various points and I like to think of them all as pioneers, deserving of recognition as such and whilst we in the technology world like to always move forwards perhaps we should also take a moment to reflect and give thanks to those whose shoulders we now stand upon.