A couple of days ago Tim Montgomerie wrote about a new Conservative web initiative which is launching this Friday. It's the first tangible sign that Sam Coates has quickly brought a new campaigning aspect to the Tories' web presence and very welcome it is too.
As Labour leave their conference in Brighton I get the sense that Labour's new media-savvy people are much more focused on jockeying for position for the post-election online world than doing anything meaningful as a governing party going into an election. Labour quietly updated their "membersnet" network a few weeks ago. It says it all that they haven’t launched it with any fanfare at their conference. On paper they can make a good case that it has some useful features, but the website itself feels as outdated as its name. If this is what they’re going into the election with then they’re in trouble. They seem obssessed with Twitter.
As one of the key people behind Obama’s campaign said last week, Labour haven’t given their online operations the finances or freedom they need. Yes, there might be some bitterness behind that criticism but the fact remains that Labour need a serious web development agency if they are going to take online campaigning seriously, and it's odd that Obama's people were spurned in favour of the unknown Tangent Labs.
Labour also has embarrassingly low levels of participation - despite several relaunches - on LabourSpace, and although the new look LabourList has improved a lot in recent months its recent redesign is somewhat naff.
The LibDems are big on using Twitter etc but aren't moving forward in a serious way - it doesn't help that they've lost two people (Rob Fenwick and Mark Pack) who genuinely knew and understood online campaigning to the private sector.
Of course, since the announcement of Lord Ashcroft’s investment in PH/CH there’s been a lot of talk about the centre-right's use of the internet. A lot of it has been misinformed, and a lot of it has confused the very different things of the Conservative Party’s online operation and the conservative movement’s online presence. It has also been based on the generalisation that the centre-right's use of the internet is all top-down, big money driven.
That's not a fair picture of the conservative blogosphere, and, as Tim Montgomerie has posted, it's not the way the Party is going either. The Conservative Party will be taking things to a whole new level at conference in terms of online organising and fundraising.
I’ve seen what they’re working on (yes, shock horror, I admit, they have given me a briefing) and it has the potential to really overshadow anything the other parties - indeed any party outside the US - will have for the election. Instead of focusing on tools for hardcore activists like the other parties do, they're making no distinction between party members and non-members who support a particular candidate or issue.
Whilst Labour et al seem preoccupied with Twittering, the Conservatives seem more serious in the way they are harnessing the internet. The digital agency they're working with on this - LBi - is the biggest in Europe and you only need to look at the list of their clients to know that a partnership between them and the Conservative Party is serious business.
The party is starting to apply its rhetoric about post-bureaucratic age etc to itself, and that is very welcome. Now that they’ve started in this direction there can be no going back. Naturally they will err on the cautious side to start with, but in the same way the internet has transformed many business models and social interactions I expect they will open it up more and more as they go along.
I've been quite critical of the Conservative web strategy up to now, arguing that it is too safe. The website is viewed as a PR opportunity, not a mechanism to engage with people and build an online activist and fundraising facility. That changes with this new site. And about time too.