The internet was a very different place in 1997. This was a world where animated GIFs represented high-end design, not ironic memes, and where election microsites were a mystery to all but the most dedicated AOL subscriber.
Politics took its time to take technology seriously.
Over the past two decades MPs and political parties have mostly looked on the internet with suspicion, but most now see it as a serious political tool. MPs have joined Twitter in their droves, some have even signed up to Snapchat.
This is only the sixth general election since the internet as we know it came into being. We’ve come a long way since.
Result: Conservative victory, 336 seats, 41.9 percent of the vote
Number of websites: 10
New this year: The first ever website
The internet was still a research project when John Major beat Neil Kinnock to Downing Street in April 1992. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but it looks likely there were 10 websites or fewer.
The impact of technology was clear to see on the BBC’s election night coverage, which featured Peter Snow gesticulating in front of a giant video wall, complete with a digital recreation of the House of Commons.
1992 also heralded in the era of more creative party political broadcasts. The Conservative Party’s ‘Tax Bombshell’ campaign was seen as particularly damaging to Labour.
Result: Labour victory, 418 seats, 43.2 percent of the vote
Number of websites: 1,117,255
New this year: BBC Online
The 1997 general election was the first of the internet age. The BBC was yet to launch its first full website (www.bbc.co.uk would launch in December) but experimented with its 1997 election microsite. The site is still online, although most the content has been removed.
“Have you ever wanted to be Peter Snow?” the website asks. “Well, you can here.” The BBC’s interactive polling page, developed by Cambridge University, let early internet users predict the outcome of the election and featured a ‘Great Britain deluxe version’ for more cutting-edge analysis.
Not wanting to be left behind, the three main political parties also had their own websites. Labour let users take a behind-the-scenes tour of its 1996 party conference, while the Conservative website had a ‘guide for the young’ and an interactive game of spot the ball. The website was best viewed on Netscape 3 or Internet Explorer 3.
The Liberal Democrats were on the web because it represented “the future of communications and information”. Party leader Paddy Ashdown said the internet would create a community that was “democratic, open, and in which power is as decentralised as possible.” The website even had a “secure subscription service” for joining the Liberal Democrats, allowing people to “send credit details with confidence”. This was still the very early days of the internet though — Google wouldn’t launch for another year.
On BBC TV, the broadcaster’s election studio was awash with more screens and computers than ever before.
Result: Labour victory, 413 seats, 40.7 percent of the vote
Number of websites: 29,254,370
New this year: Wikipedia
By 2001, 39 percent of people in the UK had internet access at home. Facebook, Twitter and even YouTube were still years away, but the internet already played a minor role in politics. Newspapers such as The Guardian (then Guardian Unlimited) and Daily Telegraph (then the Electronic Telegraph) were more geared up for the demands of covering an election online, with some websites covering it live for the first time.
The election was also the first time political parties were competing for a piece of online real estate – the 10 Downing Street website.
Don’t be fooled though, internet use in the UK was still far from common. On average 5,500 connections were made every week across the country, with most of those taking place via cable as BT was still rolling out its own network. Wikipedia launched this year, but even the likes of MySpace were still two years away.
The BBC broadcast its coverage in widescreen for the first time and made use of 3D graphics that magically appeared at the feet of an exuberant Peter Snow. ITV meanwhile, made big of its “results centre”, which was “packed with computers”.
Result: Labour victory, 355 seats, 35.2 percent of the vote
Number of websites: 1,027,580,990
New this year: YouTube and Reddit
The 2005 general election saw individual MPs setting up their own websites for the first time, although it would be a couple of years until the trickle turned into a deluge. Labour MP Tom Watson was one of the first out of the blocks — his website has been online since 2003. The websites of political parties had also been given a major facelift.
YouTube launched this year, but UK political parties weren’t among its first users. Compared to how it looks today, the YouTube of 2005 was rather basic. Facebook was still only open to college students and Twitter wouldn’t appear for another year.
Broadband overtook dial-up internet in the UK for the first time, but most people were still on connections of 512Kbps or slower. Shortly after the election the merger of NTL and Telewest made 2Mbps connections available to millions of homes. It would be another year before BT launched its 8Mbps service across the UK.
TV election coverage had become colossal in scale, although the format remained unchanged. On the BBC, David Dimbleby was dwarfed by a massive studio and towering video wall, while Peter Snow jumped around digital representations of voting patterns. ITV took a similar approach, opening its coverage with a swooping shot of its “engine room, where the computers crunch the numbers”.
Result: Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition (306 and 57 seats, 36.1 percent and 23 percent of the vote respectively)
Number of websites: 2,045,865,660
New this year: Pinterest
Enter Facebook and Twitter. With 23 million UK users on Facebook at the time of the 2010 general election, social networks were used as a campaign tool for the first time. Facebook triumphantly launched its DemocracyUK page, holding online debates and encouraging people to vote. More than 160,000 people had ‘liked’ the page by the end of the election. DemocracyUK was later taken over by someone who didn’t think much of the Conservative party.
At the close of the election the Conservatives had 100,000 Facebook fans with the Liberal Democrats on 90,000 and Labour on less than 50,000. Facebook also held a mock election, with 463,000 votes cast. One report estimated that 97 percent of 18-24 years olds used Facebook during the election period.
This was also the first election where YouTube could make a real impact. Labour’s YouTube channel featured video messages from individual politicians and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the campaign trail. Gordon Brown also had a message for “Asda Mums”. The Liberal Democrats had a similar approach, including personal video diaries from leader Nick Clegg. The Conservative party has purged its YouTube history, deleting everything from before June 2010.
Around 600 political candidates had Twitter accounts at the time of the election, with nearly 200 members of the new parliament, including five members of David Cameron’s first cabinet, active on Twitter.
Of the three main party leaders, only @nick_clegg was on Twitter at the time of the 2010 general election — @David_Cameron didn’t register until October 2012 and Gordon Brown has never had his own account.
The rush of politicians heading to Twitter also led to some controversies. Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan was removed from standing after admitting to tweeting offensive comments. Another Labour candidate and party ‘Twitter tsar’ Kerry McCarthy was also in hot water after she revealed a sample of postal votes on the social network.
It would still be some time before most MPs fully understood how to use Twitter.
The BBC’s studio had grown yet again, with Peter Snow replaced by Jeremy Vine who opened the night by wandering through a digital recreation of Downing Street. On ITV a giant, interactive video wall allowed presenters to zip through election data on the fly.
2015 has seen politics finally realise the power of technology to sway votes, with some party leaders even taking to Instagram. Political parties are also spending money on targeted YouTube, Facebook and Twitter adverts. We’ve come a long way since Paddy Ashdown triumphantly declared the internet “the future of communications and information”.