I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently looking at other political websites from this country and overseas just to get an idea of the overall design and layout that people use. It’s a bit of a project at work to try and come up with some ideas for upgrading our own website. One thing that really stands out to me is how political parties in other countries use images of people – usually their leaders or their lead candidates – far more than anyone in this country does.
It’s no secret that I’ve never liked the re-design of the Liberal Democrat website that was carried out last year. I think the new website looks dull, amateurish and doesn’t carry our key messages very well (I could go on, but I won’t as I might offend someone I know), but it also is very light on key party figures such as Nick Clegg, Vince Cable or Chris Huhne. OK, so Nick appears on it in a slightly ghostly way but it isn’t that prominent and doesn’t look particularly well integrated in to the site.
What is much better and I think far more appealling is Nick Clegg’s personal website as it, unsurprisingly, contains bigger images of him, has a much sharper design and includes more ways of interacting with him and the party.
So I then looked at the other two main parties. You usually know when a party leader is unpopular as they hide them on leaflets and don’t ever refer to them. But this seems to be the norm on British political websites.
Even the Conservatives who, if the opinion polls are to be believed, are popular at the moment have no main image of David Cameron. He is there, but only as a picture attached to an article with the most prominent picture belonging to Andrew Lansley and even that isn’t that clear.
Going by my logic of unpopular leaders, it isn’t a surprise that Labour don’t include a picture of Gordon Brown prominently on their front page. Although I was surprised that at the time of writing their main picture is of a concerned looking David Cameron and a pensioner. I know they are trying to make a point about scrapping Winter Fuel Allowances, but I am not sure that putting such a prominent picture of the “popular” leader of the opposition on your website is that good an idea.
I also looked at a few websites belonging to smaller parties. Plaid don’t bother with prominent images of their politicians (unless you include one photo of Jill Evans MEP attached to the main article), the SNP do (which is good but the image isn’t that inspiring and perhaps largely related to the continuing popularity of Alex Salmond) and neither do UKIP who simply use an image of Churchill despite the fact he believed in a European Union and was very pro-European. The one party in my spectacularly unscientific trawl round the party websites is the Green Party who include a lot of images of their candidates from around the country. They might not be used as effectively as they could be and the images are somewhat dominated by Jean Lambert MEP’s perm, but it is nonetheless a good-looking website. Well done to the Greens (probably the only time you will ever hear me say that).
Look abroad though and you spot straightaway the use of people. I admit that there is a strong argument that politics shouldn’t just be about personalities and in this country elections are about electing local representatives in parliament rather than who the Prime Minister should be. That stacks up well if you just looked at countries such as France (who also seem surprisingly bad at it, but maybe that’s because the party leader isn’t necessarily the presidential candidate as I remember some pretty good websites for Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal at the time of the last election) and the United States of America. Indeed the Democrats use Barack Obama’s image a lot, but then that’s easy when your most prominent politician is president and still very popular. But what stands out is how countries that have a parliamentary system that is similar to ours use their key politicians prominently on their websites anyway.
I wouldn’t want to claim there is any sort of uniformity abroad at using key personalities on websites, as the websites of the main parties in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Germany and Switzerland to name a few don’t bother. But it seems to be more prominence abroad and as a few examples I have included here screenshots from the Swedish Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterna), the Dutch liberals (D66) and the Canadian Conservatives.
Despite the arguments against turning politics in to something that is solely about personality, we have to face facts that at the top it really is, and increasingly it is at a local level too. I also think that by showing your key personalities it can make your party seem more human and make people relate to them as real people. It would also be a good way of breaking down some of the barriers that have inevitably grown since the MPs’ expenses scandal started.
I once toyed with the idea of taking photos at Liberal Democrat conference of ordinary conference representatives just chatting to people and doing the full mixture of things that people do at conference and then using them in a leaflet to sell the party and conference. I didn’t do it as it isn’t my role and so I couldn’t see the point, but I think the idea would sell the party as an interesting bunch of people rather than the image that people have of either politicians generally or Liberal Democrats in particular. Doing something similar with a website could have the same effect. We talk about how important it is to have good action shots of our candidates on our election leaflets, so why don’t we do the same on our websites?