Facebook fuels Luton South outsider

By Alex Stevenson

An independent candidate standing in the crucial Labour-Conservative Luton South marginal has given his campaign a boost by attracting more Facebook supporters than those of almost all the Cabinet.

Joe Hall has 1,200 supporters on the social networking website, compared to just 261 for Conservative candidate Nigel Huddleston and 221 for Labour’s Gavin Shuker.

Facebook has helped him interact with constituents, raise money for a local charity and even find a delivery man with a van.

“As an independent candidate without the party machine behind me, I have to be innovative and find fresh ideas to reach out to voters,” Mr Hall said.

“There is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, but politicians need to move with the times and in 2010 meeting people on Facebook is essential too.”

Luton South has attracted an unusually high number of independents, including local broadcaster Stephen Rhodes, after Labour MP Margaret Moran was suspended from the Labour party for especially outrageous expenses claims.

The highest-profile candidate is former That’s Life! presenter Esther Rantzen, whose ability to dominate media coverage of the seat has led to the Tory candidate calling the press “morally bankrupt”.

Mr Hall believes his approach is more targeted at constituents rather than self-promotion, however.

“Esther Rantzen tweets a lot and Twitter is fine for broadcasting your views, but my campaign is about building community and restoring trust in politics using Facebook I’m doing exactly that,” he added.

“By engaging with local people online, they can get to know me better and we can share a conversation about local issues.”

Mr Hall’s Facebook supporters are impressive for an independent candidate with no national profile. Chancellor Alistair Darling has 242 Facebook supporters, while first secretary of state Peter Mandelson has 875.

This reflects a wider disparity at the summit of British politics: Gordon Brown’s 6,907 supporters are dwarfed by David Cameron’s 25,942 backers and Nick Clegg’s 26,946.