A touching hand on the shoulder, an empathetic look, and some words of encouragement to an apparently homeless man sat on the ground in Blackpool town centre.
It’s a politician’s picture that tells a powerful story, and the words accompanying it hammer it home: “Time to demand better for our town.”
That image has been placed in Facebook users’ feeds tens of thousands of times in a bid to win Chris Webb a seat in Parliament at the next general election, whenever that may be.
The Labour candidate for Blackpool North and Cleveleys isn’t alone, though more has been spent on political messages from his Facebook page than any other candidate or sitting MP on the Fylde coast in recent months.
Since October, almost £3,000 has been spent. Much of that has come from his own campaign fund, though the Labour party has contributed £1,304 amid an avalanche of social media spending nationally.
Speaking from the Labour party conference today, he told The Gazette social media proved to be a “crucial tool” during the last general election, and said Facebook is a “great way to engage with people”.
“When people are spending one out of every five online minutes on Facebook, it’s a crucial platform to engage on,” he said.
But he denied trying to scare people with his adverts, which describe “leaks, crumbling walls, damp and asbestos” at cash-strapped schools, a “rising tide of violence” because of fewer police officers and a surge in crime, an increase in unemployment, and “a shameful reminder” of homeless deaths.
“I wouldn’t say the posts are alarming,” he said.
“What I am using social media for is highlighting the voting record of this government and the voting record of our MP. I think it’s making people aware of that and also starting that debate.”
Mr Webb likened the online adverts to mailshots and leaflet drops, adding: “This is just a new platform to get the message out.
“But I wouldn’t say they are alarming; they are just highlighting this government’s record and it’s factual.”
Mr Webb, who had 5,907 ‘likes’ on his Facebook page as of this morning, said he was quoted £5,000 to deliver leaflets through Royal Mail, and said he was “using that money to engage one-on-one with people through Facebook and social media”.
His adverts have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
Some, about “crumbling” schools and a lack of “appropriate” places for children with special educational needs, were targeted solely at women, while another, about “8,000 pensioner households in Blackpool and Thornton-Cleveleys … losing their free TV licence”, was targeted only at women aged 55 and over.
Mr Webb said “things have moved on” from “just spending money on leaflets the old traditional way”.
He added: “Young and old people are on Facebook a large chunk of the day now, but ads are just a tool like they are with leaflets, direct mails, text messages, advertisements in newspapers. It’s all part and parcel of modern day campaigning.”
Though he believes social media advertising has an important role in winning elections, Mr Webb said there is no substitute for face-to-face doorstep campaigning, which he said “cuts through”.
“But we know now people do get a lot of their news and do a lot of their engagement through social media, so it does play a part,” he said.
“We are always on our phones. We are always moaning our phones don’t have enough battery life because we use them so much, so it’s just another way of getting through.
“My sister, who is 20, her generation don’t watch the six o’clock news anymore, but they will get a lot of their news through Facebook, through Twitter, and through other social media, so I think it is important.
“I don’t think necessarily it will be the deciding factor whether you will win or lose, I think it’s part of the campaign, but we have seen in America and other areas where Facebook ads have been used heavily and there has been scandals, and it’s right that Facebook have tightened up on their advertising policy and made sure its more transparent.
“Come the election, you have to submit those receipts like you do any leaflets or any other campaign material and I think that’s right.”
Blackpool South’s Labour MP Gordon Marsden’s Facebook page has been advertised three times at a cost of £110. One ad, paid for by one of Mr Marsden’s aides, promoted a visit by the Chester MP Chris Matheson to Blackpool FC for talks on grassroots football, and said Mr Marsden sponsored Mr Matheson’s bid to bring in an independent regulator to scrutinise mismanaged football clubs.
A second advert, paid for by the same aide, contained a link to a Labour press release about the Lifelong Learning Commission, while a third – paid for by Labour – pledged to increase funding for the NHS, and said: “You can’t trust the Tories with the NHS.”
Some £835 has been spent on adverts for Paul Maynard’s Facebook page. Most of the cash for the Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP’s ads came from the local Conservatives group, some came from the main Conservative party, and less than £100 came from the Paul Maynard MP and Blackpool North and Cleveleys Conservative Association.
They asked Facebook users to “tell us what your most important NHS issues are”, and to fill in surveys on schools, and Cleveleys town centre.
Others pushed Mr Maynard’s plans for the ‘Fylde Coast Tram Loop’, which would see services return to Thornton and Burn Naze as part of a new link from Fleetwood to Poulton.
Mr Maynard said: “Funding for advertising comes from donations, the Conservative party, and the local association, and is used to ensure I can engage with the widest range of constituents possible, whether through traditional leaflets and surveys or through social media.”
Scott Benton, the Conservative candidate for Blackpool South at the next general election, has spent £136 on adverts telling users he “fully supports” plans to devolve more transport powers to the north, promoting his petition to re-open Blackpool Airport, which more than 5,000 people had signed by yesterday, and government funding announcements.
He also pledged the Conservatives will “deliver Brexit on October 31 - no ifs, not buts.”
Cash has also been spent promoting local groups, including the Brunswick Labour Party, Bispham Labour Party, Blackpool Labour, and the Blackpool North and Cleveleys Labour Party.
Neither Mr Marsden nor Mr Benton could be reached for comment.