Professor Tim Bale is Chair of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and is the author and editor of three books on the Conservative Party.
With May 7th fast approaching, observers of politics, be they journalists or academics, will be asking, just as they’ve been doing since at least the mid-nineties, when British parties first woke up to the web, “will this be the first internet election”? And, if they’re honest, they will have to admit that the answer is still no.
Digital may no longer be an afterthought but it is still something of a bolt-on rather than a seamless, integral part of parties’ efforts to persuade and mobilise. Meanwhile, e-voting remains just as much of a pipe-dream – a silver bullet solution for worryingly low levels of youth participation that is nowhere near surmounting the serious legal and technical obstacles to its introduction.
Our world is increasingly digital, our every interaction – business, leisure, and even relationships – facilitated by our internet connections, fixed or mobile. Government and politics, however, are a long way from being ‘digital by default’.
True, electoral campaigns now make extensive use of data analysis and communications technologies. And many politicians, like their parties, are using websites and social media to get their messages out to the public. But does this add up to a proverbial paradigm shift – a ‘digital embrace’?
Almost certainly not. While party HQs may claim they have some pretty cutting edge staff and software, they still lag a long way behind commercial firms, NGOs, and media organisations. Their websites are often clunky and, with a few honourable exceptions, there are very few MPs and candidates, let alone parties, who pursue genuinely two-way interaction with people who they still insist on thinking of as their ‘audiences’.
At local level, especially in associations and branches dominated by members who grew up – and are still living – in an analogue age, things are often, though not always, even worse. Sure, there are some creative things going on, but often in spite of rather than because of efforts at the centre. Certainly, Conservative activists are the very last people who need to be told that the IT infrastructure provided by parties isn’t exactly state of the art.
Of course politics doesn’t just stop and start with the parties themselves – or indeed with the mainstream. One of the challenges to politics as usual is the way the net creates a forum for debate which can dissolve the hierarchies between and within organisations and create new kinds of potentially disruptive insurgencies.
ConHome is actually a case study in this respect: after all, it originated in an ultimately successful campaign to prevent the party leadership from removing the right to select the Tory leader from the grassroots so that it would once again be the sole preserve of MPs at Westminster. Since then it has gone from strength to strength – so much so that it has become a forum that even government ministers ignore at their peril, with the same going (in spades) for even more deliberately disruptive forces like Guido Fawkes. ConHome has also spawned imitators on the centre-left, like LabourList. Meanwhile its founder, despite having gone on to carve out a career for himself in the mainstream media, clearly retains his faith in digitally-facilitated debate, having this week launched a new web-based project.
Once one takes even a few baby-steps beyond politics-as-usual, of course, there are a whole host of skilled social media users, high-profile bloggers and helpful aggregators out there. Whether, however, the dynamism they display is a way of hooking people (particularly young people) into politics and thus changing how it’s done or, paradoxically, of reminding them of just how alienated they feel from it right now is very much a moot point.
What is not a moot point, however, is the potential that digital offers those who want to reform the state as well as politics more generally. GDS is dedicated to providing simpler, clearer and faster government services and data with online access for citizen-users and, in so doing, likewise threatening to dissolve hierarchies and disrupt customary practices in ways that inevitably result in pushback from the vested interests concerned, be they big IT contractors and consultants or civil servants themselves.
It will come as no surprise to ConHome readers, perhaps, to hear that Francis Maude, the Tory modernisers’ Tory moderniser, and Minister for the Cabinet Office since 2010, has been working to catalyse such changes – which is why many of us are looking forward to hearing him speak next week on “Going digital? How embracing technology could end ‘politics (and government) as usual”.
Although Maude has recently announced his retirement from the Commons at the next election, one suspects that, having won the respect of innovators (and the ire of stick-in-the-muds) across the political spectrum for his technological tenacity, he won’t simply be leaving it there. His talk next Tuesday (which will be introduced by Matthew D’Ancona and which you can book tickets for here) is unlikely, then, to be his swansong – more a dispatch from the frontline.