ARE WE EXPERIENCING A DIGITAL REVOLUTION IN POLITICS?
Nadhim Zahawi, Conservative MP for Stratford on Avon and founder of polling agency YouGov, recently gave a lecture at the Carlton Club for a joint event between the Centre for Policy Studies and the 1900 Club.
The topic of the lecture was ‘How has the net changed UK politics?’. One might immediately think that of course the internet has changed politics, especially as our day to day activities increasingly involve the internet. Indeed, the fact that I am writing this in a blog demonstrates the changing means of communication that are available to us in today’s digital age.
As Mr Zahawi MP pointed out, social media has become an almost indispensible medium for organising political activity, sharing thoughts and opinions, and showing support for a particular policy. In my role as the Conservative Future representative for Mid Dorset and North Poole*, Facebook is the main method through which I organise activities and events, and raise awareness of local issues. Twitter and e-mails are also vitally important for political activities. Mr Zahawi MP stated that 71% of MPs have a Twitter account, and 83% of MPs have a personal website. This opens up a whole other route to through which MPs and their constituents can communication which each other. Both MPs and constituents become more informed about each other, with constituents more able to convey their concerns, and websites such as TheyWorkForYou providing an extensive online encyclopaedia of each MP. Digital advancements such as these are contributing to the creation of what Mr Zahawi MP dubbed as an ‘i-democracy’, which he hypothesised, lends itself to less of a representative democracy, and more towards a modern version of a direct democracy, with constituents seeming to have a greater involvement in political activity.
The Coalition’s e-petitions initiative is further proof of the digital developments within UK politics, and has been heavily used by members of the public. However, Mr Zahawi MP stated that the most success e-petitions are those which are supported by MPs who are willing to push the e-petition further through Parliament. Similarly, as Mr Zahawi pointed out, while it is clear that the internet is very important in uniting like-minded people around a cause, they are less likely to make substantial progress if they do not have a significant number of supporters who pound the streets and talk to people face-to-face, and to people who may be not be engaged in politics or political activity.
This brings me to Mr Zahawi MP’s concluding remarks. He stated that while the internet has allowed the public increased access to political activity, the Westminster bubble is still very much in existence. The internet, he says, has failed to ensure that politics reaches those individuals who are currently disengaged from politics. The members of the public who are politically active on the internet are those who are already politically engaged. There is also the issue of the ‘digital divide’. Not every constituent has easy access to the internet – so they will not be regularly participating in politics online. So while it cannot be doubted that the internet has certainly made political activity more accessible to engaged individuals, it has yet to fully open up politics to the public as a whole. This will have to be achieved for it to be argued that the internet has truly changed politics.
* PLMR is a cross-party organisation respecting all parties.