All-Party Parliamentary Group on e-Democracy
Tuesday night I was happy to attend a public meeting by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on e-Democracy on “Online Campaigning: Lessons the UK can learn from internet use in US elections”, sponsored by the Hansard Society and voxpolitics. Straight ahead summary from BBC and voxpolitics weblog.
I’ll stick to a few rough impressions. And it is impressive. Medieval halls of the House of Parliament. Awesome. Reverential. A strange setting for discussion of technologies designed to demystify such places. Everyone except for the few MPs and Lords in attendance were “Strangers”; whether a foreigner like me or a voting member of the UK public, you’re officially considered a stranger in the Parliament. Of course we felt welcome, really. But this is indicative of the structure of power in the UK: institutionalized and creaking, and increasingly irrelevant. Or so I’m told (as it actually seems healthier in some ways than the US political system).
The e-Democracy group is a few forward thinking MPs, thinking “If we don’t master technology, technology will master us”. You catch a small bit of their workings, in the committee room were mounted four CCTVs announcing going ons in other chambers, possibly a technological improvement over some ancient system of shouting down halls. Twice a division was announced; a division is a formal vote when the strength of auditory aye’s or nay’s isn’t sufficient to determine support. The first literally had a “Lord-a-leaping” to get to the vote. The second had the chairman of the meeting leaving during a question on how much will MPs really pay attention to electronic discourse! Another insightful moment came when the chairman was answering a question from a Conservative MP, saying “I hope we won’t see him at the next meeting, but it will be a great loss.” Ahhh, they really do like each other.
So, what can the UK learn from the US elections? Stephen Coleman, Oxford Internet Institute, reported on a survey of Internet users in the US election. Despite all the talk of the transformation of politics by the web, the most influential medium for voters was email and talking. Yes, just talking about politics was the number one indicator of political involvement. On the other side (of the pond), Phil Noble, Politics Online, raised up an old fashioned barn burner, channeling the Howard Dean revolution. Particularly, he sited the quickness of online organizing, and the vast amount of money raised online. Weblogs are embrionic of a conversational democracy. He brushed aside the failure of the Dean campaign, despite the revolution of participation in that campaign. And I wonder, what can be done differently next time? (There must be a lot of examination and discussion of this question right now; there’s no reason to wait 4 years).
So the answer seems, not much right now. UK elections are not dominated by money, and are organized along party lines, rather than individual candidates. The old media is much more diverse. The major parties receive free time on TV to broadcast political messages. Third parties have a voice. “The British tend to underwhelm things, and there’s a US tendency to be overwhelmed”. Yet on change, everyone “Tends to overestimate in the short run, and underestimate in the long run”. Agreement seemed to fall on the influence of technology enabled networks. British MPs are unlikely to read weblogs, but may perhaps read an influential weblog that bubbles out of the network. Analysing and identifying high valued connections in the network may be a usable compromise for the government and people to have direct conversation.
Stephen Coleman was skeptical of technology providing a magic bullet for government and public renewal. It needs to be done right, and is skeptical of the government “giving” democracy to the people. It will need to come from the grass roots, which has it’s own worries. BNP or UKIP could gain influence through these technologies. “Let 1000 flowers bloom, and they won’t all smell sweet.” But what about positive minor parties, like the Green Party.
Blogging was particularly singled out for criticism. Too time consuming to read and write. Partially I think it’s a misconception of weblogs as solely a personal diary. Weblogs are written by groups of individuals, organizations. And of great importance will be analysis tools, to understand the network and the content of the discussions. Identification of emergence and spread of new ideas. Statistical gauging of support. These are some ideas I hope to pursue at the EU JRC next year.
Side note, there was mention of what politics can learn from reality television. These programs actually get people to pay to vote, while you couldn’t pay these people to vote for their MP. Some bizarre possibilities. The OII accurately predicted every eviction on Big Brother, by picking the housemate that looked most like a Conservative!