Monday, 14 June 2010

A digital election?

This year’s election was touted as an ‘anything can happen’ event and, true to predictions, there were more than a few surprises. Before polling day we had the first ever televised leaders’ debates, resulting in a surprise surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, consistently beating Labour to second place in the polls.

And the surprises didn’t stop there – once the election was called, the Lib Dems actually lost six seats, while the Greens had their first ever MP elected in Brighton Pavilion. We saw the first hung parliament since 1974, the first coalition since 1945 and the first significant number of Liberals in government since 1932.

But the excitement of these truly historic events meant another precedent was largely overlooked – the election was also the first since the appearance of social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, while YouTube had existed for barely two months at the start of the campaign.

Not that this got past mobile phone network Orange. They felt confident enough to call it the UK’s first ‘Digital Election’ and commissioned a report to investigate.

Simon Grossman, Orange’s Head of Government Policy said: “It’s amazing to think that in the last election in 2005, the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and smartphone apps didn’t exist, or held very little resonance. It's clear from this research that the use of technology by the political parties has made politics more accessible and interactive– and ultimately more interesting to a younger audience.”

Their research showed almost a quarter of young people aged 18-24 were actively engaged in the election through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, with eight in ten expressing an interest. This is despite the age group being the most traditionally associated with voter apathy.

More than 65 per cent of Facebook users in the UK are under the age of 35, with almost two fifths of these between the ages of 18 and 24. And, according to, the site represents for more than three fifths of internet users in the UK.

The huge potential of these numbers was not lost on the Electoral Commission, who worked with Facebook during the campaign so users signing into the site would be asked whether they had registered to vote. If they clicked ‘no’, they were redirected to the Commission’s website, where they could do so online.

And with such a huge ‘market’ for votes, political parties have wasted no time in getting involved – more than a quarter of a million Facebook users have signalled they ‘like’ the pages of one of the three main political parties and/or their youth movements.

The Conservatives appear to be leading on Facebook with 115,550 supporters, followed by the Liberal Democrats with 96,500 and Labour trailing behind with less than 64,600.

The Tories also lead in Twitter’s parliamentary presence. According to @tweetminster, out of the 195 MPs currently using the service, 40% of these are Conservatives, with 38% Labour and 16% Lib Dems.

But with great opportunities comes great scope for embarrassment. Gordon Brown received a stinging attack by then-cabinet minister Hazel Blears with her “YouTube if you want to” jibe after the PM spoke to the country through the video website.

This was itself ripe for parody, with one blogger (keeptonyblairforpm) adding “The lady’s not for gurning” - a reference to the many uncomfortable and inappropriate smiles Mr Brown made throughout the broadcast.

But although the internet appears to have successfully mobilised the youth vote, it does still beggar the question: if this was, in fact, the ‘Digital Election’; why did it take a TV debate for Nick Clegg to get noticed?

Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at Sheffield University said: “Much of the political content on the internet is just preaching to the converted. I just don’t believe the vast majority of people have any time or interest in Twitter or blogging – it’s a bit more middle class really.

“But public interest in the debates was absolutely incredible. Peoples’ views were altered by the expenses crisis, giving Nick Clegg an open goal. Before the debates, the public had never really understood what the Lib Dems stood for.”

Nonetheless, the influence of digital media is growing – in April 2009 it was blogger Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) who ended the career of Gordon Brown’s special advisor Damien McBride, by posting leaked emails McBride had sent on plans to smear senior Tories and their families.

But blogger Harry Cole (aka Tory Bear), 24, admits this power is aided by traditional print and broadcast: “Blogs have more power now, and any MP would be foolish not to take them seriously. They can bring you down. There is also more media attention, as the blog entries and tweets on Twitter end up across the papers. They are now part of the news cycle.”

Sarah Baumann, 23, a Labour supporter from Leeds, agreed, saying: “Politics has been able to extend its reach to the previously apathetic or disenchanted voters through social networking sites, forcing all candidates to confront the murky issues within their manifestos.”

But some young supporters dispute the idea of a ‘Digital Election’. David Grundy, 25, a Conservative supporter from London, said: “It didn't change that much in actual campaigning, apart from making it faster to organise campaigns and canvassing events. Facebook is not all that useful in gauging support either because it is very skewed towards younger people, some of whom can't vote and the rest who can't be bothered.”

It is clear that, while the power and influence of social media in politics is growing, it still has far to go where traditional media and campaigning techniques are concerned.

In a perhaps unintentional echo of Karl Marx’s famous maxim on philosophers, Stephen Shakespeare (@stephenshaxper), CEO of YouGov, tweeted a warning to ‘Digital Election’ enthusiasts on May 11: “Twitter makes politicians seem more accessible. To matter it needs to change their behaviour.”

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A Tory case for STV

Five years from now Britain may well find herself with a new voting system - the Alternative Vote. I will oppose any move to this system up to and including the referendum which the Government has committed itself to hold. It is a frankly stupid system, somehow managing to take all the worst aspects of first-past-the-post and proportional representation, whilst being even less proportional than the former.

If, however, a change is made, it may whet the appetite of the electorate for further electoral reform, possibly to the Liberal Democrats' preferred choice - the Single Transferable Vote system.

I will not pretend to have any idea how this system works because, to be honest, you would probably have an easier time trying to explain advanced quantum theory. What I do know is this: it is the best true converter of votes into seats; it works rather well elsewhere in the world; it could very well renew peoples' confidence in their vote.

Everybody knows at general elections there are millions of votes wasted. Tory votes in inner cities, Labour votes in the country and Lib Dem votes practically everywhere. In many constituencies you only have a choice between red, blue and gold, regardless of whether you actually agree with any of them.

And who cannot sympathise with the 7,780,949 people - over a quarter of the electorate - who voted for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 only to be rewarded with a meagre 23 MPs? This was only an 11-seat improvement on their 1945 result, when they polled only 9%. Such an outcome is a mockery of democracy.

Many argue that a truly proportionate voting system would create perpetual instability and a lack of any clear, decisive direction in policy. I have to admit, I used to hold that view myself, arguing that only the stability of a semi-presidential republic could make it work. But as we have seen, not only is coalition government stable (because it is in both parties' interests), it also prioritises the national interest over party ideology.

And the Germans seem to make it work pretty well. In the Bundestag, 299 deputies are elected by party-list proportional representation and 299 by first-past-the-post. Since the first elections in 1949, this has produced a surprisingly stable pattern of government.

From 1949-66 the Christian Democrats formed coalitions with the Liberals. From 1969-82 the Liberals instead backed the Social Democrats and from 1983-98 the see-saw returned to Christian Democrat/Liberal government. Gerhard Schröder made history by leading the first ever SPD/Green coalition between 1998 and 2005, but last year's elections brought back the familiar Christian Democrat/Liberal partnership.

In fact, the so-called 'grand coalitions' between Christian Democrats and the SPD, which are forced into being after a hung parliament, have only happened twice in seventy years - in 1966 and 2005. Not a bad record.

So what of the advantages? The last seventy years of British politics, and the last thirty in particular, have tended towards long blocks of large-majority, one-party government. And let me be frank here: this has been wrecking our country.

Many Tories use Thatcher's glorious majorities as an example of why FPTP must be saved - such herculean vision, determination, and grit may not have been possible under STV. But what they are forgetting is that the Thatcherite project, glorious as it was, only really came into being to mop up the almighty mess Labour had plunged this country into in 1945.

Labour's enormous landslide after the war meant Attlee was able to charge ahead with his socialist programme of nationalisation despite the fact that 45% of the country voted against it. It took thirty years, two Tory landslides and 18 years of one-party rule to reverse the rot, though this in itself ended up creating almost as many problems as it solved. Not least of these was New Labour, who proceeded to do the exact same thing for the next 13 years.

I predict an STV-elected Senate will indeed replace the House of Lords in the course of this parliament and hopefully the results of these elections will make an STV-elected Commons irresistible. Conservatives need not fear this - this election has shown us that Liberal Conservative coalitions are viable and stable. And who knows? Changes in voting patterns as a result of STV may even put a Tory/Ukip coalition on the table. I can't see many of the grassroots opposing that.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Liberal semantics

Could liberal be the most abused word in the English language? It's one of those terms that, though once having a very fixed and definite meaning, has become everything to all and something for everyone. A semantic slut, if you like.

This confusion appears only to exist in the English speaking world, however. While in Canada, Britain and America the word is often used as a vague, wooly hold-all term to denote a sort of 'socialism-lite', its meaning is very different in Europe (and to some extent Australia).

It was a time when both liberals and socialists - as different as night and day in their objectives - were kept out of the conservative and often absolutist establishment in Europe. In Britain and her dominions however, they were the establishment.

The European tradition of Liberalism, best demonstrated in parties such as the German Free Democrats ('Die Liberalen') and the Swiss Free Democrats/Liberals ('Les Libéraux-Radicaux' in French) is something which simply does not exist in British politics.

These parties are what you might call Thatcherite on economic policy and individual responsibility (Guy Verhofstadt, three-time Belgian Liberal prime minister was called 'Baby Thatcher' in the 1980s), but at the same time very socially liberal and committed to the welfare state in a way British Conservatives find very difficult.

This is in contrast to the German right's dominant Christian Democrats, who are far more conservative on social issues and only grudgingly, suspiciously supportive of free market economics. They are also the Conservatives' official 'sister' party.

It is for this reason that the great liberal economist F. A. Hayek added Why I Am Not a Conservative to the end of his seminal work The Constitution of Liberty - once hurled onto a table by Margaret Thatcher to the words 'This is what we believe.' It opened with the words;

At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change. In matters of current politics today they generally have little choice but to support the conservative parties.

This distinction is simply not present in British politics - both traditions find their home under the umbrella of the Conservative party, meaning that I - a liberal at heart - am in the peculiar position of potentially sharing a platform with people who think Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman are the new messiahs.

More confusing still is the idea of the Liberal Democrats being in the same European party as the above-mentioned Swiss and German Free Democrats. It simply makes no sense. This blog has commented before on the Lib Dems being dominated by social democrats, and the party has major ideological differences with its classical liberal European counterparts.

One can only assume they are part of the European Liberal Democrat & Reform party simply through a case of semantics. A lazy association, if ever there was one, to pair ex-Labour and Social Democratic politicians with 'Baby Thatcher'.

If there is to be a wholesale shake-up of British politics in the coming years and if we do, after all, end up with a system of proportional representation - I dearly hope some of these semantic confusions will be cleared up, not least because it will give voters a much clearer idea over what they are actually voting for.

NB - an amusing and illuminating quote from former Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott in March of this year: 'From being a liberal Conservative I have become a conservative Liberal.' Quite.