Politics, Policy and the Internet

The Daily Telegraph writer Robert Colvile has written a cogent paper for the Centre for Policy Studies about the way the internet is changing politics and policy, and the current failings of the political parties to embrace the brave new world.

And while I largely accept his argument (that the internet offers the potential to create a faster more chaotic, but more open, world in which politicians will have to find new language or risk becoming even more bland – and so less likeable) it is the caveats that he puts around that that I find just as compelling.

These essentially are that the on-line conversation leaves out swathes of the population and as such skews the debate. So while he says “67% of Britons use the internet in one way or another” he also says:

  • In the UK, in 2006, 51% of those earning up to £10,400 had never used the internet, compared to 6% of those on £36,400 or more.
  • 71% of those aged 65 and over in this country have never used the internet.
  • As we go down the age range, internet use grows rapidly – only 35% of those aged between 55 and 64 have never gone on-line, falling to just 4% of the digital near-natives in the 16 to 24 bracket.

So our on-line politics is likely to be dominated by younger, wealthier people; and I can’t help noticing that Colvile doesn’t talk about whether there biases around ethnicity or gender.

Which makes me think that, while he may be right in saying that the net savy MP (and for our purposes we can substitute councillor) will find that:

by inhabiting the same on-line spaces as their constituents on a day-to-day basis, MPs will interact with them in much more normal conditions – when the MP is not the privileged voice of authority, but merely one member of a conversation among many.

But the elected representative needs to consider how they’ll represent all of the views of all their constituents, not just those of us who are webheads, so the new politics will need strategies that reach beyond the net, even while they take the best of the net’s creative drive with them.

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About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
This entry was posted in Civic Society, Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Politics, Policy and the Internet

  1. There are some slight biases around gender – men are more likely to use the web than women – but as far as I know, no one’s broken the figures down by ethnicity, which would indeed be very interesting (the best source is National Statistics, at http://www.statistics.gov.uk/StatBase/Product.asp?vlnk=5672 – the ‘First Release’ pdf).

    As to address the wider issues of exclusion, it’s certainly something politicians need to concentrate on – just sitting in your office checking your emails and Facebook account won’t make you an effective MP all by itself, not least because there’s a new swathe of people you’ll never meet that way.

  2. Andrew Brown says:

    Thanks Robert, you are right about meeting people on the web. It’s one of the reasons I started blogging when I was a councillor, to move beyond the small set of people who I met in local public meetings and at my surgeries.

    And clearly people like Steve Webb who are actively looking for ways to use web based technology to have the conversation are going to be better placed to argue their case both outwards to their public and inwards to the policy process.

    But some blogging evangelists (not you) I’ve heard tend to miss the fact that not everyone is online, let alone plugged into the blogosphere.

    Finally sorry about spelling your name wrong, very careless and now remedied.

  3. Pingback: Politics, Policy and the Internet « Cllr 2.0

  4. BrockleyNick says:

    I think our Green Councillors have shown how effective the internet can be – sure, they are only part of the conversation, but certainly my own respect for them has grown as a result of their participation and I think their authority grows as they share information and insights – they become a trusted source, rather than a face on a pamphlet.

    Very useful figures to highlight though Andrew, thanks.

  5. Andrew Brown says:

    You’re quite right, Nick, that effective politicians want to be more than a face on a leaflet and the internet is one of the places you need to be to create community conversations.

    I thought it was very interesting that Dean chose Brockley Central for the discussion on the locality money rather than his own blog. Clearly understanding that your place was where the conversation was likely to be richer – and as a by product not having to deal with the flame wars that broke out.

    It’s that sort of interaction between elected representatives and the wider local ‘sphere that keeps me quite excited about the possibilities.

    I’m going to return to this next week at a presentation I’m giving on councillor blogging.

  6. BrockleyNick says:

    Yes, their position means that there are discussions and comments that they need to keep at arm’s length and they have to filter comments far more than on a blog like mine, which means that debates are perhaps better had on neutral ground.

  7. Pingback: Should politicians blog? « Local Democracy

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