Harsh Political Realities

The Internet is where good political intentions clash with harsh realities.

Dick Morris, the famous political strategist and former adviser to Bill Clinton, calls the internet “the fifth estate”. He believes the net will shape politics in the 21st century, end representative government and bring a return to “direct democracy”.

For Morris, this will end the corruption in political life: “If legislatures become beholden to big money and special interests, then democracy demands that citizens have the right to bypass the legislature.”

The British population feels politically disenfranchised. In 1910 86.8% of the voted. In 2001 only 59% turned out to elect the new government. The latest State of the Nation polls, 2001 and 2006, indicate that 2/3’s of the electorate feel they have no power over government policies.

In theory, the internet should be the ideal medium for political communication. The net is fast, inexpensive, flexible, personalised, interactive and inherently democratic. Time and space are in short supply in traditional media, but on the internet the political parties and candidates don’t have to cram their message into a sound bite or a party political broadcast. They can speak with no limits, they can differentiate themselves by letting people see their full policies and they can contact voters directly.

The internet is the place where politicians can form relationships, understand where people are coming from, demonstrate the benefits and get people involved. The web should be utilised to create an engaging platform for direct action and drive the new politics of participation. The tools to do this such as Instant messaging, online ballots and social networking are already becoming a regular part of the new political process.

The current reality is that political websites are universally dull and boring. MP’s own sites and blogs are no better, leaving out of date content and not-quite-now campaigns stagnating. Updating their online diaries is often the only current content. Worse still, the tendency is for the political sites to serve solely as dumps for content in huge information reservoirs, presenting only the archives of what political parties want us to see. They are currently disconnected from what the public may really be interested in knowing. Visitors to political websites are met with a barrage of unordered information; policy statements, campaign messages, press releases, television and radio clips, online and syndicated news feeds. Yes, they can sign up to receive all manner of email communications – guaranteeing an endless stream of sound-bite-rich press releases into their mailboxes. But they have no conviction, no underlying themes, they just get the information out there and damn what happens to it afterwards.

The reason is that the main parties want complete control over each and every element – much to the detriment of finding out what the users actually want. This is because of the threat of being hijacked by opponents, personal attack and the use of obscenities. This is acceptable for Parliament and politicians but not the general public because inviting the public on to party websites to argue and debate is all a bit too “real”, which is why the parties turn instead to stunts and gimmicks.

The most interesting political use of the internet has not come from the main parties but from non-government organisations, creative individuals and some governments [for example: the petitions on the number 10 downing street website] that are experimenting with interactivity the way that some parties appear to be unwilling to.

The main political parties could use the internet to attract new members and they could use it to encourage political participation and debate. But so far, they have squandered all of these opportunities.

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