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Has technology changed politics? One British MP says, not so much.

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, September 30 2013

Nadhim Zahawi (center) sans musical tie (Policy Exchange/flickr)

Nadhim Zahawi is no stranger to the power of the Internet. He is better known as the British MP who set off his musical tie while speaking in parliament, a moment captured on video, which received 500,000 hits. He is also the founder of YouGov, a company that conducts polls via the Internet that performed fairly well.

In a talk he gave on Sept. 25th (see the full transcript here) at the British think tank, Centre for Policy Studies, Zahawi argued that while Internet technology hasn’t changed the substance of politics, it has changed the shape of it. While he spoke specifically about British politics, the points he makes is applicable to most Western governments struggling with how to engage an evermore wary public.

One way the Internet has changed the shape of politics is wiping out the middleman, Zahawi says. Companies like Amazon, iTunes, Ebay and Google “[leave] nothing more than the click of a mouse between consumer and product.” It is a trend that has taken hold of politics too, he says. “Five years ago the only way a backbench MP could reach a national audience was a spot on Newsnight, if a minister was unavailable. Now, anyone with a Twitter account or a blog has a direct line to the public.” That middleman in this case is the media. Politicians now have a direct way to reach their audiences.

Zahawi explains:

The Five Star Movement in Italy is the most impressive example of the political start-up. Five Star’s leader Beppe Grillo eschews media interviews completely, taking his message directly to the country through a combination of social media and very traditional soapbox campaigning.

Another way "the shape" of politics has changed is with direct democracy movements like Five Star, which is eroding the middleman role of political groups. Roberto Casaleggio, the tech master behind the Five Star website, who did not give interviews to newspapers until he spoke with The Guardian in January this year, explained that Five Star is "a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state."

But now, the movement is being wrought with accusations that it did not submit itself to independent verification for the online selection of its parliamentary candidates. Instead, Casaleggio told the Guardian, "The statute contains rules. If they want to change the rules, they can create another movement." And when asked who made the rules, he replied, "Grillo and I."

That is one reason why, as Zahawi argues, "the substance" of politics has not changed: even "direct" democracy struggles with issues of transparency and openness.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.