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How the Internet is Changing Politics in Great Britain

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, April 25 2010

Something very interesting is unfolding in Great Britain as the country nears the general election of May 6. The two-party duopoly that has dominated British politics ever since the end of World War II is facing a serious challenge, and a major new political party, the Liberal Democrats, is now matching Labour and the Conservatives in the polls. The latest polling shows an almost three-way heat, with the Conservatives at 34%, Labour at 28%, and the Lib-Dems--who have been surging ever since the first televised national debate a week ago--at 30%. Listen to how Anthony Painter, a pro-Labour blogger who reminds me a lot of Nate Silver with his daily tracking of how each party may do in the parliamentary sweepstakes, describes the moment:

The Liberal Democrat surge has been incredible. The election is alive. Politics is fizzing again. The invigorating force of a democracy where voters get to engage with politicians without intrusive mediation is clear. Well done Nick Clegg. But credit also to Gordon Brown and David Cameron for allowing this to happen. Is this the first digital election? No, the first television age election. And we’re loving it.

We’ve had these change moments before- where the entire basis of two party, majoritarian politics is threatened- and they have tended to fizzle away. The SDP/ Liberal Alliance challenge to Labour’s position as the main opposition is the obvious example. We are potentially in that type of moment again. What, this time, is different?

Actually, we are in a different place. The reason for the SDP/Liberal Alliance’s success was a mirror image of Labour’s failure. It wasn’t so much that they promised a new politics. It was that they promised an alternative progressivism to the outmoded vision put forward by the Labour party. Labour survived- just- and then recovered.

This time the demand is for an entirely new type of politics and it is across the board not just in the centre and the left. The expenses scandal crystallised the notion that our politics is no longer representative; politicians are now called the ‘political class’ and that says everything. More and more of us don’t vote and fewer and fewer of us vote for the two main parties. It’s just there was no alternative. Suddenly, and majestically, Nick Clegg has given voters an alternative. And neither of the two main parties can comprehend what might be happening. This is the change election. Labour is the incumbent and so finds it difficult to present itself as change and David Cameron has fallen breathtakingly short of articulating a new politics.

Blogger Johann Hari seconds Painter's point about the importance of live, unfiltered, candidate debates:

The British media is overwhelmingly owned by right-wing billionaires who order their newspapers to build up the politicians who serve their interests, and marginalise or rubbish the politicians who serve the public interest. David Yelland, the former editor of the Sun, bravely confessed this week that as soon as he took his post, he was told the Liberal Dems had to be "the invisible party, purposely edged off the paper's pages and ignored". Only a tiny spectrum of opinion was permitted. Everyone to the left of Tony Blair (not hard) had to be rubbished – even when their policies spoke for a majority of British people.

The TV debates, then, were a very rare moment in which a slightly more liberal-left voice could speak to the public without the distorting frame of pre-emptive abuse and distortion. The window of permissible opinion was opened a little – and people responded with a wave of enthusiasm.

Indeed, the day after that first debate, Clegg's Lib-Dems received 120,000 pounds in small, online donations, a first for British politics. Traffic surged eightfold to the Lib-Dems website.

But there's another new factor at work, which is digital and networked, not broadcast. After all, as we know from our own experience in the United States, televised debates are often gamed nicely by the candidates, their lawyers (who set all sorts of ridiculous rules on how the "debates" will be conducted) and their spinners, who even have a special section set aside at US national debates called "Spin Alley" to try to frame and control public reactions as soon as the show is over.

This point was made by Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, on Steven Clift's Democracy Online newswire a few days ago. He wrote:

The Internet's main role in relation to the debates (only one so far) has been its capacity to capture instant public reaction. By half-way through the first debate it was clear to Labour and Conservative spin doctors that Clegg had stolen the show. They were watching online reactions. Within 30 minutes of the debate ending online polls confirmed a public view that the political pundits did not dare to contradict. Without the Internet, the 'debate about the debate' in the press would have produced a much more elite-driven and partisan interpretation.

The networked public sphere has also turned into an effective counter-force against the old Murdoch-dominated media system's efforts to demonize Clegg. Within days of his surge in the polls, the right-leaning newspapers were full of stories attacking him as a Nazi sympathizer for old comments he had made suggesting that Britons had a "more insidious cross to bear" than Germany over World War II. The attacks appeared to backfire as many turned to Twitter to mock the papers with the hashtag #NickCleggsfault (blaming all the world's problems on Clegg), which rapidly trended to the top tag in England. "The rapid responses on Twitter indicate just how much shorter the feedback loop now is for the mainstream media and electors – and how dangerous it can be to attack politicians who are riding a wave of popularity," noted the Guardian's Technology Blog.

The surge for Clegg is also reflected among Facebook users in Britain. A group called "We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!" has 150,000 members, for example. (That's up more than 50,000 members from six days ago.) And the official Facebook pages of the three major parties show a big shift toward the Lib-Dems.

Here are the numbers as gathered* on April 9 -> April 20 -> April 25:

- - 34,666 -> 51,000 -> 66,188 fans
- 14,923 -> 26,000 -> 30,212 fans
- - 13,456 -> 46,500 -> 66,689 fans

That is, in just over two weeks, the Lib-Dems have gone from having a tad more than one-third of the Conservatives' fan base on Facebook to topping them.

[*Big thanks to Steve Clift for pulling the first two dates.]

I'll leave the last words to Andrew Chadwick, Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the New Political Communication Unit in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. (He hosted the Politics Web 2.0 conference that I spoke at with Michael Turk two years ago.)

Mutual dependency between television and new media is what increasingly drives mediated electoral politics in the UK.

The [Lib-Dem] surge bears some of the hallmarks of recent American electoral insurgencies. Polling shows that the party is picking up significant new support from voters under 35. Clegg is presenting himself as a “fresh” alternative to the “old parties.” He is inviting the electorate to “think differently.” He presents an image of youth and vitality. During the television debate, this paid off, sparking hugely positive media commentary for the entirety of the crucial weekend news cycle.

For voters looking to punish MPs in the aftermath of the expenses scandal, the Lib Dems have an obvious advantage because they simply have fewer MPs and are arguably less likely to have been tainted than Labour and the Conservatives. The “we can get the Lib Dems into office” Facebook group could be evidence of this “outsider” appeal. Weakly aligned voters, especially the young to middle-aged, educated, middle-class citizens that dominate online politics, may be looking for something resembling a movement for reform. A hung parliament, leading to electoral reform as the price the Lib Dems will try to exact as a condition of supporting a minority administration, could be the key.

The internet is an insurgent’s medium. We may be about to see it become a more prominent, if uncontrollable, force in the election campaign.