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The UK Netroots and the hung Parliament

The grass-roots in the UK is shattered. Party membership and volunteerism is tremendously low, and long-term disengagement with national politics had only the briefest of respites as a result of the televised debates, and still resulted in a lower voter turnout than in 1997. The netroots, a coalition of literate, web-savvy and young activist voters, were supposed to change all that, but they never blossomed. So how do we get them back, and could we ever have a ‘Shepard Fairey moment’?

Firstly, we have to address what stopped it swelling this time. For Nick Clegg, the frequent deployment of the Obama Comparison in the runup to May 6th managed to be entirely disingenuous, especially with its allusion to a netroots community poised to thrive. It was widely believed that this election would be fought online, with viral campaigning reaching a sophisticated peak in the fortnight before the ballot. What actually happened was that broadside assaults on the Conservative campaign platform took place long before the election was announced, and effectively vanished in the final push.

To a certain extent, those anti-campaigns lost their momentum the moment the TV debates started. Instantly the conversation reverted back to broadcast and print media, whose reach to the public far outstripped that of the internet. Conversations within ‘new media’ took place within reference to ‘old media’ perspectives, and the ground broken with MyDavidCameron and Gideon Osborne remained largely untouched.

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons for this; the restrictions of the medium in relation to UK Parliamentary politics and the severity of the global situation. In a brief study for Newsnight, Paul Mason highlighted Ten theses on Twitter that addressed what he perceived the platform delivers and a few bear thinking about in relation to the British electorate.

4. Though providing a large, viral platform for political propagandists, propaganda on Twitter tends to provoke a cloud of critical, cynical and humorous demolition jobs, lessening its impact and in some cases producing total rejection and even permanent pariah status for the propagandist.

9. Twitter does not create new trends, ideas or news but amplifies the speed of their adoption, refines their accuracy through collective criticism.

By and large, genuine voices on Twitter are held at arm’s length. Tiny restrictions in terms of message strip out nuance, and favour short, self-contained messages. Extend this too to the crowd-sourced anti-campaigns mentioned above, and we find punchy responses much more effective than those incorporating multiple contextual layers, regardless of how witty they are.

But let’s focus on one of Mason’s earliest theses:

2. Twitter has the power to amplify the impact of any political event. Because users create their own social network, by choosing who to follow, Twitter has the potential also to distort the impact of any political event, reinforcing existing political opinions and prejudices.

While those inside the circle can share the joke, it becomes increasingly difficult to judge how far the message has reached, especially with Twitter’s data effectively locked away. On top of all
that, the electorate can smell disingenuous electioneering from a mile off, and it’s difficult to gain traction outside a closed circle when you’re poking fun at an opposition who already paint themselves as the underdog.

We need to face up to the fact that this election got too serious to joke about. With Greece – a nation within holidaying distance when the ash is blowing in the right direction – erupting in popular protest and threats from Mervyn King on the eve of the election that every party would be forced to make cuts of a scale that would render them unelectable for a generation nobody really felt comfortable ‘sharing the joke’ beyond their immediate audience.

Assuming that that isn’t going to change before the next election, in fact let’s assume that it will get worse, how can online platforms change for the British electorate?

First and foremost, liberal and leftist politicians haven’t been the opposition for thirteen years. The burgeoning netroots tried to use opposition tactics, and understandably failed. Those parties are going to discover that they have a new ‘base’, and a new generation of voters that don’t remember Section 28 or The Troubles, and have instead inherited disappointment at New Labour’s retreat on voting reform and their conduct of the Iraq war.

In the quest for votes and favourable public policy they will be listening, and direct action/lobbying groups like 38 Degrees could be in a position to influence them. 38 Degrees formed in May 2009, leverages its 120,000 strong mailing list to campaign, and issues direct e-mails about such issues as the Digital Economy Bill and re-examination of Trident, combining automated e-mails to MPs with awareness campaigns on social networks and national newspaper ads.

They aren’t using the channels as propaganda platforms, but as partisan information channels, and while the distinction is perilously slight it also manages to be effective – National party membership figures for the three main political parties was estimated in 2008 to be below 300,000 each, less than three times the number that 38 Degrees can currently leverage. Couple that access with the kind of easily digestible data driven models that designers like David McCandless and Stefanie Posavec are popularising and you have a platform for disseminating information that readers feel like they are interpreting for themselves.

Between the inconclusive election night and the following Monday the group generated a petition to persuade Clegg not to back down over electoral reform. Mainstream media picked up on the campaign, and in the three days it covered about the only question posed to MPs engaged in power-sharing debates related to a referendum of voting reform, bypassing other contentious issues like immigration reform and border control. Clegg was forced to address a flash protest the group formed outside of Liberal Democrat HQ on the Friday afternoon, clearly stunned that such a group could have been mobilised with such speed.

Imagine, for a second, an MP in a marginal constituency faced with such a group.

There are seats with such fractional majorities that if a handful of people hadn’t been stuck in traffic, or been on holiday, then the whole thing could have turned out very differently. Fermanagh and South Tyrone sees a Sinn Fein majority of four. Not four percent, not a swing of four percent, but four votes are all that divide first and second place. A constituency like Winchester may be slightly more representative though; a Conservative gain from a Liberal Democrat seat, new MP Steve Brine has a majority of 5.4%. That’s a little over three thousand people, less than the number of students of voting age at its sixth form colleges; an incredibly fragile majority if cleverly targeted.

Pick an MP with this kind of majority, and throw dissenting voices at them on a major issue – like parliamentary reform, or withdrawing Sure Start – and watch what happens next.

Watch with fear as wet-behind-the-ears Conservative MPs are forced to question, for the first time, crossing the party whip, or Lib Dems MPs in an uneasy coalition with the Tories second guessing their voters. Watch a resurgent Labour party assessing where the undervalued, underpaid and underrepresented classes are, and the kind of voice they might have together. Watch the netroots grow when they appreciate the impact they might be able to have.

The time for jokes is over. Informed, targeted protest could change British politics, and may be the only way that activists and the party faithful can reach beyond their closed communities to a frustrated electorate.

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