Blog-standard politics

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Could blogging MPs reinvigorate the electorate?

For 24 hours last weekend, British Labour MP Tom Watson invited web users to suggest ideas for government policy.

Billed as a '24-hour blogathon', Watson used his blog - an online journal - to kickstart debates on the issues that 'matter most to us' (or to those who can be bothered to stay up all night). He says he received over 300 comments and more than 1000 visits to his site (1). Quite impressive - after all, it's not often you hear about politicians staying up all night to develop policy. But how much this publicity stunt will influence the next Labour manifesto is anyone's guess.

The burning issues included the future of the BBC, positive discrimination, asylum, crime ('should Tony Martin have gone to jail?'), and 'should there be more fitness classes in schools?' (2). Although anybody could contribute, in reality only a few did. Regular contributors included Mo, Tom, Jackie, Emma and Thomas. Who were these amateur policy wonks, whose influence on Labour could be etched into blog history (or not, as the case may be)?

Isn't this just another attempt at generating ideas, by a moribund political elite? Watson says on his website that we shouldn't take the blogathon too seriously, but deep down, like many politicians, he is scrabbling about for ideas by encouraging us to 'connect'. He is not alone - while most politicians have websites, a growing minority are starting to blog. Watson was the first MP to use a blog, followed by Liberal Democrat Richard Allan. A Tory blog will no doubt follow soon.

Still, Watson is streets ahead in using his blog to engage with the electorate. Before his 'blogathon' event, he became infamous for his appeal to young people to get interested in politics. A section on his site entitled 'Teens!' called on the young to 'cut it with the bling bling and do something for the community, man' (3). After being ridiculed by politicians and journalists, Watson insisted that it was just a satirical attempt to drive traffic to his site (4). But even if he was joking in this instance, his intentions were serious - he is keen to experiment with ways to engage the electorate.

In a political climate where new ideas have a high premium, many see the potential of blogs extending far beyond online diaries. A recent debate at the House of Commons, attended by Watson and others, explored these themes. Organiser James Crabtree of VoxPolitics said we shouldn't become too excited by the potential of blogging to transform politics. However, he said, the importance of blogs becomes clear in the wider context of creating more open participation. Apparently, blogs 'help ordinary people organise, share information, and discuss issues. Much of this is not likely to involve politicians at all' (5).

Blogs are being feted on the grounds that anyone can set one up and connect with others. Some estimate that there are more than 600,000 blogs worldwide. The very fact that all of these people are communicating and connecting with others must mean something significant. But does it? And if we assume that it does, what does that say about how we view politics?

'Watson and others blame us for decreasing levels of political participation'

At a time when many institutions have very low levels of support, anything that can establish a connection with their constituents and legitimise them is being seized upon. Just as the company Heinz wants us to vote to keep or 'can' its slogan 'Beanz Meanz Heinz', and London Transport offers commuters £100,000 for ideas to cool the tube, the political elite does the same (6). Instead of having confidence in its own innovation, we enter competitions and do the job for them.

Some, like Crabtree, claim that blogging won't change the inner workings of politics, because blogs work best facilitating informal connections between people on their own terms. He's right - reinvigorating our trust in institutions will take a lot more effort. However, Crabtree, like others, is overly encouraged by the localised, bottom-up nature of what blogs can bring. As a platform for anyone with an idea, the technology encourages more informal, dispersed debate, away from the traditional sphere where politics would normally take place.

While Watson and Crabtree represent two different interests, they both share the same concern - encouraging the citizenry to participate. Watson is concerned with this because he is keen to find new ways to legitimise his position, and Crabtree because he sees in technology the potential to create new forms of democracy. Their common ground is reinforced by their elevation of access at the periphery, over and above generating new political agendas at the centre.

Watson previously co-authored a Fabian Society paper entitled Making Voting Compulsory, which noted the trend of ever-decreasing election turnouts, and came up with the usual proposals about how to engage apathetic voters: elections on weekends, postal ballots, electronic voting, etc. 'The simple truth', argued Watson, 'is that none of us knows what, if anything will make a difference', apart from the only guaranteed way to make people vote: 'to make participation in elections compulsory.' (7)

Whether it's compulsory voting or inclusive blogging, Watson and others ultimately blame us for decreasing levels of political participation. Perhaps these people could do more to inspire us if they turned off their computers - at least for an hour or two.

Footnotes

(1) See 30 minutes, Tom Watson, 27 July 2003

(2) See BBC; Positive discrimination?; Last four hours; This is getting interesting; Yes, but; Fat food, Tom Watson, 26-27 July 2003

(3) Teens! section of Tom Watson's website

(4) See 'Joke's on you', says the Westminster blogger, Mark Davies, BBC News, 10 July 2003

(5) Blog rule, James Crabtree and William Davies, VoxPolitics, 14 July 2003

(6) See the Beanz Meanz Heinz website; Your ideas to cool the Tube (and win £100k), BBC News, 23 July 2003

(7) Votes for All', Tom Watson & Mark Tami, The Fabian Society, 2001