What's the big idea?

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

More blogging by Britain's MPs and ministers is likely to reduce politics to the level of a webchat.

What is it about politicians and the internet? Many are keen to explore the possibilities of using the net to interact with voters. Even UK prime minister Tony Blair is toying with the idea of using a weblog (a kind of online journal) for the next general election. But more often than not, the outcome is a banal reflection of their low horizons.

Consider the new committee charged with making parliament more accessible to the masses. A specially designed website, chaired by once-radical MP Peter Hain, asks three questions: 'How could the Palace of Westminster be made more visitor-friendly? How could proceedings in parliament be made easier to follow? Does parliament adequately reflect the concerns of ordinary people?' (1) This looks less like an attempt to address the growing gap between parliament and the people, than a patronising exercise that assumes we don't really get politics.

Perhaps another question might be: 'Which bus do I catch to get there…?' 'The Modernisation Committee would like to hear your opinion.' You too can join the debate and post your answers on the website. Instead of reposing parliament as an important space for vociferous, democratic debate, the committee's proposals treat it like some kind of museum. It is true that parliament doesn't mean much to many people - but that is not surprising when ministers themselves seem to view it as a theme park.

What politicians seem to require from us today is reassurance that we are listening to them, regardless of what they are saying. And some of them hope that the internet will be a channel through which to do that. Instead, internet initiatives point to an elite that is more adept at making excuses than inspiring us with a far-reaching ideas.

Those on the outside calling for politics to be made more accountable don't always help matters. A new website, DowningStreetSays, is dedicated to publishing Downing Street press briefings and allowing anyone to comment on them. While the project all too easily taps into the anti-government Hutton Inquiry fallout, Tom Steinberg, who launched the site, believes it 'should help to bring more transparency to the political process' (2).

If you were really interested in what Downing Street was saying you might go to its official website or even read the papers a bit more. But Steinberg isn't interested in using the usual channels, because he plainly mistrusts them - the journalists charged with reporting and disseminating fact from fluff; and we the voters, apparently incapable of making up our own minds about Downing Street pronouncements. As Steinberg says: '[E]very day we will publish what the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman actually said in response to the lobby's questioning, rather than what he was reported as saying. (3)

Like Hain, Steinberg is interested in breaking down the barriers to the political process - which in itself is not a bad thing. But it is problematic when nothing else is on offer except greater degrees of transparency.

'Politics-by-blogging often produces uninformed, unmediated ideas'

Steinberg says, '[W]e give the PM an unmediated platform. In return, you get to have your say' (4). Both Steinberg and Hain agree that the solution to the problems of political engagement lies in placing participation above debates about ideas and substance. How this will cure our boredom with politics is anyone's guess. The use of the internet in this way - no matter how innovative it sounds on paper - will surely make matters worse.

If Tony Blair does get a weblog for the next general election it will likely be a reflection on his isolation, rather than a tool for talking about real political change with a with a wider audience. Interviewed in the Guardian, New Labour's election coordinator Douglas Alexander wants an 'engaging dialogue with the British people' and would be 'interested to consider all means to communicate with the voters directly' (5). In fact Blair won't be the first member of parliament to have a weblog. In 2003, Labour MP Tom Watson set one up, closely followed by fellow Labour MP Clive Soley, with Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs following not far behind.

There is nothing new about MPs having websites - but weblogs are websites with a difference. A typical MP's website contain speeches, articles and information about issues they think are important. The new clique of MPs dabbling with weblogs is a different breed; they realise the potential in blogging, and how it makes publishing and soliciting feedback relatively simple, without needing technical knowledge of web publishing. In reality, however, politics-by-blogging often means selling ideas to us that are uninformed, parochial and unmediated.

Since November 2003, the government has been conducting a nationwide focus group called 'A Big Conversation'. Through its website or at various caucuses around the country, New Labour is outlining important issues on which we are invited to comment and feedback on. As to be expected, some issues for 'group discussion' have included how to combat 'antisocial' activities such as binge-drinking. Lo and behold, the results of the Big Conversation are already finding their way into New Labour's focus for its next term in office.

One thing is clear: by evoking a sense of participation, asking voters for ideas becomes an excuse for not thinking big and forging forward with political direction. Instead, policy is formed on the hoof and based on a knee-jerk response to the world around us.

Some estimate that there are over 600,000 weblogs in existence. Many of these are rarely updated, and that may be just as well. What would be gained from trawling through the personal diaries of politicians, including Tony Blair, day after day? A conversation is worth having when there is something worthwhile to talk about. We deserve more than just chat.

Footnotes

(1) Public consultation website for the Committee's inquiry into the modernisation of the House of Commons

(2) The blog from the heart of Downing St, Giles Wilson, BBC News Online Magazine, 1 March 2004

(3) Downing Street says...

(4) Downing Street says...

(5) 'Blair may blog the next election', Tom Happold, Guardian, 6 February 2004