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FULL TEXT: Nadhim Zahawi MP Lecture

     

    Nadhim Zahawi MP

    HOW THE NET HAS CHANGED UK POLITICS

    The CPS and 1900 Club Annual Lecture

    Introduction

    I used to make my living as an online pollster. The name of my company - YouGov - reflected the powerful optimism of the dot-com era - the idea of technology as a transformative, democratising force.  

    So you might expect me to argue that the internet has changed everything.

    But looking back at the last ten years or so, I see no great rupture with the last hundred years of Parliamentary democracy in Britain.

    This is because I take an essentialist view of politics. For me, politics is what happens when there is no higher authority to tell us what to do. It’s as much about value judgments as it is about the technical solutions to our social and economic problems.

    Do we want more freedom, or greater equality? How should we weigh up the demands of collective solidarity against the claims of the individual? Where do our rights end and our responsibilities begin?

    Google and big data haven’t made it any easier to find answers to these questions, for they are moral rather than technical judgments.

    In that sense the internet has not changed our politics, nor will it.

    But if the internet has not changed the substance of our politics, it has changed the shape of it. 

    I believe the digital revolution can be broken down into four elements: choice, speed, information and disintermediation. Each of these elements has had an impact on the shape of British politics.

    Disintermediation

    Let me start with disintermediation. By this I mean the internet’s subversive tendency to make middlemen redundant. Booksellers, music vendors, auction houses and travel agents have all been swept off the high street by Amazon, iTunes, Ebay and Google, leaving nothing more than the click of a mouse between consumer and product.

    Something similar is happening in politics. 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. 71 percent of MPs are now on Twitter, up from 56 percent last year. 83 percent of MPs have a personal website and 11 percent have a blog.

    Not many MPs can boast of over 500,000 hits on YouTube; certainly not for a few lines uttered in the chamber of the Commons during an Opposition Day Debate.

    I can, however. Because for many people around the country, I am best known not as the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, or as the founder of YouGov, but as the MP who went into the chamber wearing a musical tie for charity...and accidentally set it off as I stood up to speak.  

    Amazingly, my tie received coverage as far afield as Australia, India and the Taipei Times. This could not have happened in a pre-internet era where all international news content was filtered through the wires.

    Indeed, an important effect of disintermediation is that our political audience is increasingly global. Since anyone, anywhere in the world can read British papers or access Parliamentary debates online, the government’s message is no longer just for domestic consumption - especially given the status of English as a lingua franca.

    President Rouhani of Iran recently demonstrated what an awareness of a global audience can achieve. Last month on his English language twitter feed he tweeted a Rosh Hashanah greeting. Whatever your views on Iran, this was clever PR which helped cement the Western media narrative of Rouhani as a moderate, a man with whom we can do business. 

    It’s telling that the Israelis chose to counter this narrative by publishing a spoof LinkedIn profile of Rouhani on Twitter today. 

    For an example of how not to do it, I would point to the way the Home Office handled the London Metropolitan University immigration fiasco last year. Even though it didn’t come to that, the prospect of legitimate students facing deportation was deeply damaging to our reputation abroad, at a time when we’re trying to grow our share of the international student market.

    Disintermediation has also had consequences for party discipline. In the days when party HQ controlled access to airtime, MPs who wanted national coverage were obliged to stick closely to the line. Now dissenting voices have a range of online outlets through which to make their views known. If an MP is thinking about defying the whip, email means local party members can be sounded out at short notice.

    Email also helps with the logistics of rebellion. The time was that party whips could scent trouble merely by observing who was gathering with whom in the MPs’ tearoom. Now support can be canvassed electronically without anyone having to leave the safety of their office.

    And once the vote happens, a rebel can explain his or her reasoning to the grassroots on sites like ConHome, Lib Dem Voice and Labour Uncut.     

    This may help explain why the last session of Parliament was the most rebellious one on record.    

    My colleague Douglas Carswell has argued eloquently in support of this trend. He suggests that a digitally engaged electorate and a more independent political class will result in a culture of ‘hyper-accountability. That is, in a world where the public track our every move online, and where MPs are engaged in a constant dialogue with constituents, we will be forced to become more responsive to their views.

    Douglas even goes so far as to predict the demise of the hierarchical political party. In the future, instead of the whips telling us how to vote, it will be the voters themselves.

    The Syria vote is a case study of iDemocracy at work.

    Social media, online polling and email allowed the public to make their feelings known to Parliament in real time, and I would argue that many MPs voted as they would’ve done if Britain had been a direct democracy.

    On the Government side, the Prime Minister urged MPs to watch the footage of the gas attack on YouTube before making up their minds.

    In my view this development is a mixed blessing. While a stronger role for Parliament is undoubtedly a good thing, representative democracy exists for a good reason: namely, to build long-termism into the system. 

    Speed

    The need to resist short-term populist decision-making is all the more important given the way in which the internet has accelerated the news cycle. And this brings me onto my next theme: speed.

    There’s no doubt that digital technology has made our world faster. Look at what’s happened in finance. High frequency trading firms now pay exchanges to locate their computers in the same room as the exchange’s server. This allows them to exploit split-second price movements in the time it takes data to reach other traders across the world. 

    The banking crash tore through the financial system at such speed because of the sheer number of counterparty relationships binding the network together. News spreads fastest of all on Twitter for the same reason: everyone in the Westminster village follows everyone else. 

    What MPs sometimes forget is that Twitter is not the public. Polling shows that the reaction on Twitter to a news event doesn’t always correspond to a nationally representative sample, as people are more likely to tweet when they wish to vent strong feelings. A Twitterstorm which engulfs Westminster for several hours will usually turn out to be a flash-in-the-pan as far as the outside world is concerned. 

    The speed at which Twitter and the blogosphere operate forces the political class to think ever faster. Private Eye comes out once a week, the Guido Fawkes blog is updated five times a day.

    There’s an important question about whether this has contracted Westminster’s attention span. Are we spending more time on honing our rebuttals than on policy development work?

    But the impact of faster communications goes beyond Westminster. As we’ve seen in the Middle East, social media is highly effective at mobilising crowds at short notice. During the London riots BlackBerry Messenger played a pivotal role in coordinating the mob. Movements with a tradition of rallies and protests - such as the Greens and the far-right, can now organise political flash mobs in response to news events.

    Look at Balcombe. Once Caudrilla’s experimental drilling made national news, a small local protest rapidly snowballed into the green Glastonbury: complete with wigwams, druids, human chains, and the arrest of Caroline Lucas MP.

    Of course the tactics on the ground are still highly traditional, what’s new is the speed at which such a protest can be organised.

    The pace of the online news cycle also has consequences for our foreign policy.  You may remember talk of a ‘CNN effect’ in the ’90s. This was the idea that 24 hour news and widely available footage of horrific overseas atrocities would increasingly drive Western foreign policy.  

    Now we have a ‘YouTube effect’. Smartphones and the internet mean that CNN or the BBC no longer have to be physically present for massacred bodies to make their way onto our screens. At the Commons debate on Syria, the main intelligence controversy was about regime culpability; anyone who had actually seen the footage was in little doubt that this was a chemical weapons attack.

    For this reason, it’s vital that Western governments have a comprehensive foreign policy strategy, even if they want to concentrate on domestic affairs. If they don’t, they’ll be constantly reactive to the ‘YouTube effect’, constantly making it up as they go along.

    For a recent example of this, take the uncertainty of our response to the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. We had plenty of amateur footage of the army firing at crowds of Islamists, but we didn’t have an agreed message for the Arab world.  

    Choice

    I turn now from speed to choice. Individual choice is encoded into the very fabric of the web, which is why I believe the centre-right have so much to gain from the internet.  

    Most obviously, the public have a choice between old and new media.

    The relationship between the two is complex. The polling shows that the public trust television, newspapers and online media in exactly that order. Yet the old media are picking up ever more news stories online from online sources.  

    At the same time, the papers have adopted an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude, with many weekly columnists now keeping a daily blog. It’s worth asking whether this allows them to bring more pressure to bear against their political targets - as in Dan Hodges’ long-running campaign against Ed Miliband - or whether repeat servings of the same argument deadens the impact of their message. 

    As any reader of Guido Fawkes will know, the blogosphere is less troubled by a sense of propriety than older media. Partisanship is explicit, and victims can be harried mercilessly. Yet the format also allows for in-depth discussion of issues which wouldn’t usually make it onto the evening news. Take Guido’s campaign against trade union Pilgrims, or ConHome’s dogged pursuit of Conservative Party membership figures.

    As I’ve implied, it may be that the Twitterverse and blogosphere are really just new ways for Westminster to talk to itself. Yet while it’s true that online political commentary is dominated by Westminster insiders, the difference is that conversations which once took place in the Commons tea room or in institutions like this, now increasingly play out in full public view online. 

    The Westminster bubble still exists, but the public can now peep in.

    Not only is internet-driven choice reshaping the media environment, it’s also remoulding the political landscape.

    It may be a coincidence that mass web participation has occurred alongside the rise of fringe parties, but I think not.

    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. 

    Closer to home we have the UKIP phenomenon. In spite of the popular stereotype of UKIP members as backward-looking and distrustful of modernity, the party is actually a formidable online campaigner.

    Lacking a local branch network, where members can meet face to face, UKIP are well versed in the use of social media and online campaign tools. This may explain why, at the last election, UKIP voters were more likely to have received online contact about how they voted than Tory, Labour or Lib Dem voters.

    Mr Farage’s well-crafted harangues in the Brussels Parliament are pitched not to the traditional broadcast media, but to an online audience prepared to listen for five or six minutes on YouTube. Even some of the gaffes seem as though they were designed to go viral.   

    But the internet doesn’t just provide single-issue groups with new campaigning methods. By eliminating physical distance it also brings single-minded people together. Mr Farage’s constituency isn’t a place, it’s a mindset. 

    Once, anyone who passionately believed in EU withdrawal would join their local branch of the Conservative Party, even though this wasn’t official party policy. In doing so they would be signing up to a broad programme of centre-right policy, much of which they would agree with but some of which they would not.

    The internet means that ideological purists no longer have to compromise in this way. If they want to be politically active they can sign up to Green or UKIP mailing lists, follow their MEPs on Twitter, and debate the issues on party message boards - all from the comfort of their own home.  

    Of course, internet activism doesn’t necessarily translate to boots on the ground, knocking on doors. Only a local party infrastructure can give you that. The lesson from the Obama machine is that online campaign tools are effective only insofar as they result in offline political activity.

    Yet even as the parties get to grips with online campaigning, political activity is increasingly taking place outside of traditional party structures.

    Amazon and iTunes have succeeded by offering their customers absolute choice, however obscure their interests happen to be. At the click of a mouse, these sites allow the user access to virtually anything their respective markets have to offer.

    Now, through online campaign groups with interests ranging from beer duty to the state of the bee population, politics too caters to the specialist and the niche interest. 

    As any Coalition MP will tell you, the most successful lobbying campaign of this Parliament was not over NHS reform, the Syria vote, or even the pasty tax. Rather, it was the government’s plans to privatise the Forestry Commission estate. 

    The group responsible for that campaign was 38 Degrees, which I think any reasonable commentator would describe as left-leaning. Yet the campaign was successful because it reached across party lines, uniting rural Tories, anti-capitalists and seemingly everyone in between. Before the first vote in the House, the group had collected half a million signatures for their petition and mobilised 100,000 supporters to email their MP.

    This e-onslaught was followed by a second wave of follow-up emails at which point, just as our inboxes were crying for mercy, the Government abandoned the policy.

    The scale of response to such an obscure and technical bit of DEFRA’s policy programme was  unprecedented. Online campaigns are able to generate such large volumes of correspondence by effectively automating the process. Supporters are given pre-scripted emails, all they have to do is fill in their name and address and click send.

    This may seem crude, but in terms of generating public engagement in policy, internet lobbying stands in stark contrast to the official consultation process.

    E-petitions have also proven successful in stoking public interest in legislation, though it’s worth recognising that the most successful e-petitions tend to be backed by influential MPs prepared to do the old-fashioned legwork of lobbying ministers and tabling private members bills.

    There have been countless petitions for a reduction in fuel duty, but most sunk without a trace until my colleague Robert Halfon got behind the issue.

    Information

    Finally, and most importantly, the internet means we are all better informed about politics.   

    And it’s a two way street. For not only are the public better informed about us, but we’re better informed about the public.

    Public opinion used to be like a fine Scotch whisky: sipped and savoured occasionally. Today, we’re deluged in polling data.

    Though I would say this, online polling has made a major contribution in this regard. Not only does it deliver results faster and cheaper, but repeat surveys of a regular online panel allow us to build up more sophisticated profiles of voter preferences over time.  

    Crucially, this means it’s much harder for politicians to make unsupported assertions about public opinion, since there will always be polling evidence to test it against.

    At the start of the Suez Crisis the Eden government was able to claim it enjoyed majority support for military action. This was based on feedback from Conservative associations and analysis of letters to the press. In an age of online polling such a crude approach to public opinion would be laughed out of court.   

    Now, the polls are increasingly feeding into the decision-making.

    When I was chief executive of YouGov, on the eve of the Iraq vote in Parliament, I received a phone-call from Number 10. They wanted YouGov to hand over the results of a poll we’d conducted for ITN and the Telegraph, which showed that a slim majority of the public supported military action.

    Number 10 wanted to circulate the results to Labour MPs before the vote, hoping convert the undecided at the eleventh hour. Since the data was owned by the companies which had commissioned the poll, I refused, although the Telegraph and ITN did go on to give their permission. In any case, support for the war soon evaporated once the insurgency began.

    A post-Iraq desire for consensus may explain why polling drives so much of contemporary political debate.

    Another factor is that the cost of conducting online polls is now low enough that single-issue groups can afford to carry them out.

    There are some who argue that public opinion should have an even greater role in policymaking.  But again, I am sceptical of digital direct democracy.

    I say this because my own experience in the polling industry has taught me what a complex, multi-dimensional thing public opinion is.

    A famous example is the polling on seatbelts in cars. Before seatbelts were made compulsory for rear passengers in 1991, polling showed that a majority of the population were opposed to the change, in spite of overwhelming evidence that it would save lives. When the same poll was conducted again a month after the policy had become law, a majority of the public were now in favour.

    It’s essential to know what the public think of your policies at any given moment, but polls can only tell you how you should communicate what you want to do. They can’t tell you what you should do. Every policy creates a minority of losers, yet it’s always the losers who are best organised and most vocal, particularly in an online arena.

    There are times when we as elected representatives have to lead public opinion rather than follow it.

    But we do need to get better at listening to the public, not only because the technology allows us to, but because the public are better informed.

    Wikipedia may go down in the history as the single most important document of the early 21st Century.

    The total text of the English version is equivalent to 1,900 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and of course it’s free. And unlike a traditional encyclopaedia, which is geared towards passive consumption of facts, Wikipedia - with its array of hyperlinked references - invites active investigation and research.

    As Chuka has discovered through his forays into Wiki-editing, the internet also provides a permanent, readily searchable record of everything politicians have said and done.

    The MySociety project TheyWorkforYou.com provides users with a ‘digital dossier’ of their local MP, including their voting record, contributions to Parliamentary debates and contact details. It also allows users to search debates by keyword, and in terms of user-friendliness, it puts the official online Hansard to shame.

    At YouGov we have an index tracking public levels of trust in the people and institutions which make up what used to be called the Establishment: doctors, the BBC, senior civil servants, trade union leaders and so on. What the index shows is that public trust has fallen across the board over the last ten years, irrespective of profession.

    I think it’s significant that public trust has been falling at a time when internet use has been rising. Though I wouldn’t suggest a direct causal relationship, it’s clear that the internet offers competing alternatives to an official view of the world. 

    Most people I know will google their symptoms before visiting a GP, for example. It’s also notable that a wave of climate change scepticism has coincided with mass web participation.

    And not only do people have access to more information it’s also physically harder for the Establishment to keep secrets secret. Twenty years ago it would have been virtually impossible to leak MPs’ expenses data to the Telegraph: you would have needed several large wheelbarrows to smuggle all the paperwork out of Parliament. Fastforward to Wikileaks, where Private Manning was able to copy 250,000 secret diplomatic cables onto one CD disguised as a Lady Gaga album.

    I would argue that all this has dragged transparency out of the wonkish end of politics and made it into a mainstream political theme. Wikileaks is merely the fundamentalist wing of a more general cultural pressure for more openness in government. 

    Tony Blair’s answer to the question of transparency was the Freedom of Information Act. Labour envisioned a legion of citizen journalists firing off FoIs, forcing government to raise its game.

    That’s not what happened of course. FoIs are used largely by politicians, journalists or lobby groups looking to embarrass the government of the day. This is an honest enough purpose, but we shouldn’t pretend that FoIs about making public services better, or stimulating democratic engagement.  

    FoIs were supposed to be an innovation, but there’s already something very archaic about them. They belong to an analogue world of paper filing cabinets, where the default setting is that public information is hidden from public view.   

    FoIs may be contrasted with the Coalition’s open data approach to transparency.

    Instead of data being yielded grudgingly, piecemeal and at vast public expense, the Government’s basic philosophy is that data produced from the citizen with their money is owned by the citizen and should therefore be made available to the citizen.

    The public can now access crime maps for their neighbourhood, every government contract over £25,000 is now published, and all local authority spending over £500.

    But open data isn’t just about making government more accountable, it’s also about making it more useful. The UK public sector has one of the biggest and most coherent datasets of any country in the world. Think of NHS patient data, or the National Pupil Database.

    The state is very good at collecting data, but not very good at knowing what to do with it, which is why public sector information should be available to entrepreneurs and data-scientists outside of government.

    My colleague Stephan Shakespeare, who led an independent review into the Government’s data strategy, has recommended the routine publication of all non-personal public sector data for anyone to use as they see fit. The Shakespeare review estimated the direct value of public sector information in the UK at £1.8 billion, with wider social and economic benefits of up to £6.8 billion, at a conservative estimate.

    In the 20th Century the US Government and its agencies created the original protocols for the internet, then handed over control to industry and academia. Open data is the next phase of that revolution.

    ***

    I started this lecture by saying what I think the internet has not changed politics, and I want to close on that theme too.

    What the internet has failed to do for our democracy is reach those parts of the population who are already politically disengaged, especially the young people who are more digitally literate than everyone in this room.

    By and large, the people who read Guido and follow their MP on Twitter are exactly the same people who watch the Andrew Marr Show and listen to Any Questions on Radio 4.  

    In the digital age politics is faster, better informed, more direct and offers more choice, but the internet has not yet provided us with an answer to the question of how we burst the Westminster bubble.

    Earlier I said that the public can now peep in to Westminster. The challenge for us now is how do we turn the Westminster peepshow into a great orgy of public engagement?  

    Thank you. 

    Date added: Wednesday 25th September 2013