Over the past few years, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has continually predicted a revolution in the way politics is undertaken given the rise of the internet. In a recent Spectator blog, he wrote: "Politics in the West, I speculate in my book on iDemocracy published last year, is going to be ‘shaped by groups of like-minded people, mobilising online."
Some economic research published by Filipe R. Campante, Ruben Durante, Francesco Sobbrio in an NBER Working Paper examines the effect of the internet on political participation in Italy, and shows how the web has changed the nature of politics there.
Their headline results suggest that the roll out of broadband internet between 1996 and 2008 had a negative effect on ordinary political participation. But at the same time, it was positively associated with other forms of political participation, both online and offline: the emergence of local online grassroots protest movements, and turnout in national referenda (largely opposed by mainstream parties). One suspects the internet had a key role in the development of other grass-roots movements, like the Tea Party in the US.
From 2008, the coalescing of these grassroots movements, made easier of course by the internet, into the Five Star Movement, enhanced ordinary political participation of disenchanted groups.
The key lesson? The internet can prove an effective tool in mobilising grassroots campaigning and issue politics, but this build up over time can effectively be brought back into mainstream politics, bringing previously disengaged voters with it. It suggests that there is likely to be a large political pay-off to political parties and groupings who are able to both facilitate and bring together a wide coalition of campaign groups.
The point about picking up previously disenfranchised voters is particularly interesting. In recent weeks Ukip have claimed that they are doing this effectively, but it's unclear how much of this is down to mastery of the internet on their part.
This got me thinking about a quote I'd read from previous CPS Director Alfred Sherman in his book 'The Paradoxes of Power':
“There is a populist mood, which does not fit neatly into the hallowed Left-Right or liberal-conservative antitheses. Margaret Thatcher had too much respect for political proprieties to articulate this mood, at least not consistently and consciously; but part of the continued appeal arises from the sense that she understood it. Despite all the years of isolation in Downing Street, she never lost touch with her roots in Grantham. The world has changed significantly since her childhood, but the outlook persists. It is defensive and plebeian, anti-authority yet authoritarian. Recently it has been felt in Dianamania, the fuel tax revolt, and the wide sympathy for Tony Martin, who shot an intruder in his farmhouse. It favours strong penal policies, and sees the common, law-abiding man as the underdog. It is reflected in changing attitudes to identity cards, which the public approves and distrusts by turns as the argument shifts from protection against fraud and violent crime to the preservation of traditional liberties. In the near future it might foment an upsurge of English nationalism. The English have watched with tolerance verging on indifference as the Scots and Welsh have been given a privileged constitutional position and a share of resources to match. But there is no certainty that this mood will not turn into resentment, and merge with opposition to absorption into a federal European Union. Then, almost anything might happen.”
It seems remarkably prescient given the recent rise of Ukip through the polls.
Tapping into a popular mood through an authentic conservative voice was one of the key successes of Thatcherism. Might the internet, as Carswell suggests, be the correct medium through which to re-build this broad network of supporters? This new research gives some indication of its growing importance.