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A cautious welcome to the new iDemocracy

The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy - review.

The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy
Douglas Carswell
Biteback Publishing, 288pp, £12.99

The significance of this book lies not in its predictable right-wing views (“The west is broke; in Britain, America and most of Europe, governments have spent so much that entire countries face bankruptcy,” and so on) but rather in its discussion of the future of democracy, particularly what the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell calls “iDemocracy” (internet democracy).

Carswell makes a series of arresting claims about iDemocracy. Thanks to the internet, he argues, “Politics is being re-personalised.” By enabling – and, increasingly, obliging – politicians to communicate directly with their voters, two things are happening: a dramatically new form of direct accountability is being introduced and individual politicians are being liberated from party machines.

“There is suddenly scope for that which is distinctive, niche, particular and local,” argues Carswell. “More and more politicians – even under the umbrella of the generic party brands – are starting to carve out their own identities.” Furthermore, “Digital communication not only brings the politician closer to the voter, it brings the voter up close and personal to the politician. And this means hyper-accountability.”

Carswell believes that Twitter, blogs and the many other new forms of instant and online electronic communication are entirely changing the shape of politics. For the politician, there no longer has to be an intermediary – whether that is a political party machine or a newspaper or a broadcaster – and the opportunities for stamping out diversity are reduced. Conversely, voters can and do connect with politicians and decision-makers, as well as with each other, as never before.
Carswell extends this argument to suggest that political parties and the infrastructure of democratic politics may be about to collapse in favour of a Tea Party-type individualism. “I suspect there is a big future in politics without hierarchical parties,” he writes, “and perhaps even without parties.”

I don’t buy this future without parties. Political activity requires aggregation, particularly if it is focused on government. People tend to aggregate by broad opinions and parties are the result. Only in presidential and mayoral systems is it possible to make much impact as a genuine independent and even in such cases few independents are really so. As for insurgents challenging existing party hierarchies, parties have always been vulnerable to those, as Labour activists with a memory going back to the 1970s or 1980s or any Tory who has dealt with Ukip and anti-European campaigns for a generation now can attest.

The electoral system has a far bigger impact on the party system than technology. For as long as Britain persists with first-past-the-post in general elections, the two major national parties are unlikely to be supplanted. Maybe they will become more obviously franchise operations, less able to exert and maintain discipline in their ranks. Yet their national leaderships have always been more like franchise operations than is generally recognised (compare and contrast the Conservatives under Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher or Labour under Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair – or go back to William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century).

As for parliamentary rebellions and “independence”, the driver here appears to me less technology than political survival. When MPs lack confidence that their leaders will ensure their survival, these leaders soon lose a large measure of control, as Michael Foot found in 1981 and David Cameron is discovering today. I am more persuaded that iDemocracy will change the way that politicians do politics.

A word of caution here, too. Most of the politicians who have made an internet name for themselves are precisely the kind of edgy nonconformists – such as Carswell himself – who were always pretty good at using the airwaves, newspaper columns and the Commons to the same effect. But, as yet, no mainstream politician has projected a political personality or even a significant political campaign by means of iDemocracy alone. The only minister who has made much Twitter impact is Grant Shapps, recently appointed Conservative Party Chairman. So, iDemocracy is still a supplement, not a substitute, for conventional politics.

As a new iDemocrat, who uses Twitter and runs a website, I am struck that most of the traffic coming my way is either from individuals I already know or have met in passing who use these means to get in touch; or it is from campaigns and campaigners who tweet instead of using pen and (green) ink. I am deluged with anti-HS2 campaigners, most of them anonymous and with a few dozen followers if that, but it wasn’t as if I was unaware of their existence beforehand.

However, cutting out the intermediary and giving a new platform to the individual clearly creates new political opportunities. By making it much easier for politicians to communicate with their voters and/or their partisans and vice versa, iDemocracy vastly increases the quantity of interaction. The big question is whether it can also raise the quality and breadth of interaction – that is, whether it can deepen democratic engagement and bring into the political world those who have been largely or entirely disengaged hitherto.

There is some evidence that it is doing both. As one of my Twitter followers responded when I asked for views on this review: “Public has never been able to be so well informed or able to interact with influencers.” Another reported that 46 per cent of ABC1s and 20 per cent of 55-to-65-year-olds are now in social networks, proportions that have doubled in the past three years.

Again, to some extent this is back to the future. Twenty years ago, almost everyone watched the BBC and ITV and most people picked up at least some “news” thereby. A few years hence, they will mostly be on Twitter and the like and pick up a bit of news in that way. The difference is that much more of it will be personalised. If, because it is personalised, it genuinely engages with steadily more people, then it could yield a new generation of constructive political activists whom the parties and the pressure groups, large and small, are currently not reaching. Or, at least, let’s hope so.

Andrew Adonis is the author of “Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools” (Biteback Publishing, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.