Feature: How Westminster strangles Twitter and its friends
Twitter and other social media are being stifled in Westminster and beyond. And British politics itself – its institutions, its parties, its individuals – is to blame.
"The interesting relationship to understand," says Dr Nick Anstead, a lecturer on political communications at the London School of Economics, "is the interaction between new technologies and existing institutions." He's one of the leading experts on this seminal issue for modern politics. "Do these institutions facilitate or retard the potential, innate capability of technology?"
The answer, as Anstead and indeed any academic would put it, is inevitably complex. There are "different impacts in different environments". But a broad trend soon emerges which seems inescapable. Parliament, and Britain's particularly closed style of politics, is not helping matters. Not at all.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Social media, internet blogs and news sites have been feted as having helped democratise politics. They certainly achieved this in the States, where Barack Obama harnessed new media's potential in his journey to the White House in 2012. The 2010 general election, by contrast, was more notable for its TV debates than its Twitter hashtags. "Maybe in the future there'll be no need for politicians to have a physical presence in parliament," Professor John Street of the University of East Anglia muses. "But there's no speedy movement in that direction for now."
The idea of a prime minister's questions where the chamber is made up of lots of little screens of MPs shouting from their sofas seems like an improbable science-fiction fantasy for now. Fortunately for the sketchwriters, there will always be a need for that physical contact, that human presence, in the Commons chamber. The many corridors of the Palace, for furtive conversations and secret plotting, are just as important.
Still, parliament has taken some small baby steps towards embracing new media. Tablets – well, alright, the iPad – were admitted into the chamber for the first time recently. MPs have been permitted to broadcast their views to the nation on Twitter from the green benches. For a chamber which refused to allow television cameras inside until the 1980s, this was a significant move.
For a 21st century representative chamber, though, as Hansard Society director Dr Ruth Fox acknowledges, parliament is struggling to keep up. On the one hand, "there are certain things the House has got to move with the times on". On the other, "the nature of engagement has changed so fast that it's difficult to discern what's next". As you'd expect of any body which is many centuries old, parliament simply can't move with the rapid pace of modern times.
Running the Commons is a "cumbersome operation", for sure. Then there's the problem that parliament as an institution has a huge weakness – who can speak for it? "It has to be more neutral in its approach," Fox says. "So there's a risk it's duller, and therefore less engaging."
Engagement, of course, is what new media is all about. Which is why the coalition's introduction of an e-petitions system has proved so exciting to campaigners. It's also why it will ultimately prove so disappointing.
E-petitions are "problematic", Anstead – full of understatement – says carefully. They seemed like a great idea. But the public couldn't be stopped from leaping to the conclusion that, if they put their name to a online signature, they could help change the government's policy. Or, if 100,000 people signed an e-petition, the matter might even get debated in parliament. Neither of these are actually true. We're in a representative democracy, not a participatory one. Anstead puts it another way. "In a parliamentary democracy, what does it actually mean?" he asks. "The answer is pretty much nothing."
Part of the problem is that the e-petitions operate under terms controlled by the government, which leaves the everyday running of the show to parliament. "There's a constitutional tension – whose system is it?" Fox asks. It's MPs who have to pick up the problems of expectations management. The Hansard Society has some bright ideas to help them with this. Rather than a simple Commons debate, some issues might be better dealt with by being looked at via an inquiry, or a legislative debate, or a public bill committee.
With e-petitions it is the suffocating influence of the government that stands in the way of parliament doing its own thing. That reflects a much broader theme – that the way we do our politics is preventing us from making the most of new media. Why, for example, has new media not had the same impact it has in the US?
It's the fluidity of the American party system that made it so potent across the pond. Not so much here, where the political system is thoroughly centralised in Westminster. If there were genuinely free primary elections in Britain outspoken outsiders like Douglas Carswell, the Tory backbencher with a radical vein on these issues, might be able to make a difference. "In the UK," Anstead says, "that's unimaginable. Beyond Westminster patronage, there is no way for someone to be head of the party."
Political outcomes, he argues, are generated by the interactions between different levels of power. There are lots of levels of power in the US, and very few of them in Britain. As Anstead puts it: "It's very hard to inject these mechanisms into the political system."
New media is finding its greatest utility in British politics at the edges of the established way of doing things. Take young people, who, Street's research shows, are engaged with political issues but put off by the UK's political culture. They're not impressed with ideas like the much-mocked #AskEdM, for example. Instead, the use of new media for alternative types of politics – as the Occupy and UK Uncut movements have shown – seems more promising. They wouldn't like it to be put like this, but their brand gives them a sense of identity. The fast pace of new media offers them logistical advantages, too, when the police have to be dealt with. "Each new innovation is exploited by the frustrated outsiders of the fringe," Street says.
What progress is being made, then, comes in spite of British political institutions, not because of it. The practice of 'narrow casting', in which parties try to target their messages at specific sections of society, has been refined as a result of the online age. New media's more general influence on the 2010 election was in the demand for instant polling after the televised debates and the greater impact of the 24-hour news cycle. "Those who say there were only 80,000 people tweeting about the debates – well, that analysis is short-sighted," Anstead says.
The utility of engagement has its limits, too. Most people don't want to get involved in politics because, frankly, they're not that bothered. "This enfranchises the usual suspect, the loudest voices," Fox says, "but doesn't do very much at all for those who don't fit into these categories." Underlining the need to get people involved can sometimes be missing the point.
None of this is especially new. But these unresolved, equivocal attitudes to engagement by parliament, the parties and the government are becoming increasingly at odds with the expectations of many. New media remains an exciting, interesting, potentially revolutionary presence. Yet despite all the fuss made about it, it has yet to smash down the doors barring it from a fuller role in British politics. For that, we've only got the system to blame.