East meets Westminster: Is social media prompting a new dawn of rebellion?
00:00 18 October 2012
POLITICS is dead - or so believes MP Douglas Carswell, writes Richard Porritt.
The maverick member for Clacton writes in his new book The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy about how people have less say on what actually happens in the UK than ever before.
And he blames the plummeting number of people who can actually be bothered to vote on this among other things.
But the good news is that after playing a leading role in the Arab Spring, social media is now turning its rebellious attentions to Western politics.
In the book he writes: “As a process of deciding how most Western democracies are governed, politics has come to an end. Of course elections still happen. Candidates keep running for office. The winners make speeches. But those whom voters elect in Britain, America, Japan and Europe no longer decide what government does.”
Now, anyone who has read any interviews with Mr Carswell or flicked through his previous book – the highly influential The Plan: 12 Months to Renew Britain – will recognise this anti-big government rhetoric.
But does he have a point?
Mr Carswell goes on to highlight YouGov stats which state a huge distrust of politicians by the very people who voted for them. Supposedly only 15% of people think their MP is doing a good job and a massive 62% think MPs lie all the time. Even more worryingly almost 60% think that it makes no difference what party actually wins.
It is true that the choice between Conservative and Labour is not what it once was. Tony Blair must take the blame (or praise depending on your view point) for this merging which has continued at pace with the Tories under David Cameron.
Third Way politics – although rarely mentioned these days – is alive and well and camped in Westminster. With it though came a distinct lack of personality.
After Neil Kinnock quit as Labour leader an overhaul of the party began. Upstarts like Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair recognised the party had to change if it wanted to ever govern again and that meant capturing a great swathe of soft Tory voters.
New Labour did this with such gusto their success threatened to wipe the Tories off the political map. But they were also the most obsessive, paranoid and controlling administration in living memory. MPs were routinely fed lines to ensure no-one was off message.
At first this obsession appeared successful – the New Labour media machine had everyone onside, marshalled and cajoled by heavy weights like Alastair Campbell. But soon the public became savvy to this mass, media management.
Speaking to East meets Westminster Mr Carswell said: “The peak of MPs being controlled came in the 1990s – people were fed a line and expected to be on message. But this is not the way it should be.”
Mr Carswell’s main point is a vote has very little influence on things at a local level. But he also believes that from the ashes of old politics something far more healthy will rise.
“Back in 1910 when Harry Newton won Harwich he was able to meet large numbers of the people who he would represent. Those people were able to make a decision about how they would vote based on the man himself rather than a load of party lines,” he said.
“When I was elected – because of the much larger electorate – this would have been impossible. But now a change is happening and it is technology-driven.
“People can now ask questions of their MPs instantly. And from the answers they can make a decision. And for MPs the real feeling in the constituency is becoming easier to gage.”
But what is actually happening is more than just people having easier access to their elected members. A seismic shift could be about to occur and Mr Carswell predicts it will leave chief whips waking up in cold sweats for generations to come.
“It has been claimed that this is a very rebellious set of Tory backbenches,” he said. “But actually it is MPs doing their jobs. When the vote came over Europe and scores of MPs defied the leadership it was not because we wanted to see our own side defeated, it was not some plot – it was us listening to what our constituents were telling us.”
This throws up major problems for party leaders and ambitious MPs going forward. Any party in power runs the risk of immediately becoming disjointed when they enter Downing Street as ministers do as they are told by the leader and backbenchers get brave enough to follow the public will en masse.
“If MPs can look a chief whip in the eye and say ‘I know what my constituents want, because they have told me in their thousands’ what possible grounds could they have for not defying a three-line whip?”
Coalition government was always going to leave elements unhappy and the risk of further rebellions looms large for this administration. But with a healthy dose of iDemocracy MPs can now stand up to their own parties with the confidence that their people back home will not punish them for it.
Rebellions prompted by people power are possibly the most democratic thing that ever happens in Westminster. British politics may not, then, be dead. It may in fact be resurrected.
Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.