Was it the UK’s first internet election?

The UK Hansard Society's new report on the role of the internet in the UK election is a useful factual analysis. But what political conclusions should be drawn?

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

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The UK Hansard Society’s (1) new report – 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey: The Internet in the UK Election, launched on 23 July 2001 – is as good a factual analysis as one could hope for. But what conclusions should be drawn from it?

There are widespread assumptions among politicians and commentators that the internet will invigorate the political process – summed up by Tony Blair’s opening statement in the report: ‘I believe that the information revolution can revitalise our democracy’ (2). Hansard’s Dr Stephen Coleman, editor of the report, is more measured. ‘The fact that politics has not been transformed…because of the internet is not a surprise or a disappointment’, he argues in the opening chapter entitled ‘Great expectations’. ‘After all, the mighty medium of television…has had no such effect.’

But despite Dr Coleman’s reservations, the report is on the whole optimistic. Dr Coleman believes that ‘the internet is reshaping politics’, in more subtle ways than is often assumed (3) – a view endorsed by commentators on a panel discussion to launch the report.

Singer Billy Bragg claimed that the internet allowed ‘the individual outside politics’, who feels disengaged from the political process, to effect change. Chris Quigley, from the political humour website spinon (4), said that the internet allowed you to ‘use humour to engage people in politics’. For Guardian writer Polly Toynbee, the internet means that ‘you feel you can own a little piece of the election’.

Much of the discussion revolved around vote-swapping websites, such as (5) and Billy Bragg’s own (6). Bragg claimed that he was inspired by American environmentalists’ ‘Nader Trader’ websites that enjoyed publicity during the 2000 US election (7). Toynbee was thrilled by innovations in vote-swapping, explaining proudly that she herself had swapped her vote online.

But is this really an example of the internet ‘reshaping politics’? Tactical voting has become fashionable, both in the UK and in the USA, and online vote-swapping is its hippest form. Yet this trend is best understood as a reaction against politics, rather than a fundamental development within politics. With vote-swapping, who you voted for is less important than the fact that you voted tactically to keep the worst man out. It is in the context of a political vacuum, where vote-swapping comes to seem an attractive option, that the internet (which is really just a technical aid to vote swapping, much as postal delivery might be) becomes recast as a political force.

In the 2001 UK general election, anything vaguely ‘political’ online assumed disproportionate importance in the eyes of politicians and the media. This trend was also evident at the launch of 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey, where even Chris Quigley’s tasteless election computer games, like ‘MP in a blender’ (8), were discussed with reverence by the panel. I had assumed that Quigley was nothing more than a mischievous prankster who loved a good laugh. He transpired to be a far more worthy character, claiming that his humour was ‘a format that would make politics accessible to young people’.

If this humour hadn’t been on the internet, at a time when politicians lacking ideas were in thrall to the medium, Quigley’s (admittedly funny) games wouldn’t have merited any serious attention. But in 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey, Coleman talks deferentially about ‘a bush network of populist scoffs and sniggers, unprecedented since the yellow press of the eighteenth century’ (9).

The many MPs present at the launch of the report guffawed, as Quigley’s games were projected on to a giant screen and a cartoon John Prescott was blended into a bloody pulp. It seems that politicians today are so desperate to connect with the public that they can live with any degree of irreverence, as long as it appears to do something to interest people in politics. By the next general election, expect Quigley to be on New Labour’s payroll.

Despite its call for perspective in assessments of the internet, 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey has been published in, and reflects, a climate where the internet is placed on a pedestal by politicians. Coleman claimed at the launch that the ‘real opportunity’ presented by the internet is ‘to connect with the public’, to turn ‘an alienating political process into an interactive, inclusive political process’. But if the UK general election taught us anything, surely it was that the internet could not transform contemporary politics – it could only reflect its dire state in ever-more snazzy ways.

Politicians reading 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey would do well to conclude that web designers should improve their web design – and politicians should focus more on politics, and less on the new technology.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

No votes for e-democracy, by Mark Birbeck

Connecting to what?, by Sandy Starr

(1) See the Hansard Society website

(2) 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey – The Internet in the UK Election, p4

(3) 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey – The Internet in the UK Election, p5

(4) See the spinon website

(5) See the website

(6) See the website

(7) See, for example, the Nader Trader website

(8) See the MP in a blender game

(9) 2001: Cyber Space Odyssey – The Internet in the UK Election, p6

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Topics Politics


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