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Everybody’s Talking at Me
Andy Coote

'It isn't over until the fat lady sings and she hasn't even cleared her throat yet.' Tory Francis Maude

Harry Nillson sang "Everybody’s talking at me but I can’t hear a word they’re saying."
I was reminded of the Harry Nillson song by the volume, in both senses, of the media coverage of the General Election. Perhaps it was caused by the ‘phony election’ in April extending the electioneering rhetoric to breaking point - my breaking point.

Elections are the opportunity for politicians to do what they do best – talk and fight. Party machines crank themselves into action producing press conferences, conversation opportunities with selected ‘real’ people, photo opportunities, sound bites, informal and formal meetings, speeches, websites, manifestoes and a host of stunts – the Labour film trailer comes to mind – and posters. Thousands of politicians begin their own self-publicity drive as they perform on national, regional and constituency stages. All of the training of a politician prepares them for positive preening in front of a grateful electorate. That the electorate gets less grateful with each General Election should be troubling them.

The press, of course, can play it from both sides, reflecting the hype from the Parties and running cynical, world-weary features as well. Some of our newspapers like to believe that they can deliver the result they - and, of course, the country - want. This time the Sun is giving Tony Blair its support but making grumbling noises about Europe, the Mail is supporting William Hague as is, predictably, the Telegraph. In contrast, the Guardian is treading a non-partisan, left-leaning line. The BBC and ITV, required by law to be even-handed, have countless talking heads and phone-in programmes.

This time there is a new dimension. The World Wide Web is playing a limited but unique role in the election story. More voters than ever have access to the Web. The Political Parties, the print press and the broadcasters are making efforts to engage them through the medium. Not only does the Web allow the dissemination of news, policies and spin, it also allows individual voters the opportunity to talk back.
The current Government is evangelising e-Business and e-Government. They have a junior Minister for each. Tony Blair himself has been gushing on the subject, his first online experience appearing to be better than sex. All Government dealings with citizens and businesses are to be available on-line by 2005 which gives New Labour the time to achieve that goal before the next General Election should they get the predicted landslide or just a working majority. Whilst the objective is generally acclaimed it does involve the opening up of hitherto closed Government departments and ‘joining them up’. Departments and their officials have worked long years in semi-isolation and see no pressing reason to change. As a result, joined-up Government may be more difficult to achieve than simply making the technical connections. (The Guardian newspaper states on June 4th that this deadline is nowhere near being met).

The Web will continue to change politics. It allows ‘communities of interest’ to grow, to develop, to share and to debate. The political map of the UK naturally lends itself to division into physical communities such as Regions – both devolved and centrally governed – and parliamentary constituencies. It could also divide into interest groupings around political issues such as crime, asylum, Europe and the New Labour choices, schools and hospitals. Addressing these ‘constituencies’ across the Web will make it possible to give individuals a say in what Government does. There is a precedent. New Labour have consulted on many issues in the past four years and some of these have used the Web to allow citizens and businesses to make their views known.
One current problem with the Web is that it polarises the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Web users tend to come from the more affluent and better-educated parts of the community, from those in employment and from the younger age bands. The ‘Digital Divide’ within the UK is as real as that between the developed and developing nations and must be addressed as part of policies on social inclusion.

Digital TV (DTV) will form a key part of the Government’s plan. Chris Smith has announced the switch off of analogue television services by 2010 at the latest and BSkyB have already decided that 2001 will be the year that they go fully digital. Recently announced Government schemes to provide free DTV and interactive services in areas of most need are likely to become the model for universal digital access in the UK.

For the current election, proxy voting by post has been opened up to anyone who feels that they have a need. By the next election, proxy voting on-line using reliable identification techniques should be open to any voter who wants it over DTV, mobile devices or the Internet. This is entirely in keeping with the current policies of all the main parties. It should please the Greens, too, as it will reduce the petrol consumption of voters driving to the polling stations and reduce the paper required for postal ballots.

By the following election, in 2008 – 2011, there should be an interactive link into almost all households in the UK paving the way for a major shift in the way we vote. To look at where this development might lead us, we have to remember what it is that we are doing at a General Election. We are choosing a representative to go to Parliament and speak for us, to ensure that our views are heard and to report back to us. The reality is that most of us will elect a Party man or woman whose policies will come as a slate. If your representative is from the party for which you vote, at least some of what they do will represent you. If you are voting in a constituency held by another party, you may consider yourself effectively disenfranchised. A Conservative voter in Scotland or Wales or a Socialist in most of the Southern shire counties of England for example have only the slimmest of chances of being represented directly by their own constituency MP.

Instead of this wholesale approach to representation, we could look to on-line technology to help. There is no need to mount a logistical exercise every five years to provide voting cards and polling stations or to have ‘battlebuses’ racing heroically around our motorway system. The electoral roll is now on-line and can be kept current by allowing the voters themselves to maintain their entry. As voting begins, each qualified voter can log in and register their vote. Control systems will check who they are and ensure that they vote only in accordance with the system in operation. The voting system itself can be easily changed according to need from, say, one person, one vote to a single transferable vote. It will be easier to call for voting on a more frequent basis. Government by on-line referendum may actually change the political landscape. The information needed to make reasoned decisions can be made available on-line and through infomedia outlets such as TV programmes supported by additional text, voice and video. The vote can be taken, confirmed and published swiftly after the close of the polls. Easy-to-use, reliable technology will ensure that the result would not be subject to the sorts of problems the US Presidential election suffered in Florida.

How this will change the structure of Government is uncertain. The role of Constituency MPs will certainly change. Their representative role will diminish as voters can represent themselves. They may return to fulfilling a more community based service of the sort that a few, good MPs already supply. How Ministers are selected also becomes a matter of debate. Do they need to be elected politicians? Officials operating in a reformed and more open, ‘joined up’ Civil Service that is directly accountable to the voters could handle much of the policy. The Civil Service could be subject to frequent movement of people to and from the commercial and academic sectors and, if that were so, it may be that officials of senior enough rank and experience could become Ministers of State and Prime Minister. Would there be enough accountability and oversight?
We could, of course, elect the PM directly – perhaps alongside the President of the Republic - but that’s another story.

© Andy Coote – 2001 - Andy's first piece for Hacks

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