Anti-politics and the rise and rise of online democracy

Douglas Carswell
FROM Eastleigh to Italy, the anti-politics message is the same. New insurgent parties have broken through, gaining a significant slice of the political market. In Italy, blogger Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement won over a quarter of the vote. Over here, UKIP came a strong second in the Eastleigh by-election, beating the Conservatives into third place.

There have been plenty of pundits telling us what this means about austerity. Or bank bailouts. Or the Euro. But what does it tell us about the future of democracy? “It’s all just a protest vote,” insist the legions of pet pundits in both London and Rome. Yes, they were protesting. But why?

Throughout the West, a growing number of people seem to see politicians as all the same. On many of the big issues – austerity, bank bailouts, the EU – they feel powerless. There is a powerful sense that the political class in both Rome and London (and Brussels) are “all in it together”.

Anti-politics and austerity alone cannot account for the emergence of the Five Star Movement or UKIP. What we are seeing is a consequence of the internet. Everything that the internet touches it changes. Barriers to entry come down. Established operators face competition from nimble upstarts. So, too, in politics.

A political party exists to aggregate votes and opinion. Yet we are moving to a world in which the internet allows people to aggregate ideas and opinion – and increasingly votes – without having to have a well- resourced party machine behind them. Mainstream parties in Britain endlessly belly ache about what they perceive as the inevitable decline in the number of citizens prepared to join them. Perhaps they should instead recognise that, thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to build a mass membership organisation. See Grillo. It is the established parties, not the people no longer joining them, that have got it wrong.

It is not only mass membership that the new insurgents have started to do better. In the age of Twitter and email, it is possible to build a distinctive brand. New players can get their message across on equal terms to the established players – as well as appealing to the niche, distinctive, particular and the local.

Too much of what the old, established parties do is simply too generic and bland. Aimed at everyone, it is authentic to none. Faced with the new competition, these political parties will either have to adapt, or carry on losing market share. They must become “open source” platforms for citizen activists. Established parties need to adopt open primary candidate selection, so that everyone has a say over who represents them. They need to allow online debate and discussion, giving all members a voice on policy, not just a tiny clique of career politicos.

Parties need to redefine the concept of membership. It ought to be possible to be part of something, without subscribing to every comma and dot of what the party hierarchy purports to believe. Until they learn how to harness the mood of anti-politics, established political parties will be its victim.

Douglas Carswell is Conservative MP for Clacton. His book on iDemocracy was published in November 2012 by Biteback.