Politics and the internet

Later this year will be the 10th anniversary of my first website: a dozen or so static HTML files, livened up with an animated graphic and a Javascript quiz – a little bit of interactivity even back then!

Looking at how my use of the internet for politics since then has multiplied – emails, blogs, more emails, Facebook, yet more emails, Twitter, even more emails, an experiment with Bebo, and yet more emails – I would say I’ve learnt three key things about technology and politics.

First, you don’t have to know how to do the technology – you can get other people to help with that – but understanding what you want out of it and the new opportunities it offers is vital. Second, it helps bring political success – I wouldn’t have got elected an MP without it. And third, as much of the technology has got easier and easier to do, getting the technical details right is – while still important – becoming less important compared with getting your mindset right.

I’m quite taken at the moment with a quote from the American writer Clay Shirky, which makes this last point in a slightly different way – “The revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new tools. It happens when society adopts new behaviours.”

In a way, it’s an explanation of why my website and blog (finally about to get a long over-due overhaul) haven’t been changed much from a technical point in the last few years. Because what matters far more with the blog is my attitude towards blogging, my style in providing and sharing information, my willingness to engage in online debate or not – than whether I should have reallymoved off Google’s Blogger platform by now or not. Of course I’m looking forward to the benefits WordPress will bring – but what really matters is what goes on in my head and at my keyboard than in the lines of blogger software code.

This will be key in my new role heading up the Liberal Democrats’ Technology Board. There is work that needs to be done to continue improving and expanding the party’s use of technology, and in particular the internet, which falls into the category of getting more and better tools. There is a key job of work in tapping into the pool of expertise amongst our members and supporters in writing, improving and supporting our tools. But above all, it is a matter of changing the way we think and act, so that we more fully embrace the more open, more collaborative, more sharing outlook that is about engaging – not lecturing – and is, for an increasing number of people, an instinctive part of the way they lead their lives, and they expect others to also.

To an extent, that change is being forced on political parties. People’s willingness to become a formal member of a political party has fallen hugely over the last few decades. However, whilst that formal association may be far less popular than it used to be, many people are willing to get involved or help without becoming a member. For example, the proportion of helpers on the final weekend of my last election campaign who were signed up party members was far lower than in the campaigns run at the time I first got involved in politics.

Membership is crucial, because with membership come a meaningful democrat accountability within the Liberal Democrats, where our members get to vote on who the party leader is, for example. But membership is not enough. We need to reach out in less formal, less structured, less hierarchical ways to that wider pool of people – and that is a job almost tailor made for the internet.

This article first appeared on the New Statesman website.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2009