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Much has been written about the record levels of cynicism about politicians in the UK. But few have linked this rise in disillusionment to something else that has been happening simultaneously, namely the rise of the internet. One of the reasons the game may be up for Gordon Brown is that so far it is the right in British politics that seems to “get” these changes more than the left.
Technology now empowers people in a way that fundamentally changes their attitude to the State. Labour’s “wise state” model has been replaced by “wise citizens” who demand to participate actively and equally in the decisions that effect their lives. The idea of electing someone else to take all the decisions that affect your life for the next five years is dead.
Two forces have been unleashed which have a direct impact on politics. The first is the widespread availability of information – ask any MP about the impact of websites like Theyworkforyou. The second is development is the way the internet makes possible collaboration between citizens in a way that totally by-passes traditional power structures.
Later today at a Reform event on new media and politics I will be exploring why the right has been making the running in this debate. For instance David Cameron has proposed that citizens should have the right to google all expenditure by government departments over £25,000. George Osborne has talked about “open source politics.” Boris Johnson has suggested making public crime mapping in London.
The right gets the internet more than the left because it has always believed in decentralising power. If the slogan for the left has traditionally been “for the many and not the few” for the right it has been “power to the many and not power to a few.” The internet makes this possible in a way that is unprecedented in history.
Perhaps the real reason the internet revolution appeals to the right is the way it makes possible a new kind of collaborative individualism which allows the achievement of collective goals without top-down “nanny state” direction. Wikipedia is the best-known example of this – but the same approach can benefit voluntary organisations, residents associations, indeed any organisation set up to harness the energy, ideas and enthusiasm of citizens to deal with pressing social problems.
The hesitation from the left may be because it sees less of a link between the internet revolution and traditional left-wing concerns over social justice. If so, they are greatly mistaken.
Collaborative individualism can transform the delivery of services to the most socially disadvantaged. Look at the power of parents in Sweden and Holland, who have transformed the education systems in those countries by collaborating to set up new schools. Or the power of patients to manage and improve the healthiness of their lifestyles by public health messages spread through the power of the internet. Or disabled welfare claimants able to work from home on a computer.
The challenge for the left is that many of these changes depend on forging a new compact between citizen and state, one based on an equal partnership rather than master-servant. This is a debate about power and not about technology.
Right or left, this new environment requires a different kind of politician. The most popular websites are trusted, transparent and responsive to users. The best politicians will need to be the same. The age of the humble politician has arrived.
Jeremy Hunt MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport