parliament~_mothershi_101bI’m not an expert on the minutiae of European politics – for more in-depth analysis of the elections I’d recommend proper Euroblogs like Julien Frisch, The European Citizen, Nosemonkey and Grahnlaw – but there’s one “layman’s” observation I would make.

Low turnouts and the success of a number of unsavoury fringe parties (as well as the failure of the centre-left to make up ground on the centre-right despite the financial crisis “gift”) is likely going to be blamed in some smug quarters on a cynical media and stupid and/or gullible voters. Or if not that, on the fact that voters have become too individualistic to care about serious politics and wider community matters.

But what about the failure of many mainstream parties – especially those on the centre-left – to offer voters a real sense that they offer a helping hand in trying times? I think that’s far more critical. Sure, the media may be a tad cynical, but have entire electorates suddenly gone dim-witted? Hardly. Have we all turned into materialistic egomaniacs? Maybe, but I doubt charity donations would be at an all time high if that were so. Perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s not an easy time to be a political party. People don’t vote along party lines like they used to (largely because social class does not matter much anymore in political terms) while there aren’t that many issues on which parties can really stand out seeing as they all pretty much straddle the middle ground.

Nonetheless, it’s certainly the case that plenty of Europeans feel utterly estranged from political parties . What should they do about it? For a start, try to be more representative and not appear so detached; be less dismissive and most of all to be more communicative. It means surveying constituents and acting on results. And as an advocate for all things online, I’d say more than anything it means members of parties communicating online directly with their constituents and making it an absolute priority to engage in daily dialogue even if it takes up a sizable chunk of working hours.

And if that fails? More proportional representation and direct democracy perhaps, but that opens up a whole new kettle of fish.

The Party of European Socialists’ brave and seemingly successful foray into the world of Web 2.0 with the Yourspace blog remains by far the most impressive web initiative I’ve seen by any European party or political group. Why is it so good? It’s a platform aimed at galvanising active supporters, not one where party bigwigs can strut their stuff: it gives them space to write and engage, and promises them something concrete in return – a chance to influence the content of the PES manifesto for the 2009 European elections. Result? Very Obama’esque: excited, active supporters, eager and able to help spread the PES mantra (aided by Yourspace’s multiple outreach channels e.g. a YouTube channel and very active Facebook Group).

The Socialist Group in the European Parliament (PSE) have not been quite as daring, but they do have a section on their site entitled Interactive which contains posts by PSE members, a portal of blogs by PSE members who do not write on the site itself, a forum, and a so-called citizen’s room where people can submit their opinions. The tools are all relevant and I’m especially impressed by this one line from their terms and conditions (assuming it’s true): “The Socialist Group interactive pages are an area for free expression. Only views that are ethically and legally unacceptable are excluded”. However, the section has been hidden away and is not properly introduced. For it to really work, the PSE should make a real splash, sell it on their homepage and in all their other outgoing communications, and explain why they’re doing it e.g. we want to speak directly to you, we need to know where we stand with you, like out parent party, the PES, we want to promote your ideas and concerns, not our own; and so on.

The site of the EPP-ED (the centre-right political group of the European Parliament) is far more static and dull. They present positions, latest press releases and members (Zzzzzz), while the only remotely innovative feature is the online “TV” channel. I did a search on YouTube, where the EEP-ED also have a channel,which appears to show the exact same footage even though there is no link between it and their site. It’s not bad, but I have some objections:

  • Why have the channel in two places? Seems like totally pointless duplication.
  • It’s all one way. Comments are allowed on both channels, but the moderators are obviously very strict. The only comment on the YouTube channel homepage itself reads “Just wanted to say that you’re doing really good job there” while none of the videos I saw had any comments (even where there were 100s of views). Same on the other channel: I had to look really hard to find one video with a couple of comments.

This approach seems to reflect the French Presidential elections last year, when Sarkozy’s campaign site became little more than a video vault, while Segolene Royal’s approach was far more inclusive. Sure, he won the election, but as Obama’s triumph last month showed, an approach which embraces the web as a tool of engagement and mobilisation, rather than just another one-way broadcast medium where you show yourself in your best light, can work wonders. In an era where the electorate demands a voice, politicians need to show that they’re listening and care; and the best start is to provide a platform where you allow people to openly engage and then actually respond.

Is the left more open to new tools and politics of engagement because it fits their political philosophy? To some extent I do think they are more comfortable with open engagement with constituents, but the main reason why the left on both sides of the pond has been quicker to adopt new tools is clearly born out of need, seeing as the centre-right has held power in the US and most European countries (and thus the EP) for a number of years. It’s a political reality that incumbents are less innovative: their approach won, they’re in power, so why change? In addition, the Conservatives in the UK have a new website which embraces blogging, integration with social networks, online donation, and supporter mobilisation features to the same degree as the Obama campaign did in the US, so it’s not as if parties of the right don’t have it in them. Despite the need to find some better supporters to populate the Show your support page than the current weirdoes on display, it’s really quite an impressive showing.

Elitism and the electorate

October 29, 2008

An article on the Guardian’s website poses the question: “How did politics in the US come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance?” The ensuing analysis centres on three main factors. First, the notion of intellectual elites being anti-Christian, which carries considerable clout in the very pious and conservative corners of the US. This hypothesis has roots in social-Darwinist thought prevalent amongst American elites in the nineteenth century, by which they would justify their status and/or wealth and encourage destitution amongst supposedly lesser people, because the laws of nature dictate that by a process of natural selection, the weak should be weeded out for the strong to prosper. Second, the de-centralised nature of education, especially in the southern states, essentially allowed anti-intellectuals to take control of what was taught so as to help maintain traditional social orders. Third, the tendency to equate intellectuals with supposed subversives, in particular communists, which given Americans’ particularly zealous patriotism and the backdrop of the Cold War, meant intellectual elites were for years tainted by the anti-American label.

It’s interesting to see some real thought go into explaining why Americans indeed do appear to be so polarised when it comes to the merits of intellectuals and progressive thinking.

Three points I’d add are:

1) Might perceived access to the elite play a role? Ironically, for a country that prides itself in the mantras of the American Dream and all its citizens being born equal, the intellectual elite is arguably more of a closed shop than it is in Europe, with access to the best universities not based solely on merit, as it largely is in Europe. The sense that one is kept out from an exclusive caste can’t but foster antagonism. I don’t know how much of a factor this is, as I can hardly claim to be an expert on US education, but it’s a thought.

2) Far more simplistic than any of the insightful arguments put forth in the article, but could the mere size of the US not be a factor? Communities and individuals are by nature less integrated if there’s a hundred miles between each town or village. Surely, alienation from that which appears so different is only amplified if you’re never actually exposed to it?

3) The author of the article alludes to Europeans being surprised by this phenomenon, but I’d not be too complacent. As discussed, the dumbing down of American politics is seen as a reaction to elitism, and anti-elitism is certainly prevalent in Europe. Sure, we still like our politicians to be able to string a sentence together – even Silvio Berlusconi, the court jester of European politics, was a brilliant student and cunning businessman before foraying into politics. Nonetheless, the fact that Nicolas Sarkozy did not attend the École nationale d’administration, like most prominent French politicians, was seen as beneficial to his campaign for president in 2007. And when I was at Oxford, I remember the immense efforts being made to attract students from state schools, a process which I believe has even intensified since. Despite that, the Laura Spence affair – the case of a girl from a state school who was not admitted to Oxford, much to the consternation of her headmaster – was allowed to capture national headlines in the UK, spearheaded by Gordon Brown.

Moral of the story? I’d argue that elitism really should not be seen as a bad thing. However, it must be seen to be based on the principle of meritocracy and be accessible to anyone who fits the bill, warts and all.