Digital: fuel for political engagement

So the big, but not all that surprising, news this weekend was the result of the Labour leadership election, which was won by Jeremy Corbyn. The support that Corbyn has built over the past year, particularly from grassroots supporters, has been impressive and the test now will be whether this can be translated into political activity in constituencies. I’m keen to see how much of this activity will be digital, and whether it will make any difference to the way we do politics in this country.

I’ve written before about having a vested interest in the impact digital technology can have on the political process, having been a Commissioner on John Bercow’s Commission on Digital Democracy. The work of the commission left me inspired but ultimately depressed – although it became clear that technology has huge potential to disrupt our political system, and engage many more people, I’m unconvinced of how much will change in our current system constrained by many things, including, the incentives to support one of just two parties.

Digital exclusion

Right now, it feels like there’s a movement of motivated young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn – this means young people are becoming more engaged in politics which can only be a good thing. It also means that Mr Corbyn has put emphasis on things that interest the younger generation, including the digital skills agenda, evidenced by the recently released Digital Democracy Manifesto, which pledges a £25bn investment in high-speed internet, digital citizen passports and open source software.

I responded to the manifesto with my own thoughts on Politics Home saying that it’s a great step forward but highlighting that Mr Corbyn had missed a couple of important steps that I think need to come first: a clear commitment to ensuring excluded people have the skills they need to really benefit from technology, and a plan to inspire millions to take up the tools he’s promoting as game changers. I’d encourage Jeremy to read the report published by the Commission, Open up!, which not only talks about how we can make better use of technology to affect the democratic process, but importantly how we can engage those who are harder to reach, and less likely to be engaged with politics.

People who are digitally excluded tend to be older and poorer, and although older people tend to engage more with democracy (eg. vote), poorer people are much less likely to be both politically and digitally engaged. Data also shows that people on lower income, tend to explore and experiment less online. These are the kind of people that Mr Corbyn and the Labour Party are hoping to reach, and there’s a real opportunity for the party to use digital not just to engage people who are already digitally savvy, but those that aren’t as well.

Podemos

There’s a really interesting example of how digital has affected the democratic process in Spain, and I think we should be taking lessons from it. Podemos is a left wing political party and although they’re just a baby (they were founded in March 2014), they’re the second largest political party in Spain by number of members (433,164) and the third largest in the Spanish parliament with 69 out of 350 seats.

Podemos’ views really align with those of Tinder Foundation – they seek to address the problems of inequality, unemployment and economic malaise – and they’re very engaged in digital, believing it can help to tackle social challenges.

It would be great to see a UK political party putting the focus on digital and it’s potential to tackle social challenges. Podemos proves that in Spain at least you can be a successful party rooted in transparency, and digital is the fuel for political engagement.

So why am I still depressed? Sometimes when I look at politics in the UK I wonder to myself whether we have the right political motivations and structure to really change things? Does a two party system deliver us the best options? Do our politicians know what the real issues are that are affecting people across the country, and do they know how to handle them?

I’d love digital to be the silver bullet to cure our political worries, but, as always, it’s the people who need to want to change. I think digital can really help to give power to the people – all of the people – and hopefully, through Jeremy Corbyn’s “new kind of politics” which appears to be attracting new people, we can begin to see some of the impacts of this.

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