Why Is Britain Still Running An Analogue Election In A Digital Age?

Ballot Box

The Local and European elections 2014 provide a yardstick by which to measure uptake of social media tools and strategies by our colourful elected representatives, who are seeking our support once more. Much has changed since 2010, not only are our Councillors, MPs and MEPs all on Facebook, but a fair portion of them have found their way onto Twitter, a much more dangerous tool to reach the electorate and the fastest way to end your career in 140 characters.

I conducted some research at the end of last year, discovering that backbench MPs gained 650,000 new followers over a 12 month period, with some social media stars managing to attract 15,000 new followers to their handle.

Whilst the sharp rise in elected officials taking to Twitter can enable greater interaction with the public and reduce voter apathy, much more needs to be done to ensure MPs use these channels as engagement platforms, instead of a way to simply talking at the electorate. This means taking on board online criticism, listening to voter concerns and providing a suitable response, solving problems instead of avoiding them.

This election has also seen social media become the new battleground for dirty politics. From attack blogs, to fake Twitter feeds and other social media horrors, muck raking is apparently easier to conduct behind the cloak of online anonymity.

Trawling through the opposition candidates’ Facebook page in search of offensive content is now the quickest way to get your opponent in trouble, with the infamous UKIP Lenny Henry comments being spotted on Twitter and quickly elevated into the national press.

But these examples demonstrate a very low level of social media use and understanding, with elected officials simply concentrating on the basics and failing to master digital channels to gain a series electoral advantage. This means using apps and e-payment systems to drive micro-donations from supporters with limited means, using voter data create bespoke profiles so that literature can be better targeted and more on message.

Such innovations are already heavily embraced by some of the more sophisticated strategists in the US, but alas have not really been given much attention over here.

Other areas where technology can play a vital role in UK politics include the back office processes that underpin campaigns. On polling day, parties will send out representatives to each station to capture the polling number of each voter who wanders in on a piece of paper, this is then picked up every 2-3 hours and the numbers are fed into a computer, where the data is cross-referenced.

From this, you can guesstimate who has voted, whether they have previously pledged support to your party and whether you should knock their door to get them out before the polls close. Sounds a bit elaborate? Feeding the data back to your HQ through a tablet would be much simpler, saving time and money.

Currently, politics in Britain is broken, but there is a way to fix it. Social media engagement has slowly begun to enable bridge building between MPs and their constituents, albeit the public are still widely suspicious of their elected officials. But used properly, social networking sites can open up a whole new generation to the world of politics and give them a platform to speak their piece.

By showcasing campaigns and causes on Facebook, MPs can drive new supporters to key causes and local issues. They can use these channels to interact and answer questions quickly through a timely and relevant medium, transforming the way young people view politicians and the Westminster bubble.

For all the negative publicity it gets, politics is more often than not the arena of the pursuit of noble causes, by people who genuinely want improve life for their society and their country. As elected officials, MPs should do everything in their power to engage those who want to make a difference. By harnessing social media tools they can work with the public to rebuild trust and build a Britain with bold, bright ideas and a thriving population where everyone feels they have a say in our future.

Steven George Hilley

Steven George-Hilley is Director of Technology & Enterprise at Parliament Street, one of the UK’s most influential think tanks. Parliament Street is fundamentally a research-based organisation, producing papers and a political magazine that influence thinkers in government, the media and the academic world. The group holds regular debates in Westminster and at major conferences across the UK.