Politics with a small p is, of course, on fire. My social media feeds sizzle with the anger of people from across the globe: over the racism of cops in Ferguson, US, over the destruction of antiquities by Isis, over Jihadi John, over Netanyahu’s 26 standing ovations and, above all, over the alleged criminal behaviour of bankers.
Yet the average mainstream politician runs a Twitter feed sublimely indifferent to the issues that excite the world. “Glad to be on the doorstep in Acme-shire, where we had a good discussion about local nursery provision,” is typical MP’s tweet. It is often accompanied by a photograph of the said meeting, in which nobody at all looks glad, nor indeed involved in any kind of discussion.
The social media output of MPs looks even more unhinged when you see it in the context of the debates raging among their constituents online. In fact, if you look closely at people in a party political hustings these days, you will find many of the punters and all the journalists glued to their phones, discussing almost everything except what the meeting is about.
In this context, the decision by the UK’s newly founded Pirate party to crowdsource its manifesto looks interesting. The Pirate party phenomenon started in Sweden in 2006 and spread to 20 EU countries including Germany, where it secured its one MEP in the 2014 elections.
Up to now, its obsessions have been grouped around the issues of internet freedom, state surveillance and the monopolisation of intellectual property and communications. But a glance at the Reddit page where the crowdsourced UK manifesto is being assembled reveals a much wider agenda. If you discount the pure techie stuff, the top five policies being discussed right now are publication of all government documents; removal of CCTV from public places; exempting small businesses from EU VAT rules; scaling all fines against a convicted person’s wealth; and – as with the Greens – paying everybody a basic income from taxation.
If you interrogate the subtext of these discussions, it is possible to come up with quite an accurate picture of what this part of the UK electorate is worried about. Namely, the size and unaccountable power of the state; criminality and tax evasion among corporations; and the venality and powerlessness of official politics. And though the Pirate party’s membership is small, my online life tells me these are indeed the political worries of a generation.
Right now, there is a campaign under way to get young people to register to vote. But when you look at the mismatch between official politics and online politics, the power of the “don’t vote” argument, as promoted by Russell Brand, becomes more understandable.
MPs – of all parties – tend to stick to an agenda they can control. So they convene meetings in Acme-shire about nurseries, or traffic noise, or policing priorities, because these are things that fall under the heading “policy”. The deeper you get into the generation of politicians formed in the Major-Blair era, the more you encounter the conviction that politics is primarily about local service provision plus one or two areas of special interest.
But the electorate – and I am not just talking about the young – is now engaged via social media in a filthy, heart-thumping, expletive-generating debate about everything else. Above all, the debates on social media centre on principles, and the conflict between them. If you doubt me, just try following the hashtags #GamerGate, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie and #TERF for a few hours.
Where mainstream politicians have collided with issues such as GamerGate – which promotes and justifies the violent harassment of women in the computer games industry – there are always “policy” answers: you can outlaw online harassment, refocus police priorities to protect the victims, etc. But to most politicians, these visceral debates are a foreign country.
It is not just distaste that makes politicians bodyswerve most of the debates being had on Twitter, Reddit and the like. It is the conviction that these issues are somehow “not local”, and therefore not electoral. But they are deeply local, in the sense that the ideological conflict is probably going on before every politically engaged eyeball in the room. Those politicians who do pile in – I am thinking of @Tom_Watson for Labour and @DanHannanMEP for the Conservatives – tend to be mavericks beyond control of their parties’ online thought police. But they are currently the exception – and it is making mainstream politics look more disengaged, even as it tries to demonstrate its relevance.
It was the US journalist Byron Price who coined the term “all politics is local” in the 1930s, and the US congressman Tip O’Neill who revived it as a nostrum for modern statecraft. But understood properly, it means, today, that all politics is internet politics. On social media, every adult with a phone – from the builder in the greasy spoon to the City boy on his foreign exchange terminal – is engaged with global issues of principle: mass executions, drone warfare, surveillance, betrayal and the love lives of celebrities jostle alongside the in-play betting odds for the football, or the amusing exploits of somebody’s dog.
That is the “new local”, and social media offers – for those politicians prepared to take it – route one into its street corners. As I crack my finger joints and prepare for this, the most digital of any election, my advice to politicians is: tweet about the real; tweet about the giant issues; and tweet about what the whole world is talking about, not the party hacks of Acme-shire.