Technology has not lived up to its promise of transforming the way politicians communicate with the public, according to research. A meagre one per cent of the population has contacted their MP by email, but 38 per cent said they would if they knew what the address was.
According to a Telewest survey of 3,150 people in the UK, around a third of whom had internet access at home, young people are much more likely to email their MP. The 18-34 age group also said they would be more likely to vote if they could do so online, while the vast majority (over 80 per cent) of those over fifty said the option would make no difference. People also said they would be more likely to vote if contacted directly by their MP, but 50 per cent of us still don't know who our representative is.
Ruth Turner, director of Vision 21, the company that carried out the survey, said that the results needed to be interpreted with caution. "There is a potential for technology to really ramp up voting turnover," she said. "Although 80 per cent of people say they intend to vote, there is always a gap between intent and action, particularly with younger voters"
Stephen Ward, a research fellow at the Oxford Institute agreed that though technology has the potential to engage young people, it would not be the solution in and of itself. "They [young people] still need a pre-existing motivation. They are willing to engage, but there is a gap between what they say and what they do. Politics and parties will have to change, and that change will have to be wider then getting an email address."
Derek Wyatt, chairman of the all party internet group, and something of a champion of MPs using technology said that MPs in marginal constituencies are more likely than any other to keep up with technology, because it gives them another way of interacting with their voters.
"Why wouldn't MPs have websites? Any MP worth his salt would have a website and an email. It is natural to want to communicate with your constituents," he said, before adding: "Some MPs don't even run surgeries, though."
Not every member of parliament has embraced the technological revolution. Upon election, every MP is allocated an email address, but not everyone takes it up. As for an online presence, the Lib Dems have the most tech friendly reputation and the Labour party now has a template for building a website that all its MPs can use, but across all parties only seven or eight MPs maintain a blog.
Wyatt suggested that the government should be more forward thinking in its use of technology, proposing that the electorate be polled annually on key issues, such as GM foods, abortion law and the MMR vaccine, as a way of informing policy decisions. "How do people feel about these issues? I don't think we know. It would be interesting to ask," he said.
But Declan McHugh of the Hansard society said that we need to be cautious of moving to what he called direct democracy, saying that the system of debate and consultation has a lot to recommend it. Stephen Ward supported his argument, saying that there was a risk of amplifying the voices of those that already participate rather than engaging new voters. ®