Joan Bakewell: Democracy is on a collision course with technology

How would people vote if we had electronic polls? Ban immigrants? Pull out of Europe?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When does change happen? History books like to pinpoint dates, but historians corral events into long sweeps of time when, on looking back, changes of a certain kind can be seen to have accelerated. The agricultural and industrial revolutions are merely the most obvious, and I, like many other oldies, learnt at school that the dates of Jethro Tull's seed drill (and you thought they were a rock band!) and Bessemer's converter pinpoint events that were part of the long haul of time. The trouble is that when you're in the middle of such a change you hardly notice it. And we are engulfed in one right now.

The reappearance of Big Brother is merely the most trivial indicator, with its call to baying viewers to vote out their least popular candidate. Interactivity is all about us. Unfortunately viewers often vote out the person they like the least, depriving the programme of its more interesting characters too early in the run. Only the truly disturbed, like Nikki in the last run, or the eccentric John McCririck earlier on, stayed to keep things unpredictable and lively. This time our hopes must be on Ken Russell.

More sententious was the BBC New Year poll that apparently, after many earlier so-called rigged voting episodes, surprised the BBC mandarins when it was clearly manipulated by the Countryside Alliance. I had been canvassed, too, to send in my vote to repeal the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Sadly I failed to respond in time, but I had no sense that I would have been involved in any nefarious dealings. Phrases used in the press - "questionable results" "red faces at the BBC" and, by Ed Stourton, "suspicions" - were all totally inappropriate. We were asked to vote: how we passed round the word and how we did it is our affair. Lobbying is a legitimate activity, and far from being deceitful and in some way reprehensible, it is increasingly becoming a way of re-enthusing people grown jaded with the usual paths of politics.

The trouble with interactivity is it gives people a heightened expectation that they can influence decisions and even events. Television involvement confirms this daily, though the panel of judges used by the Today programme to sort out their short list suggests that authority will still seek to shape outcomes they don't like. The problem is that if you ask the public to vote, they may increasingly deliver results that are not always welcome to the powers that be. Think Hamas, think Hizbollah. The age of interaction brings a growing challenge to the democratic process.

The day may not be far off when we have electronic voting. From there it's a huge, significant but viable step to referenda on individual issues. Hazel Blears is currently running a poll on her website asking "should everyone carry ID cards?" So far opposition to the measure is running at 81 per cent. What would happen on a national scale if the Government began to ask such questions. Ban more immigrants? Pull out of Europe? We can all guess at the results, and such polls, officially conducted, would put Parliament on the spot.

The fact is that democracy is a clumsy instrument of government. Our first past-the-post version, virtually disenfranchises large numbers. While in America, where George Bush vaunts his mission to democratise the Middle East, a huge percentage don't vote at all, and recent moves to hi-tech the system have only rendered the result even more available to challenge.

Meanwhile the lobbies grow. The religious right in America began their long march to influence decades ago with a carefully planned strategy of local, then state, then federal power. Lobbies to cancel third world debt and to "make poverty history" have marshalled active and eager supporters.

But once roused, where do these campaigners go next? Poverty survives, and the overenthusiastic slogans risk misleading their followers into thinking problems can be solved. The truth is, problems can at best be ameliorated, and over long periods of time. And the work is happening. In a myriad ways, tiny and resourceful charities, funded by well-wishers, are bringing clean water, digging ditches, supplying goats and donkeys, making a difference. It just doesn't rate the publicity like a win on Big Brother.

Government can't be seen to be left behind. Indeed both Cameron and Blair have spoken of using the voluntary sector more. But once given the reins of power, they too often balk at displays of mass opinion expressed outside the acceptable parameters. Nothing can be as shaming in recent years as Tony Blair's complete disregard when well over a million people protested against the war in Iraq. Frequent YouGov polls indicate feeling running high against ID cards, but they are unlikely to change his resolve to force them through.

Thus are the old-fashioned modes of democratic practice on a collision course brought about by the new technology. We had in the execution of Saddam Hussein a perfect example of how interactivity - citizen reporters and the web - easily outflanked the official, controlled version of events.

At the moment, votes for Big Brother carry the day; while votes for "which law to repeal" are seen as a minor New Year diversion. How long before those who currently throng MySpace and YouTube want stronger meat to get their teeth into. Such as running the country.