Being a campaigner can be very lonely. I know at ORG I was often the only person in the room from “civil society”, that is, the only person not representing either the Government, or some commercial interest. Once, during a consultation on how best to protect children online, Yahoo!’s then full-time lobbyist – or ‘Head of Public Policy’ as they generally prefer to be known – actually queried why I was there at all. In what sense were the interests I represented different from the interests she was there to represent – that of her customers?
What this shows, and what I learned during my time at ORG, was that citizen involvement in day-to-day politics is a novelty in Westminster, and rather out of fashion. Politicians have become middle managers, administering an erratic and passive client base (the electorate) while reporting up to a corporately-funded multi-party system that long ago transformed from a scaffold for ideological discourse into a career development framework for awkward Oxbridge graduates.
Citizenship has undergone what some scholars have called a process of “marketization”. Benefits claimants and other users of public services are now “clients”. MPs run their surgeries like pantomime social workers. Ministers appear on the Today programme to distribute their coupon-book soundbites for listeners to redeem on polling day. Re-imagined as consumers of a sanitised pre-watershed media concoction of “public life”, citizens are no longer expected to behave in any other way than that which serves their own self-interest. The Digital Economy Bill got through at least partly because the MPs who received hundreds of letters from their constituents begging them not to pass it genuinely believed the only thing the authors of those letters cared about was their right to share music without paying for it.
This is one reason why government has come close to getting it wrong on internet regulation so often. Just like Bill Gates, government thinks that web users are not web-creators but web-consumers, and seeks to regulate the web as if it were a service being provided by companies like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook. More importantly, the fact that the digital age has come upon us halfway through our participatory shift from citizen to consumer also throws that shift into relief. Perhaps it would have been fine to stick with managerial-style politics had history really ended in 1989, but it didn’t. Confronting completely new challenges to society – networked digital technology, climate change – perhaps we need a model that is a little more sophisticated than the Customer Helpdesk? Certainly, No2ID’s success at mobilising the grassroots indicates that citizen participation in public policy may not be the novelty Westminster believes it to be.
Just as political party membership has dwindled, there has been a dramatic rise among UK citizens of affiliation to single issue campaign networks. Since peak membership in the 1950s, political party membership across the UK’s three major parties has declined by a factor of ten. Today, the National Trust has more members than the three parties put together. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as a consumer-like polity shopping for the issues about which they care most. But on the other, it is a clear indicator that the concerns of the political class no longer reflect those of society at large. What No2ID have achieved – in part at least, for there is still much work to be done – they have achieved in spite of the systems in place at Westminster and Whitehall to respond democratically to social challenges and social change. Campaign networks, and especially ones like No2ID, are more responsive, more inclusive and more representative than the MPs and bureaucrats we pay to keep society on the straight and narrow.
In 1984, Stewart Brand foresaw two challenges that the rise of networked digital technology would pose to societies. The first, that “information wants to be free”, has undermined the copyright system set up in the printing press age, putting both innovation and free expression in jeopardy. The second, that “information wants to be expensive”, that “the right information in the right place just changes your life” (and, conversely, the wrong information in the wrong place just changes your life too), continues to menace individuals’ privacy, autonomy and dignity. On these issues, the instincts of the public have continuously outclassed the instincts of a political system compromised by its managerial self-image and its affinity with the corporate ethic. Westminster has, very publicly, come up wanting.