In 1993, in the spring of my final year at university, I stood for election to become the President of the Student Union at Loughborough. On election night, with a turn out of around 1,000 votes, I lost by a margin of about seven. I’ve never stood in a popular ballot since then.
I learned a lot about the electoral process, more than just it wasn’t a job-selection process to which I wouldn’t again want to submit myself. Loughborough was a pretty apolitical place in terms of party politics in those days. Candidates stood on their own account unlike at many campuses where it was all on party lines. It was me against another chap.
What it taught me above all else was that elections are about mobilising a vote, not about being the best candidate. My opponent managed to get just about his entire hall of residence to vote for him. I had a spread of votes from across everywhere else. Turnout was dismal (only about 10%).
As we run headlong into the UK’s next general election, it strikes me that the political system, and the uncertainty that seems to be accompanying this particular ballot, are in part due to how technology is changing the way that we get people to do things and communicate with each other, and how much that is changing in the 5-year intervals of our political system.
Just think about the time frames between our last two elections. Tony Blair’s last victory in 2005 was pre-social networking, pre-mass broadband, pre-mobile internet at anything like mass adoption.
Our last election came at a point when “Webcameron” seemed an innovation and the iPad was but a few months old and smartphones were still in the minority (Android was nascent).
Presumably this time around it’ll all be selfie Snapchats, heaven forbid. But seriously, with such great changes in communications between elections, the tools and techniques for mobilising the electorate become ever unknown. And with one chance every five years, the opportunities to test and iterate are slim if non-existent for the political parties.
What does this all mean? Well to some extent probably that the political parties will rely on their known reliables more than ever – the elderly – to boost the vote. This has been the case for many years (older people have a greater propensity to vote) and leads to policy distortion across all the parties (wonder why pensions are ringfenced?). But even the elderly are becoming increasingly connected so maybe those reliable pockets will become less predictable. Just as for major corporations, the ability for parties to control their messaging in an environment where everyone has access to the means of mass publication becomes extremely challenging.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about all of this as I have found myself in a ballot for the first time in 22 years. I’ve been asked to speak at Digital Shoreditch in May, but apparently need to be popular enough to do so. So why not vote for me. Here. Now. Go on. You know you want to…