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Robert Colvile: Searching for a new internet-based politics

Colvilerobert Robert Colvile begins a series of articles exploring the internet's impact on politics.  By looking at what people look for via search engines we can learn a lot about what interests people about politics.  Robert is a features editor and leader writer at the Daily Telegraph. He was also part-time director of the think-tank Direct Democracy.

What will politics look like when the digital generation comes of age - when politicians emerge who can use the web to get their message across as instinctively as a Tony Blair uses television?

That was the mission statement behind 'Politics, Policy and the Internet', a paper published this week by the Centre for Policy Studies (and available online).

I summarised the argument in The Daily Telegraph, but it's such a vast subject that ConservativeHome has agreed to host a few articles looking at how this affects specific groups: MPs, political parties, campaign groups/ordinary citizens, and finally policy-makers.

However, there are also important points to make about the political internet as it currently stands. For starters, few people realise how many people are simply excluded from conversations on sites like ConservativeHome - according to the Office for National Statistics, only 15 million UK households, or 61% of the population, have internet access. And although 67% of Britons use the internet in one way or another, the poor and elderly are far less likely to be online: 51% of those earning up to £10,400 have never used the internet, compared to 6% of those on £36,400 or more; similarly, 71% of those aged 65 and over have never been online.

Yet this is changing rapidly - a year ago, for example, that 71% was 82%. Similarly, 97% of those now at university are regular internet users - a habit they will no doubt keep up once they graduate.

In other words, basic demography makes it essential for politicians to become comfortable with the web - but the signs are that they are not doing so. Between June and November last year, data firm Hitwise calculated that there was an online market share of 0.00012% for the Green Party website, 0.00018% for Labour, 0.0043% for the Lib Dems and 0.00051% for Labour. The Conservatives had double the visits, with 0.001% per cent – but the BNP was double their level again, on 0.0022%.

This gap in the market has been filled partly by a few unofficial sites, such as ConservativeHome, or those affiliated to the mass media, with a vast range of smaller blogs bobbing along far below them. But whichever metrics we use, they still paint a picture of a blogosphere that has not yet found its voice. This is particularly apparent when the comparison to the US is drawn. The Huffington Post ranked 468th in terms of websites in the US on, with at least a million viewers per month. The Drudge Report was 200th; the Daily Kos 749th. These figures are orders of magnitude above their British equivalents. One explanation is the massive size of the BBC News website, which dominates the online media space – Hitwise’s data shows that for every British political party, at least 40% of visitors arrive via Google (30% or more) or BBC News, with others providing a tiny fraction of visitors.

So the online political space in the UK is not as developed as it could be, and most probably will be. It is easy to measure the extent of this disengagement: until he became Prime Minister, and for much of the time afterwards, Gordon Brown was less searched for on Google than Chantelle, the non-celebrity who won Celebrity Big Brother in 2006.

Indeed, while it is fun to compare the shifting popularity of searches for Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al using Google Trends, it is also rather instructive: it confirms that even if people are not interested in politics, they are interested in what it can do for them. “Exam results” beats “Prime Minister’s Questions”; “Council tax” trounces “Gordon Brown”; “NHS” utterly eclipses “Parliament”; “Library opening hours” wins out over “Downing Street petitions” and is roughly on a par with “Question Time”.

When considering the effect of the internet on politics, it must be remembered that most people are not Westminster anoraks: what engages them will be local issues and concerns, and causes that may have only a glancing connection to the established infrastructure of politics.


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