Politics & Technology

(Cross posted from OpenForum.com.au)

I'm delighted to have been invited to visit Australia in June to be the keynote speaker at The Microsoft Australia Politics and Technology Forum.

I am highly political but completely untechnological, and yet I am regarded as being at the forefront of political technology in Britain; purely because over the last seven or eight years I have used technology to promote my own political career and then advance my media presence.

So successful have I been that I am now a radio talk show host, rather than a Member of Parliament. But despite that, I think I have learned some important lessons along the way.

Most people in politics are frightened of technology, and especially frightened of internet technology. They regard both as threat rather than an opportunity. This is true both of candidates running for office and political activists, who whatever the colour of their politics, remain innately conservative beasts. They like to do things the way they have always been done. In these people need political rockets up their backsides, but inevitably it is better to take them along with you rather than risk a state of permanent confrontation.

The thing they have to understand is that no one has ever suggested that technology can replace good old fashioned door to door campaigning. But what it can do is complement it.

Barack Obama did not fight an internet election. He didn’t win an internet election. What he did was use different aspects of political technology to enhance what his existing campaign workers were already doing. And he used technology to reach parts of the electorate traditional campaigning methods found more difficult: students, people who live in apartment blocks, niche groups of voters. In that way he built supportive coalitions and managed to get them out to vote on polling day.

Using technology to encourage people to participate in elections and to vote on the day will vary depending on the frequency of electoral cycles and the electoral system used in particular countries. America is always used as an example of a country way ahead of others in the use of internet technology in politics. This is partly because there are perpetual elections. In Australia that is also the case. In Britain, it is less so, and things boil down more to a three week election campaign every four or five years.

In America, everyone understands the importance of email. Email is without doubt the most important communications tool politicians can use. One Conservative MP in Britain I know has an email list of 16,000 people, 25% of his total electorate. They get an email from him every week, which leads to a community discussion board. It was no surprise to me that in the recent election his majority increased from 5,700 to 17,400 – one of the biggest increases in the country.

Yes, blogs are good. So is Facebook. So is Youtube. Even Twitter has its uses, but if a candidate doesn’t get to grips with email communication he or she should be deselected.

I’m delighted to be have been invited to address the Microsoft Politics & Technology Forum in Canberra on 1 June 2011. I look forward to covering these and other issues related to the use of technology in politics during my upcoming visit to Australia.

Iain Dale

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