Here’s a depressing thought. As I write, Electoral Calculus is predicting, on the basis of opinion polls to date, that Labour will win a majority of 142. Where in 2001 they took 42% of the vote and 403 seats (61.2% of the House), they’re currently set fair to take 38.8% of the vote and 394 seats (61% of the new House). Assume that the pollsters are wrong – or rather, that the atypically Labour-sceptical YouGov are right; add the maximum feasible effects of tactical voting; and you get… a Labour majority of 16. Hung parliament? Not this time round. Even if the goal is to keep the ultimate Labour majority below 50 (say), there’s a lot of work to be done – and I’m not sure who’s able to do it.
Just over a year ago, there was a lot of discussion in the liberal American blogosphere of Howard Dean’s candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. It ended in tears; one of the key turning points seems to have been a concession speech which turned into an embarrassingly triumphalist “Kinnock in Sheffield” moment (comically hostile account here).
Anyway, the Dean campaign had three interesting attributes. It was politically radical (or, if you’re American, liberal), and radical in populist, anti-establishment ways. Its candidate appeared to be in the lead – way in the lead – throughout the early stages of the campaign, despite ultimately failing miserably. And it made heavy use of Net technologies – blogs and IM and… er… other things that I’m not even cool enough to know about. I mean, this was the kind of campaign that would have picked up an RSS feed of its del.icio.us bookmarks on its WAP phone if it could have done. (And no, I wasn’t about to say the B word, but hold that thought.)
Clay Shirky, who often combines genuinely suggestive ideas with dreadfully rickety supporting arguments, thought that the combination of the second and third factors was no coincidence and argued the case here, here and here. The argument was weighed in the balance and found wanting in a number of places, most interestingly here and here. Nevertheless, along the way Clay made some telling points. For example:
The size of the MeetUp in NYC was as much a testament to MeetUp as to Dean — it’s a wonderful tool for turning interest into attendance, but it created a false sense of broad enthusiasm. Prior to MeetUp, getting 300 people to turn out would have meant a huge and latent population of Dean supporters, but because MeetUp makes it easier to gather the faithful, it confused us into thinking that we were seeing an increase in Dean support, rather than a decrease in the hassle of organizing groups. We’ve seen this sort of effect before, as when written correspondence on letterhead stopped being a sign of a solvent company, thanks to the desktop publishing revolution
Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
It’s hard to understand, when you sense yourself to be one of Mead’s thoughtful and committed people, that someone who doesn’t even understand the issues can amble on down to the local elementary school and wipe out your vote, and it’s even harder to understand that the system is designed to work that way.
And, putting the two together:
the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world.
We also know from usability testing that the difference between “would you” and “will you” is enormous — when “would you use this product?” changes to “will you use it?”, user behavior frequently changes dramatically. “Would you vote for Howard Dean?” and “Will you vote for Howard Dean?” are two different questions, and it may be that a lot of people who “would” vote for Dean, in some hypothetical world where you could vote in the same way you can make a political donation on Amazon, didn’t actually vote for him when it meant skipping dinner with friends to drive downtown in the freezing cold and venture into some church basement with people who might prefer some other candidate to Dean.
You can see where I’m going with this one. Several of the sites in my blogroll are supporting anti-Labour tactical voting – but how many hits do those sites get? More to the point, how many minds do they change? Backing Blair, setting aside my differences with them for the moment, have actually got out and talked to people (or at people), but even they aren’t likely to have had much of an effect. Their proudest moment seems to have been preaching to the assembled Nathans of Soho.
In a few, gratifying instances, it really seems as if we’ve won the argument. But most of the time we’re just not reaching that many people. Perhaps there aren’t enough of us to make a difference; perhaps we need to post less and talk more. (Excitingly, this evening I briefly persuaded my mother (who lives in the Pavilion constituency in Brighton) to vote Green. Unfortunately, by the end of the phone call she’d remembered that she likes the local MP and doesn’t like her Green councillor, and swung back to Labour.)
Or perhaps anti-Labour protest voting is already an idea that’s in everybody’s mind, and I’m worrying about nothing. I don’t know. But the way it looks tonight is that Labour are still heading for a three-figure majority. I just hope that some of the posts that have appeared here (and on other, much better-known sites) have made that a bit less likely; and I hope that posting this stuff hasn’t diverted our energies from more productive alternatives. (And I hope Keith Taylor doesn’t lose to David Lepper by one vote.)