The rise of peer-to-peer politics

The Scottish Independence Referendum has demonstrated the rise of peer-to-peer politics and will change New Labour style spin forever.

New Labour and Spin

When New Labour swept to power in the UK in 1997 they did so on a wave of energy for change. New Labour’s relationship with the Media was one of the most radical features of the campaign. The idea that a political party can and should influence the news agenda was as central New Labour’s philosophy as was moving away from the far left of politics. Under the direction of Director of Communications and Strategy Alistair Campbell and equally Peter Mandelson New Labour were able to push their agenda onto TV and Radio media channels and effectively make the news agenda for the day.

This was possible because the number of channels that news was broadcast to the mass population was relatively small. This comprised of a handful of national newspapers, television and radio channels. For the mainstream political parties in the United Kingdom this approach to the mainstream media has persisted. Intellectual debate is conducted on Radio 4’s Today Programme, popular debate explodes on the front page of Murdoch’s Sun Newspaper. Media executives carefully manage where politicians appear, the questions they ask and the responses they give.

A warning from UKIP

The problem with a post-New Labour media landscape is the electorate have become wise to the techniques and heavy management of the media. It is transparently evident when politicians from all sides of a debate refuse to engage in debate outside of the brief that media managers have given them. This is the point at which voter apathy materialises. When politicians only speak for their Communications Director and not for the man in the street something is rotten in the democratic state.

Perhaps though personality, although most likely recognising it Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party spoke to the media in an entirely different way. He seldom ducks or evades difficult questions in interview and his personal branding reflects a man at home with pint of beer in the pub as opposed to a late night news chat show.

Progressive and traditional spin

Throughout the Scottish Referendum campaign a strong contrast in electioneering styles emerged. The Yes campaign ran a grass-roots campaign backed by social media. The No campaign largely stuck to a traditional style of electioneering, holding rallys and generating events that would generate press columns and TV coverage.

What is interesting about the Yes campaign is that the power of persuasion delivered the most compelling arguments through the activity streams and mouths of their supporters. The very basic idea of a one-on-one conversation with someone you know as opposed to the persuasion of a politician talking behind a lectern ignited this campaign. Granted this issue is central to Scotland’s identity but the 84% turnout and vast sense of democratic engagement can be linked to a new technique of persuasion.

The hamster wheel of politicians delivering party press releases in the national media and evading questions outside of their agenda was not seen in peer-to-peer politics of the Yes campaign. Evidently the debate was heated, at times too much so, but in the user feeds of social media real debate happened without the need to follow a party line or push an agenda onto a media outlet.

Of course this is still spin. I’m under no illusion that large parts were orchestrated by a central campaign but by moving away from figurehead politicians and traditional media outlets voter apathy diminished and engagement soared. For anyone that has engaged with the Scottish Referendum campaign it felt completely different to the traditional political media merry-go-round and moreover profoundly democratic.

Power is devolving everywhere

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to consider the Internet the greatest force for democracy the world has ever seen, even though some would swap the word democracy for surveillance. In the same way that the Industrial Revolution went beyond the mechanics of production to profoundly influence society the Internet is fundamentally influencing politics, economics and structures of power everywhere.

The Scottish Referendum debate has demonstrated that political influence and power can no longer be centralised but moreover that the strength of a crowd in electioneering can match and even usurp the media strategy of traditional politics. Those in positions of power in government and business would be wise to mark this election as a indicator that traditional hierarchies of power will be further challenged by the influence of the Internet and that new distributed, peer-to-peer models of information exchange and power are here to stay. For democracy at least this is a breath of fresh air.


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