Regardless of the outcome of May’s referendum on the alternative vote, our electoral system could be about to undergo a massive shift. Not because of the ambitions of politicians, nor those of campaigners, but because of something much more everyday: social networking.
Social networking is transforming the electorate. More Britons use social sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Bebo than voted in the last general election. LinkedIn, a professional networking service, has a larger membership than the 3 major political parties combined. The recent student protest marches were organised almost entirely online.
These online sites have very real implications for how we behave and interact. We seek out new groups to form connections with, and create social identities independent of geographic identity. We thrive on immediacy and choice.
As a result, we are seeing a new plurality in politics, both in the range of issues that impassion the electorate and the ways in which people organise to promote their views. We come to expect the same choice of expression we find on the internet: the opportunity to promote our views publicly, to belong to similarly minded groups, and to focus our energies on increasingly specific interests.
In this context, the existence of single-member electoral constituencies seems particularly anachronistic. In a classic two-party system, where a few political parties cater for the broad range of beliefs in the electorate, single-member constituencies work. They are a good compromise between direct democracy, which can be unworkable, and the desire to have clear political accountability for when things go wrong.
But in a more plural, socially networked system this no longer holds. New forms of communication—e-mails, blogs, tweets and so on—reduce obstacles that make direct democracy so difficult in practice. Online voting is used around the world without any obvious reduction in political legitimacy. And as the recent expenses scandal shows, transparency of online data allows us to hold our representatives to account in ways that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago.
Of course this doesn’t mean that our electoral system is going to change overnight. There are clear barriers to change, not least that our current political representatives have—by default—the most at risk in any transition. But it does shift the debate on reform from ‘whether’ to…