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British Election Circuses Set for Digital Revolution

Mayoral, Councillor, Police Commissioners, European and Parliamentary elections are entertaining shows, but will technology improve or ruin them?

This article first published on Suite 101, 7 May 2012.


In some ways like the USA, yet in so many others, very different, the British electoral system is an amalgam of how it has been for two hundred years, how it has been done for most political activists’ lifetimes and the odd experiment/concession in modernity, like postal votes virtually on demand.

People are interested/care passionately or are indifferent. But often it appears that the only people who get really excited about all the elections are the media. Yet, everybody who thinks about it appreciates how important democratic decisions are in the lives of every single citizen.

City/district and council, parish elections occur every year in some areas, in others every three or four years. The European Parliament goes to the polls every five years. And so it goes on.

However, the main show is always the Westminster Parliament itself, and polls to that can be called anytime within and up to five years. Coalition Government since 2010 has changed the face of politics for the time being, but it may not last if there is a return to the main parties alternating in the future.

Are We Suffering Poll Weariness?

Britain also has mayors up for elections too. Well, at least London does and Bristol has said it wants one. Other cities turned down the idea in this May’s referenda. And on top of all that, elected Police Commissioners are coming this autumn, provided the Government sorts out the details in time.

With the kind of turnouts that make the whole often ridiculous, the question is inevitable: are there just too many elections? However, people love to have their say on reality TV contests and tweets and social media, so they can’t be too weary to bother.

E-petitions tell us that what people want is to have a say in referenda, such as being asked if they want to leave the EU and want capital punishment back. So, it must be that people are fed up with the old electoral system itself, as it seems to be immune from the kind of fundamental change that affects the rest of the world.

London’s Mayoralty

The majority of commentators expected the official-but-not-blatantly Conservative Boris Johnson to trounce his Labour opponent, Ken Livingstone from months ago. In the event, it was a pretty close run thing and now the pundits are getting excited that Boris is just biding his time before taking over from David Cameron in 10 Downing Street.

All very predictable, but one of the interesting contemporary aspects on the mayoral contest was that the internet ‘predicted’ it in advance. It seems that Google Analytics tracked web trends and found people searched for Johnson almost five times as much as for Livingstone.

Multiply that with the kind of digital campaigns they ran, how many Twitter followers they built up, counting positive/negative reactions, social networking presence and a pattern was established. It was down to search, discussions and sharing. That’s the modern way. The old fashioned voter finding is still important, door-stepping and street-corners, but the digital revolution is changing the mechanism.

New Electoral Systems

The Johnson-Livingstone analyses were carried out by two companies, iProspect and Lithium. Neilson Hall of iProspect told the Daily Telegraph that ‘search has been overlooked as a key indicator of success’.

Chief scientist at Lithium, Dr Timothy Wu, added that using social network data to predict elections ‘had been shown to be accurate in US elections’ provided it was carried out within two weeks of the election’.

In the era of people not opening doors much, more driven by what they see on TV, internet and other media, it is a matter of time before all electronic voting becomes the new norm. It may even be coupled with a financial compulsion to vote, whether people want to or not.

The only surprise, given the advantages of digital, is that it isn’t imminent. But of course, the record of mega technology projects in health, tax or education is not outstanding, so there is an understandable reluctance to throw out the well-tried traditions completely.

It’s just that the era of the algorithm has dawned, and like in personalised advertising, personalised electioneering is coming. Soonish.


Daily Telegraph, Christopher Williams, 2 May 2012.

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