My PhD thesis – New Media and its effects on candidate independence at the constituency level: A comparison of the United Kingdom and Japan

The last 30 years has seen what many writers describe as a decline in the power and influence of political parties. Writers such as Duverger, Lipsett and Rokkan and Sartori saw parties as being deeply integrated at an individual level with the specific constituents or social cleavages they were founded to represent. However the need for larger parties to appeal to a broad range of voters and the professionalisation of political campaigning saw a shift in both party branding and organisation. Since the 1980’s there has been a growing emphasis on the party leader as the representative of the party brand, with many voters choosing which party to vote for based on the leaders image. This was reinforced by the fact that political campaigning became more expensive, meaning only the national party organisation was able to fully utilise new forms of mass-media communication such as television. The result has been the growing power of the party leader. This has coincided with a fall in grassroots support of political parties and growing voter apathy in established democracies. In short parties are seen as drifting away from the electorate whose interests they claim to represent.

The past twenty years has seen a revolution in technology and communication which has transformed the world. The Internet has become a tool used on a daily basis for over three billion people around the world. The effect of this on politics has become the subject of the growing body of literature over the past 15 years. The internet was initially seized upon by parties as a way to circumvent the independently controlled mass-media and get their message directly to voters. Since the middle of the last decade, most notably the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama, the use of the internet has shifted from not only information provision but to campaign organisation. The internet provides parties and candidates with platforms for policy promotion, a way greater personalise/humanise candidates, an alternative way to organise grassroots support and to fundraise.

The aim of my thesis is to examine the effects that the Internet is having on political candidates at the constituency level. With the decline of party support and the growing expense of political campaigning it can be argued that there is a greater incentive for local candidates to appeal for the personal vote and not to rely on the party label to attract support. New Media, such as personal websites and social media accounts, give candidates the platform to run more independent and personalised campaigns. The study will look at candidates’ New Media use during elections – making a comparison between the UK (a party-centred campaign system) and Japan (a candidate centred campaign system). It is hoped that a comparison between candidates from two economically advanced democracies with very different traditions of campaigning will help to establish whether New Media is being used by candidates to pursue the personal vote, bringing them closer to their constituents and furthering their independence from the national party.

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Sussex Conversations: General Election Debate

Last night the University of Sussex Alumni association held a fascinating Question Time style debate between representatives of the five biggest UK political parties. The event was held at the Royal Institute in London and moderated by the excellent Sarah Montague. Firstly much credit must go to each of the participants:

Kelly-Marie Blundell (Liberal Democrat)

Chris Brown (UKIP)

Peter Kyle (Labour)

Alexandra Peterson (Conservative)

Alexandra Phillips (Green)

 

I can’t imagine these debates are much fun for the participants but the opportunity to scrutinise politicians and party policies is an essential feature of democratic politics. I would like to make just a few personal observations concerning last night’s event.

 

The Greens and UKIP are not the polar opposites one would assume: Every A-level politics student should know that the ideological spectrum is circular rather than flat. Parties who tend to inhabit political extremes actually have a lot more in common than they think. The Green and UKIP representatives found themselves in agreement on more than one occasion last night, especially on the issue of housing. Of course fundamental outlooks remain very different but both parties like to describe themselves as “anti-establishment” and both will be hoping that their surge in the pols translates into a real change in British politics. Moreover both are striving to be more than one-issue parties and should be given consideration as such by the media and electorate alike.

 

Does foreign policy matter?: After a question from an audience member on threats to Britain’s security, it occurred to me that foreign policy has been almost ignored during this campaign. It certainly didn’t come up during the seven-leader debate. Naturally British elections are dominated by the economy and public services. This is fairly standard for any peacetime liberal democracy. However with operations in the Middle-East almost at an end, talk of Britain’s role in the world seems restrict to EU membership and Trident. Where are the conversations about Russia, or ISIS and what Britain’s role in the world will be in the future?

 

Party loyalty is still the factor: Candidates were given the opportunity to speak near the end of the debate about their personal preferences in forming a coalition after the election. None could give a concrete answer. Realistically the Labour party must know that their only hope to 10 Downing Street and a workable government is with support from the SNP, and most likely the Liberal Democrats as well. Likewise the Conservatives will need Lib Dem support once more. But candidates are keeping to the party line. When faced with the question “Who would you prefer to form a coalition with?” candidates, much like the parties they represent, are still hedging their bets.

 

What is a manifesto for?: With both major parties seemingly unable to secure a majority in the next election there will be a coalition or “supply-demand” agreement of some kind. This means that the policies which every party has lain out in their manifestos are all open to negotiation. The coalition deal making of the last few years is likely to be the norm for the next few years. Of course it is not unusual for parties to change or forget pledged promises when in Government but we can now be assured that when Party A pledges billions more for the NHS, their partners may have something to say about how much is spent and where it comes from.

 

For academics and political watchers this is an exciting time in politics. The potential end of the two-party system raises many issues which neither the academic community nor politicians themselves are able to predict the outcome to. It is especially welcome to see smaller parties now at the debate table.

 

The Sussex Conversations event is available to watch at: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/sussexconversations