Cyber Parties

Helen Margetts. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. 2006. Sage Publishing.

What difference does increasing use of the Internet make to party politics? Trends in party development discussed in this volume have already pointed to the end of the era of the ‘mass’ party characterized by widespread and formal membership, and the rise of ‘cartel,’ ‘electoral-professional,’ ‘post-materialist’ or ‘new politics’ parties. This chapter points to the emergence of another ‘ideal type’ of political party—the ‘cyber’ party. The development of the cyber party is fuelled by increasing use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by both citizens and organizations and the increasing potential of the Internet as the ideal forum for political activity.

Other chapters have discussed changing patterns of political participation which put pressure on parties to change, particularly declining membership, fluctuating party allegiance and the rise of single-issue political activity. This chapter first explores the pressure on political parties to develop an Internet presence in response to widespread use of the Internet. It then puts forward the development of the ‘cyber party’ as a potential organizational response, through Internet-mediated party competition, relationships with members, supporters and voters and internal organization. Finally, the chapter considers some of the consequences of the emergence of the cyber party—both in terms of threats that cyber parties might pose to a democracy and the dangers for parties which do not innovate. Widespread societal use of the Internet is a recent phenomenon, levels of penetration even in some developed countries (particularly Southern Europe) are still low and evidence suggests that ‘the strongest and most significant indicator of the presence of all parties online is technological diffusion, measured by the proportion of the population online’ (Norris, 2001b: 9). Therefore this chapter is necessarily speculative, drawing on evidence where available but also extrapolating from current trends in political activity to give a potential—but by no means inevitable—view.

Internet-Mediated Political Participation

Use of the Internet throughout society has risen rapidly across the world since the mid-1990s. Estimates of Internet penetration vary considerably across even developed countries and across methodologies of calculation. In 2002, the relatively cautious International Telecommunications Union comparative ranking suggested that 55 per cent (ITU, 2003) of US citizens used the Internet, 51 per cent of Canadians and 48 per cent of Australians. Across Europe, figures vary considerably but are in general higher in northern Europe (42 per cent in the UK, 41 per cent in Germany, 51 per cent in the Netherlands, 57 per cent in Sweden, although only 31 per cent in France) and lower in the South (35 per cent in Italy and 16 per cent in Spain). Other rankings show higher figures, putting the US between 67 per cent (Accenture, 2003) and 75 per cent (Nielsen NetRatings, 2004). Percentages of Internet penetration are radically higher for some groups; for example, in the UK around 40 per cent for 18-25-year-olds even by 1999. The Internet is still a rare privilege in the least developed countries, where just two in every thousand members of the population have Internet access (ITU, 2003). But figures in most countries are rising quickly, for example by 40 per cent a year in Russia according to some estimates (Moscow Times, 16 March 2004). Web surfers are estimated to be more politically active than the general population; for example, 86 per cent of Internet users are registered voters in the USA, compared with 70 per cent of the general population (Nielsen NetRatings, 20 March 2004).

The Internet has rapidly proved itself an ideal forum for political activity, and since the 1990s, interest group activity has rapidly shifted to web-based venues. Demonstrations such as the June 1999 and April 2000 Reclaim the Streets marches in London and anti-war demonstrations across the world in 2003 were largely organized on the Internet. The Internet is also facilitating new forms of political participation and protest, fuelled by what Tim Jordan (1999, 2000) has labelled ‘hacktivisim’ -a technology-driven form of mobilization, which allows assorted ideologies to find a common place. For example, in November 1999, the organization Euro-Hippies jammed the World Trade Organization’s web server with repeated e-mail questions in a virtual joining of protests. A representative claimed that the environmental movement had been revolutionized by the Internet, as 450,000 activists from different countries who had never met protested together in virtual fora over five days. More traditional forms of political participation are also turning to the Internet. In 2000 the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress launched a new electronic database for trade unionists, stating that ‘the future of organised labour lies with the Internet’ (Guardian, 10 February 2000). The union database will include a bulletin board detailing disputes across the world, a databank on the 50 per cent of workplaces in Britain with no union representation and the dissemination of information on the use of cyber-picketing.

As usage of the Internet rises across society there is growing pressure on organizations of all kinds to respond. Nodality denoting the property of being in the middle of information or social networks (Hood, 1983), is a key tool of organizations, which the Internet offers great potential to increase. Government agencies are in a unique position both to demand information from citizens and to dispense information to them, which is why Christopher Hood defines nodality as one of the four ‘tools’ of government policy. But other organizations too strive to increase their nodality, particularly political parties which must compete with a wide range of other organizations for citizens’ attention and leisure time. The Internet and web-based technologies offer great potential for organizations to increase their nodality (Margetts, 1998, 1999). The Hutton inquiry in the UK, the investigation into the death of the government scientist Dr David Kelly, is a good contemporary example; all evidence, hearings and rulings were available for citizens on the inquiry’s website, making the details of the inquiry far more accessible than previous such investigations. While the staff of the inquiry was tiny, the website received between 10,000 and 30,000 unique visitors on many days of evidence-giving and once the material was so readily available, media organizations quick to take advantage of an easy story disseminated it all over the international news networks. However, as society in general moves on-line, established organizations that lag behind in developing an Internet presence can find themselves with a net loss of nodality.

Competition has spurred many private organizations to move beyond exchanging information with their customers to providing services on-line, such as Internet banking. Companies like Prudential (Egg), the Financial Times (http://FT.com) and EasyJet (Easy http://Everything.com) have developed new business arms with new branding that exist solely for Internet customers. Organizations such as the auctionsite eBay and the electronic bookshop Amazon have a customer presence only on-line. Private companies at the forefront of web development invest a great deal of time and resources tracking and analysing the behaviour of their website users and devising new options to expand usage and retain users, capitalizing on the ‘build-and-learn’ nature of web-based technologies. For public sector organizations, pressure has come from modernizing politicians who see the Internet in particular, and technological development more generally, as a magic wand to increase public sector efficiency (Margetts, 1999). In general, public sector organizations have lagged behind those in the private sector in web development, but the potential benefits are clearly transformative (Dunleavy and Margetts, 1999, 2002). Managers in the more innovative public sector organizations, such as the Australian Tax Office (ATO), anticipate a future where their organization becomes entirely ‘digital’: as one Australian official put it, eventually ‘ATO will become its web site’ (Dunleavy and Margetts, 1999).

Party Responses: The Cyber Party?

This section puts forward the cyber party as a possible response to these trends in political participation, a new ‘ideal type’ of political party with its origins in developments in media technology ICTs and, particularly the Internet, combined with new trends in political participation. Some of the characteristics of cartel parties are true of cyber parties also (the blurring of the distinction between members and supporters, for example) and some new causal factors play a role: the low start-up costs for minor parties to develop an Internet presence, for example, which can lead to more lively party competition.

Relationships between Cyber Parties: Party Competition

As so much social interaction moves on-line, there is pressure for political parties to do the same, particularly given that their key competitors for citizens’ attention and participation are interest groups and social movements, which have been particularly innovative in using the Internet. There appears to be a differential response among parties. In spite of early predictions that Internet usage would ‘reinforce the dominance of the larger, better resourced parties’ (Ward and Gibson, 1998) some larger political parties have lagged behind: ‘critics charge that most parties have been slow to adapt, conservative in approach, and unimaginative in design’ (Norris, 2001a), even while pressure groups are recruiting e-activists to participate in campaigns ‘from the comfort of one’s own armchair’ (http://www.oxfam.org.uk). For example, in the UK London elections in 2000, a Conservative Party spokesman admitted that while ‘most people in London use e-mail its importance to campaigning is deeply underestimated by many in the party’s hierarchy’ (Guardian, 2 December 1999).

Meanwhile, newer and smaller parties have shown themselves to be more innovative -their incentives are greater, as an Internet presence can give them a forum in which to compete for nodality on a more equal footing with more established parties. The formation of new parties is benefited by the low start-up costs of websites compared with other types of technology and the low marginal costs of additional users (see Dunleavy and Margetts, 1999, 2002). Norris (2003: 43) found that ‘party websites have strengthened communicative pluralism in Europe by widening information about minor and fringe parties,’ facilitating ‘bottom-up as well as top-down communication.’ In London in 2000, where Ken Livingstone stood and won as an independent, his website, superior to those of the other mayoral candidates, was a vital tool in supplementing his skeletal campaign team. Traditional methods of participation are made much easier for smaller parties by electronic linkages: the Green party provides a ‘webkit’ on its national website, to facilitate local Green groups to start up their own websites and campaign machinery. In addition, Internet presence is not—and cannot be—regulated in the same way as television presence, so new parties have far more opportunity to compete against well-established parties in cyberspace than they do on television. In addition, moving from an interest group or social movement to a political party has become easier, due to the potential of the web to link formerly disaggregated interests, particularly across geographic, ethnic and linguistic divisions. In March 2000 the ‘digital hit squad’ of a grassroots Internet community for connecting black people (http://Dogonvillage.com) targeted black voters in the Democratic primary elections held on the Internet in Arizona, USA and claimed to increase turnout by more than 1000 per cent (Guardian, 27 April 2000). Recent improvements in ICTs have made communication across linguistic divisions easier; even the free Microsoft hotmail will translate e-mails into different languages. The written text—read at one’s own pace—provides the option for better comprehension and communication than a physical meeting, while Internet radio provides new possibilities for websites to overcome literacy barriers to political activity.

Thus the Internet environment provides the potential for new patterns of party competition, and there is preliminary evidence from the 21st century from a number of countries. In Japan, Tkach-Kawasaki (2003) found that the Internet has had a significant impact on the fortunes of smaller parties which were much more sophisticated than the Liberal Democratic Party in incorporating the Internet into their media and fundraising strategies, opening up cross-party competition in what has long been a dominant-party system. Semetko and Krasnoboka (2003: 91) found that new parties in Russia and the Ukraine are better equipped than old parties because of the Internet. In the UK, the BNP, UKIP and the Greens rival the three largest parties in terms of resource generation (Gibson et al., 2003). In South Korea, a world leader in broadband access, the 2002 presidential election was dubbed the ‘Internet election’ as Roh Moo-hyun emerged victorious from relative obscurity against a member of the country’s ruling elite via a campaign waged principally on the Internet. The electoral landscape was changed by unprecedented turnout among younger voters, with 59 per cent of people in their twenties and thirties (versus 38 per cent those in their fifties and sixties) voting for Roh (Financial Times, 22 December 2002).

The Cyber Party’s Relationship with Members, Supporters and Voters

So what might be the defining characteristics of a cyber party? The key defining feature is that cyber parties use web-based technologies to strengthen the relationship between voters and party, rather than traditional notions of membership: such technologies are fuelling the trend towards lower levels of membership, rather than being used to ameliorate it. In the UK in 2000, Smith (2000: 81) found that, in general,

Research suggests that ICTs are not being used within parties … to reinvent or rejuvenate a mass party organisation. Instead, significant emergent relationships around parties facilitated by ICTs are those which are based upon … improving and developing forms of campaigning which make very little recourse to the role and initiative of mass membership.

In fact, the use of ICTs within party organizations can make membership involvement more problematic rather than easier. For example, Smith also points out that the British Labour Party’s fears about the technical competence of constituency parties led to the use of their ‘Elpack’ system (used to process canvass returns and produce constituency profiles and mailing lists) being suspended for the actual polling day on 1 May 1997, and traditional paper-based systems being used instead.

In place of members, cyber parties offer voters the opportunity to develop closer linkages with the party and more of the benefits traditionally ascribed to members. In a crosscountry study of recent elections across Europe, party websites were found to be ‘inspired by the search for new communication channels between politicians and the electorate’ (Tops et al., 2000a: 178). In the USA parties are increasingly sophisticated at appealing to voters’ special interests: Republican candidates use data-sifting techniques to target specific groups of voters on the Internet with banner advertising, and at a controversial point in his campaign for Republican nomination in 2000, McCain’s campaign team fired off 43,000 explanatory e-mails to supporters (Guardian, 18 January 2000). In Britain, the Labour Party uses a combination of ICTs to focus on Conservative-held marginal constituencies, using the telephone to identify and influence ‘floating voters’ and electoral database software linked to desktop publishing packages which allow candidates to ‘personally’ keep in touch with potential supporters and invite them to public meetings.

By 2004, many political parties were using their websites to offer services on open access to supporters as well as to members with password access. The UK Liberal Democrats’ site, for example, allows all users of its website to access folders containing policy documents and draft manifestoes and to sign up for customized content. Many party websites invite users to adopt an intermediary status between member and voter. The UK Labour Party offers visitors to its site at http://www.labour.org.uk who do not wish to become members five ‘Additional Ways to Get Involved,’ including ‘Helping to make policy’ and pledging support to future election campaigns as well as making donations and signing up for ‘enews.’ The Conservative party site at http://www.conservatives.com offers a similar range of options and under William Hague’s leadership offered membership of the Conservative Network -’a new active style of politics for people in the 25-45 age range with career/family pressures and an itinerant lifestyle,’ including free registration on the Network’s database and a range of regional events and seminars. Discussion groups run by political parties are often open (for example, the Dutch Green party during the 1988 election; Al Gore’s on-line questioning by gay and lesbian voters on the http://Gay.com website in 2000; all the facilities of the ‘Virtual Party Headquarters’ of the German CDU, SPD and FDP (Bieber, 2000: 71)).

A key way in which voters and supporters become involved in the cyber party is through leadership recruitment. Mair (1997) has already identified the cross-national trend for ordinary members in many parties across Europe (as opposed to middle-level elites or activists) to be empowered via postal ballots and one-member, one-vote procedures rather than party conferences. Such procedures are considered less of a threat to party organization as ordinary and spatially dispersed members are less likely to mount a serious challenge against leadership positions. By the same argument, voters and supporters of a party are even less likely to mount a challenge. As the Internet makes such involvement more feasible, there may be an increase in the number of parties introducing primary elections as a means of candidate selection, as in the US presidential elections. In the USA, state laws specify how candidates may gain access to the primary ballot and who is to count as being a party ‘supporter’ or ‘member,’ but ‘In fact, the absence of formal membership in American parties means that, in practice, voting in primaries has been extended to a wide range of people whose connection to the party is merely that they want to vote in that party’s primary election’ (Ware, 1995: 260). Some kind of electronic registration, with publicly provided terminals, could qualify people to vote in primaries. Democratic primary elections held on the Internet in Arizona in March 2000 increased turnout by 622 per cent (Guardian, 27 April 2000).

The Cyber Party: Internal Organization

The Internet also offers the potential for new forms of internal organization, for political parties as for any other organization. There is no doubt that the capability of well-designed websites to present a coherent front-end to fragmented organizations aids the ability of parties to provide a point of reference. Websites can be used to link up local or sectoral units of decentralized parties and could be used to good effect in making coalition arrangements intelligible to the electorate. Web presence also provides parties with the opportunity to use the style of their site to present their image to voters. In the Netherlands, for example, commentators observed how during the 1998 election campaign, the sites of Dutch political parties reflected the image each party had of itself:

Because of its design and the way in which the party site appears on the Internet, the PvdA presents itself as a modern people’s party which is determined to ‘conquer’ the electorate by using every technological means possible. The VVD is shown as a light-hearted party aiming to entertain. And the SP as an activist party trying to convince the electorate to take up arms against injustice and abuse. The GroenLinks site, with its different discussion platforms, reflects the grass-roots character of the party. While the CDA with its ordinary and scarcely interactive site affirms its position towards traditional values and standards. (Tops et al., 2000b: pp. 93-4)

Most political parties will dedicate part of their website to detailing their philosophy and values during election campaigns. Technological innovations can also be used to tailor the presentation of a party to individual voter preferences, particularly useful in a multi-party system. In the Netherlands, a voter compass has been used via which visitors to the site could determine which party coincided best with their political views, acting as ‘a new instrument which fills the vertical relationship between politicians and voters.’ The IPP’s compass was visited 12,500 times; another created by a consultancy organization (Bolesian) was visited 28,000 times. Similar compasses were available during the 2000 London mayoral elections (for example, http://www.fantasy-mayor.com), although it is not known if the many Livingstone supporters who were told to vote Green on the basis of their expressed preferences let the compass deter them from their original intention.

The extent to which political parties can centralize and direct existing administrative organization is enhanced by the use of web-based technologies, particularly intranets. British political parties have invested extensively in decision support systems geared exclusively to political communications (Perri 6, 2001) and all now enjoy facilities to transmit information via dedicated communications networks, using e-mail and bulletin board systems both to exchange information in forums for supporters and through restricted channels used by party leaderships to issue campaigning information (Smith, 1998: 79). The Labour Party’s Excalibur system, which holds the records of the political views of millions of voters and also the political histories and speeches of opponent politicians in order to discover and capitalize upon inconsistencies and hypocrisy (Smith, 1998) was used to great effect during the 1997 general election, and by 1998 the Conservative Party was using similar technology. The UK Labour Party in government from 1997 used ICTs extensively for communication within the parliamentary party, keeping MPs ‘on-message’ through extensive use of bleeps and mobile telephones. In 2000, they introduced a new electronic government information and rebuttal system (the Knowledge Network Project) to ‘help Whitehall stay on message and respond to critical attacks by MPs, the press and the public’ and to ‘explain the government’s core message’ to citizens without the ‘distorting prism of media reporting.’ The system included a database of policy issues with the government’s line to take, use of which would feed every department with ‘lines to take on every key issue’ (Guardian, 18 January 2000). Opposition critics complained bitterly that the new system would politicize the civil service and might be used for Labour Party purposes during forthcoming election campaigns.

Party financing is evidently an important issue in the continuing existence and shape of political parties, and membership dues have traditionally been a regular and uncontroversial source of income for political parties. Some analysts argue that grassroots members are vital to elections, with the intensity of campaigning having a crucial impact on electoral performance, and lack of paid-up foot-soldiers will cause serious financial problems for older parties (Whiteley in the Guardian, 18 February 2000; Denver et al., 2002), for example making it necessary to use paid staff (for example, although not a party, Greenpeace already use contract staff for campaigning). How can cyber parties overcome this problem, if they have even lower levels of membership than other types of party?

First, Internet technologies (unlike the large-scale, high-risk information technology projects that preceded them) have already demonstrated enormous cost savings on previously expensive administrative tasks such as telephone calls and postage, as already demonstrated in more technologically advanced governments: in Singapore, for example, electronic tax filing is estimated to have saved €7 per head of population. Second, the Internet and e-mail can be used to raise money and create networks of supporters who play a role in election campaigning, circumventing the roles ascribed to members in many countries. The USA, where Internet penetration is high and politicians have a longer experience of on-line campaigning, provides an illustration of what is possible. In 2000, Bill Bradley, the challenger to Al Gore for the Democratic nomination, raised $1.3 million on-line. It is estimated that presidential candidates raised a total of $30 million by the time of the US election in November 2000; Al Gore raised 20 per cent of his campaign income on-line (Guardian, 18 January 2000). In the 2004 Democratic primaries, the early front-runner, Howard Dean, became famous for the proportion of his campaign finance raised on-line ($41 million in 2003 alone, with unprecedented numbers of small donations), including a record-breaking $800,000 during a 24-hour period. The Internet ‘drove Dean’s rise from outsider to front-runner,’ and his website amassed a list of e-mail addresses of 600,000 supporters. Dean’s use of the web was notable for its interactive style, with a personal web log (Blog) and various devices for putting supporters in touch with each other (Meetup). His rival John Kerry was quick to follow his lead in introducing such innovations and on ‘super Tuesday’ in 2004 when Kerry emerged victorious as the Democrat candidate, his first plea to his Democrat audience was ‘Go to http://JohnKerry.com’ to pledge financial support (the on-line donation form was just one click from the front page). The next day alone he raised $1.2 million (beating Dean’s record) and 1500 new campaign volunteers signed up on-line (United Press International, 3 March 2004).

The Future for the Cyber Party

The ‘cyber party’ is an ideal type: widespread Internet penetration is too new, its potential too unrealized for there to be substantive empirical evidence of its existence. Technological development will not inevitably lead to the formation of cyber parties, nor will cyber parties exist entirely in cyberspace—but much of what cyber parties do could take place via the Internet. It would, after all, have been inconceivable 20 years ago that there should be a bookshop such as Amazon where customers have no physical interaction with either books or a shop before they buy. As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘the problem with Socialism is that it cuts so dreadfully into the evenings.’ Web-based political participation can make political participation virtually cost-free and overcome the problem of attending those meetings that Wilde was referring to, making political activity possible at home and at any time.

There is a resistance to such a view within many political cultures where the assumption is that political participation should involve suffering. Consider this comment from the UK member of parliament, Dr Tony Wright, in response to the suggestion that party supporters might use the Internet at home late in the evening to participate in party business:

If you describe it in that casual incidental way that gives a picture of people in a sense of having nothing better to do than to press buttons, not because they have anything particular to contribute but because it is dead easy to do it. (Public Administration Committee, 2000)

There is an association of political activity with pleasure in some technologically aided movements that works against the ‘political participation as pain’ principle: protests that celebrate environmental activism, animal rights and anti-capitalism and that integrate pleasure into popular protest, particularly derived from dance-floors, clubs and rave venues (Jordan, 1999; McKay, 1998). Such movements suggest that pleasure might be something that political parties could add to the other more pedestrian selective benefits (such as Visa cards and party filofaxes) they already offer. A political environment where voters become involved in policy decisions and candidate selection at the painless click of a button, coming together only to express the strongest of their feelings in a demonstration or protest, may be more vibrant than one where a dwindling number of disillusioned members force themselves to tramp the streets at election time.

There are threats to the future of cyber parties that will need to be confronted if the trend continues. Key threats include strategic penetration: if voters are able to influence party policy and candidate selection in the ways suggested above, what is to prevent strategic penetration of citizens who claim to have voted for a party at the last election, or say that they will do so at the next election? The USA provides examples of how non-Democrat or non-Republican voters have registered for the party they did not vote for and endeavoured to influence decisions, usually at local level where small ‘selectorates’ and low turnout mean a small number of strategic voters are more likely to influence the result. However, many building societies during the 1990s suffered from ‘carpetbaggers’ who tried to force UK building societies into forming banks rather than retaining mutuality and have found a variety of ways around the problem (Guardian, 5 November 1999). Strategic penetration of political parties is more complex and there are many cross- pressures on voters which may disincentivize such strategies. A non-Tory interloper in the Conservative leadership selection, voting for an extremist candidate (Margaret Thatcher, for example, in the 1970s) in order to reduce the party’s chances of victory at the election, may find themselves with a Conservative party leader and a prime minister that they did not want.

Like any organizational development occasioned by technological change, there is nothing inevitable about the development of the cyber party. The failure of Dean’s presidential campaign in the Democratic primary elections of 2004 illustrates a potential pitfall. Some supporters blamed their own habitat for his eventual collapse, describing an ‘echo chamber of Web diaries and Internet message boards that lulled activists into thinking they were winning votes for Dean merely by typing messages to one another’ (Los Angeles Times, 7 February 2004). Others likened his implosion as the leading candidate to the dot-com crash in how much money the campaign raised and squandered. But most commentators agreed that Dean’s campaign was a harbinger of a more interactive political future, labelling Dean ‘the Wright brothers’ first airplane’—‘You wouldn’t want to put passengers on it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important’ (Los Angeles Times, 7 February 2004).

Parties experience increasing competition for citizens’ attention, especially with the increase of single-issue protests and a ‘DIY culture’ of political activity. Parties that continue to rely on the notion of membership for their ‘legitimizing myth’ rather than working on their digital presence may find themselves suffering a loss of comparative nodality and having to turn to alternative resources to retain influence. The incremental ‘build-and-learn’ characteristics of web-based technologies mean that parties, like all organizations, have to start interacting with supporters in order to develop the relationship. An Internet presence is not something that can be set up overnight. With organizations of all kinds responding to pressure to invest time and resources in web-based technologies to develop their relationship with their customers, political parties which do not follow suit may find themselves increasingly cut off from their supporters.