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Last Updated: Friday, 6 August, 2004, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
The revolution will not be blogged
Blogs may engage the already interested, but technology analyst Bill Thompson doubts they will help to revitalise politics.

Tony Blair with a laptop
Politicians are keen to tap into the power of the internet
It is 10 years since the launch of the first website for a Member of Parliament.

I remember it well because I built it for Cambridge's MP, Anne Campbell, when I was working for a local internet service provider.

Lots of Cambridge residents had net access even in 1994, partly because of the university and partly because of the large number of high-tech companies in the area, and Anne was soon getting many e-mails from constituents who preferred using the net to writing letters.

From the very start the site included a frequently asked questions area where she could post her views on the main issues which were affecting her constituents.

But visitors could not post their own comments to the site, and although it was updated regularly, the content was mostly press release-style information.

Anne did have a regular Westminster diary, reporting on what was happening in Parliament in a way which bypassed the local newspaper and gave her a chance to talk directly to her constituents.

But it would be stretching the terminology rather too much to claim that this was an early example of a politician's weblog, since a monthly report has none of the features which we expect from a blog today.

It was updated infrequently, and there were few links to other sites, no trackback, no comments or feedback, and no real attempt to engage with other sites or what was written on them.

Politician's toolkit

Despite their limitations, websites remain a valuable way for elected representatives to communicate with those they represent. And today the majority of MPs have one - the ePolitix site lists 406 sites for 659 MPs.

Online political activity is not confined to MPs and Westminster. Members of the whole range of British democratic institutions can be found online.

Bill Thompson
Looking to weblogs as a way to enhance democracy, like thinking that electronic and text message voting will enhance turnout in elections, is just another example of a search for a quick fix that is destined to fail

MSPs, Welsh Assembly members, MEPs and members of the Greater London Assembly are all there, while the excellent service provides local councillors with their own personal websites.

Having a website for people to consult is now just part of the toolkit for any politician, as important as sending out press releases to local papers or turning up to open school fetes.

Some of these politicians have followed the lead given by Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, and set up weblogs too, where they can write regularly about what they are doing and even let members of the public post comments.

But blogs are still unusual, partly because keeping one up to date requires a lot of work, partly because they appear to require more technical knowledge than a website built by a constituency activist, and partly because they are rather more risky than a carefully-managed web presence.

Tom Watson has said that part of the value of his blog is that it forces him to explain when he changes his mind, as his older posts are still there to be read. Many MPs would probably prefer not to have to be quite that accountable.

When blogs first hit the mainstream, grandiose claims for their importance were made by the bloggers, who saw themselves as challenging the established institutions of the media and political control and building a brave new world grounded in personal experience, testimony and linked postings.

It did not quite work out like that, and although there are millions of blogs on the net today, they have rapidly become just another form of online publishing, absorbed into the general flow of net traffic.

Citizens' jury

The Hansard Society, an independent educational charity promoting parliamentary democracy, has taken an interest in political blogs for some time, and they have just published a new report, Political Blogs - Craze or Convention?, based on research into eight different blogs.

Anne Campbell MP
Anne Campbell kept a regular Westminster diary on her site
They did not do opinion polling or try to get any spurious numbers out of their research, focusing instead on the views of the people behind the sites and the opinions of a 'citizen's jury' of members of the public.

The eight members of the jury, six men and two women, all with an interest in politics but not activists or members of a party, looked at selected blogs over two weeks in April and June and filled out detailed questionnaires.

The sites included those of Tom Watson, councillor Lynne Featherstone and prospective parliamentary candidate Iain Dale, as well as the VoxPolitics think-tank (which I occasionally contribute to), and Greenpeace UK's blog, among others.

The results make dispiriting reading for those who might argue that blogs are a tool for reinvigorating our democratic institutions, reconnecting elected representatives with the people or ushering in a new era of accountable, engaged and informed government.

None of the jurors found the blogs they were looking at exciting or transforming. Only one of the eight said that they would revisit any of the blogs after the research was over.

And none of them felt that the blogs had made them more engaged in politics.

No quick fix

The authors of the report remain optimistic about political blogs, and conclude that "we must continue to challenge blogging, challenge existing models and put ideas to the test".

Woman e-voting
Voting online is seen as a way of boosting turnout
This seems to be missing the point. The real value of a political site, whether a static website or a weblog, must surely come from its content and the goals of those behind it, not the technology used.

Good politicians will find ways to engage with the voters and those they represent; bad politicians will find ways to avoid doing this.

Looking to weblogs as a way to enhance democracy, like thinking that electronic and text message voting will enhance turnout in elections, is just another example of a search for a quick fix that is destined to fail.

We should be grateful to the Hansard Society for a report that can be used to deter those who believe that blogging is the answer to the crisis in political engagement, even if it gives us no clear idea what else to try.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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