By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online Magazine
Next month sees the launch of a unique new political party. A party with no policies, no ideology and, initially at least, no leader.
Politics has a new gang of four
Your Party aims to break the mould of British politics by being the first party "directly controlled by the citizens".
Rather than a founding principle or set of beliefs, it will start with a blank piece of paper.
The idea is to canvass opinions and ideas from hundreds of online "participants", before formulating a set of policies to put to the electorate.
It's the new project of four dot.com refugees, headed by Dan Thompson, best known for helping to found 365 Corporation, a network of music and football fan sites.
Mr Thompson, a serial entrepreneur, admits entering politics is something of a "departure". But his motives, he insists, are altruistic.
The idea grew out of a disillusionment with mainstream politics, and a desire "to do some good, to make a difference". He also insists that Your Party is not a slave to any existing political ideology.
"There is no single political idea. It doesn't sit somewhere on the political spectrum.
Howard Dean has harnessed the power of the web
"We believe that there should be some structure there which represents people on an issue-by-issue basis. We believe that should be a part of the political landscape."
Mr Thompson's former partner in 365, Simon Morris, is equally messianic about the need to "empower" people, although he winces slightly at the term.
"This country is full of people who want to do something but don't know how, or are disillusioned with conventional politics. We want to reach people like that and help them do something about it."
The other founding members of Your Party, Rod McLaren and Mark Riley, also glow with the enthusiasm of the true political virgin.
Stephan Shakespeare, of online polling outfit YouGov, which is helping Your Party, says it is not just a knee-jerk, opinion poll-led exercise.
It will, he believes, come up with genuine "hard-edged" policies that will capture people's imagination in a way the main parties have failed to do.
Although the internet is just about coming into its own in the UK as a campaigning tool, mainstream politicians have so far fought shy of using it as a forum for generating policy.
The Tories are also switched on to net campaigning
Labour has made a tentative step in this direction with its Big Conversation consultation exercise.
But the Big Conversation website has been criticised for being heavily edited, and for keeping controversial topics such as the Iraq war and student top-up fees strictly off limits.
Last week, in a strategy devised by party chairman Maurice Saatchi, the Conservatives sent out 100,000 e-mails to party members containing leader Michael Howard's 15 core beliefs. The recipients were then asked to mail the message on to 10 people.
But the Conservative's oft-professed aversion to "focus group" politics means they are unlikely to follow Labour down the Big Conversation route.
For an example of the internet genuinely transforming the political landscape, you have to turn to the United States, and the emergence of Howard Dean.
Dan Thompson made his name as a dot.com entrepreneur
Mr Dean's transformation from an obscure left-wing wild card into the front-runner in the race to secure the Democrat nomination in the US presidential election, is due in no small part to his astute use of internet campaigning.
Dean's supporters have made extensive use of Meetup.com, a site dedicated to setting up real life meetings between like-minded individuals, and previously known as the haunt of knitting pattern enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, the anti-war movement in the US has found a voice through MoveOn.com, a site dedicated to "education and advocacy on important national issues".
It is currently running a competition to create a 30 second TV ad "to expose the policies of George W Bush". It also channels donations to congressional candidates whose outlook meets with its approval.
Europe has been slower to catch on, although there have been no shortage of experiments in online democracy.
There are high hopes for iCan, an online information source and meeting place for people who are turned off by traditional politics, set up by the BBC to give them tools to get involved on local issues.
Your Party has a different approach, though, planning to field candidates at the ballot box, starting with June's European elections.
Although not the most high profile of events in the political calendar, the European elections use a version of proportional representation, which, Your Party believes, will give their candidates a good chance of making an impact.
More than 100 people have already volunteered as potential candidates, the party says.
It is guarded about the possibility of putting up candidates at the next general election, conscious of the difficulties small parties traditionally face in Britain's winner-takes-all electoral system.
The party prefers to talk about fielding candidates in local elections, on an "issue-by-issue" basis, but it is wary of being hi-jacked by existing special interest groups or political parties.
Your Party's chance of success will ultimately come down to whether it can break out of the narrow world of online politics and reach the great mass of voters.
It is entirely at the mercy of its membership, in a way never experienced by conventional politicians.
Phil Noble, a veteran of online politics in the US, and a keen advocate of the Howard Dean school of campaigning, does not rate its chances.
"I think they are going about it the wrong way. I think you have to decide what you are going to do and use the internet as a tool to achieve it."
But he adds: "I am absolutely convinced that there are going to be new ways of organising politics, new tools and new structures. And something like this may end up working. You never know."
Here are some of your comments:
It's a nice idea - but it can't work. Unfortunately policies cannot be made simply by popular demand. To form a policy on whether it would be in the best interests of the UK to join the Euro for example requires some seriously weighty financial nous. It's not just a case of "we should be closer to the EU" or "we should keep the pound". Similarly for crime, the NHS etc. Being a consumer of government policies does not provide one with the expertise to construct them, only to comment on whether they work for you or not.
I wish 'Your Party' every success, it's not before time that a party will exist for the policies of the electorate and not the policies of the elected.
This is a fantastic concept. Participatory Democracy is the only way we, the people can develop a fair and just society, we are sick of being 'represented' by the right and some sections of the left. I just hope it isn't exploited but a minority of power seekers, or manipulated by the mass media.
Let's face it, they could hardly do a worse job than the Labour or Conservative parties. I wish them well.
A Jacobs, UK
Is there not a danger that Your Party, will become the captive of already organised groups with ideologies outside the political mainstream? The question they will face early on is, are they prepared to back any policy (e.g. an end to immigration from selected countries) that receives sufficient support? If not then they are already making policy decisions.
No stated ideology perhaps, but there is always an implicit one, and anything written on that "blank sheet of paper" cannot but be a product of it. No-one thinks in a vacuum - any decision or choice made on any issue, whether by one person or a million, is based on an ideology of some kind!
No policies, no ideology & no leader? Sounds like a regular Political party turned honest!
Andrew, Midlands, UK
How will the party be funded? I hope they are not relying on revenue from pop-up adverts !
Fantastic idea, just what is needed in today's moribund political wilderness. Sign me up!
Come election night are you guys going to be standing there in your jack-boots on a bring back hanging ticket rustled up by a couple of hundred internet malcontents rather than lounging round Islington reconceptualising something else that probably doesn't work too bad as it is?
Or god forbid that one of these "lets change the world with a website" things (why didn't The Office feature such a plot twist I wonder) did actually work then wont the opinions of a wired elite be pushed farther up the pole at the expense of ordinary people like grannies and those that would rather watch telly.
The struggle of balancing democracy vs leadership in front of a mostly misinformed and cynical public, the significance of whom you choose not to really consider, is something that professional politicians might tell you is really quite hard.
Changing the face of British politics eh? Sounds like the SDP in the 1980s or the Natural Law Party in the 1990s. I guarantee this will not work and I will challenge anyone to a one thousand pound bet that they will never get a single MP elected to parliament!
I wonder whether these candidates, if elected as MPs, will come to regret being slaves to the latest cause celebre. This idea brings to mind the unfortunate Stephen Pound MP, who volunteered to present a bill to Parliament on an issue voted for by the listeners of the 'Today' programme. He is now committed to bring a bill before the Commons which would allow people to use 'any means' to defend their homes, an idea which he says 'endorses the slaughter of 16 year-old kids'. Do the people in Your Party really want to end up in his position?
Great. So we'll end up with a party that'll throw out all immigrants/asylum seekers/refugees, give "honest, upstanding citizens" the right to torture burglars, no speed limits, no tax and NHS spending increased by ten zillion percent.
Meanwhile, back on planet Earth...
This is exactly what's wrong with politics today! Policies dictated by focus groups descend automatically to the level of lowest common denominator. Am I the only person left who longs for strong leadership and the return of a modicum of idealism and charisma to the arena? Focus group politics are just another way for politicians to absolve themselves of responsibility, remaining in grey faceless power only by virtue of inoffensive anonymity.
Colin Salter, Cumbria
I will be setting up the None Of The Above Party in time for the next election. Our policies will be formulated in consultation with hospital staff, teachers, military personnel etc. - whoever is in the front line in their respective sectors. They will determine how these services should be run.
Current floundering policies towards road transport will be turned on their head, with a fundamental review of what is achievable and what is reasonable.
When elected, we will NOT enter Parliament, but immediately call another election, with the requirement that existing mainstream parties -adopt our policies. We will provide a voice to all those people who currently feel disenfranchised or disillusioned with the quality of current political parties. Parliament as a whole should decide policy, with back benchers empowered and responsible for reflecting the views of their constituents. Whips will be banned, and members of the House of Lords will be entirely independent. Never before has politics been back into the hands of real people. Authority and responsibility are no longer separated. Election victory by default is no longer guaranteed.
Watch this space.......!
Elwin Tennant, England
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