Monday, March 05, 2007

Political Connections

The furore surrounding last week's launch by Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn of 'The 2020 Vision' masked a new trend emerging in politics - the recognition of networking as a key tool to interact with voters. The recent instance of votes for 'housemates' on Big Brother outperforming votes in general elections has been a cause for concern for anyone interested in the democratic process. Any attempt to involve the public in policy making has to be applauded and surely networking is the ideal vehicle.

In the United States, Barack Obama, pursuing the Democratic Presidential Nomination, has set up his own social network. Supporters can post their own profile on the site, network with other like minded people both online and at local events and post blogs on the site. There is functionality on the site to create and join groups (current groups range from Students for Obama' with over 2000 members to 'Southern Illinois University - School of Medicine for Obama' with one member!) and you can also invite your friends to join, a great way to build campaign momentum.

Last Wednesday I attended 'Women to Win', a networking event for prospective female parliamentary candidates for the Conservative Party. A voluntary organisation, Women to Win is focused on raising the proportion of female Tory MPs and runs a monthly event where women interested in standing can meet each other and senior people within the movement.

What struck me was the number of young women attending. It was clear that many found the events very useful in understanding how the process worked and what support they could get. By networking with other people in the same situation they were clearly building their confidence.

One person in particular, who was attending for the first time, was very unsure about whether or not she had the skills necessary to take the next step. She found herself talking to someone who had just taken the big leap and completed the forms to put herself forwards, after several months of attending these meetings. The benefit for her of being able to speak to someone who had experienced the same doubts was clear to see.

The 2020 Vision follows Barack Obama's lead, with a regular blog inviting comments from people who want to participate in the future direction of The Labour Party. The vision on the site claims 'renewal cannot happen behind closed doors. It requires an open participatory debate in the Party, amongst our supporters and with the wider public about the future direction for New Labour'.

The website's launch has been interpreted by many in the media merely as an attack on Gordon Brown's seemingly uncontested candidacy for the Leadership of The Labour Party. Whether it is or not, is not my job to judge. However, if it signals an escalation of political parties' use of networking tools to interact with their electorate, it can only be a good thing in the long run.

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