Engels once remarked that parties more or less express the political interests of classes and class fractions. Similarly political science argues parties are aggregates of certain interests that simultaneously bridge the divide between the concerns of everyday folk and those who occupy the highest echelons of political office. This is known as the 'linkage' function.
In recent years there have been a number of arguments about the declining "quality" of democracy in this country. These have found voice in arguments over falling turn out at elections, the rise of the far right and the creeping authoritarianism of the state. Academics and activists alike point to the falling memberships of mainstream political parties as another symptom of a brewing crisis in liberal democracy, a crisis of legitimacy that recently found vocal mass expression in the outcry over MPs' expenses.
One of the stark features of this political landscape is the position in which the Labour party finds itself. Organised labour was sent into a tailspin by the onslaught unleashed upon it by the Tories in the 1980s. Compounded by election defeat after election defeat the (right-wing) Labour tops increasingly believed the only way to win was to shamelessly steal the Tories' clothes and dump anything that could remotely be linked to socialist politics. It is a strategy that appeared to work for three elections, but one that has exacted a terrible price. Membership has tumbled. Long-standing and experienced activists have torn up their party cards. The traditional base of the party feels betrayed and many have taken to abstentionism. And to aggravate matters, increased managerialism and centralisation has expunged Labour of any effective avenue whereby the leadership can be called to account by the members.
The hollowing out of the Labour party has resulted in a diminution of its linkage function. As the party has withered the leadership have turned to means other than the declining quality of information being transferred up the party from members for feedback on policy ideas and their impacts. Famously, policy under Blair was driven by focus groups. But even more so, the media - especially the Mail, Express and Sun were seen as the authentic mouthpieces of the constituencies New Labour needed to win over if it was going to carry on winning elections. Hence the obsession with spin and the very public courting of these titles by Blair and Brown alike. While it is true neither the Tories or Liberal Democrats party organisations have suffered to the same extent, they have adapted to the media environment New Labour helped create.
What has all this got to do with the Daniel Hannan/NHS/Twitter furore? Quite a lot.
Obama's moves to implement basic health care provision has brought out the ugliest the American hard right has to offer. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Lyndon LaRouche are all united (with the power of the Murdoch media and insurance giants behind them) in defending the "choice" poor Americans have between paying for medical care, or choosing to suffer and/or die unnecessarily (see here). As has been widely reported, that swivel-eyed evangelist of Tory economic "libertarianism", Daniel Hannan MEP (pictured) has been spending his summer zipping around the States feeding Republican wingnuts a bellyful of lies and misinformation about the National Health Service. The willful ignorance married to Hannan's behaviour has enraged many on this side of the Atlantic, who have hit back with the #welovetheNHS hash tag on Twitter.
For readers not au fait with Twitter, hash tags are used to generate a trend, which gathers all subsequent tweets (i.e. updates) that carry that tag. According to this site over Wednesday and Thursday, some 20,000 tweets were sent with this hash tag. And when a certain volume of tweets with the hash tag are reached they appear in the top ten trending topics, viewable to an audience of hundreds of thousands at any one time.
Typically the #welovetheNHS tweets have mostly carried positive stories in defence of the NHS. A significant minority have used it to attack Hannan and his unsavoury American friends. But all of them have combined to embarrass David Cameron who has been at pains to stress how safe the NHS would be under the Tories, forcing him to now disown Hannan's comments.
This embarrassment for the Tories illustrates how Westminster is mainly anchored to the outside world through its relationship to the media. Even if we control for the effects of the silly season (where news media are desperate for stories in the absence of parliamentary reportage), if say a petition of over 20,000 names had been handed in to Downing Street over the government's determination to chop up and privatise Royal Mail, chances are there would be no movement whatsoever. Had 20,000 tweets been sent on the same issue, picked up on and amplified by the news media, the outcome would be quite different. Again, this is because for all the party leaders the media has a more immediate impact on their day to day activity than any grumbles ongoing in their party structures.
This is not to suggest we are a heartbeat away from Twitter-led governance. After all it costs Cameron very little to take Hannan aside and tell him to shut up. But it impacts on media management and strategy and might under some circumstances force governments and oppositions to rethink their positions. It is the potential Twitter has for forcing items onto the news agenda and the faith mainstream politicians have in it as some sort of people's voice that will see Twitter give them more headaches in the future, and it is a potential we on the left should seek to use.