More than any previous election – much more – the General Election last week was defined by strong, vocal public opinion. There are lots of reasons – the TV debates, the economic crisis, and most of all the internet. Social networking sites were awash with sweeping statements and twitter was atweet with downright irrational feeling on all sides (or does it just seem irrational in 140 characters?). For once, the negativity displayed by the public actually outweighed the negative advertising of the actual parties.
Which, on the whole, is no bad thing. If it got people interested, if it got people passionate, if it actually got people down to their polling station (and the turnout suggests that it did), then hurrah for the internet. If it meant people were better informed (a bigger if, certainly) then also hurrah. People exercising their democratic right to have a point of view and encouraging others to engage with politics is most definitely a Good Thing.
Only… some people haven’t realised that the time for that has now passed. That the election is over and, however thrillingly ambiguous the result, the role of the public has now ended.
So there are vociferous groups popping up on Facebook declaring that ‘if 100,000 people join this group then it proves David Cameron should never be Prime Minister!’ and hashtags across twitter presuming to tell Nick Clegg what decision he should make about a coalition – and Lord knows what’s going down on the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ pages, I haven’t dared to look. Invariably, the people who are being most militant in their anger are those who voted with the expectation of something completely different happening. They wanted an unexpected Labour win. They wanted an unlikely Lib Dem majority. And, ad nauseum, they are determined that the Conservatives can’t possibly have any say in the running of the country. Because it looks like the Conservatives might now have that chance, people are beating the walls and screaming ‘my vote has been ignored!’
Well, actually your vote was not ignored. (Unless you’re one of the people who got turned away at 10pm. But on the telly they all looked a bit mad and wet so maybe that’s okay.) Every vote was counted and, whilst the Conservatives didn’t get a majority government, they got the majority vote by quite some margin, which would be true even under proportional representation – so if anyone can make a coalition work, it’s them. You might not like it, but that’s democracy for you.
So 40,000 people on Facebook are against a Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives. Why do they think that means they should be given special attention? They should try fighting all the people who voted for the BNP. The BNP lot would win – partly because they’d fight dirty, but mainly because there’d be over ten times as many of them. Getting together a-lot-of-people-what-reckon-the-same-as-me does not demonstrate that you should get your own way, and for the sake of keeping the BNP under control we must be extremely grateful for that.
By all means write to your MP about the unfair voting system. Sign petitions and go on a protest if you really care. There’ll probably be another election later this year so you can vote out your MP if they ignore you. We are privileged to live in a country where we are allowed and encouraged to make our voice heard in these ways. But the system requires a government with decision-making power to enact any such changes, and the people who are in the best position to form one are doing their best to make it work – and indeed, the grown-up way in which they’re going about it is the first positive sign that those of us who hoped for a hung Parliament were right about its possible advantages for our political system: it has forced parties to work together, to stop bickering and look for common ground in the hope of finding mutually satisfying solutions to problems. That’s democracy.
So we may end up with a Liberal/Conservative coalition – and if we do, it will be because a lot of very clever people have found a way to make it work. You might not like it, but using the internet to build up an artificial sense of majority feeling is not only undemocratic, it’s actually not your place. As John Finnemore pointed out in his excellent From Fact to Fiction play None of the Above, the reason we elect other people to do the governing is that they know a lot more about it than we do. Even with a hung Parliament, the decisions about what happens next lie with People Who Know More About It Than You. Do you think Nick Clegg’s going to see the #dontdoitnick hashtag on twitter and suddenly think ‘oh my GOD, there are people out there who think I shouldn’t do it – I’d better NOT do it!!!!’?
So sit back and enjoy the drama and complexity of what’s unfolding while the people whose job it is to sort out the mess get on with it. Unless you’re one of them, you’ve had your say – now go back to tweeting about more important things like Doctor Who.