How social media delivered the Syria defeat
By Sue Cameron
Whatever the international fallout from the Syrian crisis, it has changed forever the terms of trade between the public and their leaders. The Coalition’s defeat over plans for military action has underlined as never before the voters’ distrust of the elite; it is changing the balance of power in Parliament, showing the extent to which ordinary people can use social media to bring their will to bear on MPs, prime ministers and presidents. The implications are huge, yet politicians are only just beginning to comprehend the change.
Downing Street seemed quite unprepared for what happened. Via email and Twitter, the public made it abundantly clear that they did not trust their leaders to launch a military strike, and this was reflected in the way some backbenchers voted. Clearly the adventures of Tony Blair and George W Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan played an important part in sapping public confidence, but there is something bigger and more permanent going on here.
As Sir Nigel Sheinwald, our former ambassador to the US, told me: “Globalisation makes governments look small because they are incapable of controlling huge global processes. And the vast amounts of online information mean that people are sceptical of what governments tell them and check up on it instantly. Social media allows campaigns to be mounted at the drop of a hat. Traditional means of political organisation and mobilisation of opinion have been overtaken.”
When voters are as well informed as MPs, we are heading to a world where political leaders will have to put far more effort into justifying their policies. Yet Downing Street was embarrassingly short of persuasive argument on military action in Syria. As one Tory backbencher said: “Even the so-called intelligence they showed us was just a couple of photocopied sheets of paper that wouldn’t have convinced anyone.”
Online campaigns mean that MPs can defy the whips with greater impunity than ever before, explaining that they can’t support the party line because their constituents are against it. Nor can the twitterati be dismissed as a bunch of cranks: the strength of online feeling can be verified by polling. On the eve of the Syria vote, a YouGov poll showed that the public were two to one against action. This put backbenchers in a far stronger position to resist the edicts of party managers. Published in The Telegraph.
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