At a caff, on Islington’s Essex Road, Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi were eating breakfast and trying not to dwell on a calamitous sequence of events that had unfolded three months previously. “It was February last year. We were feeling rather down,” recalls Shakespeare, who, like Zahawi, had been working on Lord Archer’s mayoral campaign until a particularly dismal twist in that colourful peer’s career led him to withdraw his candidacy. “We’d had Christmas with our families and we were still thinking what to do next.”
Like everybody else, back then, the pair thought it might be a good idea to set up a web site. Shakespeare was a former teacher, Zahawi worked in marketing, and both men had political credentials, having stood as Conservative candidates at the last general election. (Shakespeare, in Colchester, came a close second; Zahawi, in Erith & Thamesmead, also came second, but with barely a third as many votes as the winner.) “And for two years,” points out Zahawi, “we’d been meeting a lot of people to talk about policy for London.” So what opportunities might there be in public affairs?
One promising area, Zahawi proposed, was local government. As a councillor in Wandsworth, he knew that the Labour government had obliged councils to consult residents on a wide range of issues – a costly and time-consuming process on which councils might welcome outside assistance. Shakespeare, for his part, had in mind another type of organisation that could benefit from consulting the public – private companies.
Thus, essentially, was their web site, YouGov.com, envisioned – as a virtual polling station, gathering opinions from the likes of you and me. They hired a technical guy to deal with the infrastructure. They found partners, including Freeserve, the internet service provider with 2.2m subscribers, and Bell Pottinger, the lobbying firm. And they launched the site in June.
Reporting to see them at the offices they were given by Bell Pottinger, I’m impressed by how close they are to parliament: the building stands almost directly opposite the public lawn where, day after day, MPs deliver their stern views to TV cameras. Pushing open the front door, I find myself looking down a corridor towards a back garden. On the far side is a glazed door, and behind that I see a man smoking furiously. Seeing me, he stubs out his cigarette and steps inside. This turns out to be Shakespeare, whose patrician accent, floppy hair and mildly gruff manner are uncommonly reminiscent of Michael Heseltine; and whom I realise I’ve seen before, speaking fiercely in defence of Archer on TV as the latter’s campaign fizzled out. Leading me into a smart meeting room – filled with Whittaker’s Almanac, Who’s Who and countless parliamentary digests – he pops out again to fetch Zahawi, I can’t help noticing through the window what I can only assume to be their HQ: a garden shed, with a poster in the window bearing the name of YouGov.
Like Shakespeare, Zahawi has an old-fashioned appearance, based in this case on the pony tail and beard favoured by marketing men some years ago. But he’s an engaging character, and never happier then when he opens a laptop to demonstrate the range of fascinating material on his web site. There are opinion pieces (each one offering a vote at the close), a service telling you which party most closely resembles your views, and another enabling you to identify your MP by entering your postcode.
Of course, YouGov is not the only site of its kind. Remarkably similar is Vote.com, which was founded by Dick Morris, the former political adviser to Bill Clinton. Along with a handful of others, these sites can already measure public opinion on a scale never previously seen, at a fraction of the cost of any old-style poll or referendum. If they can overcome a few security issues – which they seem to think they will – then the providers of online ballots could pose a formidable challenge to one of the most basic principles of representative democracy. Because if online polling takes off, what do we need MPs for?
As things stand, voting for an MP can hardly be considered a precise tool for influencing government policy. If you vote for the losing party, your views count for nothing. And if you pick the winner your vote will be used to justify anything and everything the incoming government does. Last time round, for example, you may have voted Labour because you strongly agreed with every policy in its manifesto, with just one exception – the abolition of voting rights for hereditary peers. But by putting your mark against the name of the candidate, you endorsed all Labour’s policies at once, including that one. In the general noise, your voice was drowned out.
That’s why voters feel disenfranchised, detached from any sense of responsibility. To huge numbers of people, politics is utterly irrelevant; something best left to professional politicians, just as the law is left to lawyers. The membership of all political parties together account for less than two per cent of the population; and the last election produced the lowest turnout in decades.
New technology could potentially reverse that process of alienation. It offers minority parties and single-issue pressure groups a means to promote and test their views before the entire population. It gives voters a precision tool with which to shape policy – vote “Yes” to this policy, “No” to that one. Most impressive of all, it permits dialogue. Instead of merely asking questions and tallying the answers, the internet allows you to go back to respondents for additional information. You can’t do that with traditional polls, observes Zahawi, triumphant: “If you question members of the public on the street, you’ve lost them immediately afterwards. With our system, you can go back to the same people and ask them more.” And, Shakespeare adds: “We can also choose selected parts of that group: we can target, say, people who are Financial Times readers.”
It’s this aspect of the business that delights YouGov’s corporate clients – and keeps the company revenue-positive. Leaning across the table, Shakespeare passes me a print-out from the web site. It’s one of several YouGov votes offering money to anybody willing to supply opinions: registered members of the YouGov Polling Club are paid 50p to rate various industries on “social responsibility”, then to rate 12 specific companies, including WH Smith, HSBC and Tesco. “If you’re a company that is not seen as socially responsible, you’ll want to go back and ask the people who think that why they think that,” says Zahawi. “The process becomes, in effect, a negotiation,” adds Shakespeare.
How can they afford to pay respondents? They don’t: the clients pay. Members of the Polling Club receive payment only after their account reaches £50. Payment is by cheque, and YouGov’s software analyses the responses for suspicious patterns, reducing – but not altogether eliminating -the potential for multiple entries.
But electronic market research is not the same as e-democracy. And e-democracy will never take off while large parts of the population remain unable to access the technology. In time, this problem will diminish, with ever more PCs in libraries and internet cafes, and the appearance of additional channels for online voting, such as interactive digital TV. But as foreign-movie distributors could tell you, it’s not enough to position people in front of a screen: they must also understand what they see there.
These issues were recently addressed by Bristol city council. In a pioneering referendum on its budget, Bristol allowed voters to register their views by post, by phone, or on the net. (There were four options – raising the tax by six per cent, four per cent, two per cent or freezing it – with a transferable vote to show preferences, from one to four.) For technical reasons, the online ballot looked different from the physical ballot. “We thought a lot about that,” explains a spokesman, Simon Caplan, “but in the end we decided that people who had chosen to use the internet were necessarily confident enough to work it out… We also had to make sure there were adequate links between the polling site and elsewhere. We had to put up signposts on the main council web site, in case that’s where people looked first.”
In the event, 2.68 per cent of the votes cast in Bristol came through the net. There could have been more, if voters had used computers in libraries, but the council chose not to encourage that. “We need people doing this with confidence and I don’t think they can do that in libraries. They have to feel confident that they’re voting in private – not just confident that people won’t see what they’re doing, but also that the next person to use the machine won’t be able to work out how they voted.”
Which brings us to the next obstacle – security. In most public elections individual ballots must be both accountable and anonymous. That is, officials must be able to establish whether a particular individual has voted, but without knowing which way the vote was cast. To do this electronically has, until recently, seemed impossible – practically a contradiction in terms. But Jim Adler, president and chief executive of the American company, VoteHere.net, which advised Bristol on the internet-based aspects of its referendum, says his company has devised a mechanism for allocating votes without first decrypting them. “You can look at the encryption as a kind of envelope which you don’t actually need to open,” he explains. And that the new technology, he adds, will be available soon.
“Another issue with home computers,” he concedes, “is the potential for a virus to upset your vote. Malicious code could target your browser, fooling you into changing a ‘Yes’ to a ‘No’.” According to this scenario, a solitary hacker could, at a stroke, conjure election results far beyond the dreams of the Saatchis or Peter Mandelson. “But this is all in the realm of hypotheticals,” Adler insists.
Anyway, it’s not only the internet which is susceptible to fraud, as Shakespeare eagerly points out. “What nobody ever reports is that there is no security in [conventional] general elections anyway. You just have to walk in to a polling station and say the name of the person you’re pretending to be. They don’t check. You don’t have to give them a polling card. They tick off the name and if the real person turns up afterwards, they can’t vote – it’s as simple as that. At least with email, the vote leaves a trace – they can catch you in the end, just as they catch the people who send viruses.”
Even without fraudulent use, old voting technology can cause appalling problems, as was seen in last year’s American presidential election. The events in Palm Beach provided a terrific boost for e-democracy, according to Adler: “The events in Florida accelerated the timetable for what we’re doing by four years in a single day.”
In the UK, e-democracy is, if not exactly racing ahead, taking tentative strides. Bristol is not the only council to have used the internet for voting (Croydon is another). And YouGov hopes to profit by building portals for councils, such as the one unveiled last month by the north London borough of Barnet. Having looked into various discussion threads, I must regrettably report that Barnet Online has failed, so far, to spark vigorous debate. One message, from a reporter on the Hendon Times, is headlined “is anyone out there”. And in a discussion about the budget, more than a quarter of the messages were posted by a single individual. Mr D Temple notes that the service and reliability of staff at Edgware station is “shocking in the extreme”, that roads have “STILL not been gritted 2 days AFTER the snow fall”, and that expenditure on Christmas lights on Edgware High Road “appears to have been wasted” (he does not elaborate). Not the most exciting political discourse, perhaps, but it’s a start.
At the national level, there’s a lot further to go. Government sites tend to be unappealing, typically featuring indigestible White Papers that nobody will ever read. As for voting – well, ever since the first referendum, on entry to the Common Market, the public has been consulted only on the weightiest constitutional questions. The present government put devolution to a vote, but also postponed indefinitely any referendum on the Euro, and seems unlikely to bother us with anything less consequential. In the past, this might have been understandable: referenda, being prohibitively expensive, were necessarily restricted to the biggest issues. But new technology cuts the cost to a mere fraction of what it was. So can we look forward, soon, to voting on all the big issues of the day – fox hunting, the sale of the Dome, and the re-nationalisation of the railways?
Not necessarily. After all, somebody still has to decide which issues go to a vote. In New Zealand, just about anybody can call a referendum – on practically any subject – so long as they secure name, addresses and signatures from ten per cent of eligible voters. (Switzerland, another level-headed nation, operates a similar system.) In Britain, with a larger population, the number of signatures would need to be scaled up – but even with that safeguard the idea is unlikely to be established here.
Fundamentally, that’s because nobody seems to trust the general public. Despite their increasing reliance on focus groups and opinion polls, MPs like to say they lead public opinion, not follow it. To protect that privilege, they tend to characterise e-democracy as something we should dread. “How many of these votes should we have?” scoffs one interested party. “If it got to the stage where you had a vote during the commercial break in the middle of Coronation Street – would that really be a good thing? When does voting cease to be easy, and become facile?” Another wonders what might happen if a tabloid newspaper were to call for a referendum on, say, finding a pop-star bride for Prince William: “With pre-printed coupons, they could easily get enough signatures.” Democracy is OK, it seems, but you can have too much of a good thing.
2360 words. First published 7 April 01. © FT Magazine