Splat the rat: responding to the influence of social media on government policy

5 years, 10 months ago

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Old-style tribal political allegiances are being eroded and governments are having to make ever more policy U-turns. Why? Because of the pressure applied via social media. By Richard Jukes.



There’s a game played at English village fetes that brings to mind the future of Government in the UK and, for that matter, many other democracies around the world.  In the game, a small bean bag decorated to look like a rodent is dropped down a series of random drain-pipes while the player stands ready with a cricket bat or other suitable weapon ready to whack the bag as it momentarily appears below any given pipe.  
 
Splat the Rat, as the game is known, is a perennial favourite but fiendishly difficult to master.  And it increasingly resembles the style of government that we in the UK are becoming accustomed to as we watch the Prime Minister, bat in hand, frantically trying to splat awkward issues, crises and cock-ups as they come tumbling down the pipes with no warning and in no order.  
 
One of the main reasons for this is the increasing influence of social media over government policy.  One only has to look at the litany of U-turns undertaken in the UK since 2010 to see this in action. From the ‘privatisation’ of forests to the pasty tax to the badger cull, there have been nearly 50 retreats or reverses since the Government was formed and nearly all of them have come about following digitally-led campaigns of opposition.  
 
Of course, every government has been at the mercy of events to some extent. But until the advent of what is effectively universal digital access, politicians at least had some control over their destinies.  Political parties had loyal followers who, in many cases, were life-long supporters through thick and thin. 
 
Manifestos were drafted as holistic blue-prints for government; policies were adopted to complement each other and to create, in theory at least, a balanced and coherent plan for the country.  The political parties’ individual popularity may have ebbed and flowed but, at a General Election, people tended to return a single party with a mandate to follow the policies they had fought the campaign for.  
 
Bite-sized chunks
 
But all of that is changing.  Tribal politics is being broken down as people take their politics in bite-sized chunks.  No longer do we feel compelled to accept the entire agenda of one party over another as a ‘take it or leave it’ option and instead, we’ve ditched set menu politics in favour of a la carte government.  
 
Why? Because, social media has set us free.  At the touch of a smart phone button, we can become part of a campaign of thousands.  We can tweet and hashtag and trend.  We can tell government what we think and, what’s more, they can hear.  Loud and clear.  And they act.  All of which means we can directly affect change in a way, and in a time-frame, that was unthinkable in the early 2000s, let alone the 80s and 90s.  
 
Goodbye coherence 
 
But with this new-found control has come a fragmentation of the sort of coherence mentioned above.  Power without responsibility is nothing new (though no less dangerous for being so) but the advent of thousands of internet ‘Prime Ministers’ with single issue agendas (and often a limited attention span) is having an effect both on how we are governed and the extent to which we are governable.  
 
It’s also having an effect on the wider political landscape in which the fragmentation of traditional parties is giving rise to new, more focused, parties that play to the anxieties of the moment.  In the UK we witnessed the thankfully short-lived spectre of the far right BNP party and now it is the turn of UKIP in England to drive a coach and horses through cosy political consensus.  
 
In the US the Tea Party movement similarly fractured the right of the GOP and right across Europe parties like Podemos in Spain, the Northern League in Italy, Syriza in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary and even the resurgence of the National Front in France are challenging existing politics and the existing frameworks of government. 
 
More coalition government?
 
Here in the UK this all means the likely continuation of coalition government.  Indeed, it is probable we will end up with some sort of rainbow coalition in May 2015 with one of the two main parties being propped up by an assortment of Greens; Unionists; UKIP; SNP; Uncle Tom Cobley and all.  
 
Far from being a government of all the talents, it is likely to be a government of competing agendas that will fail to hold its course for more than a year or two at most.  We’ll see more U-turns than a driving school and we the people, full of popular indignation, will be steering the ship of state so erratically it will be virtually impossible to discern any meaningful sense of direction.  Unfortunately, that’s the one thing our clients need more than anything else: some sense of certainty in which to plan for the future and make the investments so vital to buoyant economies.
 
This new kind of politics will require a new kind of public affairs.  
 
Our clients, whether solely domestic or part of international organisations, will need all of their own expertise plus lobbyists’ guidance to try and pick their way through the mire.  And not just in the UK.  Companies are finding many of the old certainties coming unstuck as governments across the world get blown off-course by sudden squalls appearing from a clear blue sky.  
 
New opportunities
 
But this brave new world also provides opportunities.  Whereas in the past we may have felt it futile and possibly counter-productive to promote total opposition to stated government policy, increasingly we find that nothing is sacred.  
 
A well-timed and executed campaign can lead to change; regardless of how firm a government’s resolve may at first have appeared.  The kaleidoscopic array of political opinion no longer needs party representation to get its way. It simply needs to tap into the on-line support that is readily available for a multiplicity of single issue campaigns.
 
Government by social media is a new but growing phenomenon and it doesn’t readily lend itself to good government.  Of course it may be that we come to recognise this and find another way of engaging with those that govern us.  
 
But until that time, the lot of prime ministers and presidents will remain that of the eager visitor to the village fete...desperately trying to splat the rat.
 
 
Author’s details 
Richard Jukes is Managing Director, UK Public Affairs, Grayling. He leads Grayling’s UK-wide public affairs team and has 25 years’ experience in Public Affairs. He was appointed as Special Adviser to former Cabinet Minister, Rt. Hon. David Mellor, QC and, in the months leading up to the 2001 General Election, was retained as an Adviser to the then Leader of the Conservative Party, Rt. Hon. William Hague, MP.
 
He established his own consultancy in 1998 with a focus on campaigning and supporting clients to drive the policy agenda, before moving to Grayling in 2010. Richard provides strategic leadership to a number of clients including ABB, Fujitsu, Hilton Worldwide and Caesars Entertainment. His particular specialisation lies in reputation management and campaigning. 

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Richard Jukes

Richard Jukes is Managing Director, UK Public Affairs, Grayling. He leads Grayling’s UK-wide public affairs team and has 25 years’ experience in Public Affairs.

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