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eDemocracy: a powerful new tool for country folk

Friday 23 February 2007

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard mulls over the long-term meaning of a new word, eDemocracy, which this week had the politicians running for cover because the website at 10 Downing Street revealed for the first time the true power of the Web

HALT! Take a few seconds to pause, dear reader, and consider the full power that now lies at your finger tips. For the screen and keyboard before you could be about to turn back politics 5,000 years - and give country folk their most powerful tool since the invention of the printing press.

These are extravagant claims. But this week, as I chuckled over sheer panic in Westminster, Whitehall and even No10 Downing Street, I suddenly realised that politics had changed for ever. In future, our lawmakers will have to do things differently.

number 10 website
The site that caused a panic

For the first time ever, country folk could make their voices heard as loud and clear as the chattering classes and the paid lobbyists and power groupies in London. By the stroke of a few keys, we can all now have MPs, ministers and indeed whole governments listening to our complaints.

They will not act on them -not yet. But the events surrounding the turmoil surrounding the anti-road-pricing petition on the Downing Street website has sent New Labour into a total panic because the people have spoken as never before. Serious observers are predicting that to defy a huge weight of very public, public opinion could actually lose them the next election.

To explain to any reader who spent the past week in the Gaping Ghyl pothole in the Yorkshire Dales - or on the planet Mars for that matter - Tony Blair gave the go-ahead to allow petitions to be posted on his public website (as opposed to his private, secret one) to allow people to express their feelings on proposed legislation.

He was patently not prepared for the fact that a massive 1.8 million people logged on to express their bitter opposition to plans to charge people for using roads they have already paid for. The vast majority of the motoring public - which means the vast majority of voters - look upon road pricing as yet another tax to bail-out the bankrupt Gordon Brown. Surprise, surprise.

Senior Labour party figures went into a tail spin. One told Radio Four that whoever posted the petition on the website was a "prat" (Parliamentary language at its best!). The party chairman said to ask people to pay more for what they now get free (ha, ha - who paid for the roads?) was the "act of an idiot."

that machine in front of you gives you the right to have your views heard, even from the remotest village in the Yorkshire Dales

And Mr Blair's reaction? Well, he will go ahead with it anyway and to hell with the voting public. The Prime Minister has been a lame duck every since he announced he would quit this year - but this statement caused quite intelligent people to question his sanity.

For a start, he won't be around to introduce any new schemes, however loony. But for politicians, who have for years swept public concerns under the nearest available carpet if they didn't fit in with party doctrine, this came as a knife in the gut. What idiot gave the public a chance to express their views where all could see, they asked.

And more than one MP in marginal seats, anxious to cling into the £200,000 a year pay, expense account and pension packages, was at least astute enough ("sly" might be a better word) to realises that to simply to ignore such a public outcry could cost them the next general election.

Five thousand years ago, the patricians of ancient Athens invented the word "democracy" because the state was so small that they could all vote for or against new laws. That is - or was - impossible in later, bigger states so the people were obliged to put their trust in political parties, a trust which many people believe has been betrayed, according to the opinion polls.

But this week a new word was coined: eDemocracy. And that machine in front of you gives you the right to have your views heard, even from the remotest village in the Yorkshire Dales. It is the biggest advance for rural areas since the invention of high-speed printing presses that allowed local newspapers to at least air public disquiet - in their own circulation areas.

That, in time, covers some 150 years. But few governments, even well-meaning ones, have listened to rural voices because they have been drowned-out by the uproar from the vote-rich towns and cities. Now you can say your piece - and we here at Daelnet, who pioneered the web in the Dales, are happy to be your link with the whole wide world. It is time to change the future!

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