Parties’ increased reliance on online forms of communication can have serious consequences both for their functioning and for their relations with the public.

Zac Green and Laurent Tonic discuss the results of a survey of 1,500 respondents assessing their level of support for parties to hold online conferences in the future.

With the conference season over, the impression that the main political parties have struggled to reconnect with their supporters persists. For example, the strife at the Labor Party conference was compared to the “torrential rains and high winds that met the delegates” by one observer. The Conservative Party received few more positive reports, with media coverage in the week leading up to the conference having focused on bad poll numbers and a number of inner crises.

Whether these conferences marked the first in-person events for the parties since the start of the pandemic has hardly been discussed. Previous meetings were virtual, using technology that attempted to provide a conference-like experience, but with few opportunities for attendees’to share ideas and hear voices across the party‘. Yet the shift to an online environment has likely had unsung consequences for deliberations and debates, including potentially conferring even greater control of party messaging on party leaders. Zoom and other online platforms give organizers greater influence over debate content with a much smaller selection of speakers, fewer off-the-cuff responses, and even a mute button. Such events also greatly limit the participation of party members that more traditional in-person events facilitate. At the same time, the online setup has allowed many more people to attend events at a lower cost, increasing access to otherwise more exclusive gatherings. This change then offered a set of compromises with regard to the internal democratic processes of the parties.

In a working paper, we examine these reforms in more detail, linking changes to and from online conferencing to legislative agenda control theories. In September 2021, we conducted a nationally representative survey of nearly 1,500 respondents in the UK to gauge their level of support for parties to hold online conferences in the future. We were not only interested in respondents’ general attitudes towards meetings, but we also sought to examine how the potentially positive and negative effects of this reform led to a variation in support.

We have identified four aspects of events that can impact online meetings: the diversity of speakers, the opportunities for party members to participate, the cost of participation, and ultimately the presence of agreements or conflicts during meetings. In each case, we presented respondents with a short paragraph describing the shift to online conferencing and randomly varied the description of events, indicating that the changes increased or decreased each of the attributes between respondents. This survey experiment allows us to assess support for change online and to determine the extent to which individuals change their opinion in response to information about the impacts of such change.

The survey results reveal intriguing patterns for understanding citizens’ attitudes towards larger national party meetings. Likely reflecting the high number of COVID-19 cases in the UK at the time of the survey, average support for holding future party conferences online is quite high, with 65% of respondents saying they would “definitely” or “probably”. support an online party conference format in the future.

The story gets more complicated when we look at the impact of experimental treatments. The first three treatments focused on the actors’ ability to participate. In each case, information about the breadth of opinions, the opportunities for average members to participate, and the cost of participation resulted in a change in support for the online platform. 71% of respondents who received the treatment that the events led the party to “increase the number of speakers, events and other invitations to discuss issues important to various groups” showed support for future events in line. This is compared to 59% of those who were told that online events reduced speaker diversity and issues and would still support online conferences in the future.

Among respondents who were told that virtual events “increase opportunities for average party members to participate”, 74% showed increased support for future online events, compared to only 55% of respondents’ support who were told that opportunities for participation had diminished.

61% of respondents who were told online conferencing increased fees still supported the virtual format, compared to 69% of respondents who were told online conferencing equated to lower fees. These findings are consistent with the perspective that citizens are more supportive of reforms that allow more diverse viewpoints to be heard and provide a wider audience with access to events.

Unlike the previous attributes, the final treatment focused on the impact of reform on party decision-making. When respondents received information on the impact of the shift to virtual meetings for party deliberations, their support again varied. Interestingly, 60% of respondents showed their support for holding online meetings in the future when they received information that “observers noted a number of conflicts in the decision of party policy” , while 70% of respondents who were told the reform facilitated bigger deals supported online conferencing. . These results suggest that respondents value not only their individual ability to engage, but also the impact of reforms on party deliberations.

The rules that dictate participation in party deliberations have implications for the distribution of power within those bodies. The move from in-person events to an online platform has potentially centralized party messaging by limiting the diversity of speakers, but also increased opportunities for members to observe proceedings at a lower cost than before. The resulting elite messaging was likely found to be more consistent than the in-person depictions of the events of 2021. We therefore anticipate that these reforms will have implications for parties’ ability to build internal consensus and ultimately , on their electoral fortune. Voters who perceive parties as more unified, with a cohesive message, consider them more competent and are more likely to vote for them. Even more important for the future of representative democracy, because previous studies of intra-party deliberation findwe expect the survey experience to reveal the impact of internal party rules on citizen satisfaction with the broader democratic process.

As the many ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic reveal, the increased reliance on and public support for online forms of political communication are likely to have serious consequences both for the functioning of major political parties and for the broader relationship. of the public with representative democracy.


about the authors

Zac Green is a reader in the Department of Government and Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde.

Laurent Tonic is a research fellow at the University of Strathclyde.

picture by Glen Carrie to Unsplash.

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Melvin G. Rodriguez