Engaging in politics – but on whose terms?


While political parties and groups try to impose the terms on which people will engage, they will struggle to keep people involved.

Party conference season has already begun – it began with the Greens over the weekend just past. For the mainstream parties they have another couple of weeks. A big challenge for them is how to handle the post-Olympics buzz. Moving from wall-to-wall Olympics coverage to wall-to-wall party conference coverage – in a world where the media now covers three rather than two party conferences in detail. The question I think everyone should ask senior politicians is:

“How are you going to inspire us like our Olympians and Paralympians did?”

They’ll probably have their work cut out. At the same time as all of this, the US election will be hotting up, with speech after speech from President Obama. As far as public speaking, presence and persona are concerned, he’s on a completely different level to politicians over here.

Labour go stateside

Bethany Gardiner-Smith hit the nail on the head in her post for Labour Lords.

Perhaps most striking of all is that most of the volunteers here are not Party members; in fact many do not even describe themselves as Democrats. They are here because they like the President and they have been inspired by the sense of being part of something growing and people-led, without feeling like being tied into a formal party structure.

This made me think about how parties and pressure groups organise themselves. Why are people volunteering yet not joining the political party?

Campaigning against the cuts 2010 stylee

In the autumn of 2010 I wandered along to a couple of gatherings of the local trade-union-backed anti-cuts group, as well as popping my head into the occupation of Senate House. I also made my way down to the inaugural gathering of the Coalition of Resistance, not knowing who they were or what they were about at the time. Like many in the public sector, I was fearful of my job, career and livelihood. I wanted to do something about it but didn’t really know where to start. I also didn’t want to get sacked, so I kept all activities trade-union-related.

The difference between what was going on with the occupation and what was going on with the local anti-cuts group was fascinating to observe – both in person and online. The occupation was a hive of people, energy and activity, run on autonomous collective lines. Whenever there was a task that needed doing, volunteers would be asked for and things would get done. This allowed them to react very swiftly to a very fluid situation – one where they were on a 24 hour watch due to the threat of eviction. The anti-cuts group on the other hand was set up on traditional trade union committee lines.

In the end I didn’t get involved much in either. With one the risk of arrest in taking direct action (even non-violent) is hugely off-putting when in employment. I can’t remember which politician said it, but it was something like ‘People who own their own houses don’t riot’ – as part of the justification of selling off council houses. It was a little bit like that for me, only rather ‘people who work for (and are thus dependent wage/salary-wise on) the state don’t riot’.

Terms and conditions

The problem I faced at the time was that my circumstances effectively prevented any involvement in one movement, while the terms and conditions of the other strangled anything creative that I wanted to do – hence going off and doing my own thing. As it turned out, doing my own thing has ended up being far more fun and enjoyable. It’s all been on my own terms. I’ve not had to worry about being told what to do by people or what is and isn’t acceptable.

It’s happened over the years where I’ve popped my head round the door of some local group or gathering and everyone’s like “Oooh! New volunteer! Here’s what we want you to do!” In my experience it rarely works getting people involved that way. You’ve got to invest in them before they invest in you with their time – and possibly money. The scenario reminds me of this guide to the introverted. Understandably the people who have spent and spend a lot of time running such groups, organisations and political parties can be very enthusiastic, passionate and intense about them. Sometimes that can be off-putting to some people – especially if it’s thrown right in their faces before they’ve even found out what the group is all about.

What do you get in return for being a member?

This applies to any group or organisation – not just political parties. Two things that jump off of the top of my head are the buzz of the activities concerned, and the sense of making a difference. There are many others. Unfortunately it’s got to the stage where the marketing people have got to it. How many people trying to sell you stuff no longer say “Buy our stuff” but rather “Be part of it!”

Perhaps it’s more complicated with a political party than it is with a single-issue cause. With a single issue cause it doesn’t really matter what you or others think about non-related issues. A political party however, has to ensure that whatever it campaigns on has to be consistent with everything else it does, lest they get shredded. No point in calling on increased spending in lots of areas if your overall policy is to reduce aggregate spending without showing where the cuts would come from or the tax rises to fund it would be made.

Why would you want to be a member of organisations whose brands and leaders are toxic to many people?

It’s a fair question. With leadership approval ratings of the three main parties in negative numbers, these are not approval ratings, but disapproval ratings: A race to avoid being the worst.

Values and principles

As with leadership, the more people talk and write about them, the harder they are to spot – or so it seems to me. The three parties are in a bit of a muddle on this one. The nature of coalition and the convention of collective government has muddied the waters for the Liberal Democrats in particular, while the Labour leadership seems to have got tangled up in the debate around Thatcher and capitalism. This is one of the front-lines that the Greens parked its tanks (or wheelbarrows if you like) on. While such talk from Miliband might appeal to affluent non-Tory parts of Islington or Camden, I can’t think the same would be true in parts of inner city Manchester or the former mining towns.

Is the corporate media still driving the political train?

I found this article by Fraser Nelson particularly funny – it sounded like he was saying that Ed Balls needed to be booed by the Trades Union Congress in order to increase is credibility! You can hear “The Thick of it” characters already.

“Yeah, we’ve gotta tell Ed that his speech must have something unpopular in – we need the boos and heckles to increase our credibility with the broadsheet press. Goes down well with the floating voter y’see!”

With the rapid expansion of social media usage, for me it’s too early to say what the impact will be on politics in general – and in particular on the impact of the corporate and print media. I’d like to think that 2010 election gave us glimpses of what it might be like in the future as far as predictability goes: more seats becoming much harder to predict as campaigns focus on hyper-local issues rather than bland ones set by the corporate or political classes – the latter of which whether I like it or not I’m sort of part of.

What happened to political clubs?

In one sense, a strong, vibrant local political party can overcome some of the worst aspects of toxic brands and leaders. In my neighbourhood there are a couple of local Conservative and Labour club houses – social clubs. I don’t know whether the Liberal Democrats have one locally – if they do I’ve not seen it. Such clubs form a potentially important link between politics and civic society, but to what extent do toxic political brands impede this?

I quite like the idea of such clubs. Some of my relatives in London have helped run one for decades. Rather than coming back home at the end of a working day and vegetating in front of the telly alone or with a partner, you head out to your club instead. The historian in me sort likes the idea that in pre-telly days you could head out to any number of such clubs – unfortunately it was men only in those days. Even the civil service has one!

People matter – listening matters

Prior to the advent of social media, what I call the Mandelson-Campbell style of political communication was about getting a positive message out there, ensuring everyone was consistent with that message and that any dissent or criticism was clamped down on. Understandable given what happened to Labour during the 1980s with the very public fallouts at party conferences and the years out of power. But one of the side-effects of this increased centralisation was the selection of uber-loyal lobby-fodder, along with the much-criticised career politicians whose main aim is to get into power without having much idea of what to do with it once gained. The same accusation is thrown at David Cameron too. The impression that I got following politics in those years was that few had independent minds and thus few spoke publicly other than to repeat the lines fed to them by party HQ. People have since cottoned onto this and can spot an unanswered question from a mile away.

C’mon Poofles, when are you gonna talk about social media?

In social media world, dissent is even more difficult to stifle. This is what mainstream political parties – as well as traditional committee-based groups tend to struggle with. In pre-social media world, it was easier to hide dissent and disagreement behind closed doors. Social media flings those doors wide open. Social media chatter within any political movement demonstrates this. You can’t keep a lid on it.

It’s also frightening for command and control types. One bad tweet or social media posting by a campaigner or minor councillor in some sleepy village could end up on the front page, smashing to smithereens the carefully crafted positive media image. Makes a change from 20 years ago when it was philandering politicians that did that.

How do you engage with social media users?

Many politicians are still trying to work that one out. Too many still see social media as another channel to get a message out. The more confident, open and dare I say it ‘principled’ politicians are happy to engage, debate and listen. As Julian Huppert said to an audience in Cambridge in 2011, by making clear what his overall worldview and principles are, he can respond to most policy-related questions through the prism of that worldview and those principles. The same is the case for other MPs that I follow from both left and right on the political spectrum. If your worldview is “get into power by any (legal) means possible” then you run a far greater risk of giving inconsistent answers over time or being ridiculed for parroting lines to take that don’t answer the question.

Shining a light on internal party political processes

Social media is something that could benefit grassroots party members significantly by opening up internal debates that otherwise happen behind closed doors. It’s just as much about keeping people informed as it is about allowing people to have their say – and have that say scrutinised too. In this regard, freedom of speech isn’t just about having the right to have your say, it’s also accepting the responsibility that people can hold you to account for what you say too.

It also shines a light into the world of think tanks and pressure groups too. People live-tweeting events (which in Whitehall and Westminster is now the norm) provide far more detail to far more people than in times gone by. Even now, hosts are inviting people from outside to send in their questions that are then put to the panel.

As well as blurring the line between professional and personal, social media users are also blurring the line between member and non-member. My take is that people are willing to engage if parties and organisations are more flexible on the terms of engagement. Do you have examples where parties and organisations have done this well? (Or badly even?) Feel free to tweet to @Puffles2010 or add comments below.


3 thoughts on “Engaging in politics – but on whose terms?

  1. I don’t think it is people who are members of groups who should be running to political party conferences.

    Parties either have principles we agree with or they don’t. If we don’t agree wi them, they fall into the past. New parties should be growing from those groups wi principles and stand for election. The people who are members of those groups are the likely members of the new parties.

    There is nothing worse, nothing more insincere than a political party where politicians shop for principles. Such politicians, such parties… they aren’t worthy of our democracy. If they can’t or won’t grow their own policies, evolve over time from within, they are dying. Let them pass into history.

    There is a reason why people don’t join parties. The people do not want to be part of a party that holds different principles than the people do.

    Voters, young people descending on party conferences where they are not members… “please listen to us, please please please!” No! Don’t do it. The electorate are waiting to hear from people willing to stand for what they believe in. Let the electorate choose, not a little cabal of *high office bearers” in one party or another. That is demeaning and shows young people really do think the only way to a better future is through established, permanent parties. They are wrong.

    Don’t plead with a party you are not a member of. Start your own. Don’t not afford them the luxury of believing they, the small number of parties are your limited choice. Show them otherwise. Stand as Independents, form your own parties. That is what democracy is, fluid, changing, evolving over time. Current political parties are not supposed to have the permanence of tectonic plates.

  2. There are a couple of initiatives (I wouldn’t say organisations as yet) I’m tentatively posting articles to, or hope to be in the future. I think they might respond to the more flexible engagement strategies you suggest might be needed. One is called abetterpeople.com – US-based I think – which hopes to create a new political party. The other is http://www.2020uk.org – this is British-based and looks to focus on governance rather than government.

    Finally, not directly related to the subject of your post but of possible interest all the same: an article this morning on how the industrial language of government may be holding us back from 21st century innovation:


    Hope those links might be of interest as templates for and examples of possible future action.

  3. Whilst party membership, like church attendance, might be on the wain, people nevertheless remain politically interested in the same way they’d probably admit to having a spiritual side.

    I’ve long called for the abolition of the Whip and an era of consensus politics. I was hoping that a coalition government might be a step in that direction, but sadly not.

    It’s interesting though how groups such as 38 Degrees and the Downing Street petitions are having an influence on politicians. I wonder if the social media will have much of an effect. Did the debates? Perhaps Mr. Clegg benefited to Mr. Brown’s cost.

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