Why the debate on whether to vote is starting at the wrong place


Politics is about far more than a cross on a bit of paper

I’ve been watching various sides exchanging fire about Russell Brand’s comments on all things politics recently. Interestingly, his detractors from mainstream politics have focused on his comments about voting, rather than on his criticisms of the general state of politics and economics generally. Personally I found his recent pieces both thought-provoking and hard-hitting. (See here and here).

“As TV celeb Russell turns out to London demo, we look at how you can copy the new style demo-chic look for the new season!”

On Puffles’ Twitterfeed, a number of people were complaining that the mainstream media were not reporting the demonstration in central London on 5 November. It was only when Russell Brand turned up that there was a story. A few briefly commented on one group setting off a firework in the direction of Buckingham Palace – demonstrating the mainstream media’s ignorance of grassroots autonomous protests. There are no ‘leaders’ or ‘official pages’ with these things, despite what some may claim. The same points were being made in the anti-capitalist demonstrations of the very early 2000s, as I recall reading Monopolise Resistance from my student days over a decade ago.

Protesting and demonstrating being part of a vibrant democracy

In the time around the 2010 general election, I remember much being made by politicians of the people’s right to protest. The problem I had with the debate was that the ‘mood music’ was that people could only protest in a manner that would have zero impact on the policies or actions (normally of the government) they were protesting over. I was looking at those comments through the lens of the protest against the Iraq War in 2003, the largest of which I took part in. On top of that, you have the Liberal Democrat ministers abandoning pledges on tuition fees in late 2010. I can’t help but feel that the actions of the senior politicians of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in both those cases did a huge amount of damage to citizens’ willingness to engage in politics and peaceful protest. Why? Because on both occasions they demonstrated that, despite mobilisation of huge numbers of people, policy-wise it counted for nothing. The war went ahead – the inquiry into which we’re still waiting for, and the fees rose. Is it any wonder why we’re in the quagmire that we’re in?

In a society hostile to party politics, where do we start with ‘re-engagement’?

Too many mainstream politicians want to have their cake & eat it. They want flexible labour markets but don’t understand/acknowldge that this has an impact on the stability of local communities. They say they want to deal with the problems of high house prices, but policies of the past 20 years have done little to alleviate things for the many. We’re also failing our future generations – as Conor Hamilton powerfully writes:

Britain has robbed its children. It has stopped them from buying a house and failed to support them in the scramble for education and jobs in a globalised world, while saddling them with private debt…Those now in control of Britain have not only robbed their children, but potentially stolen from themselves as well.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m trying to start at a very local level in my home town – learning & listening as I go along. Back in 2011 I thought that a ‘social media first’ approach would work. But the past two years showed me that I had over-estimated the number of people using social media for social action in my area. Hence having to adapt my approach with each face-to-face gathering I went to.

You can’t rely on volunteers to do everything in the way rhetoric from politicians makes out

In a nutshell, ‘volunteering’ takes time. The other thing is that there are very blurred lines between helping someone out, volunteering and philanthropy. My continued criticism of the current Coalition regarding all things civic society is that they underestimated the links between local community groups and local government. That’s not to say everything was perfect pre-2010. It wasn’t. What had happened was the community and voluntary services sector had become all too dependent on the state for both funding and initiatives. This led to the entire sector aligned itself towards the state rather than more outward looking. As a result, when the cuts came they were devastating.

The hit to the economy meant this was a double-whammy as people who may have been able to step into help support things financially were no longer able to, because they had lost their jobs.

Party politics relies on volunteers

Local government does too. At a recent workshop on becoming a councillor (see the second half of this blogpost) I learnt that being a councillor took up about 20 hours of your time per week. How can anyone with a full-time job hope to meet their duties? Given the pressures of being a councillor – the hours, the low allowances, the blame you get from the public for decisions taken in Whitehall, and the general low view of politicians anyway, why would anyone want to stand?

Furthermore, party politics requires activists on the ground to engage with people face-to-face. But for those of you that live in politically safe wards, how often do you find local political activists engaging with you at a street level? My point is not to criticise those that are active, but more to look at why there is so little activity compared perhaps to previous years. Is it because there is a mismatch between effort put in vs what can be achieved? Is it because politics can no longer solve the problems of society? Is it because people no longer care? Is it because they are so busy with other pressures of life that they have no time for formal political engagement?

Is the way our economy & society is structured making it harder for people to ‘do politics’?

I can’t help but feel that it is. One good example is journey times to and from work. If people didn’t have to travel/commute so far to and from work, would they have more time and energy to spend in their communities? I remember when I lost 3 hours a day commuting to and from London, I had zero energy for community engagement. I’d be out of the house just after 7, not back home till 8:30pm and would sleep/vegetate through most of Saturday and Sunday until the working week came around again. Actually, that was one of the reasons why I chose to leave the civil service – emotionally the lifestyle felt completely unsustainable and was getting me down. There was little chance for non-work human interaction.

Making it easier for people to take part in politics’ debates

This is one for the institutions just as much – if not more so, than the individuals. This was reenforced to me at a local council meeting. Local councillors publicly stated that few were using social media, let alone the council-backed community website for Cambridgeshire, Shape Your Place. At the same time, local residents said they could not see why there was a need to engage with councillors using social media. For me, there are two things that are missing here in Cambridge.

The lack of public political debates involving local politicians

The only institution I can think of that regularly hosts such debates in Cambridge is the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. I’ve found that council meetings – whether full or area committees are not suitable forums for people and councillors to debate the issues that are concerning local residents. For a start, there are often far more councillors than residents at such meetings, and speaking in public like this is daunting. Why can’t we have events where either national or local issues are discussed?  Why does it have to be just at election time? Who are the community groups that can host such events?

The lack of awareness of which campaign and community groups are where, and when events are on.

We’re slowly but surely getting our act together in Cambridge – but still some way away from this on the Isle of Wight. (Personally I’d like that combined with message boards similar to The Student Room here). Combine those with community notice boards where people are (we’re lacking them in my part of town) and a greater sense of community might rise.

Where do citizens fit into politics and civic society?

Coming back to the issues of voting and participation, the rhetoric from mainstream politicians and political parties is looking at the system through their eyes rather than through the eyes of the citizen. This goes especially for public services. For example, the interactions a parent with three primary school children is likely to be very different to the middle-aged small business owner with no dependents.

Before we even think about trying to deal with encouraging people to vote, let alone who to vote for, getting an understanding of where different citizens relate to the state seems like a half-decent starting point.

Puffles outside a polling station
Puffles outside a polling station

3 thoughts on “Why the debate on whether to vote is starting at the wrong place

  1. On the topic of Area Committees, I know that the North Area one saw an increase in people (particularly the travelling community – hoorah!) being involved and contributing after the style was changed. But they’re not so much about debate as decision making (or progress towards decision making eg this needs to be sorted out can you look at it) or the meetings would go on way past midnight. This would be off putting for councillors and the public alike, I’d suggest. Debate is more likely to occur in the full council meeting’s and for an ordinary Joe or Joanna to address them really would be intimidating. I guess there’s a balance to drawn between the number of meetings held and the amount of time councillors have to attend them and deal with ward problems.

    In contrast, there’s been much more involvement with the community forum discussing the NW Cambridge site, with the room nearly full on every occasion and indeed with the discussions about developer contributions. It’s great to see people get stuck into things like this.

    Newspapers seem to have stopped reporting protests for some reason. Most of the sizeable London Cycling Campaign rides to push for #space4cycling or to ‘Go Dutch’ didn’t get many if any column inches, which I found disappointing. Most of the People’s Assembly protest haven’t had much coverage either and it would be interesting to hear why that is from a newspaper editor or two. People clearly do want to be involved but I guess the other part of that is showing that some are engaging already.

    Sorry if this rambles, btw.

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