Voter registration campaigns have got to do more than just encourage people to register and vote. Here’s some things that they might want to do.
[Updated 3 Feb 2014 to add]
Bite The Ballot got in touch with Puffles to state the following:
Looks like they are going beyond registration – which is ***splendid!***
It’s National Voter Registration Day on 5th February which is being pushed by the Bite The Ballot campaign. Have a look:
Now, I’m not sure about the message of dividing the young vs the old. Also, having a look at their statement “Who do I vote for” and responding that it doesn’t matter, well…I think it does. There’s a difference between casting a vote and casting an informed vote. Now, it’s not an all-or-nothing difference between the two. You’ll never know absolutely everything about every single candidate, the party they stand for (if not independent) and the party leader they may have. This is why for me, such campaigns need to explain how citizens can get in touch with politicians and candidates, and encourage them to ask questions about issues that the former feel are important. More on this later.
“Hang on – voter registration campaigns are not exactly new, are they?”
Exactly. Let’s have a quick scan of what’s already out there:
- The Electoral Commission – see here
- Operation Black Vote – see here
- Unlock Democracy – see here
- The trade unions – see here
- VoteCamp – see here
“What’s wrong with all of the above?”
It’s not so much that something’s wrong. If you run a voter registration campaign and you get more people to register, that hardly counts as a failure. But can such campaigns go further? I believe they can.
“Isn’t that sailing too close to the ‘You should vote for…’ winds?”
There’s always a risk of that – and it’s that risk that is possibly stopping some campaigns from going further than registration. This is especially the case once you start encouraging people to ask specific questions that you’ve come up with yourself. This is especially the case with any pressure groups that have a specific cause. One example is Friends of the Earth – see here. It doesn’t explicitly say who to vote for in its 2010 analysis, but you can get a feel for the sorts of parties that it would favour vs those that it would not. You could say the same about industry groups such as the CBI too (see here).
“How do you go beyond campaigning for increasing voter registration?”
This is where campaign groups need to start educating their own activists and the public about how Parliament, central and local government functions. How many of you know who your local councillors are? For those of you that do not, do you know how to go about finding out? Do you know what your councillors do and are responsible for? How many of you know who your MP is? How many of you know what your MP is responsible for? How many of you know about the constituent-elected representative relationship and the responsibilities the latter has to the former? How many of you know who your MEPs are, what they do and what they are responsible for?
“Okay, let’s have a website and publish this stuff!”
HeadDesk exactly – it implies that a web-based approach is a desk-based approach. It shouldn’t be. Hiding in an office typing away is the easy bit. Getting out and about is the hard bit – as I’ve found out myself. After all, how many other people in your neighbourhood turn up to local council meetings on cold rainy weekday nights? One of my local councillors referred to me as a ‘Guildhall Groupie’ (in jest I might add!) for turning up to such meetings.
You can’t rely on local politicians alone to drive that change
Not least because the system as is takes up so much of their time. As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, our political systems are still stuck in the 19th Century and are struggling to cope with a more highly educated population living in a digital age.
“So, what is the role of outside people and groups then?”
Coming back to educating people about how the institutions are supposed to function, one challenge is doing this in an active rather than a passive manner. What will bring people with difference opinions, talents, experiences and backgrounds together to learn how the system functions? Where are the ideal times, spaces and places to have those discussions?
For those that work with young people, there are various opportunities to bring in these sorts of conversations into all things ‘citizenship’. In particular, the National Citizen Service program (see here) is something that could quite easily build in a short, sharp local government component. A visit to the local town hall and a visit to the local recycling processing plant, with talks and discussions around this could help make the link between bin collections, recycling, town hall budget setting and voting for councillors that agree the budget. Because as the Greens in Brighton and Hove have found out the hard way, one of the things residents expect their local councillors to be competent at is refuse collection.
“But what about cross-examining campaigners and politicians?”
I look back to what I did in the 2010 general election where I emailed all the candidates with a list of 10 questions on issues that were important to me at the time. Come the 2015 election, those issues will be different – some very. For example while the issue of civil service job cuts was at the top of my list in 2010, it won’t be in 2015 because I’m no longer in the civil service. Day-to-day life has different personal priorities. That’s not to say I don’t care about public service job cuts – I do. But on a personal priority level, my issues with mental health, housing and lack of a stable income are more urgent.
Finding out who the candidates are and how to contact them
My post-workshop thoughts on VoteCamp (see here) cover much of this, so I won’t repeat myself on the detail. It means that campaign groups at a local level need to do some research in their own back yard to find out who is standing/active and where.
What to ask the candidates
For me, it’s better to ask open-ended rather than closed questions. The reason being that many issues are much more complex/nuanced than the newspaper headlines state. Also, it reduces the risk of being given a line-to-take reply or the answer to a question that you did not ask. On top of that, it’ll allow the candidates greater scope to reveal their personal views, opinions and values rather than the party HQ’s line.
Again, this will depend on the priorities of the person asking the question. Essentially it can fall into questions for the individual politician/candidate, and questions for the political party they are representing. The first is on their past record and the second is on what they want to do & why.
Question themes – past record
– The candidate: This could be as simple as finding out what the candidate knows about your local area. It does not automatically mean that the candidate needs to have lived in the area for a long time. But are they demonstrating an awareness of the needs and talents of the local community? How active have they been and what has been the nature of that activity?
- The local and national party: This again depends on what your individual priorities are. Have they consistently campaigned on a given issue over time? What did the local party do on those issues when in government or when in control of the council? Is what they are calling for now different to what they delivered when in government and/or when in control of the council? How do they account for that? (There may be a very good reason – but it’s for the candidates to explain what those reasons are).
Question themes – future policies
- The candidate: Different politicians and candidates will have different priorities, often shaped by their background, life and professional experiences. For example on the Living Wage debate, Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate Daniel Zeichner knows this policy area inside-out (see here). Local MP Julian Huppert on the other hand knows about science policy inside-out. Candidates, if elected, will never be able to prioritise everything. So which ones would your candidates, if elected prioritise and why? Do they show an understanding of the office that they are standing for election for? ie Do they know what powers and responsibilities they would have as an office-holder, and of the institution that they are seeking to scrutinise/be a part of? (Think of the paper-selling candidates of student unions promising to overthrow imperialist capitalist dictatorships if elected and…exactly).
- The party: Simple questions to start off with are ‘What are your party’s top three values and what are your top three policies?’
This applies to both local and national, because quite often the culture of a local political party is not the same as what goes on in the Westminster bubble. Cambridge Labour Party for example has historically (as Richard and Ashley told me at their book launch – see here) been far more left-wing than what we see in Westminster. In other parts of the country you might find local Conservative parties more socially conservative and more Euro-sceptic than the line coming from inside the government – as indicated in this report.
“Isn’t this all a bit simplistic/patronising?”
It runs that risk – yes. But then you’ve got to tailor your approach to the audience that you’ve got and the existing knowledge they have. This is very different from intellectual capabilities. Over the years I’ve met some stupendously bright people who’ve not known the first thing about politics and public policy – mainly because it’s never crossed their mind or few people have asked/encouraged them to think about it.
Others (and perhaps with good reason) have taken the view that they don’t do [party] politics.
What can you do with politicians’ answers to your questions?
Other than bin them? For me, the great thing about all things online is that it makes contacting politicians potentially much easier and faster. With social media it also means that their responses can be made public. Think of Cllr Carina O’Reilly‘s detailed response to me that I featured in this blogpost. Other people get to see – and comment on the thoughts of politicians. In terms of what to do with the responses though:
- Write back – if only to say ‘thank you for the response.’ Good manners and all that. For me this is especially the case if it is clear that the candidate has taken time and thought to compose a response. Beyond this, you may want to ask more questions where there’s not enough detail. Alternatively you may want to state where you disagree with them – stating why.
- Publish the response on a social media page – blog, Facebook etc, or write into your local newspaper: This can be especially useful if the issue is something that you don’t have expertise on, but know other people that do. It may also be useful if you receive a very aggressive/partisan response. That way, other people may want to support you and take issue with the candidate concerned. It may also may make candidates think twice about publishing aggressive responses if they know it’s going to lead either to more aggravation or negative personal coverage. To note, for courtesy you may want to let the candidate know if you are intending to publish.
- Talk about it with other people face-to-face – especially if you know people locally who have also contacted candidates with their own questions. Were the responses consistent? Do the responses together give a more informed picture about the candidates? Do you all favour the same candidate or did you come to different conclusions about who to support/vote for? What do you think were the reasons for any different conclusions?
The above are simply some of the basics. What I hope some of the above things will help people do is to take some action and give a little bit of thought when reading any responses or publicity they get from local candidates. At the same time, it might also encourage people to keep watch on the candidates that get elected. Even if it’s a case of sending an email/letter once every six months saying “Please can you give me an update on what you’ve done on X, Y & Z since I last contacted you.”
After all, there’s far more to politics than voting.