Ramblings on three events – one local, one Scottish, and one worldwide
The world ain’t a happy place at the moment – has it ever been? I watched the Scottish independence referendum through both the mainstream and social media lenses. In the end, it was the No campaign that won 55% to 45%. Already Labour and the Conservatives have fallen out about what to do next – leading to accusations from Yes campaigners that the Westminster parties broke their promises within hours of winning the referendum.
45% of an electorate despising a system so much that they voted to set up their own country is not a stable steady-state to be in
What the fallout from this both within Scotland and the wider UK remains to be seen. From my couch in Cambridge, I spotted a number of people from both the Yes and No sides in the media that I have met in person. Seeing the emotions on both sides showed a lot of people threw everything they had into the campaign plus more. Yet on the No side the visible emotion was one of relief, not triumph. On the Yes side, ‘gutted’ is an understatement.
A constitutional convention?
Unlock Democracy have called for one – as have a number of other groups and individuals. Now, call me old-fashioned but if you are part of an institution, aren’t you in a position to be able to get on with organising the damn thing? Why wait for someone else to do it? That’s the mindset we’ve taken with Be the change – Cambridge. We had our first event on 13 September 2014 (see here) and are building momentum autonomously rather than waiting for a large institution to take the first step.
Negative vs positive campaigning, top-down campaign vs an uncontrolled movement
The overall impression I got was that the Yes campaign had much more positive vibes about it, and was much more of a movement that went far beyond traditional political circles. On the other hand, I saw large predominantly London-centric institutions panicking on the back of an opinion poll that said the Yes campaign might win. There was a noticeable split between how the mainstream media reported things vs what was coming out on social media. Despite some of the abuse that was being thrown around, I got a sense of ‘hope’ from the Yes side that I didn’t feel coming from the No side. The list of bad things that the headlines that I read in the national papers gave me the impression of just how wrapped up our political system is by very wealthy interests. This contrasted strongly with debates outside the political parties on the Yes side that had spilled out into communities that were otherwise disengaged with party politics.
Was this ‘social media’ firing warning shots for future general elections?
Yes – but…
Yes – but don’t expect the impact of social media users to be equal across constituencies. There will be a whole host of factors that will either amplify or diminish the social media impact.
The competition between candidates – a safe or a genuinely contested seat will be one. In Cambridge there is a chance that all five mainstream party candidates will get over 5,000 votes each, judging by the European elections earlier this year. Yet in neighbouring South Cambridgeshire, Andrew Lansley was returned with a 27,000 or so votes – 7,000 ahead of his Lib Dem rival. And that was on a 75% turnout.
Digital literacy and accessibility
Is there a critical mass of people using social media? Do they have the hardware, software and internet connection to enable this? Even if they have all of these things, do they have the desire to use social media for democracy? My experience shows that at the moment, few outside political circles do.
Local political culture & local single issues
This can range from people getting used to being able to use social media to get in touch with politicians to the complete implosion in trust of the public sector as shown in some of the recent abuse scandals. There is also a greater possibility that local single issues could rise to the top in individual constituencies. This could amplify the messages of single issue candidates, or make/break candidates from established parties depending on how they handle the issue concerned.
Think global, act local?
There were a series of climate marches that took place on 21 Sept – see http://peoplesclimate.org/ . These were organised to coincide with the gathering of world leaders in New York. I wanted to go to the London march but it clashed with a rehearsal, so I took camcorder along to what I thought would be a handful of Green Party types gathered around Reality Checkpoint on Parker’s Piece, holding candles. As it turned out, about 100 people took part all lined up from the University Arms hotel to the centre of the park.
Quite a few people had already left by the time I filmed this clip – not long afterwards about fifty people stayed around for a final group photo. I was originally planning on doing some more Be the change – Cambridge voxpops, but with so many people there I thought the best thing to do was to get people to explain on camera why they were there.
I was surprised at how reluctant many people were to put their views to camera. I assumed – incorrectly as it turned out, that people prepared to turn out for a public protest would have been comfortable to explain why they were there and what they were protesting about or raising awareness about. But then I saw a clip on TV by Allegra Stratton from a Labour Party meeting hosted by Ben Bradshaw MP (former Culture Secretary) about English devolution.
The people attending when collared by Allegra with cameras rolling looked like rabbits caught in headlights – they froze. Only Bradshaw seemed the least bit bothered. And yet this was a meeting involving a group of people so passionate about politics they will turn up to a political party convention, giving up a weekend and possibly annual leave too. (When was the last time you took time off work to go to a political or campaigning event?)
Community reporting with digital video for the 2015 general election?
Something to ponder, as I expect there will be a greater amount of footage filmed from hustings and other events far beyond the traditional broadcast media that will go beyond soundbites. With a limited number of broadcast media outlets in 1997, it was relatively straight-forward to run a very tightly-controlled and centralised campaign. Short soundbites with lines to take were the order of the day. With a much larger and far less disciplined social media world awaiting the 2015 campaign, it’ll be interesting to see how party machines cope with candidates going ‘off-message’.