Community conversations in the run up to the 2015 general election?

Summary

How can local political parties make themselves available for face-to-face conversations with voters, potential supporters and fellow activists beyond door-to-door canvassing and organised hustings?

This post stems from a number of conversations I’ve had with activists of various political colours (and those independent) locally in recent times. It comes at a time when – in Cambridge at least, all of the main political parties should be showing an increase in membership and volunteers given that we are less than six months away from a general election.

The five main parties in England – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP have all been out campaigning visibly in Cambridge in the past month or two. All of the parties here have selected their candidates:

My take remains that it’s too close to call between Julian and Daniel. There are many factors that make Cambridge a particularly volatile seat – and one more difficult when it comes to campaign tactics & messages. My analysis just after the May 2014 elections here remains broadly the same. Perhaps the only contextual change is that UKIP and The Greens have already started campaigning aggressively. Not a week goes by without a letter from Cambridge Greens being printed in the Cambridge News. UKIP are also targeting safe Labour wards where other parties in recent years have only stood paper candidates. With UKIP continuing to benefit from mainstream media amplification alongside the more quiet but steady growth of the Greens locally – membership in the city now having exceeded 200, how best could Labour go about campaigning against opponents on two opposing political fronts?

Any places to informally gather new activists & introduce them to each other?

Whether it’s the Lib Dems in Coleridge, the Greens in Queen Edith’s or the Conservatives in Abbey wards, it can’t be much fun being a lone activist for your party in your part of town. Nne thing that has struck me about all the local parties is the lack of publicity for organised informal gatherings to introduce new members or supporters to each other. I’m aware that Cambridge Greens have now started doing monthly pub gatherings (with about 12 attending this one that I popped into on the way back from filming another event).

With the canvassing & leafletting that they are already doing, where are the regular informal social gatherings from the other parties that allow potential supporters and new members to meet with seasoned activists, candidates and elected representatives? Could they be advertised on the next round of leaflets that they all distribute? Could you send personalised targeted correspondence (or a phone call) to members and supporters in your databases to come along? (Which is more likely to have an impact – a mass email/leaflet drop or a personalised invitation?)

In the conversations I’ve had regarding the above, the Greens have shown the most interest in the idea – in part because they have signed up dozens of new members locally in a very short space of time. The challenge remains for the Greens to turn these new members into trained and effective activists – ones that can sustain their campaigns long after the adrenalin of the general election has died down. For various reasons, they failed to do this post-2010, despite getting three councillors elected. In anycase, since then, two of their former elected councillors have since passed away and the third left Cambridge altogether.

Other formats for community conversations and campaigning?

I’ve always wondered what it would be like if activists from two different political parties teamed up together to go door-to-door campaigning, thus creating a three-way conversation on the doorstep. For example what would it be like if the Lib Dems and UKIP or The Greens and the Tories teamed up in pairs to go door-to-door? How would the dynamics of conversations be changed? I know it’s highly unlikely to happen – party hierarchies wouldn’t stand for it. But it’s a thought.

Another format – one we use for Be the change – Cambridge, is collective problem-solving. Rather than having a traditional ‘audience vs the panel’ set up, scatter the politicians into groups who have self-divided into groups according to the issue they would like to discuss. These gatherings are very difficult to organise – as I’ve found out. But local community groups & organisations – esp those with their own venues are in an ideal place to host such gatherings. Transition Cambridge demonstrated how to do this recently – see my videos here.

My role in the 2015 campaigns in Cambridge?

I’m not planning on standing this time around – although it remains an option if things stay quiet in South Cambridge! As far as my aim of increasing participation in local democracy is concerned, I’m probably better suited to filming & reporting from gatherings, meetings and events than participating directly. My experience from the Queen Edith’s hustings (see the videos here) and the number of plays the videos got shows that there is likely to be demand for such content in the run up to the elections.

As I’ve said to the three parties represented on Cambridge City Council, I’m happy to film ‘point and record’ pieces to the camera and upload or hand over the footage I capture free of charge. The reason being I want to use digital video to help dispel some of the negative myths around local democracy. Part of that means getting footage of local candidates introducing themselves in their own words. This is what I did in the November videos below:

My aim with these is to get people to the stage where they can relate to the candidates that are on camera and think: “Yes, I could have a reasonable conversation with them” and overcome the ‘All politicians are the same’ mindset. As far as digital video with local candidates go, that’s pretty much my limit – leaving it to the public to then ask any follow-up or policy-specific questions. I had my say by standing in the May elections – in which I learnt lots. Now it’s time for others not just to have their say, but to join in some wider conversations. Through community reporting & digital video I hope that more will be able to take part.

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