The importance of engaging the disengaged
While retailers will soon be reminding us there are only so many shopping days until Christmas, UK politicians know a much more significant date is looming. There are now less than 200 days until the General Election on Thursday 7 May 2015. So prepare yourself for polls, party political broadcasts, televised debates, and an unprecedented level of social media activity as the political bandwagon limbers into action to canvass for your vote.
The election of UKIP’s first MP in Clacton may have stolen the headlines, but the Heywood and Middleton result will probably be causing the Labour election strategists the most angst as they try to answer the question of how UKIP managed to come within 618 votes of victory. The political landscape is certainly changing, and perhaps you could argue, “about time too” given the last party to challenge the three establishment parties was, of course, the Social Democratic Party, which merged with the Liberals back in 1988.
Before it’s pointed out that the people of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland don’t necessarily vote for the three big parties (and the likes of the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party hold some 25 parliamentary seats) I would argue that the most significant political event of this year, and arguably this decade, was of course the Scottish Independence Referendum.
Not just because the vote for independence went a lot closer to the wire than many expected, nor that it has put the spectre of region-specific policies back into the Westminster spotlight, to the extent that now everyone surely knows what the West Lothian Question is. The referendum was different because it was one of the most engaging and passionate political campaigns we have seen in a generation.
Almost 85% of the Scottish electorate turned out to cast their votes, which demonstrates how important the decision to be an independent country was to the Scottish people. ‘GOTV’ is not a new acronym to anyone who has worked in politics, but I think the results of the next election will be dependent on how effective the campaigns are at ‘getting out the vote’. In Heywood and Middleton the turnout was 36% which of course means the ‘don’t cares’ command the huge majority.
So how do we engage the disengaged? No doubt everyone who has ever set foot in Shoreditch will say having the right digital strategy to engage the electorate will be the key to success. However, this isn’t necessarily everyone’s view. In his recently published memoir, Right or Wrong, Tim Bell, who famously ran Margaret Thatcher’s election campaigns states that, “The Prime Minister going on Twitter is the end of Grown Up as far as I am concerned.” He’s also of the view that Twitter itself represents the, “end of civilisation.” I’m only surprised this isn’t trending with its own hashtag.
Lord Bell believes the answer to engagement lies in politicians having real conviction, and I agree with him. I think the lesson we can learn from the Scottish Referendum is that an electorate like the clear concept of a simple choice. Something that is going to draw you, either emotionally or rationally, yet decisively, to one side of the argument. The success of UKIP is undoubtedly due to the fact it is very clear on one key issue, even if its other policies are somewhat limited.
So perhaps the shift we are witnessing is an end to the sea of sameness that is centre ground politics. My own view is that we are reaching a point where we cannot keep re-hashing and re-launching the same policies and hope for a return to the economic good times we enjoyed from the early nineties until the 2008 crash.
While the whole European debate may be the fault line running through the ranks of the Conservative party, I’m not so sure EU membership in itself is the critical issue for the UK population.
The combination of the changing demographics of society and geopolitical shifts means we are going to have to start making some tough decisions on such things as funding for health, education, corporate governance and investment in the UK’s ageing energy, housing and transportation infrastructure. We cannot kick these issues into the long grass for another five years.
Essentially our political leadership will have to accept that we need to construct policies that will be unpopular with certain segments and opinion will be divided. Hopefully this will provoke reaction as society engages on critical issues. Of course this will prompt a sort of nimby-ism avalanche, the likes of which we’ve already witnessed on topics such as wind farms, but I think it will also lead to constructive debate on what country we shape for the next generation.
For those passionate about democracy, this heralds an exciting opportunity. The people who MPs have most contact with – the media, the Westminster politicos, the business lobby and the constituency members – will of course all have their views and opinions and make them heard. But the chances are they will not be the same as the silent majority. For GOTV to go to new level, we need to ditch pointless arguments and political point scoring and say in clear terms what the problem is, how it can be fixed and what consequences there will be. Clarity of conviction will be the most effective way to engage the disengaged – be it directly delivered on the doorstep by party faithful or through traditional and new communication media.
The great thing about this is it will hopefully yield a new generation of conviction politicians who are ready to show that they have character. As it happens I am very relieved that Scotland has voted to stay part of the Union, but I have gained a huge amount of respect for the campaigners on both sides of the debate who clearly communicated their conviction and ensured the ‘don’t cares,’ or those unable to vote, were a small minority. Let’s hope for more of the same