» campaigning ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Doorsteps, Dogs and Doughnuts – A Dozen Worst and Best Election Moments – I think many of us will have sone election memories similar to the ones Alex Wilcock recounts here.
Could a ‘citizen’s income’ work? – A long and detailed report looking into the issue from the Joseph Rowntree foundation.
Global warming and the death of a magical sports tradition – How a change in the climate has made an epic Dutch ice skating challenge very unlikely to ever happen again.
Wherefore art thou, Honest Abe? – It’ll take more than a few words from a Great Man of history to keep the United Kingdom together, according to Lallands Peat Worrier.
Why UK politicians could learn a lot from the Pirate party – I personally think the Pirate bubble has burst (not that it ever inflated much in Britain) but the wider points Paul Mason makes here about the people having vision while the politicians are obsessed with minutiae are good.

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"A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity"

“A letterbox without a leaflet in it is a wasted opportunity”

One thing I’ve said repeatedly in recent years is that no one gets involved in politics because they really, really enjoy delivering leaflets. I thought that was a really obvious thing to say, but now I’ve had a comment that makes me question that. Apparently, I shouldn’t waste time writing posts on my blog about things that interest me and instead ‘just get out and deliver some leaflets’. (There’s also an appeal to ‘Mark’ to limit the topics that get written about, which makes me wonder if some people think Mark Pack is now the literal God of Liberal Democrat blogging, casting down thunderbolts at those who displease him)

This isn’t a new thing - Liberator magazine has spent years complaining at how the ideas of community politics have been turned into a leaflet delivery cult – and with an election coming one would inevitable expect to see the calls to stop thinking and start delivering increase in number. It’s not even a specifically Liberal Democrat thing – sure, that’s where my experience is, but it’s easy to spot the calls to campaign more and discuss less in other parties, even if they don’t have quite the same fetishistic devotion to shoving pieces of paper through letterboxes.

There are several problems with the ‘shut up and deliver leaflets’ message, not least the fact that it’s bloody rude, but for me they all come down to a misunderstanding of why some people get involved in politics. They rely on the belief that politics is essentially a game, and that it’s about ensuring that your team does the best it can, in the hopes that it can defeat the other teams. In this view, any of us mere bloggers are just average players in the game, not required to think about strategy or tactics, just required to get out there and follow orders. Deliver those leaflets, knock on those doors and do as the party’s high command tell you. Ours not to reason why, ours just to deliver then go back to HQ and ask for more, like a good Stakhanovite.

In that vision, a blog is just another campaign tool. While it’s probably not as good as delivering leaflets – for nothing is as good as delivering leaflets – it probably has some use as a cheerleading tool, telling everyone just how wonderful everything is, and how much more wonderful it would be if they’d just go out and deliver leaflets. That this and other blogs steadfastly refuse to take that approach means that we’re obviously in the wrong.

Unless you look at politics from a different perspective, and see ideas as important or just enjoy talking about general political issues, institutions, and history. What got me into politics was talking about things and considering ways that the world could be different, where the campaigning was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sure, people like that might be a minority in modern politics (which tells a sad enough tale in itself) but telling us to ‘just go and deliver leaflets’ rather than have an interesting discussion or discover new ideas is not going to motivate. If anything, it’s going to demotivate us, because it tears down another bit of the facade and insists that everything is just about the game, where winning is the only thing of importance, not what you do with the prize after you’ve won.

So no, I won’t stop writing about things I find interesting in favour of delivering leaflets and if anything, I think one thing we need less of in politics generally is campaigning. The general election campaign has been running for several weeks now – whether we wanted it or not – and I’m pretty sure that time might have been better spent by dropping down the level of campaigning and actually trying to get more people to think and talk about issues instead of parroting soundbites and talking points at each other. But then, I would say that, and while I’ve been writing this post I could have been getting my fingers trapped in countless letterboxes.

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Russell Brand and our political culture – Chris Dillow argues that Brand gets publicity because our political culture as a whole is anti-intellectual.
Stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed – An alternative take on Liberal Democrat campaigning by Alex Harrowell.
The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed – the realities of social media content monitoring.
The world will change around 2020 – According to David Boyle, that’s what the trends are pointing to.
Profs Bumble Into Big Legal Trouble After Election Experiment Goes Way Wrong – This is why conducting political science research is hard. However, I do hope the researchers involved are adding up all the news stories about them as ‘instances of our research methodology being cited in public discussion’.

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Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – “Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to happen? There are two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic (in which case, we need to know why so many intelligent people believed they were not) or our expectations were not unrealistic (in which case, we need to know what happened to derail so many credible ideas and prospects).”
Future Tense: British science fiction television – A great series of articles from Frank Collins (formerly of the Cathode Ray Tube blog) on the history of SF TV in Britain.
Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital In The Twenty-First Century’ Explained – A good and concise explanation of the theories Piketty proposes.
The Liberal Democrat approach to campaigning: the history and debunking some myths – A fascinating piece of history from Mark Pack.
Nothing Goes Wrong On Palmerston Island – Life in one of the world’s most isolated settlements.

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Yesterday’s Guardian had a very interesting interview with Arnie Graf, a veteran community organiser from Chicago who Ed Miliband brought in to advise on how to change the way the Labour Party works to make it more effective. Graf produced a report with various recommendations on how to improve the way the party works, but his recommendations appear to have stalled somewhere in the party machinery – which is perhaps not surprising, given how critical he is of it. This perspective on it from Mark Ferguson at Labour List is an introduction to the way some Labour people see it.

Now it would be easy to write a post here about what this shows us about the Labour party, but reading about Graf’s suggestions in the Guardian piece, I found that they resonated with my experience of the Liberal Democrats (and I suspect other people in other parties may find the same too). We obviously don’t have the full report, but there are four principal ideas expressed in the article that we would do well to consider in the light of our own experience:

First, there was a need to deal with what Graf describes as the party’s “bureaucratic rather than a relational culture”. A new member coming into their first meeting should expect more than bureaucracy and hierarchy. They should be welcomed into a group that offered trusted, working relationships and interesting political discussions.

Second, the party had to stop treating members as drones rather than leaders. Many of the party members Graf visited in the regions seemed to think that if there were genuine leaders in the party, they were all in London. Most orders came from the capital. It was in London that the leaflets were designed, the timetables set and the marching orders given.

Thirdly, the party was too closed: Labour gatherings were often suspicious of outsiders, particularly people who were Labour sympathisers but not prepared to be members. It seemed hard for newcomers to break in.

Finally, the party offered little inspiration to its members. Graf blew open a complacent consensus that branch meetings had to be boring. He could see that they could offer more, and dared them to be so: “We grow up and get meaning from relationships … politics should provide that.”

While the structure and culture of the two parties is different, I think there’s something in all four of those points that Liberal Democrats should consider. We all want to get more people involved in the party, but what can we offer them to get them there? A chance to sit in a draughty room discussing the minutes of the next meeting, before being given a bunch of leaflets to deliver? If someone was interested in the party and wanted to find out more about what we do, would they feel welcomed at a meeting? More to the point, would we actually be able to offer them anything interesting to do? (And no, for most people delivering leaflets is not interesting)

The problem we face is that as a party, in many cases we’ve come to see campaigning as an end in itself. (See for instance this LDV article, where getting people out to campaign for PCC elections is seen as an unambiguously good thing, but it’s a common theme) It’s where Liberator’s description of the party as a ‘leaflet delivery cult’ comes from, which is true despite the fact that no one I’ve ever encountered in any party got into politics because they really love delivering leaflets.

The problem all parties have is that a lot of our ideas about how politics work in Britain are based on parties with mass membership and strong links into the local community. It’s not just about delivering leaflets, but knowing the people around you and what they think to feed that into the process. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost that, and we’ve lost that wider engagement which has led to all parties becoming odd clubs where the like minded spend time together. While party membership was never quite as common here as registering as Democrat or Republican is in the US, it was a lot more common. (As an aside, how much did party membership cost in the 50s and 60s before the decline started?)

If we’re going to survive and thrive as a party – especially in a post-coalition world – then we have to start questioning how we’re going to do it, and why we’re doing it in the first place. Even if it’s bogged down in bureaucracy, Graf’s work shows that Labour are properly thinking about this problem, and we should be too.

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