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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Changing the Culture of Politics

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Meg was invited to join a panel to discuss ‘Changing the Culture of our Politics’ at the annual Fabian Society House of Commons tea. She was joined on the panel by journalist Ellie Levenson, Baroness Estelle Morris and acting director of Progress Jessica Asato.

Meg’s contribution is below.

 

Politics is about people, its people getting involved and engaging with issues which matter to them. They want to make a difference, see something happen, change the world. If the political system doesn’t allow people to take part, to make something happen then they drift away. Perhaps to other ways to make things happen disobeying the law, violence, taking to the streets or they ignore the political system and apathy and cynicism set in. ‘What’s the point of voting it makes no difference.’ ‘What’s the point of talking to politicians, they are all the same.’

 

We have witnessed this here and abroad. With the poll tax people demonstrated, some, many chose to break the law. At the moment it’s more likely to be apathy and cynicism across Europe during the elections the turnout was 43%, in the UK just 34.5%. Maybe voters do not see what difference it makes who wins the seats in the European Parliament. We may feel differently, but we have a hard time convincing members of our own party to take the elections seriously.

 

Voting for change

Sometimes the circumstances conspire to make substantial change really on the agenda, and that drives turnout. One truism gets trotted out at election time ‘it’s change versus the same’. Does the voter want change with its attendant excitement and possibilities, or more of the same, the certainty of knowing the future will be like the present? The choices in reality are rarely that clear. Perhaps in this country only 1945, 1979 and 1997 provided that clear choice since the Second World War.

 

But we can see that politics and the political process can become something to be taken seriously. Just lately we have seen on the TV pictures of crowds in their thousands demonstrating in Tehran about the legitimacy or not of the Iranian election people for whom their vote, and a clean count, are important and worth putting themselves at some risk to support.

 

We saw the numbers who went to vote in South Africa during their recent general election, people who do not take for granted their hard won right to vote. Iraq, where people queued for hours to vote, and proudly showed their finger marked in ink to confirm they had done so. They were all too aware that a terrorist bomber could be standing in the queue next to them.

 

There was the ‘Campaign for Change’ in the USA. It was the centre piece for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, but also became a political movement mobilised in a different way to previous campaigns.

 

Engagement & Empowerment

Accessing information is done in many ways now, including internet access via your mobile phone. Blogging has now become as much a part of communication as newspapers and TV evidenced by recent events in Iran but developed during political campaigning in the USA. Of course mainstream national and regional media are important, but they are no longer the only source of news and information.

 

Obama’s campaign mobilised millions daily by using new technologies and social networking sites. People could sign up with their mobile numbers, or join the official Facebook group. They would then get daily memos about where Obama was that day, what he would be talking about, and how the policy theme of that week or day would affect them.

 

Thinking back to 1997 here, we can remember the enthusiasm for change. In the United States this feeling was extensively used during the long campaign. Volunteers were greeted with warmth, and it was made clear that no matter what you did it would add to the success of the campaign. It didn’t matter if you just made tea and sandwiches; you were still a valued part of the campaign. Volunteers were contacted by text or email about what the campaign was doing locally, and they asked people to give 2-3 hours of their time to help out - more people came forward because the campaign had a localised focus.

 

Rather than shove membership forms onto people who show the slightest interest we should establish a supporter or volunteer programme. We could encourage people to engage with us on a the particular issue, more and more people engage in politics on single issues so we need to harness this and not bombast them with information which scares them off.

 

A particular problem for Labour is having been in government for so long we have become part of the establishment. Who would have thought during the madness of the 1980s that we would have the problem of how to attract people when we’ve been in power for so long? The problem of course is that when in power you govern, you make decisions which inevitably disappoint and enrage some of your supporters.

 

Ideas to encourage better engagement

Be more specific. The ability of e-mail means that it’s possible to send lots of people lots of things all the time. It’s probably more important to be in touch less often but more meaningfully with a smaller group of people about things that matter to them.

 

Examples could be Education Ministers being in touch with school governors. One problem would be this communication would be one way. So we need ways for two way communication, to start a conversation - e-mail, blogs, internet discussion groups but also meetings as not all activists use the internet. It is easy to exclude older members if we are not careful.

 

We need to re-energise engagement at a local level. We have to localise problem solving, but that means giving councillors and local representatives the tools to do it such as paying a living wage to councillors to encourage a broader age range, abilities and expertise on local authorities. It is no good having localised democracy if you’re just engaging with those already engaged.

 

Nationally it’s too tempting to respond to the latest concern or moral panic with some new announcement or initiative. Neither of which provide lasting change. They may stave off a bad headline but we need more honesty about what we’re trying to do. A headteacher in my constituency is celebrating his school’s achievements in SATs this year six years after he first went there. Along the way we have had to persuade Ofsted and Ministers that change does not come overnight just because they issue a statement or press release.

 

We have seen good projects over the years. One of the most successful in my estimation was the Big Conversation. In my constituency I invited individuals to come and discuss in groups various issues of the day. I was a bit apprehensive that the ‘usual suspects’ would dominate, that the easy answers would be trotted out. I was wrong. No-one could have been more surprised than me when people from different political parties and none took a balanced long-term approach.

 

Conclusion

Our political culture has to adapt to today. But there are some fundamentals that don’t change - people feeling involved and listened to, a belief they can influence what’s going on. Those things matter.

 

We need to go back to our roots and that means starting where the non-political people are. 


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