Friday, 30 July 2010

Political campaigners: friends of democracy?

Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman
escapes an example of Grant's
 'outsider' interest groups
In a free society, the right to campaign in politics is held up as a cornerstone of democracy. The art of influencing our elected representatives has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, with the lobbying industry arguably having better access to government than ever before.

Walking through the exhibitors' areas at the major party conferences highlights the agenda that non-governmental organizations, charities and even government agencies have in policy-making.

Public affairs companies see themselves as gatekeepers to our elected representatives, undermining an individual's right to influence their elected representative directly. Whereas lobbying could traditionally be seen as the preserve of blue-chip companies that don't have a public affairs department, it is increasingly charities that employ public affairs and government relations advisors to campaign for their interests. Inevitably filling these roles are those with a Westminster pedigree - the badge of legitimacy being that they've all either worked as researchers to MPs or Ministers, or in think tanks and policy-making organisations favoured by the government of the day. They come from a background where, unlike their colleagues in the marketing and corporate communications professions, the professional qualification is based not so much on where or what you've studied, but who you know, and where you've worked. There is no recognized qualification for this branch of communications, unlike marketers who are accredited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) for example. Despite the complete lack of transparency and openness, they are the people who get heard in Westminster.

A glimpse of the lobbying industry draws the conclusion that it is the successful political campaigns are the prize of the well funded and educated in the machinery of the British political system. In a key piece of research first published in 1978, Professor Wyn Grant, an expert on interest groups at Warwick University, cited the labels 'established' and 'non-established' to distinguish between 'insider' and 'outsider' type participants (Maloney, Jordan and McLaughlin, 1994 and 2008, various publishers). Grant's typology acknowledged the important divide between the relatively few groups with privileged status, and the greater number of groups who find themselves consigned to less influential positions. The 'insider' is associated with a particular style of policy-making, an organization or institution seen as politically acceptable such as Stonewall, actively consulted on civil partnerships and equality legislation, and child welfare charities such as NSPCC and Barnardos getting the ministerial ear when it comes to youth policies. There are the obvious fringe groups such as eco-protestors, Climate Camp, the superheroes of Fathers for Justice and the gay rights group formed by Peter Tatchell, Outrage. None of these groups seeks a serious role in the consultation process, with their emphasis on direct action and media stunts.

Grant's labels still look familiar 30 years on, although, arguably the growth of social media tools and a general explosion in media coverage of all kinds of interest groups that seek to exert an influence on policymaking make the job of distinguishing between the insiders and outsiders much more difficult. The hardest task for a politician may be to determine which groups have a legitimate say in helping to decide government policy.

These sorts of questions may be asked of organisations such as 38 Degrees, which, according to its website, was set up by wealthy entrepreneurs such as Gordon Roddick, partner of late Body Shop founder Anita, and Henry Tinsley, former chair of Green & Black's Chocolate.Taking its namesake from the angle at which it takes an avalanche to happen, the group employs three full-time staff to encourage over 160,000 38 Degrees 'members' across the UK, to undertake actions ' as simple as signing a petition, or as complicated as hosting a rally'. Its members, who are vaguely liberal and left-leaning, are all 'leaders', with campaigns ranging from calling for the BBC to be saved from cuts to calling for a register of lobbyists, as well as campaigning for a 'yes' in a referendum on the alternative vote. Campaigns effortlessly cross established political boundaries, not seeking the approval of any particular party. There are few well-grounded policies, or long-debated positions - instead, 38 Degrees thrives on user-generated campaigns, less a coherent programme for change and merely a modern form of middle-class moaning.

Its weapon of choice is mass emails, a progression of traditional letter-writing campaigns favoured by non-governmental and voluntary sector organisations. Easy to complete template messages can overwhelm a poorly resourced backbench MP with little notice. Some politicians have been keen to court their support, with aspirant Labour leader Ed Milliband taking part in a phone conference with hundreds of members on climate change. Others have found their methods tantamount to 'cyber-harassment'. Stella Creasy, a newly-elected Labour MP for Walthamstow, became a target of 38 Degrees very soon after being elected in May 2010, tweeting her displeasure:

"Apologising now to any genuine person from E17 who has emailed me - with 1000 38 degrees emails to wade through I may have lost yours!" 11:56pm, May 11th.

The deluge continued to flood into Stella's office overnight:

"@marcushobley 38 degrees campaign completely unacceptable and counterproductive...and still getting emails from them now!" 12:04am, May 12th.

This resulted in Stella appealing to constituents to cease from contacting her with genuine issues so she could get through the backlog of emails "as am still getting 50 emails every 20 mins from 38 degrees so can't see normal ones" in amongst genuine residents of E17".

A phone call to Stella's office resulted in a brief conversation with a constituency worker: "I wondered if it was possible to talk to Stella about the work of 38 Degrees - have you heard of them?" - which met the weary, knowing response, "Oh, yes". The staff had dealt with a reported 1500 emails, out of which only four were genuine Walthamstow residents.

People such as Stella, and no doubt, privately, many of her parliamentary colleagues may question whether organisations such 38 Degrees enhance democracy, or indeed hinder it, with questionable legitimacy and invasive methods. It could be argued that while Grant's 'insider/outsider' model may be blurred, it is fashionable for MPs to ride the wave of social media and web-based campaigns. Little research exists to hint as to whether parliamentarians take any notice of viral campaigns which rely on mass participation - but there is much to suggest that those 'in the know' - with a direct route to Westminster and Whitehall - are ultimately the most successful at getting their voices heard.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

A 'short, sharp, shock' about police brutality in the 1970s

Picture the scene: it’s election night in a police interview room in East London, and the Conservatives are about to sweep to power. The pregnant wife of a young black man, Leon Delroy, has been found dead in a pool of blood and Delroy is brought in as the chief suspect.

Sus was written by the acclaimed dramatist Barrie Keefe (best known for writing the film The Long Good Friday) and first staged just after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979. It ran at the Young Vic theatre in London, appropriately at a time when controversy over stop and search laws is still very much at the centre of public debate, and with some political parallels too.

The storyline revolves around the interrogation of Delroy under ‘sus’, an informal name for a stop and search law that permitted a police officer to act on suspicion alone. The law was eventually abolished in 1980, it being seen as a contributing factor to the Brixton riots that year.

The audience sits very much in the interrogation room, complete with the dull glare of strip lighting and the crucial dramatic device of a telephone, used to set the context of what is happening outside. The actors even smoke real cigarettes on stage, adding to the sense of suffocation for Delroy throughout his plight.

The two protagonists in this story, white police officers Karn and Wilby (who, as the Camden New Journal put it, “make Gene Hunt look like a character from Heartbeat”), portray the type of police officer we hope has long disappeared.

Sardonic, racist and odiously officious, the actors in this production deliver a performance in this play which, in the space of the play’s single act, turns darkly humourous, laddish banter to an increasingly cold, thuggish brutality.

Sus ran at the Young Vic from 8-26 June 2010, was also recently released as a film, also written by Barrie Keefe, starring Ralph Brown and Rafe Spall.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Election 2.0?

If it wasn’t quite the Sun ‘wot won it’, it certainly wasn’t Facebook or Twitter in 2010. The General Election proved that social media did some novel and exciting things to encourage young voters out of their perceived apathy, but put simply, there was no Obama-like mechanism to galvanise the part of the electorate with most recent gift of suffrage.

Whereas the 2008 US Presidential election relied on micro-donations through sites such as Twitter, the UK election showed that the mainstream media were still capable of pulling off more campaign coups than many observers might have predicted. As early as 26 April, the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones argued that “the bloggers hoped they would boss this campaign, breaking stories, setting the mood, and leaving the flat-footed old media types trailing in their wake…but the newspapers, and in particular the broadcasters have proved far more influential, with the TV debates dwarfing every other aspect of the campaign.”

In the run up to polling day, a convincing argument could have been made that social media would have an almost magnetic effect on the 18-24 age group. There were some political soap operas played out on Twitter, but nothing that turned changed the debate that the three main party leaders couldn’t manage by themselves. Stuart MacLennan found himself rapidly deposed as the Labour’s candidate in Moray after some not particularly probing digging into his Twitter history, but the moments of drama were undoubtedly the preserve of the big broadcasters.

In a more prominent way, the infamous vandalised Conservative billboards maybe signalled a more telling analysis of the way the internet influenced the election, or not. This episode of web anarchy, played out on Facebook, had such a humiliating impact on the Tories’ campaigning strategy that when faced with several hundred digitally manipulated spoofs they were forced to rethink their entire approach to posters - and soon got their own back with their unexpectedly positive approval of Labour’s depiction of David Cameron as 1980s misogynist cop Gene Hunt. It was party political poster wars which caught the popular imagination far more than any web based ‘get out and vote’ campaign - and a great many younger members of the electorate took part in the fun - but no-one yet knows whether these sideshows reflected a genuine interest in the campaign.

In an effort to prove its worth to the national debate, Facebook’s Democracy UK site appeared just weeks before polling day, a belated effort launched with the claim that “social networks will prove to be as central to political debate and the general election as the post, the phone and television have been in the past.” Although political parties have for several years had a presence on the site, amassed through online armies of ‘supporters’ groups, there was never a concerted effort by Facebook to engage its 23 million UK users in anything other than a running commentary on politics. On 10 March however, it linked up with the Electoral Commission to offer every single user the opportunity to download a personalised voter registration form, and has since attempted to track whether those who took part made the leap from clicking ‘I like this’ to marking a cross on a ballot paper.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Twitter was the place to be during the TV debates, particularly for younger, educated and liberal minded voters - making real time observations on the leaders personalities, policy statements and tie choices. From the insightful and serious, to the sharp and witty, Tweeters upheld a very British tradition of holding their potential leaders to account with a dose of healthy satire.

The evidence infers that younger voters were more discerning in their information preferences though. In Ipswich, a marginal seat that swung from Labour to the Tories at the election, two sisters give their verdict on whether the online campaign affected their vote:

Sarah Clark, 23, said: “Initially, I wasn’t going to vote because I knew nothing about the candidates. But I did watch the summaries of the leaders’ debates each morning before I went to work”

Sarah plumped for the Conservatives in the end, and specifically mentioned the Sun’s ‘dumb guide to the election’ which was published during the campaign - with no access to social networking sites at work, traditional channels of media were her primary source of information.

”I’m on Facebook but I didn’t use it to help me decide my vote during the election” she added.

Online communication, and social media in particular, made more of a difference to Sarah’s 18 year old sister, Angie, a first time voter who says she watched one of the TV debates, but wasn’t sure that newspapers helped her make up her mind in choosing which party to vote for:

“I found there was more information on Facebook groups which I’m a member of, and I went on a lot of the party websites to help me make up my mind”.

Research published in the days immediately following the election appears to reflect the mix of information sources young people preferred. A YouGov survey undertaken between 12-14 May suggests that 36% of 18-24 year olds used Facebook as a source of information during the campaign, with 34% visiting a political party or candidate’s own website - suggesting that social media was a crucial signpost in directing younger users towards more traditional web content. Most significantly, 31% of younger voters said that online information influenced the way they voted ‘not very much’ and 16% chose not to consume election content online at all.

This research, and others surveys since, hints that social media just wasn’t the game changer that it was expected to be. Until we have been presented with the overwhelming evidence that social media paves a direct route to the polling station for the younger electorate, well-established traditional channels may still prove to be what counts during those crucial four weeks.

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