I was recently lucky enough to enjoy a long conversation about politics with a couple of friends who have different views from mine, without it turning into an argument. Lewes-based, they tend to vote for independent, Green or Lib Dem candidates, very much based on the personalities concerned.
Talking about a particular independent councillor, what they valued was that she took an active interest in local issues and got back to people about them even if the news was not good. She has a regular newsletter, which is mainly about what she is doing and which does not contain much that is negative about other parties.
Clearly this profile is very positive and the councillor they have in mind is doing a lot to serve the local community. What this made me realise is that although we have councillors, and local activists, who are doing all these things, we are simply not getting the message out that it’s happening. We have fallen into a habit of thinking that it’s enough to do the work, and have forgotten that if we don’t tell people we’re doing it, they will assume that we are not. We have to start blowing our own trumpet more about the work that’s being done, by elected representatives and others, across the city. Not everything we do is party political by any means: handling casework and representing local views are often not related to “big politics” at all.
My friends also expressed a general scepticism and weariness with mainstream politics, which they felt was all about negativity and point-scoring, with no party genuinely being better than any other. Exploring this more, I did get the impression that at least some of this was due to the way politics is dealt with in the media, with its over-emphasis on conflict, personalities and fluff that doesn’t really matter much, like who rides which horse, for example. I mean, who cares? And prime minister’s question time really does not help. The Today programme, the daily argument where ministers are constantly harangued and interrupted by interviewers intent on placing traps rather than exploring issues, has done a huge amount to put people off politics.
The best political events I have experienced are those where an informed person, particularly a minister, can explain, away from the glare of the media, why certain policies were followed, and give some of the context behind decisions. You rarely get this in newspapers or on television or radio where it’s all about headline-grabbing. Unfortunately, the net result of all of this is a general loss of interest in politics generally, with people being unable to distinguish between the parties because the real issues that matter – basically, how effective are the policies? – are so rarely explored.
What to do about this? I don’t think we can avoid being negative entirely. It’s the job of the opposition to challenge the party in power and point out the deficiencies in what they are doing. If Labour did not challenge the coalition government, there are plenty of things which would have gone unsaid and unnoticed, and there have been times when a good strong opposition has brought about change. So we must do this, but we could perhaps do a better job of explaining why it’s necessary and an integral part of an open, working democracy.
I think it comes down to communication again. Taking the time to talk to people about what’s going on – not “canvassing” for their vote in the run-up to elections, but keeping a dialogue going all year round, and making sure that people know that we’re doing it. Engaging people on local as well as national issues, fostering genuine political debate, and doing our best to support communities through local campaigns. And we also need to have plenty of positive things to say both locally and nationally, spreading the word about what we’re doing, and developing great ideas for what we would do if we were in power at the moment.
As a local party, we do know all this. It’s a matter of developing a culture of doing this so that it’s taken as read that it’s what we’re about.
If we can manage it, I think we do have the ability to change people’s minds about politics.