Do you live in the UK?
Are you of voting age?
Have you noticed this general election thingy we’ve got coming up in a few weeks?
Do you sort of care how your country is run, even if you’ve never mustered the energy to give half a shit about any of the actual bastard politicians in charge of the place?
Are you a disillusioned and apathetic British voter, who doesn’t see much point in turning up to the polls to give your support to someone you’ve never heard of and probably won’t get anything much done that makes a damn bit of difference to you?
Then this is the blog for you!!
…to find yourself in very good company.
I’ve voted Lib Dem a couple of times before, mostly out of some vague sense of obligation. On neither occasion, before I stepped into the polling booth, could I have told you the name of the candidate I was planning to vote for, or the one I intended to oust. (I knew the party leaders, but my local candidates? Not a chance.) I’m not sure how either of those elections went, or whether I ended up voting with the winning team or not. I may have taken the time to find out at some point, but if I did, I don’t remember it now.
I kinda suck at this whole democracy thing, in short.
But then, I’m hardly alone. Voter apathy has been complained of for years to the point of tedium – at least, to the tedium of us apathetic voters. Not really caring about all this crap isn’t some dirty secret. It’s entirely relatable. We only really take an interest when they spend thousands of pounds of our money on building houses for their ducks, because being angry is easy, and surprisingly good fun. Being inspired and optimistic doesn’t come so naturally. Not when looking at our politicians, anyway.
But, you know, some of them really aren’t total cocks. And some of the people willing to do the job, and probably capable of doing it better, aren’t utter twats either. And it’s theoretically possible to get rid of the ones who are cocks, and replace them with less incompetent upgrades.
Even fairly recently, if you wanted to be actively political, you’d more or less have to become “one of them” yourself. You could either find some public space from which to stand on a literal soap-box and shout, hoping to turn occasional passers-by on to your way of thinking before they wrote you off as just another crazy person, or you could sign up as a campaigner for one of the big political parties, and go canvassing or leafleting or whatever they could think of for you to do, as an official “rep”. You’d probably have to wear a tie.
Well, I dare to dream of a time when I don’t have to stand on a box or wear a tie, but can still lift myself above a level of total political irrelevance.
And, actually, I’m coming pretty close to living the dream at the moment. I’ve been starting to feel quite energised about all this lately – not exactly “excited”, but hovering around “interested”, and soaring way above my usual level of “huh?”. I didn’t need to do much to make it happen, either. Mostly, I just had to realise how much work other people have already done on this, to make the whole business so much easier and less painful for me.
So, if you’re feeling as disconnected as I was until even just a few months ago, here’s how you can start to take notice of political matters going on around you, and make them seem more relevant. It’s basically just an organised run-down of what I’ve been doing, so any supplementary advice from anyone who actually knows anything is very welcome. But it’s a start, and it will probably take you less time to do all this than to read all the above waffle. Honestly, you could follow through and do everything as I describe it, just by sitting at your computer, and it’d have a barely noticeable impact on your day.
Step Zero: Register to vote
I added this one as an afterthought, because I remembered it quite late in the game. To vote, you need to be registered. You can find out all you need to about this on AboutMyVote.co.uk – it doesn’t look like it’s too late, if you haven’t got around to it yet, and you’ve still got time to apply for a postal ballot too. It is possible to be involved in the general political conversation even beyond simply casting your own vote, though, as I’ll try to discuss.
Step One: Identify the current champion
So, first things first. Where do you live? Don’t tell me, I can’t hear you. I’m probably off watching House. But you know where, right? Okay, good. Go to TheyWorkForYou.com. In the box headed “Your representative”, there’s a space for you to type in your postcode, so that you can find out who your current MP is.
Once I’ve done that and pressed Go, it takes me to this page, and tells me all about Bob Neill, former Conservative MP for Bromley & Chislehurst (until Parliament was technically dissolved just a couple of days ago). You’ll be seeing whoever was the most recent MP in your own area, obviously. Scroll down just a little, and you get to read all about how they’ve voted in Parliament on key issues in the last few years.
For instance, my guy, who’s running again this year (more on that later), has voted for laws to stop climate change, replacing Trident (the UK’s nuclear weapons programme), and Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, but is against gay rights and Parliament transparency. That’s the kind of useful thing which I’ve never known about my local politicians before, but which will help me decide whether I want to vote for him.
It also tells me that he almost never goes against the party line, and will even link me to his entire voting record, but that might be a bit much for now.
So, that’s a good first step. You now know who your MP is (or was, technically) and a bit about what they’re like. It took me over 26 years to get that far. Well done!
Step Two: Identify the combatants
But your current ex-MP is just one player in this game. And they might not even be that relevant any more, if they’re not standing for re-election this time around. You want to know who to vote for. One place that seems to be a helpful start here is the UK Polling Report site.
Go to their seats by region page, and click on whereabouts you are, then click on your constituency name (which you’ll have been told on the TheyWorkForYou site if you’re not sure) from the list. You may need to click a horizontal “Parliamentary constituencies” drop-down list first.
So, if you’re me, you’ll end up here, and you’ll have the names of each of the party candidates standing in your area. Not much more than the names, in my case, but I do know that the UKIP candidate “works in car maintenance”. Gosh. (His Wikipedia page tells me that he also works part-time in Halfords, and is scheduled for deletion. The page, I mean, not him. We’re yet to integrate Cybermen into British politics.) (Edit 15/04/10: Yep, it’s gone.)
Again, this is stuff I would never previously have known before the pen for marking my X was already in my hand. And it probably took less time for you to do than it took to read my meandering opinions about it.
Step Three: Party time!
Yep, we’re throwing a party for you! You’ve been working hard, and it’s time we celebrated your newly acquired political activism.
Actually, no. We’re still working. But don’t start flagging yet! You’re doing great!
It’s worth looking into the political parties for whom these candidates stand, as well as the individuals themselves. Finding out what a party’s priorities are is another useful way of helping to decide whether you want to vote for their people, and there are some handy ways of doing this, without having to read through pages of vapid populist nonsense, or *shudders* listening to a politician talk.
There are no doubt others, but two sites you can use to decide which party would suit you best are WhoShouldYouVoteFor.com and VoteForPolicies.org.uk. Just answer a series of questions about various proposed government policies, and they’ll tell you which parties are closest to supporting the policies you like. (I’m going to have to assume that you have opinions on some of these things. If that’s still a stumbling block, it’d take a whole
nother essay to go through all that, and one that I’m probably not qualified to write. Not that I’m letting that stop me at the moment.)
If you’re me, you’ll currently be feeling reassured that you scored as strongly Lib Dem as you did. If you’re not me (which is statistically more probable), you might have learnt something about the differences between the major parties, and be feeling better informed. This is useful. I couldn’t articulate with real confidence any actual policy differences between Labour and the Conservatives, but there must be some, even if some people don’t think they’re that significant.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you might also try seeing what’s in their manifestos, where the parties each specifically outline their plans and promises for what they intend to do if they win. The Telegraph has some thorough run-downs of these for Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats, as well as links to the complete manifestos themselves, though those are only recommended for advanced students seeking extra credit.
Step Four: The hunt begins
Okay, so. You have the names of the candidates standing in your area, and some idea of what they’re all about. Now it’s time to do a little bit of digging.
I confess up front that you’ll have to take a little bit more initiative for this stage, but not much. You want to track down whatever online presence your candidates of interest have. This doesn’t actually have to be much harder than just Googling their name, and maybe some clarifying details like the party name and your constituency.
For instance, if I type in “Bromley liberal democrats” and hit search, the first result is BromleyLibDems.org.uk. That was pretty easy, and randomly trying a few other constituencies indicates that you’ll probably find this just as easy yourself. From there, it’s nice and straightforward to find an email address for my “local Liberal Democrat team”, and a very little extra digging will turn up a profile and email address for Sam Webber himself, the Lib Dem candidate who I’m looking for a reason to vote for. He also turns out to be on Twitter, but only very sporadically, and hasn’t had anything to tweet for a couple of months now. All in all, I’m not finding out a lot about him; maybe your candidate will have made himself or herself known across the web a little more prominently. Bob Neill, my former MP, has his own site, and volunteers plenty of information allowing me to get to know him and his politics better. There are also ample contact details.
I’m sticking with email for now, but the point of this step is that getting some sort of contact details for all your local parliamentary candidates, or their offices, is not something that should take more than a few minutes on a search engine in this modern age. Good.
Step Five: Interrogate! Interrogate!
Now you simply send them an email and give those bastards a piece of your mind.
Or, maybe hold back a little. This is your chance to find out who these people – who want to decide how things go where you live, and want to claim to represent you personally, and want to be one of a few hundred people who vote on major political decisions that affect the entire country – actually are. It’s worth thinking a little about what you want to ask them.
Some suggestions are offered at the Skeptical Voter site, which has been largely responsible for stirring my own interest in all this. They’ve put together ten questions which they’re asking people to send to their local candidates, to build up an overall picture of where people stand. You could simply copy these all into an email, ideally with some sort of introductory paragraph explaining who you are (and that you’re a local constituent) and what these questions are about, or you could come up with your own questions entirely, or you can pick and choose what’s important to you, taking ideas from wherever inspires you. If you’re me, you’ll also want to know where they stand on the Digital Economy Bill and sex education, which aren’t among the suggested questions. As I’ve observed already, you’re probably not me, so it’s up to you. Be as original as you like, or just use the Skeptical Voter template.
It may be worth checking the Skeptical Voter wiki before you send off your questions, to see what information has already been collected. Just type your candidate’s name into the search box. There’s a brief entry there on Bob Neill, describing aspects of his past voting record that are relevant to my skeptical interest, but apparently nobody’s sent him the Skeptical Voter questions yet, so I could do that. My Lib Dem guy hasn’t had a page created about him on the wiki yet, so I can add one myself if I get a reply to my email to him.
Or I can just let @skepticalvoter on Twitter know what I turn up. Whatever answer I get, including none at all, they’ll be interested to hear. Some of the responses received so far have been quite revealing, or just funny.
And that’s my guide to political activism, by a guy who’s never actually done it himself before, knocked together mostly over the course of one afternoon while trying to look busy at work.
Now, I personally am not going to achieve a great deal from this, on this particular occasion. I’ll probably end up voting Lib Dem, even if I don’t hear back from the guy, or ever really learn anything about him. And he’ll almost certainly lose, because apparently the constituency boundary lines are being redrawn since the last election and so the Conservative seat is going to end up safer than it would have been. But this one election isn’t the end in itself; it’s just one step in quite an exciting and positive direction.
I’ve really never seen this kind of excitement over local politics or a general election before in this country. We don’t have many big names or fantastic characters to rally around, like the US tends to get with people like Obama. The impression I get is that a lot of people tend to stick to political parties out of habit, or be swayed by single issues, when they’re motivated to vote at all. Most people’s votes don’t actually matter. What I do in the polling booth isn’t going to make any real difference. But the internet is getting excited about it, and not just on the level of commentary and gossip. People are doing things about it. They’re putting together websites to help people find out about their political representatives. They’re writing lengthy blog posts sharing what they’ve learned.
And this kind of thing, enabled by social networking and the ubiquity of information-sharing capabilities, seems to be moving us rapidly toward a place where people can start properly holding politicians to account. We can easily find out what subjects our representatives are discussing, and what they’re saying about them, and join in the conversation about what we should ask them to do. And I really do mean “we”. As in, you and me. Not stuffy political fanatics in carefully ironed shirts with some kind of deviant interest and incomprehensible devotion to a party we’re distrustful of. Us. People with boring office jobs, and families, and stuff to do, who occasionally remember that politics is still going on when we read about something in the tabloids that we’re supposed to get angry about. I’m not one of those activists you see who seems to have some particular connection to things, getting involved on some higher level you could never hope to match, and would never want to. I’m just some idiot with some free time and a typing speed of 90wpm. And we can be the people who really decide what our MPs do, and remind them that they damn well do work for us.
How’s my lofty, impassioned, grandiose, idealistic rhetoric looking? It may all be a bit much, but sod it, I’m having fun. And I really think this could all be heading somewhere good.
Thoughts welcome. Like I said, this is all quite hastily knocked together, so apologies for the numerous shortcomings. If you’re in the UK and do get in touch with any of your political candidates, let @skepticalvoter know first of all, but feel free to comment here too.