Posts Tagged ‘labour’

This is interesting. A quote from Atlas Shrugged shows how objectivists – or one objectivist, at least – kinda sorta get it, before completely failing to get it.

When you live in a rational society, where men are free [to think and] to trade, you receive an incalculable bonus: the material value of your work is determined not only by your effort, but by the effort of the best productive minds who exist in the world around you.

When you work in a modern factory, you are paid, not only for your labor, but for all the productive genius which has made that factory possible: for the work of the industrialist who built it, for the work of the investor who saved the money to risk on the untried and the new, for the work of the engineer who designed the machines of which you are pushing the levers, for the work of the inventor who created the product which you spend your time on making, for the work of the scientist who discovered the laws that went into the making of that product, for the work of the philosopher who taught men how to think and whom you spend your time denouncing.

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for [a thinker]? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from [those who choose not to sweat, but to think].

So, there’s a valid observation in there. People’s marginal productivity can, indeed, be greatly influenced by other people. How much I can get done in an hour, and what that output is worth to anyone, is hugely boosted by the inventions, creations, ideas, and hard work of my colleagues, other workers, managers, and numerous people who’ve been dead for centuries.

A labourer can produce much greater output when assisted by the ideas and creativity of a “thinker”. This seems trivially true. But what exactly would be the productive output of a thinker if there weren’t any labourers to do the actual, y’know, labour?

Innovation’s great and all, but without thousands of pairs of nimble Chinese hands working round the clock for years actually making things, Steve Jobs is just a nerd in a garage.

So why does Ayn Rand stop at lauding the miraculous contributions of her thinkers, without recognising any comparable virtue in back-breaking labour? I mean, she’s half there. People can do much more in collaboration than working on their own. We are more than the sum of our parts. So why doesn’t she get that it’s a two-way street? Is it just a contempt for anything so vulgar as doing work, which leads someone to hold those who manage to avoid it in such high esteem?

I mean, all that the millions of people in the working class do is toil really hard getting stuff done for forty hours a week or more. The CEOs and entrepreneurs and “thinkers”, though – they had a neat idea one time. (And then got the government to force everyone else not to use their idea without giving them money.)

Who are the real heroes we can’t do without?

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Public Interest Lawyers have put together a handy fact-sheet on the government’s “Back To Work” schemes, known popularly as “Workfare”.

They’ve looked at the policies that are being put in place, supposedly to give people out of work a chance to get back on the career ladder and develop worthwhile experience. They’ve found, like just about everyone who’s paid attention to the scheme in any detail, that the policies are achieving no such thing, and no intellectually honest assessment of the situation could conceivably have led the government to make the decisions it has.

2. The Government is not “paying them… through benefits” to work, as the Deputy Prime Minister has claimed today. Jobseekers allowance ranges from £53.45 to £67.50 per week. It is paid for one specific (and obvious) purpose – to support people whilst they seek employment. It is not remuneration for work, and even if it were it would mean that people on Back to Work schemes would be getting paid as little as £1.78 per hour, often whilst working for some of our biggest retailers. Many of those retailers are now realising that such a scenario is unacceptable and have either pulled out of the schemes or demanded that the Government thinks again.

3. People are not being given a choice. Ministers claim that work under these schemes is not forced but voluntary. This is not correct. The Community Action Programme, Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity Scheme (the clue is in the name) are mandatory, and jobseekers will lose their jobseeker’s allowance if they do not participate. The Government says the sector-based work academy and work experience schemes are voluntarily, but Cait Reilly was told in no uncertain terms that her participation was “mandatory”.

And so on. It’s beyond abundantly clear by now that the coalition government is being entirely disingenuous in its claims to want what’s actually best for young people and the unemployed. It’s ignored the evidence too many times, and done too much to polarise the issue in a prejudiced and classist fashion with terms like “job snobs” and “scroungers”. If you’re not already rich and powerful enough to be of use to them, the government are not your friend.

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So, I wrote what quickly became my most popular blog post ever last week.

It was basically a big rant against the idea of tactical voting. In particular, I was pissed off by the Conservative Party’s claims that voting for the Liberal Democrats in the forthcoming general election would be somehow dangerous and irresponsible, because it would lead to the horrors of a hung parliament, and so we’d all be better off voting tactically for the Tories.

This would ensure that a nice and stable government would be voted into power, with only the minor quibble that it’s full of people we actively didn’t want to elect into office.

People seemed to agree with my basic point: if you want the Lib Dems (or your local Lib Dem candidate) to win, then vote for them. Don’t be scared out of voting for someone who you think is worth it because of what other people say will happen as a result of democracy occurring.

There was a characteristically entertaining tweet from @TheFagCasanova that I re-tweeted today, which read:

Voting Conservative, because you’re angry with Labour is like sawing your balls off because your trousers are too tight.

I thought this was rather good – but a lot of the same people who re-tweeted this, and seemed to agree with its sentiment, were also sharing links to articles offering advice on how best to vote tactically against the Conservatives.

The line of thinking I’m about to pursue may be familiar if you were following me on Twitter earlier today, but isn’t there something of a double standard there? To continue the analogy, it seems like basing your vote on who has the best chance against the Conservatives would be like realising your trousers are too tight, and deciding to go nude from the waist down, to make absolutely certain that everyone can see your intact testicles.

I’m not sure that analogy works, on reflection, but if you really want to spend precious minutes of your own life determining which political party is represented by which part of the anatomy and stringing together the logic of my strained metaphor, you go right ahead.

Anyway. Tactical voting is still something I’m really not comfortable with, in either direction. Maybe it’s naïve, and the simple mathematics of this particular situation do merit a non-idealistic approach, but if the Liberal Democrats have proved anything over the last few decades, it’s that the idea of having to vote tactically for whoever has “the best chance” can cause an entire country to completely lose track of what it actually wants. John Cleese was pointing this out in 1997, and yet the Lib Dems are only just now starting to be taken seriously by the 49% of the country who want to vote for them.

Oh yes, I remember now that I had a point. Let me try something. For all I know, this is all covered in the first half-hour of any Political Science 101 course, but I’ve been reasoning it out myself from an initial state of ignorance and apathy, so give me some credit.

A lot of the rhetoric around this (or any) election makes it sound like I personally have the ultimate power to cause horrific damage or wonderful good. A great deal of importance is attributed to my vote. “Vote Clegg, Get [Someone Else You’re Not Meant To Like]”, and so forth. But actually, if I vote Clegg, I’m still going to get whoever I get.

Almost no vote cast in the history of ballot boxes has ever actually “made a difference”, if that one vote is taken in isolation, and the concept of making a difference is considered in the narrow scope of “Someone else would have won if you’d voted differently”. A margin of a single vote is almost unheard of in any election of any substantial size. But clearly this isn’t the most useful way to think about things.

You’re not going to single-handedly destroy the environment and send Mother Nature into an apocalyptic hot flash if you take two plastic bags home from the store to help carry your week’s supply of bottled water. The important thing to be addressed isn’t this one action of one person, it’s the general group approach taken by society as a whole. If millions of people do the same thing, then that’s actually significant.

Similarly, the only way it makes sense to consider what strategy people should use to vote is to consider the effect of such a strategy being taken up by an entire group. And this is where I think the very simple technique of “Vote for someone you want to win” holds up rather well, when considering the odds of achieving something actually democratic.

Yes, it’s true that some Lib Dem voters would prefer a Labour win to a Tory one, and although the Conservatives are winning in their constituency, Labour could still take it if given a boost by some Lib Dem supporters voting tactically. Again, no one voter is going to sway things, so you’d have to advise all Lib Dem voters in this area to vote Labour. And this might seem appealing, but it’s insidious and liable to screw things over down the line.

Say the Conservatives start with 40% of voters on their side, Labour have 35%, and the Lib Dems have 20%. The Lib Dems realise they don’t have a chance, but could force a Labour win, which would be preferable to letting the Conservatives take it. So, 55% of the electorate vote Labour, of whom 20% do so grudgingly.

What this does is make this constituency look like a very comfortably safe seat for Labour, which will only reinforce the idea among Lib Dems that they don’t have a chance, and need to keep voting tactically to keep the Tories out. But next time around, liberal sentiment might have grown, and maybe Lib Dem supporters now make up 35% of the populace, while the other two parties have slipped down to 30% each. The Lib Dems could win if everyone voted honestly – but Labour had such a strong majority last time, and the Conservatives were close behind… it’s probably not worth risking a Tory takeover, so better keep playing it safe and make sure the Labour guy stays in, right?

This is exactly the trap the Lib Dems have been stuck in for longer than I’ve been alive, and the best chance I can see of escaping it is to encourage a universal strategy of voting honestly, for someone you think is worth it. It’s hard to find any argument that there’s something undemocratic about that.

Well, except that the whole First Past the Post system is still profoundly broken. But that’s a whole nother issue.

I do have things to talk about that aren’t politics, honest. I’ll get to them soon. Election’s on Thursday, so probably by the weekend I’ll be back to normal.

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I’m writing this on 3rd May 2010, by which time it may be too late for any of these links to be a great deal of use in the UK general election this time around. But there’s still time to decide who’s worth voting for, and in a way that’s just the start. Once people have been voted into office, they get to start doing stuff, and we get to start keeping them accountable to make sure they don’t fuck things up.

So, this is a complete list of all the political websites that I’ve encountered in recent weeks, categorised by the questions they can best help you answer, along with brief descriptions of what use they might be, either before or after the big day. They’ve all apparently been set up by enthusiastic activists, to allow uninformed idiots like me to become less of both those things, and to get involved without having to do any real work.

Who are these people?

TheyWorkForYou.com – Details on your current/former MP, including their voting record on key issues, and speeches made in the House of Commons.

YourNextMP.com – Complete lists of all the candidates standing in your constituency, with contact details and external links to further information.

UK Polling report – Candidate information for all seats, with detailed statistics on past results, predicted results, boundary changes, and so forth.

Where do they stand?

TheStraightChoice.org – Scan in any election leaflets you receive here, or see what other people have been receiving from their local candidates.

The TheyWorkForYou.com election quiz – You can prod your local MP or candidates to answer these questions on various local and national issues.

Skeptical-Voter.org – Find out how your MP or candidates have responded to the suggested questions. If their answers aren’t there, why not use some of the links below to ask them yourself?

Where do I stand?

VoteMatch.org.uk – Rate where you stand on certain key issues, and see how closely your views match with those of the political parties who are after your vote.

VoteForPolicies.org.uk – Pick the set of policies that most appeals to you, without knowing whose they are. At the end, you’ll be told which party’s ideas you seem to be most in line with.

WhoShouldYouVoteFor.com – A list of statements on one page for you to agree or disagree with. Based on your answers, you find out who you should vote for. Simple.

How can I get hold of them?

WriteToThem.com – You can send an email to any of your local councillors, MPs, MEPs, or other representatives here, just by filling in a message on the site. All the work of looking up the names and contact details of the relevant people has been done for you; just plug in your postcode, click on a name, and have your say.

EmailYourCandidates.heroku.com – Send an email through the form on this site to any or all parliamentary candidates in your area (for whom an email address is available).

What else can I do?

DemocracyClub.org.uk – Raise local issues important to you, or help get things done that have been suggested by others.

AboutMyVote.co.uk – Register to vote in future elections here, as well as finding out about things like postal voting, or how the polling stations work.

Any more suggestions, leave a comment. I’m trying to keep it non-partisan, though, so I’m going to avoid including anything with a leaning to any particular political party – though I certainly don’t plan to keep this whole blog politically neutral.

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This is going to be off-the-cuff, chaotic, and angry.

I posted this on Twitter earlier, and it got retweeted more than anything else I’ve ever said:

If I want the Lib Dems to win, I’m voting Lib Dem. If you’re so scared of a hung parliament, maybe YOU shouldn’t vote Conservative.

I still don’t know nearly enough about the political system in this country to justify how much I’ve been talking about it lately. I’m not a political blogger, and I’d need to become way more informed before I ever could be, which isn’t all that likely judging by my usual level of interest in such matters. But this is one thing that’s been really annoying me about some of the public discourse lately.

For longer than I’ve been alive, the real race in the general elections in this country has always been between Labour and the Conservatives. It’s always been one of them that was going to win. But for the first time in a while, a third party is polling well, and is in with a non-negligible chance of winning (even if it’s not all that great), and is unquestionably playing a substantial role in our system of government.

This has made a lot of people very unhappy and been widely regarded as a bad move.

In particular, some people want us to be scared of a “hung parliament”, in which no one party gets enough of a majority to “win”, and after all the voting’s done they have to sort it out amongst themselves how they’re going to run the country. Or something. Yes, the First Past the Post system is ridiculous, however limited my understanding.

Quite what the effects of a hung parliament would actually be is one of the many things in all this that remains beyond me. But if it’s a natural and unavoidable result of people simply voting for who they want to win, then maybe this adds to the case for serious electoral reform.

What it doesn’t imply is that voting for the Liberal Democrats is irresponsible and dangerous, and that an entire third of the electorate ought to give up on what they actually want for the sake of a nice, comfortable compromise.

The Conservatives are calling a Liberal Democrat vote “a vote for the Hung Parliament Party“, and are full of scary rhetoric as to why this should be feared and avoided.

And it all strikes me as intensely cynical and profoundly unfair, and I can’t sum it up any better than I did in my tweet up there.

There are polls out there in which Nick Clegg is winning this race. It’s by no means a strong or unambiguous lead, but the Lib Dems are not hopeless stragglers these days. People would actually like to see them in power, and they’d vote for it if they thought it could happen.

So it is staggeringly patronising for this substantial swathe of the population to be told that they shouldn’t vote for the party or candidate who they would most like to see win the election, because of the administrative difficulties this will cause. The problems of a hung parliament are a product of the electoral system, and of everybody’s votes in conjunction with each other.

If every Lib Dem vote were counted for the Conservatives, it’d be a landslide. But the same goes the other way. And it really pisses me off (enough to use lots of italics for emphasis) when other people assume that I’m the one who shouldn’t get to have my say for who I want, as if everyone else’s votes were already fixed and immutable and I’m ruining everything by making my own damn decisions.

If you’re terrified of a hung parliament and are desperate to avoid it at all costs, then you can either lobby for electoral reform, or you can be against the concept of people voting honestly. At least be up front about which it is.

…And just as I wonder if I’m done, superior blogger Martin Robbins says some of the things I want to say rather well, and embeds the full Conservative “Hung Parliament Party” video. It’s really, really awful. The video, not Martin’s post. Obviously.

So. Who knows more than I do about hung parliaments? (Hint: It’s quite possibly you. Seriously.)

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So, a quick follow-up to Wednesday’s big political blah.

One thing that occurs to me in retrospect, which probably deserves to be better highlighted, is that this is all just a suggested starting point. I was intending to address people like me, who have never really found a way to engage with politics before, but can find things in it worth their attention if there was just some way to connect.

There are, of course, many other ways to get involved in politics, including some which can’t or shouldn’t be done in ten minutes from in front of your computer. I found this kind of approach illuminating and liberating, but some people may also find something to be said for actually going outside and doing stuff.

I know I was rather dismissive of political reps and canvassers, but they’ve no doubt changed many minds and made a great deal of incremental difference in their time, and played a bigger part than most in the public conversation about how our country should be run. I don’t want you to think I’m being contemptuous of that way of getting involved. It just wouldn’t suit me, and wouldn’t suit a lot of people, and I’m trying to talk about more palatable (to some) alternatives.

Also, a couple of thoughts on the Skeptical Voter questions.

When I sent my email to Sam Webber and the Bromley Lib Dems last week, I didn’t just cut and paste the suggested skeptical questions. A few of them I quoted verbatim, but some others I gave a little context to. I was in a chatty mood, so ahead of the question about libel reform, I very briefly outlined why this was important to me, and mentioned people like Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but I think providing a little more context to the questions might be a useful thing.

Someone mentioned on Twitter earlier that their Conservative candidate had asked if there was anything specific in mind behind question 7: “Should policy-makers trust scientific evidence even when it appears counter-intuitive?” And personally, I’ve no idea.

The answer to the question should be “Yes”, incidentally (with some slight nuance sacrificed for the sake of pith). But it might help if, say, I could point to some specific example where this wasn’t what happened, and ask the candidate’s thoughts on it. It seems likely, for instance, that whoever came up with question 4 (about independent government advisers being able to give advice that conflicts with government policy without being fired) had the Nutt Sack Affair in mind, and being able to refer to that might help make more sense of the question.

My suggestion, then, might be to provide an expanded version of the ten Skeptical Voter questions, with some background to each one, either to give the candidates a better idea of what exactly they should be responding to, or to give the voters asking questions a better idea of how to engage with them. I might submit my suggestions to the wiki later.

As you can probably tell, I’m still rather having fun with this.

Oh, wait, two more exciting things turned up since I wrote all that.

Some enterprising chaps and chapettes have done yet more of the hard work for you, and made nearly every step in my big how-to guide even easier. YourNextMP.com will provide a list of all the candidates in your constituency, contact details and personal background information, and links to their profiles and websites online. It’s still a work in progress, but might tell you lots that you don’t know – and if you’ve found something out about these people which they don’t already have, you can add it to the list. There’s less data on their policy positions than TheyWorkForYou has, but it’s still handy.

And finally, while the whole “Labservative” thing I mentioned is no doubt achieving some worthy snark, it’s worth remembering that differences in policy between Labour and the Conservatives really aren’t wholly mythical. My gay vote pretty much speaks for itself.

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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.

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