Saturday, 17 November 2012

Corby - and its lessons

Washminster has been silent for a few days - one of the reasons is the by-election which was fought in Corby, Northamptonshire. I was up there for the last few days - and of course Election day itself. It has been interesting to participate in an English election so soon after completing a period in an American election. Some of the practices (and the language) were very different - but the lessons to be learned are the same.

(1) The need for planning and preparation - the superb operations to get out the vote ('GOTV' in the jargon) depended upon the hard slog in the months before contacting voters - by phone or in person. Although the by-election wasn't expected until Louise Mensch made her surprise announcement that she was quitting Parliament (6th August 2012), Andy Sawford had been selected as the candidate to challenge her in the next General Election due in May 2015. For months he - and many Labour activists in the Corby constituency had been reaching out to voters, finding out who might be supportive of Andy Sawford and Labour. This effort was taken to a new level after Mrs Mensch's announcement. When we went out on Thursday - we knew who had indicated that they would be voting Labour. Much work was done behind the scenes plotting out walking routes on the day to ensure that Labour turnout was high.

(2) The value of co-operative efforts - a superb team went out on Thursday, prepped by the staff and volunteers who had done so much to make the operation smooth and effective. I was really impressed by the dedication and sheer hard work put in. People from around the country came to Corby to help. I'd seen similar things in North Virginia. In particular, there are some impressive young people volunteering - who put my generation to shame.

(3) The message was explained - in person - to voters. It is easy to become reliant on computers - and TV ads (in the USA) and glossy leaflets. They have their role - but nothing beats talking to voters and answering their questions. On the day, few knew that there was an election and who Andy Sawford was - or what he stood for. This was in sharp contrast to the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections. The turnout was abysmal and few knew who was standing; why & what the job was about. Big money in the USA goes towards short TV ads that may be pejorative, but aren't high in useful information content. In the UK the Police Commissioner elections had a handful of "public information" ads, but there was not the money - or the volunteer manpower available to get the necessary information out. In a democracy we need an informed electorate - relying on big money or volunteers clearly isn't sufficient.

(4) There was much more emphasis in the States on voting as a duty of citizenship. This was stressed before election day - and voters are given a badge when they have voted. We are priviliged to live in democracies - where we choose our representatives. Failing to vote is an abdication of responsibility. I understand that many people feel that politicians aren't giving good service. The answer is not to put one's head in the sand and refuse to participate in elections. Voting makes politicians accountable. Tell them what you want. If they are third-raters only interested in lining their own pockets - take them on. Turn up to the occasional council meeting - write to your MP who has been behaving like a schoolboy in Prime Minister's Question Time. I've found that an adult discussion between voters and politicians helps both understand each other better - and the challenges we face as a community (whether it be the problems in a particular street or international problems). Most people (voters and politicians) are reasonable - and can accomplish more if they exchange ideas. Politicians should stop blaming the electorate for being switched off - you need to do more to engage the public - and individuals should take their duties as citizens seriously - and participate in decision making. That might be by becoming a school governor or a parish councillor. It might involve telling politicians that you want to see more action on facing the threat from climate change or demanding answers when your money is misspent - but at the very least it should involve weighing up the choices at an election and voting.

I'd appreciate your comments on what I've written - and please do share with others. Yes, I write as a Labour/Democratic supporting activist. But the issues apply across the political spectrum. We may disgree on the solutions to today's challenges - but a healthy democracy needs involvement from all who have a brain to use.