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Sunday, 25 May 2014

Engaging Those Who Don't Vote

The overall national turnout for Thursday's local elections was around 36%. In my ward New Town it was worse, around 29%.This means that 71% of the electorate did not feel inspired, engaged or motivated enough to vote for anyone. The winning candidate has the mandate of less than 20% of the electorate to represent this ward as over 80% of voters didn't support her. Its just that they supported the rest of us even less. All of this shows that there is a massive problem, especially in local and European elections, in terms of voter disengagement and apathy. Many people feel that politics is a dirty word, politicians corrupt and 'in it for themselves' and political promises are regularly and inevitably broken by candidates.
The causes of the current climate of disengagement are complex and inter-linked. Statistics regularly show that the main disengaged voter groups are the 18-24 age group and sections of the working class. Regarding the latter, part of the problem lies in the social composition of the 'political class', particularly on a national level. The House of Commons is still overwhelmingly made up of middle-aged, middle-class white men. Political parties choose leaders from a narrow range of public school Oxbridge types who look good on camera and exude a degree of confidence such as Cameron and Clegg. While this is fine for presentation purposes, it means that the party leaders have a major problem in comprehending the attitudes, outlook or fears of the average voter due to having never had to walk their walk.
The traditional route of working class people into politics was via the Trade Unions. Often this was coupled with a protestant nonconformist drive to make a difference within the community. Since the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s, both the unions and civil society in general have declined in favour of an atomised individualism in which working class people lack a political framework provided by community activities. This is not helped by the current cultural climate of popular culture, 'I'm a Celebrity...', 'Britain's Got Talent' and the trashier aspects of the internet all of which show choice acting as a form of entertainment social control and easily digestible ignorance.
Furthermore this even permeates down to a local level. When I attended the count at Colchester's Charter Hall on Thursday night, I gazed around the room and apart from a few of the Labour and UKIP people it looked very much like a middle-class social club. While the groups were temporarily divided on political lines, it would be easy to imagine them all chattering away together at some dinner party afterwards, their temporary mild political differences forgotten. Part of this is also due to the Blair factor. As a result of Tony Blair turning the Labour Party into a centre (and some would say centre-right) party and David Cameron softening the Conservative Party position on social issues such as gay marriage, the main parties all occupy much of the same political space. When voters complain that politicians are 'all the same' it is because they are, well many of them. There is an old revivalist hymn which contains the lines:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known.

In the current political climate, each line should have the word 'Don't' placed at the start of it. Politicians such as Mrs Thatcher and Tony Benn certainly dared to be Daniels, however with the passing of that generation the uniformly bland, slick and nonthreatening (at least in outward appearance) dominate.  Part of the appeal of UKIP, and it should be the appeal of the Greens as well, is that they are partly outside of this cosy club and not afraid to tell it as they see it and rock the boat.
Regarding younger voters, 18-24 year olds, it is a real tragedy that the group of people who most need to vote do so the least. The reason that they get tuition fee hikes, face the prospect of working until 68 or older and face sky high rents and house prices is because the political class see them as an easy target. It is easier to take money off those who don't vote than the baby boomer generation who do. The young have been well and truly shafted by the coalition government, yet many don't see it because the consequences lie years down the line for them and very few 18 year olds like to think of themselves as ever being old or even middle-aged. In my day both college, university and youth culture were more politicised than today. CND groups  run by the Vice-Principal, packed out NUS meetings, the Smiths and Billy Bragg railing against the establishment in their lyrics. It all seems a very long time ago.
So how do we turn this around and engage the disengaged, many of whom need a green alternative to the major parties? Well certainly we need to publicise our wider social policies beyond the environment via high profile local campaigns. We should be present at every demonstration against hospital closures, tuition fee rises and similar key issues. We need to lead the campaign against rising rents and show how the green economy will create thousands of jobs. Above all we need to change the perception that we are Lib Dems lite, the 'nice' party who like the environment and are soft and nonthreatening. We need to ruffle a few feathers in the political establishment.

Changing Perceptions: Living Weedkiller Free

Its that time of year again when commercial TV is full of adverts for weedkillers. Sprays that make your lawn 'lush and green', stuff that kills the weeds with one spot. you know the kind of ads I mean. You probably also know the cheery songs and jovial voice overs that accompany them. All of which is designed to persuade us that weedkillers are nice, useful things and weeds are evil entities which blight your perfect lawn or drive.
In reality weedkillers are poisons designed to kill plants. Herbicides. The more effective they are, the more poisonous and potentially dangerous they are in turn. They are like any pesticides in that they can have highly harmful side effects on humans if not used very carefully. These effects are outlined in several useful books on the subject, however the best in my view is "Poisoned Harvest : A Consumer's Guide to Pesticide Use & Abuse" by Christopher Robbins.
However the deeper issue here is why people have become so obsessed with creating an artificial, sanitized environment around themselves and their children. Astro-turf lawns, weed-free patios, block paving... it all amounts to one thing, namely destroying the nature in your garden. What is needed is a reality check to all of this, a change in perception. Weeds are simply flowers that you don't have to fork out to buy. Is there really that much difference between a dandelion and a marigold apart from the price of the the latter? Surely a garden is more interesting when it has wildlife in it than blandness. Certainly more interesting for children. Here are my youtube videos on this subject:


How the Greens can Learn From Both the Lib Dems and UKIP

The Greens do have much to celebrate in Colchester. Our overall percentage share of the vote has increased from that of 2012 and has significantly increased in several wards. In New Town the green vote has increased by nearly 80 votes, pushing the Conservative Party candidate into last place. These are real achievements however much work remains to be done. It is clear that the Lib Dems remain the main winners in Colchester, despite their overall voter share falling by nearly 10%. UKIP are still on the rise (by 13%) despite not winning a single council seat.
There are lessons to be learned by the Greens from both the Lib Dems and UKIP in terms of campaigning. The Lib Dem grip on Colchester is based on their work on local issues and the Bob Russell factor. The Lib Dems concentrate their leaflets and publicity on local concerns, from the perennial dogs fouling pavements and pot-holes to issues surrounding the jumbo tower. They have built up an image of being hard-working locally. This despite the fact that in reality the Morant Road, Artillery Street and King Stephen Road area still has such a problem with dog fouling that the residents have resorted to circling the turds with chalk and writing 'Please clean up after your dog' next to them. It is the perception that counts not the reality. Therefore we, as greens, need to focus our campaigns and our literature on more local matters as well as ensuring that we do match perception to reality. Secondly we must publicize to the voters our wider policies beyond those of the environment. 
From UKIP, there are lessons to be learned about presentation, image and communication. UKIP strike a chord with many voters who feel disengaged and alienated from the political process. This is not only because of the perception that they are the only party listening to concerns about immigration, it is also because they appear not to talk down to voters from the lofty heights of a political ivory tower. They are, in that sense, anti-establishment. Nigel Farage has an excellent manner and approach as leader, down-to-earth, straight-talking, an every man necking a pint of beer. In the modern world image does matter. A leader that appears too intellectual, po-faced and odd-looking, which is how many perceive Ed Miliband to be, will inevitably lose votes. It is self-defeating for Greens to shout 'racist' at UKIP voters, insist that image doesn't matter or look upon UKIP voters as the barbarians at the gates. We must engage in an adult way with all of these things. Greens must take on board the fact that many voters have genuine concerns about levels of net migration and the resulting impact on wage levels, housing demand, school places and over-development. Most UKIP voters are not racist and some of UKIP's posters and Nigel Farage's rhetoric about Romanians moving next door would have gone too far for them. However to win these voters away from UKIP will require real engagement with the issues rather than attacks. Greens must also work on the image. We must change the public perception that Green candidates are all bearded old hippies who look like former members of Jethro Tull or are middle class people with no understanding of life on the breadline in modern Britain. 

May 22nd Colchester Local Election Results

Here are the results for Colchester in terms of overall percentage shares. This compares the results and % changes to 2012 and 2009.  


                                GREEN     CON      LAB    LD      UKIP     IND         BNP
2014Votes %                8.70         33.55    16.17   22.94  15.77      2.88        -
2012 Votes %               7.37         28.97    23.53   32.89    2.68      3.93        -
2009 Votes %              10.31         36.22    12.11   33.66   1.94      0.24      5.76      
2014-2012 % Change     1.33         4.58      -7.36    -9.95   13.09    -1.06             
2014-2009 % Change    -1.61        -2.67      4.06   -10.72   13.83    2.56       -5.76


It is clear that although we are down compared to 2009 this is not part of a trend as we are up from 2012. The largest increase in vote share is clearly that of UKIP who are up by over 13% on both 2009 and 2014. The largest drop is in the Lib Dem vote share. Nonetheless the Lib Dem vote held up enough to enable them to hang on to all seats bar one, which went to Labour.