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On 10 April 2012 - 11:18am

How to make local government elections more exciting was the challenge explored in an interesting post by A Dragon’s Best Friend (aka @puffles2010). That topic chimed with me and I certainly share the desire to see more high quality debate about issues and policies that engage people. We’ve heard for many years the anguished cries of academics, democrats and campaigners about the crisis of our democratic deficit. [Wikipedia suggests the term was first used in 1977!]. And yet for all the consternation and angst Party membership continues to fall, voting levels are at historically low levels (forget the occasional mini-revival, the overall trend is only in one direction) and politics remains a ‘minority interest’. I have all sorts of things to say about the consequences of a professional class of politicians, problems with limited political parties and the idea that we get the politicians we deserve…but I’ll save those for another day. The focus of this post is how social media could – and should – be opening up politics to a wider audience.

One of the highlights for me of the last general election was following the leadership debates on twitter whilst watching at the same time. The debate was in equal measure, insightful, intelligent, humorous and 'real'. I wonder whether we're missing a trick to simply shift the debate online, rather than seeking ways of bridging online and offline (face to face) debate?

At the launch of the 2010 general election there was lots of talk about the role of social media in campaigning. Remember Labour’s ‘viral’ animation that was shown at their campaign launch?

No? I’m not surprised. It was, in view, about as ‘viral’ as my home video clips of my children’s school assemblies.

We were told that social media would be a key election battleground as the Parties took a leaf out of the Obama campaign’s sophisticated use of social media to mobilise support. The reality was that all the Parties demonstrated a complete failure to understand how social media works, seeing it simply as an extension of traditional broadcast media. So we got lots of tweets and posts blasted out from on high to an unsuspecting audience, with very little active debate, meaningful engagement and interaction. All the main Parties continue to cling on to an outdated model of engagement and communications which seek to control the message and fail to understand that it is the ‘social’ in social media that makes it so exciting. I’m yet to see any evidence that this is view is changing, though I do accept that there are individual MPs who do ‘get it’ (Stella Creasy, Louise Mensch and Tom Watson all spring to mind).

Since millions of Britons use social media (though by no means everyone - and it's important that those of us who use social media don't fall into the trap of assuming everyone else does), it makes sense to take the debate to where people are at. On this basis it’s worth remembering that Facebook use still far outstrips Twitter and other platforms and so i'd be inclined to think about how best to use FB first (despite my own personal preference for the twitter over FB any day).

Thinking about local government elections, I’m sure there’s a role for hyperlocal websites to play here – where they exist – as they offer a natural constituency for those seeking to represent an area to engage with the community. Whilst the coverage of hyperlocal websites is still far from universal, the number of new sites is growing quickly and there is plenty of support available to people who want to set them up.

Local hustings or ‘question times’ with candidates are often held and can sometimes go beyond the usual mud-slinging and point scoring. But they are attended by very few people (relative to the size of the whole electorate) and generally by the already engaged. Rarely do they attract people who are unlikely to vote or ‘turned off’ by politics. Can we find ways to open up the debate in ways which fit more readily with the way people live their lives and in terms which are more directly relevant and meaningful?

For me the solutions are in connecting the power of social technology that growing numbers of people use regularly with the traditional methods of face-to-face politics. I may not want to go to a political rally, a public meeting or a local hustings, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested.

Surely there are some social tech people who might usefully turn their attention to helping our political parties become more sociable in the interests of democracy and political engagement?

 

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