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Christopher Clarke: Why Britain needs a National Conversation to engage people with politics once more

Clarke ChristopherChristopher Clarke is co-organiser of National Conversation and General Manager of Kwittken + Company. 

Political parties do not win elections by mathematical formula. They succeed by winning the argument, capturing the imagination of voters, or, at times, simply by offering an alternative that is not as frightening or as risky as the alternative.

Voters are drawn towards aspirations and ideals more so than against fear and risk.

But today, political strategy is often about triangulation, setting out your stall in relation to other political parties or political opponents. It is about forensically targeting voters, on a street-by-street basis, gambling on getting these voters out and not bothering too much about the rest. (See Labour’s 35 percent strategy as identified by blogger Dan Hodges on his Telegraph blog.) It is about having a policy position that does not induce fear and uncertainty, especially amongst the press and interest groups.

However, in 1979 the situation was very different. While the election was held against the backdrop of the winter of discontent and dissatisfaction with the incumbent Labour Government, it was the strength of Margaret Thatcher’s beliefs and vision for Britain that convinced the electorate about the need for change. This was true – broadly – in 1983 and 1987.

Many suggest that the issues the country faced in 1979 were so acute that political conviction was more straightforward. And therefore having a strong Conservative argument was easier to articulate to a population craving hope in the face of adversity.

Nonetheless, the issues we face today – the welfare crunch, securing economic prosperity, Britain’s role in Europe – are no less pressing.

And that requires an equal type of leadership and conviction that prevailed in 1979.

What the pollsters, the advocates of triangulation and the psephologists forget is that people are essentially rational and reasonable. People tend not to be dogmatic, especially now when party political ties have weakened to the extent of almost being non-existent.

New ways to have conversations that matter

Based on this belief, last year, a small group of friends and acquaintances, who shared a passion for politics and democracy got together to develop the National Conversation.

The objective was to identify new ways to engage people with Westminster politics. Inspired by the massive wave of grassroots debate that followed the publication of the Beveridge Report 70 years ago, the National Conversation sought to explore inventive ways, both face-to-face and online, to mend the gap that has grown between people and Parliament. To extend beyond the Westminster bubble, the City of York was the focus of the face-to-face events in autumn 2012.

The plan was developed following extensive discussion with politicians, citizens, think-tanks and journalists, and the question for the 2012 National Conversation pilot was: is the welfare state still fit for purpose?

Billed as an experiment in democracy, the National Conversation attempted, in a small way, to start a political dialogue on issues that matter to people and look at ways to overcome cynicism about politicians and the political process.

Lessons learned

The experiment revealed a number of lessons that we feel can be used to stimulate democracy in Britain and engage people more effectively with the political process. 

What is clear is that people are passionate about political issues but turned off by politics. We need conversations that are independent of established political players and media brands. While these players need to be part of the conversation, they cannot dictate the terms of the conversation.

Secondly, one size does not fit all. To reach beyond the Westminster village we need to offer formats and topics for conversation that are relevant to different people. Here, it is important to segment the audience and design activities around different groups, interests and lifestyles. It is no longer possible to rely on traditional hustings and town hall meetings. People lead busy and active lives – they need to be able to engage in a way that works for them.  

Thirdly, technology offers answers – but it’s only part of the picture. Social media, for example, does not offer a panacea. No single channel or platform can reach and mobilise the diversity of opinion required for meaningful conversations. It is crucial to be open minded and blend traditional and online formats to ensure conversations take place where people can access them.

Finally, the media environment and society is constantly evolving and every issue has its own unique (and dynamic) set of stakeholders. There is no final or definitive answer to the challenge of getting people engaged in politics. To inspire and energise people, the conversation itself has to be inspiring and energetic. Key to this is enabling diversity of opinion and difference to be expressed and not censored by convention or established modes of thinking.  

Leading through open and authentic conversations

Going back to the topic of political leadership, Margaret Thatcher’s style is often characterised as strident, unwavering and steadfast. All of which is true. However, this is only one side of the story as these these traits were also rooted in a restless desire to be challenged, to engage with opponents and allies in real conversations, and to never shrink from advocating a position. Ultimately, she was a pragmatist who believed in the power of discussion to shed light on difficult issues. She was also someone who was guided by the ‘reasonable’ and the ‘rational’, not frightened by the fringes.  

The concept of the National Conversation is fundamentally different to a focus group ‘listening’ approach, from psephology, from triangulation. All of which tend towards a cynical manipulation of voters and their preferences. It is passive, not active. Afraid, not bold.

In an environment when nothing is predictable, it is clear from our work on the National Conversation that character, openness and a willingness to engage with the real issues is what people want, and respect. But more importantly, it is these traits that are most likely to reveal innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges that we face as a country. 


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