Political Promise

‘People power’ and the importance of widening access to politics

In Garry Lee on February 24, 2011 at 8:36 am

Garry Lee takes a look at the actions of the constituents in the 38 Degrees ‘Save Our Forests’ campaign as a way of illustrating his multi-faceted view of political participation.

On the announcement of the governmental U-turn on the sale of state-owned forests, I’m not sure what I was more surprised at: the fact that Ed Miliband actually has a sense of humour, which was displayed in his mocking the Tory consultation in spite of changing their party logo to a tree; or the fact that this U-turn was apparently the result of what many are referring to as “people power”. Voter turnout in the 2010 general elections was 65.1%, certainly an improvement from the extremely low 59.4% in 2001, but since the 1940s, trends suggest that overall turnout is still not quite what it used to be. What we do need to be reminded of though, is that this statistical view of turnout should only ever be considered as a singular part of a constituent’s overall level of political participation rather than as sole determinant.

The aforementioned U-turn could be said to have been partly, if not wholly, influenced by the 38 Degrees ‘Save Our Forests’ petition that attracted over 500,000 signatures and led to over 100,000 emails and calls to MPs from concerned constituents. Some of the more cynical political commentators regard signing up to petitions as a bit of a hollow act, especially when considering that in 2008, around 502,000 constituents signed up to Mark Standley’s apolitical petition on the number10.gov.uk website to allow the Red Arrows to fly at the 2012 Olympics. However, the efforts of the public went beyond simply signing up to a single petition. Hundreds of constituents donated money to fund a YouGov poll to determine how the general public felt about this issue. Of the 2253 people interviewed in the poll conducted from the 13th to the 17th of January 2011, 84% agreed that “publicly owned forests and woodlands should be kept in public ownership for future generations”. To use this newly acquired piece of information to their advantage, thousands donated money to pay for advertising space in national newspapers to spread the word about the campaign and the results of the aforementioned YouGov poll. As backwards as selling newspapers to save forests sounds, their calculated support for the issue has obviously paid off in the face of a government consultation that could have eventually led to the selling off of state-owned forests. As environmentalism is still considered somewhat of a fringe movement in the UK with the most ecocentric party, the Green Party, only receiving their first seat in the House of Commons in 2010 with 285,616 votes in total, this could be considered as a great result and a fitting demonstration of the power that constituents collectively possess. However, it would be crass to suggest that a concern for the environment is limited to any one political party.

What this development represents on a grander scale is that in the face of an overall trend in declining voting turnout, we need to make it clear to people that have giving up on ‘voting on issues with their ballot papers’ that there are other effective ways to make your voice heard. Now more than ever with MPs using social media such as Twitter, with high calibre newspapers like the Independent releasing their compact ‘I’ newspaper to compete on price with tabloids, with Channel 4 broadcasting a weekly satirical alternative to Newsnight, with the range of free daily podcasts covering all of the goings on in the House of Commons; with all of these things, the opportunities for getting involved and getting interested in politics have never been more diverse and widespread. It increasingly has become very easy to find a way or a combination of ways that you can choose to receive political news. If the actions of those 500,000 concerned constituents that signed the ‘Save Our Forests’ petition and those that went beyond can tell us anything, it’s that our voices are important, and that is something we should never lose sight of.

  1. […] to publication at Political Promise: click here. This entry was posted on Thursday, February 24th, 2011 at 11:06 am and posted in Editorials, […]

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