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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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