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From Our Practical Politics Blog

Can political education create a stir in the election?

The election is an opportunity for teachers, schools, colleges, libraries, theatres, artists, youth workers, adult and community education to get people involved in the political process. Education, the arts and civil society can create opportunities for people to understand the issues, challenge those standing for election and learn how to have a stronger voice. Teachers of politics and citizenship have a particular responsibility, but any public agency has a role in encouraging people to take part in democracy as the governing principle of society.

Democracy Matters will work with the Crick Centre for Understanding Politics to promote a deeper, wider and more inclusive participation in the democratic process. These are some initial thoughts about why it matters and how to do it, with suggestions for practical activities in sections 2, 7 and 8 below.

Please let us know what you are doing to stir things up this election..

1. Political mis-education

A general election is an unrelenting struggle for political mis-education in which parties try to trip each other up, avoid pratfalls and persuade the public to trust them. For three months the parties, press, pressure groups and social media will compete for attention about who to trust with responsibility for our security, economy, health services and over £700bn of public spending a year. That’s about £11,000 for every man, woman and child in Britain, more than £55,000 over the next five years. As Douglas Carswell points out, that’s the biggest purchase most of us make in our lives.

Most people have largely made up their mind about how they will vote and look for confirmation rather than weigh up the options. About third of the electorate may not vote. On past form the outcome will be decided by about 200,000 people, the swing voters in the 194 (out of 650) marginal seats which could change hands on a swing of 5% or less.

But with three months of campaigning, the rise in support for UKIP, SNP and Greens, and falling support for the LibDem collapse, as well as the ability of Twitter to skewer unwary wanabies, this election is wide open. The public could respond with a collective snore and let turn-out drop below the 61.4% of 2005 (see turnout since 1918). Or people could be fired up, engage with the issues and drive the vote closer to the 84% who turned out in the Scottish Referendum. This is unlikely, but the more active the debate and higher the vote the better for democracy and the country.

2.  Political education is a shared responsibility

Political parties are small voluntary organisations which compete for power to run the country on behalf of everyone. Less than 1% of voters belong to a political party, and not even most party members have much involvement in developing the policies we will vote on (this varies between parties). Election manifestos are the product of an intense political process within parties to reconcile the core beliefs, electoral calculations and personal ambitions of key people. As parties have shrunk, the influence of public opinion and electoral calculation has grown.

Broadcasters, the press, artists, politics departments, schools, adult and community education, pubs and clubs can make this election one where people wake up the politicians with a vigorous debate about what kind of country people want. Insurgent parties like the Greens, Plaid, SNP and UKIP are shaking things up with competing claims to know how create a better future.

But how is the citizen to know which to believe?

All parties have an interest in tailoring their message to what the public can hear and believe. All will seek to “educate” the public that their particular bitter pill is the better medicine and the others’ could kill. But they are all spin doctors. Who knows where to get authoritative, independent advice on what will work and what is best for people?

Well, there are sources of independent information. The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has set up an election website to provide objective, accurate analysis to assess the claims and put the facts in the public domain. Many specialist organisations have detailed analysis of party policies on most issues, from crime, education, and health to aid, foreign policy and science.

Full Fact is an independent fact-checking organization which provide free tools, information and advice, so that anyone can check claims from politicians and the media.

The BBC is required to be impartial in its election coverage and ensure that “due weight is given to hearing the views and examining and challenging the policies of all parties.” The BBC’s Manifesto watch summaries where the main parties stand on issues voters care about according to pollsters IPSOS Mori. In 2010 the BBC produced Where They Stand: Guide to party election policies summarising policies from most parties standing five years ago.

Vote for Policies makes it possible to decide who to vote for by comparing policies on nine key areas to see which party you really support (take the survey here). Votematch also enables people to see which party policies are closest to them. is another online quiz to find out how close your stance is to that to eight of the parties standing in the general election, as well as quizzes on other topical issues.

Two other useful resources are TheyWorkforYou, which gives the record of sitting MPs in Parliament, and a list of marginal constituencies, which shows where political education could make most difference.

If we believe democracy matters, then educators and civil society organisations should do everything possible to encourage people to use these wider sources of evidence to understand the issues and take part in the election.

3.  Public influence during the election

Elections are a time to debate the big issues facing the country and decide how best to respond. Parties which offer solutions that reflect the public mood are more likely to win, so they will adapt. During elections ruling elites and their challengers develop policies and priorities in dialogue with the public, interest groups and opinion leaders. Individual politicians rise or fall during the election, and with them the things they stand for.

Politicians are at their most attentive and receptive during elections, particularly if they are hungry for power. They listen and respond more positively than they ever will once in Parliament. They will be wary of making commitments they cannot keep, remembering the horrible fate of Nick Clegg and the LibDems, but if a policy is feasible, attractive and costs little this is the time to pitch it.

The media also depend on public support and are influenced by public opinion as well as influencing it and mediating the dialogue with politicians. Social media and campaigning website such as 38 Degrees and can mobilise public opinion outside the established channels, opening up the political space to new voices and influences.

The public can therefore shape party policies and priorities during the months before the election. People influence candidates at doorsteps, on the street and through social media, so that their representative in Parliament carries the stamp of their constituency as well as a party badge. As national politics becomes more volatile, local loyalties and positions become more important.

All of this creates opportunities for democracy to come alive and give people a greater voice in what their Member of Parliament and government does after the election. Good political education can help people seize the opportunities an election creates.

4.  The limits and potential of political action

Many people complain that politicians are all the same and always break their promises so you can’t trust them anyway, so what’s the point in voting. The reality is that governing is difficult, actions by the government are constrained and power is diffused among financial markets, international agencies, corporations, quangos, local authorities and other bodies which limit what politicians can do. Yet the Gulf war, bank bailout, reorganisation of the NHS and creation of over 4,400 academies and free schools (252) since 2010 show that governments still have enormous power to act.

What actually happens depends on the political ability of politicians and those who oppose them as well as the wider political context, all of which can be influenced by the public. There are many examples of policies which have been included, modified or blocked as a result of concerted action by individuals or (more often) groups. This is why political engagement and skill matter.

5.  The role of political education during an election

The first task of political education is to convince people that politics matters and they can make a difference. People who understand the political system have more say in what happens than those who do not. Companies, industry associations, unions and pressure groups employ lobbyists and campaigners to influence decisions. They know that political ability, knowledge and contacts make a difference to them. Companies, trade unions and wealthy individuals also fund political parties to ensure that their outlook is represented in Parliament and Government. Spending one lobbying and public relations is 100 times more than the combined turnover of the three main parties, £9.6bn in 2013 according to PR Week (18/12/13), compared with less than £80m spent by the three largest parties. Large individual donations accounted for 25 to 60 per cent of the two larger parties’ income

In this context education institutions, public service broadcasters and civil society organisations can help to create greater equality of influence by increasing political understanding and ability among the wider public so that they can learn how to have more influence.

Some politicians say political education is unnecessary or even dangerous, that it is a cover for propaganda or party politics, and people can make up their own minds. Of course they can, but good political education does not take sides on issues but gives people access to more sources of information and analysis, as well as better understanding of the issues and political process.

6.  Principles of practical political education

As a discipline, education for practical politics has to be informed by two sets of principles. First, there are the Nolan principles of public life, drawn up after the cash for questions scandal in 1994:accountability, honesty, integrity, leadership, objectivity, openness and selflessness, which all politicians are expected to uphold.

Second, I suggest the following principles from Learning Power(Alexander 2006: 37):

  1. pragmatic: start from where people are and help them achieve what they want;
  2. pluralistic in funding, forms of provision, content and values
  3. participative to develop confidence, communication skills and critical thinking
  4. practical, to include techniques, knowledge and analysis relevant to active politics
  5. peaceful: violence is a failure of politics
  6. pro-poor: prioritise provision for people on low incomes with least access to politics and resources.

The opposite of these principles is political education that is ideological, partisan, didactic, coercive and exclusive, the kind which prevails in undemocratic societies.

These ‘Alexander principles’ recognise that politics is about people creating practical solutions to problems by peaceful means in a pluralistic society, and that society benefits when all citizens take part, including the poor, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. To say that political education should be ‘pro-poor’ does not presume a particular ideology or political programme. Left, right and centre claim their approach is better for the poorest. The principle is included because the poorest in society have least resources to take part and therefore need additional support to have some equality of influence with those who can employ lobbyists to make their case.

7.  What can political educators do?

Political education can do three things during the election campaign:

  1. Promote discussion and critical thinking by creating spaces for people to explore the issues that concern them and party policies;
  2. Provide independent analysis and information about the arguments presented by candidates, as well as the political process, strategy and tactics used, to develop a deeper understanding of the issues, political process and system;
  3. Encourage and equip people to take part as citizens, by learning how the system works and questioning candidates, campaigning for a cause, joining a party or even standing for election themselves.

Political parties, their candidates, campaign staff and supporters are also political educators, but they are not neutral, and people may learn more from the interaction between candidates, which is why hustings and television debates are useful, and also from engaging directly with candidates themselves.

Public political education, like the BBC, should not take sides between parties, but increase people’s understanding, knowledge and ability to take part in politics as equal citizens. Also like the BBC, political education should challenge politicians on their claims, and equip citizens with analysis and information to do the same.

8.  Ideas and resources for practical political education 

The following ideas and resources, drawn from different countries as well as the UK, are some ways to engage people in political education during in this election:

  • Find out what the hot issues are in the area and organise a study group, workshop or public debate with experts on the issue, or a panel meeting with candidates from all parties
  • Check out the WEA is ‘Why Vote?’ Project and materials,
  • Encourage artists, theatres and performers to engage people in issues and the election, using processes such as Forum Theatre and Legislative Theatre developed by Augusto Boal in Brazil, which is being used by InterAct in Edinburgh, Small World Theatre in Wales, and Cardboard Citizens who work with homeless and excluded people in London and the UK;
  • Work with community groups to draw up local manifestos about issues they want politicians to address, and invite candidates to respond to them, as 2,500 members of Citizens UK did in their Leaders Debate on 3 May 2010 and are organising for this year (see their Manifesto 2015)
  • Set up “speakers’ corners” and hustings for people to debate issues  – and invite candidates to take part
  • Many schools are organising ‘mock elections’ in which pupils stand and campaign for different parties.
  • The Citizenship Foundation, Bite the Ballot and many other organisations are promoting National Voter Registration Day with education materials
  • The TES has an extensive database of post-16 teaching resources on politics, including materials on government and election from a wide variety of sources
  • The Guardian Teacher Network also has resources for citizenship education
  • Parliament also has materials for schools and a short video to explain how elections work
  • The Campus Election Engagement Project in the US has a handy guide to voter education on campus most of which are as relevant to UK universities, colleges or even towns
  • Create ‘Democracy Centres’ in public libraries or other public buildings to give citizens information on local issues and opportunities to book meetings with official and elected representatives, as in the ‘Democracy City Falun’ in Sweden, the ideas for academic libraries as hubs for deliberative democracy from Rutgers University, and the Power Inquiry proposals (See our guide for ‘Local Democracy Hubs’
  • Create ‘Democracy Champions’ to talk with people about the issues that concern them, tell them about the election, promote voter registration, like ‘Democracy Navigators’ in Falun, Sweden,who advise citizens how to make their voices heard and to feed their ideas into the political process.

Initiatives like these can help schools, colleges and universities become hubs for democracy. In the US over 1,200 colleges have signed a ‘Declaration of Civic Responsibility” to help “catalyse and lead a national movement to reinvigorate the public purposes and civic mission of higher education” and “be vital agents and architects of a flourishing democracy.” This is supported by college funds for interdisciplinary or applied projects, student engagement, service learning, and leadership programs to connect the campus with the community. The US also has a National Issues Forum (NIF) network of “Public Policy Institutes” (PPIs) to provide training, research and other support for deliberative democracy by local citizens (see Democracy’s Hubs: College and University Centers as Platforms for Deliberative Practice)

9.  Do we need a political education portal during the election?

Apart from the IFS election site on finance, information on issues and political process is scattered across websites of newspapers, broadcasters and specialist organisations. Perhaps that is as it should be. But also, it may be useful to have a ‘political education’ portal, equivalent to the IFS, where people can find links to authoritative information on issues and the political process under the following three headings:

1.   How to take part: Opportunities and ideas on how citizens can influence the agenda and political debate, including topics like voter registration, organising hustings, getting commitments on issues from politicians, using social media, with a link to an Events page ;

2.  Issues: Where to find analysis and reliable evidence on issues, such as austerity, health, immigration, Europe, the deficit etc.

Each issue could have a similar format, such as

  • What’s at stake: a summary of the choices presented by the parties, with links to their key policy statements
  • Key questions you should ask: Three or Ten top questions on health, etc
  • Learn more: key sources of independent evidence and analysis, e.g. Kings Fund on health,
  • Other voices: other sources of critical thinking, commentators
  • Pressure groups: key interest groups and organisations campaigning on that issue,
  • Take part: how to get more involved in the issue, e.g. in Health the Citizens’ Assembly, HealthWatch etc

3.    Process: Commentary  and analysis on the use of social media, community organising, advertising, polls, the television debates, the slogans and other aspects of the campaign process;

 A portal could share information and ideas on these three topics, or perhaps others would be more useful:

What do you think?

What will you do?

Please let us know.

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