Citizen Power through Political Engagement
A powerful story of active citizenship emerged recently on social media through the Reasons2Remain Facebook page in the U.K, an online community group set up to support the argument for Britain’s continued membership of the EU and to report on the impact of the Brexit vote.
The story centred on the meeting between the UK Prime Minister, Teresa May and one of her Maidenhead constituents, namely Louise Trethowan, an Australian woman who has been living in the UK since the late 80’s and works in HR as well as running her own bistro. As a member of the commonwealth, she qualifies as a citizen for electoral voting purposes.
Trethowan had acquired a 15 minute meeting with the Prime Minister following a rather unsatisfactory reply to her initial email correspondence which raised concerns about Brexit and its consequences upon her own small business.
Teresa May, in her short email reply, included the phrase “We’re going to bang the drum for Britain!” this lead to a disgruntled email of compliant from Trethowan which resulted in an impromptu invite to meet with the Prime Minister at her constituency office.
The account of the meeting, as written by Trethowan, was refreshing in the sense that she appeared to unexpectedly and eloquently challenge Teresa May on the specific policies being adopted by the Government on foot of Brexit. Furthermore, she was unwilling to merely accept Ms May’s rehearsed retorts and soundbites, the type most seasoned politicians are happy to regurgitate to their electorate and the media.
Their meeting covered an array of topics and concerns such as the perceived racist statements emitting from U.K Government, phrases like “British jobs for British workers”, which Trethowan quite correctly argued would breach their current domestic equality legislation. The impact of Brexit on the economy was also raised with the help of visual aids through info graphs and pie charts researched and prepared in advance and brought to the meeting by the diligent constituent. She presented the infographics to illustrate the positive fiscal effect EU workers had on the economy and the pie chart to demonstrate that only 37% of the electorate had actually voted from Brexit.
The story has gained online traction in the U.K, most notably from the revered political strategist Alistair Campbell, when he tweeted
“This is absolutely brilliant. If only our MPs could do as good a job as this at taking on the non-Brexit strategy”
What is interesting about the story is not that a routine constituency meeting took place, albeit with the Prime Minister, rather the opportunity wasn’t wasted by Ms Trethowan, who used an effective combination of traditional and modern methods of communication to maximise impact of her message.
The story shows the power of social media and visualisation tools in communicating to the masses, but also highlights the power of the oldest form of political engagement- namely face to face communication.
Although access to politicians (and in particular leaders) can be limited at times, the salient difference in this interaction was the level of research Ms Trethowan carried out in preparation for the meeting and the coherent, well thought out and researched arguments that not only focused on her personal interests but more so on the wider national ones.
This type of political engagement, demonstrates that there is a civic duty on all citizens to engage with their TD’s or Councillors directly, and to challenge the policies those politicians may be explicitly championing, particularly if such policies are likely to be inherently harmful to society from either a national or local perspective.
Party affiliated politicians continually adopt the herd mentality in respect to government policies and such adherence promotes staunch conformity to their party whip. The reasons for such allegiance can range from sheer blind loyalty, to aspirations of career furtherance, no matter how realistic.
While the few that do challenge their party externally (often to media fanfare) do so on possible grounds of moral or ethical principles, others could be cynically accused of using such party discourse for their own career furtherance, albeit as an independent perhaps, if their party are not faring well on the latest Red C type poll.
The revered former Prime Minister Winston Churchill is attributed to once saying “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” One can assume there are many politicians who believe in such sentiment. But it should not be forgotten that the origin of the word “Democracy” stems from ancient Greece and means the “strength of the people” or in other words, “the people rule”. Therefore, it is integral that all citizens are at the core of modern day democracy and contribute to both legislative and policy development, where possible.
Voting of course is the oldest and most effective way of demonstrating such people power en-masse and in today’s western society such voting rights can sometimes be undervalued or viewed apathetically as voters become disenfranchised with the political system. A prevalent problem in society develops where as soon as an election is over, the vast majority of the electorate will understandably zone out or lose interest in how that newly elected government will perform its manifesto.
Most citizens will then in turn rely heavily on the media to keep the government in check and scrutinise their every political manoeuvre, whether justified or not. Others will credit themselves as active participants in the political landscape through ferocious degrees of tweeting or by using various emoji’s to express their discontent at the political elite.
Such online methods of communication cannot be downplayed however, from both a domestic and global scale. For instance its use during the Same-Sex Marriage referendum in 2015 shows its positive impact if orchestrated correctly. During this seminal Irish referendum, over 72,000 tweets were posted using the #hometovote hashtag, as people chronicled their journeys to the ballot box.
While the current human rights atrocities in the city of Aleppo, Syria, is a valid reminder of the global power of social media. As the Syrian army closes in on rebel-held areas of the city, tens of thousands of civilians have become trapped, many of whom have turned to Twitter to post their final heartbreaking goodbyes, using the #Aleppo hashtag.
In democratic and western societies however, the traditional format of direct meetings with political representative at their constituency clinic or public meetings should never be underestimated, as this represents true engagement at its core and is more likely to leave a lasting impression with such public representatives.
For instance, a tactic often deployed by many politicians during party conference speeches or televised debates is to use analogies of people they have met on the street. This is particularly true of An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who regularly uses such personally tailored anecdotes to connect with his audience or normalise such messaging, in a not too dissimilar way a marketer relies heavily on market research to entice their target market.
Such direct interaction works both ways, because politics at its core is about people and the basics of successful political engagement is dependent on human relationships and personal rapport.
Therefore, despite the clear advantages of modern technological communications, the traditional form of direct engagement with a politician is as effective today as it ever was, and perhaps even more so, particularly in Ireland where such access is often expected.
The key it seems for effective citizen participation, is to strategically integrate both channels of communications for successful political engagement and to avail of that opportunity to get “your” message across.
Jason O’ Sullivan, is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors
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