Engaging the public

A friend who works for a Conservative group asks: How do you think Labour could have listened more effectively over the past five years? That’s not difficult to answer. In Scotland we’ve seen the emergence of a different kind of politics, made possible by an extraordinary two-year discussion.

There are three main elements of the new approach. First, engage the public. Have public meetings, discussion forums, ‘town hall’ meetings; be ready to share disagreements as well as issues in common. I sat last year in a series of round table-sessions for the Common Weal, with people eager not only to have their say, but to hear alternative views. Second, reach out and build networks. Outreach works most effectively when the people you have direct contact with take it back to talk to others. Use the old methods by all means, but be ready to use blogs, Facebook, free reports, existing sites, two minute videos, and always invite people to comment. Third, listen. Gather ideas, consult and only then come up with policies.

I can add a few negatives, too. Don’t ‘offer’: that’s not how listening works. Don’t treat people as passive recipients of a message – advertising and photo-opportunities are ways of telling people, not reaching out. Don’t avoid the public, and – as all the main leaders learned to their cost in the last televised debate – don’t underestimate them. I can’t claim that this approach is sure to win elections – despite the SNP’s success, the last election result doesn’t offer much encouragement on that score. I think I can claim that it will add to the quality of decision making and the legitimacy of democracy in Britain, when both are at a low ebb.

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