Community Activists Network
That probably typifies most people’s experience, including mine, of writing to their MP (or their local councillor). What was once a mainstay of democratic action – writing to your MP - has turned into a lonely disheartening process because it has been hijacked by a party machine that uses it to trot out the standard party line.
This time I did something different: I wrote an open letter to my MP and published it online for everyone to see and I told my MP that I was doing so. It was the longest, most detailed letter that I have written. Here are the outcomes so far along with what I have learned
If I had written to my MP in the normal way, exactly two people would have seen it: myself and my MP. My letter would then have been filed or binned. End of story. Only this story has no end because both letters remain only one click away and even now, with no effort on my side, the blog continues to receive a small but steady stream of visitors
Nor would there have been any wider conversation where people were free to comment on either letter, agree or disagree. While an ordinary blog can still promote a similar conversation, I doubt very much I would have had the same level of visitor numbers and engagement.
Of the three outcomes I listed above, for me the most effective has been a genuine engagement with other local people. Even supposing that only half the numbers of visitors were local to my area (200) half again were returning visitors (100) and of those only half fully read both letters, that still means I engaged 50 more local people than had I simply written a private letter to my MP. That for me made it more than worthwhile to have taken the time to write that letter.
Because we - all of us - urgently need to wrest back the democratic ground lost to over centralised party politics whose agenda is increasingly shaped by corporate interests rather than their constituents. Moreover that agenda is relayed to a general public by privately owned mainstream media who can make or break a political party, never mind a politician’s career. That threat alone screens out other conversations, silences dissenting voices and filters out news and issues of vital importance to all of us. And with the gagging law now in force, charities and online platforms such as 38Degrees that advocate on our behalf now have to tread very carefully. It is no an exaggeration to say that our democracy is under attack.
We can only counter this trend going back to basics and initiating local grassroots activism starting with a simple letter to our MP. Let it be about any subject that we care passionately about, but let it be thoughtful, informative and published online.
What would our democracy feel like if there was not one open letter but hundreds of open letters that triggered thousands of local conversations up and down the country? Better informed, more engaged, more critical and questioning on key subjects from privatisation of public services to food banks, from inequality to climate change.
While National conversations on platforms from the Guardian to Greenpeace are no less important these can feel remote and abstract if not pulled down to the local level and spread across local social networks that in turn, give rise to conversations that have a more personal, immediate, in-your-face impact, ones that galvanise local networks to come up with ideas and take actions that go beyond ‘clicktivism’. I am talking here of a ‘mass localism’: a spreading fire of grassroots activism that is lawful, democratic, sustained, well informed, willing to act and willing to call to account those who claim to speak on our behalf at election time, but then spend the next five years doing anything but.
I suggest all this begins with the very humble step of writing to your MP – but one adapted to the social media age we live.At present we have a diminished democracy composed of political parties who rely far too much on corporate donations and who deploy the same marketing tools as their corporate sponsors: a politics reduced to the focus group, the sound bite, the leaflet drop, the cold call and now the Android app. Not forgetting the traditional five minute party political broadcast that has millions of us reaching for our TV console.
Real change, a reclaimed democracy, can only ever come from below and it begins with you and me. We just have to trust that there are others out there, willing to take similar steps when they see what we do.
So if you are interested in testing this out for yourself, here are my tips:
Those are the basics. However, with hindsight there are three other things I would do:
Finally, if you can go the extra length, join me in taking one more step: help one other person to do the same. They may be someone who has no confidence in writing a simple letter, may never have voted, has little understanding of the web and don’t feel that they are ever listened to anyway. Mentor them and help them craft the letter, teach them the rudiments of blogging and support them through the process. In other words give them a voice and with it the tools and confidence to speak out. Then when you have done all that, ask them to share what they have learned with one other person in turn.
My blog is here: http://mymp4truro.wordpress.com/
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