I haven't been blogging over the last few days, ironically because I was at an internet conference.
If you were on Twitter this week you'll probably have grown tired of the #nethui hashtag, unless you were also at the NetHui conference. I don 't really want to talk much about the event, since that's being done by others much better than I could.
But from a political perspective there were a couple of interesting points for me (actually there were plenty of legal issues discussed that cross into the political, like the TPPA, but we'll but those aside for the time being).
The first point I want to make is one about politicians, and how they interact with attendees at these sorts of events. On Thursday the conference heard keynote speeches from Steven Joyce and David Shearer. While there were some sharp contrasts between the two (Joyce spoke about nothing in particular but did so well, and Shearer talked about "big picture" stuff but without much focus and with at best a "workmanlike" delivery), they were united in thinking that the internet was a good idea. Thanks for your contribution, guys.
I know it's too much to expect a minister or party leader to announce a bold new policy initiative in every speech, but the audience of 500 or so smart people in the tech field might have expected a slightly more nuanced message than "yeah, isn't the internet a great thing?"
I also appreciate that it's too early for Labour to be putting out too much specific policy, because that's not usually what opposition parties do this far out from an election. But Labour's communications must be focused, relevant, and on-message. David Shearer may not be a gifted orator (although he is slowly improving), but an average speaker who has something to say and who is on point can still be effective.
I'm reasonably upbeat about Labour's election prospects in 2014, because the polls are showing a slow but steady trend in favour of the centre-left, and at present National has few solid coalition prospects. The political vampire that is ACT looks almost certain to suffer final eradication come 2014, Peter Dunne's future is anything but certain, and the Maori Party is held together by a couple of personalities who must be thinking about retirement.
So a Labour-Green government in 2014 is looking like a better than even chance, based on where things stand at present. But does that mean Labour doesn't need to worry about its sometimes inconsistent messaging, and its leader's penchant for rambling speeches about innovation and the "knowledge economy"?
I would argue that it isn't enough just to win in 2014. If Labour wants a genuine mandate to undertake reforms such as those David Cunliffe has been advocating, it needs to win well. Ideally that means a Labour-Greens coalition, not slowed or blocked by the conservative tendencies of a Peter Dunne or a Winston Peters. To achieve this Labour needs to win back those voters who stayed at home in 2008 and 2011. That means appealing to all the young people who just don't care about politics, and giving them a reason to care.
And this is really the second point that the NetHui conference made me think about. In one of today's barcamp sessions one participant raised the possibility of online voting in local elections, as a means of possibly encouraging more people to vote. The issue turned to a discussion about voter engagement generally, in relation to both local and general elections, and the view around the room was that technological changes had the potential to make it easier for younger people to participate.
I'm not against electronic voting in principle (assuming various security and privacy issues can be addressed adequately), but to me it felt as if some participants thought the current voting method was a major turn off for people. However, I think this underestimates the widespread lack of engagement by the young in relation to our political processes. It's popular for those who are politically engaged to point the finger at the apathy and self-indulgence of Gen-Y'ers, but I don't buy this. Why should young people vote for politicians who continue to display indifference, if not outright hostility, towards them?
If I were 18 and allowed to vote for the first time, I would really struggle to find a reason to vote for either Labour or National, and I would probably either vote for the Greens or stay home altogether. Both National and Labour have done little to foster the youth vote, or to make themselves relevant to the young. National seems to regard our young as a burden rather than our future, while Labour fails to practice what it preaches. Where are the young people in Labour's leadership?
When Labour published its party list for the 2011 election, it awarded lowly rankings to most of its rising young stars, while at the same time securing for the next three years many of those MPs from the "old Labour" that voters rejected in 2008. The evidence suggests that at least some of the longest-serving of those MPs have become institutionalised, and no, I won't name names, and I am not inviting people to speculate as to whom I am referring.
Some folk at the barcamp session I went to suggested that a mandatory voting system was a potential answer, as if forcing young people to the ballot box would somehow make them more engaged. I'm not a fan of compulsion when it comes to democracy, because choosing not to vote is as much a rational decision as voting for a particular party or candidate. Focusing on things like mandatory voting just avoids having to deal with the real reasons why people don't vote. If people aren't voting it's probably because what's been put in front of them gives them no reason to bother. Forcing people to vote when they would prefer not to doesn't solve the disengagement problem.
Labour has always talked about being the party of the workers, the poor, the struggling, and the have-nots. In Labour's mind it is a progressive party that has the future of the country and its people at heart, and that National are content to just continue doing much the same thing as before. This should in theory attract the young to Labour, but the young are not getting the message. I don't want to get into issues about whether it's a packaging issue, or whether the problem is in the substance of Labour's policy platform, but a problem exists.
I don't claim to have all of the answers. In any case, I'm just an opinionated blogger who has been a member of the Labour Party for only a year. I wish I could call myself young, but a rather major milestone looms for me, so I won't claim to know what those young 'uns want out of their politicians. The only people who know are the young. They need to be recruited, and they need to be promoted, and they need to be consulted at every level of decision-making within the party. Alternatively, we just keep doing the same things we've been doing for years, and see if that turns out any different.