The Isle of Wight might not spring to mind as a cradle of democratic evolution, but if things go well in the weeks running up to the May elections, then it might just be at the vanguard of a new model of voter engagement.
On the Island, a project has been instigated and a small team assembled to run online hustings for each of the 39 seats that are being contested at the upcoming local elections
. The meetings will be tightly scripted Q and A sessions with questions designed to quiz the candidates on competence and vision.
There will not be any ‘trick’ questions nor any that may be perceived as having party political bias. They will be run with the utmost impartiality so that all participating candidates and the viewing public are assured that the exercise is being conducted for purely democratic reasons.
Once the 39 sessions are recorded all will be uploaded to YouTube for residents to view. We want voters to be able to listen to their local candidates talk about local issues, in an easy, accessible online format, so everyone can make an informed decision come voting day.
Currently there are three actors in the electoral process: the authorities who run them, the candidates who run in them and the voters who put pencil to paper marking their choice. IsleVote21 are positioning themselves as a fourth actor – impartial citizen-led democratic facilitators.
The traditional modus operandi for political campaigning has been radically wrong-footed by the pandemic, with door-to-door canvassing out of the question and the advisability of volunteer leafleting still unknown. In parallel, the last year has seen a transformation in people’s use of digital media to connect and communicate. This has turbocharged the shift to video conferencing, so we are comfortable that the medium is not too exclusive.
The project has four distinct phases. The first was to assemble a team of hosts who are willing to give up some time for the exercise, which was a case of asking friends and casting the net further with some coverage in the local press. Secondly there is a need to attract the candidates, which so far has proven easy: I have had enthusiastic feedback and commitments to participate from a range of candidates. Thirdly, the team will need to pull off 39 online meetings in three days without hiccup, and get them uploaded for public viewing. Lastly, we need to drive traffic to our website and onwards to the YouTube channel so that residents can make a better-informed choice about who will represent them for the next four years.
So far, the project has consumed about twenty hours of personal time, and this might increase to a hundred. But I will be greatly satisfied if voter numbers are up, and even more importantly if the public start to feel that they have made a well-informed choice over and above the blurb on a leaflet, and if we can reverse the corrosive trend of declining trust in politics.