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Libertine Live: Kirsty McNeill

Campaigner and former Downing Street advisor Kirsty McNeill gave us a comprehensive tour of the political landscape at our first Libertine Live event, which left everyone weirdly optimistic about the future

Barack Obama’s 2012 win is mostly attributed to a demographic of voters known as the Rising American Electorate: unmarried women, people of colour, and young voters aged 18-29.

While Obama inspired this demographic to turn out in huge numbers – collectively, these voters made up nearly half of the 2012 electorate according to national exit poll estimates – the exact opposite seems to have happened over here in the UK. “I call it the shrinking British electorate”, Kirsty said last night, a phenomenon which ties into three big politics trends: dislocation, or the widespread feeling of having no solid ground to stand on (think young people and the housing crisis), distrust of authority figures and institutions, and disruption, one indicator of which is shorter leadership cycles. “People get pushed out of positions of power much quicker.”

What’s more, there are glaring disparities in the kinds of people who are registered to vote. In 2010, ethnic minorities were three times less likely to be registered to vote than white Britons. A 2015 study commissioned by Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman revealed that 9.1 million women didn’t turn out in the last election. Only 63% of people who live in rented accommodation are registered. Universities no longer automatically register students; parents can’t register on behalf of their children, which some analysts believe resulted in one million people dropping off the register.

It makes sense that people who don’t see themselves reflected in parliament might be discouraged from politics altogether. We might be looking at the most diverse parliament ever in terms of gender, age and race regardless of who comes to power, Kirsty said, but it will be the least diverse in terms of ideas – which means the spectrum of opinion is less likely to be represented. So how do you transform this frustration into action and unprecedented voter turnout, as in the Obama 2012 election, instead of passive apathy?

Aside from the failings of our politicians, one subject of debate revolved around the ways that our politicians are framed in our media. Freedom of the press is a keystone of democracy in our society, but in fixating on holding people accountable for their mistakes, is the media overly focussed on ripping people apart – to the point that it’s reinforcing a kind of paralytic cynicism that doesn’t get us anywhere? US-based Solutions Journalism Network and other efforts to combat a post-Watergate society were brought up: initiatives that are trying to teach journalists how to report on solutions and progress instead of focussing on the flaws.

There were arguments on both sides. Transparency is integral to our society, some said, and the sheer amount of privilege in parliament means we need a vociferous press that’s free to criticise and counterbalance the levels of power in office. But the gutter press is obsessed with scandal and people’s personal lives, others argued, when policy and efficiency are what count.

By and large, Kirsty managed to make us feel optimistic about our politicians – a great feat given the cynicism and satire we’re exposed to. Former Downing Street advisor Kirsty said they’re mostly decent people who do commit to their manifestos, citing the Lib Dem tuition fees scandal as atypical. Fact-checking sites are on the up, so you can see for yourself who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.

A major cause for skepticism in the UK was the expenses scandal – but as Jon Stewart joked, greedy politicians claiming on bath plugs is nothing compared to the level of corruption in the US. Not that that makes it ok, exactly. But, you know, it could be worse.

So even if you’re committed to apathy, make it informed apathy. The tools are out there. Verto was introduced to us last night: a new app that’s trying to increase political engagement with a Tinder-inspired user interface. Here are Kirsty’s tips for those wanting to find out more:

For big ideas

Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians, Adam Swift – for learning about political ideas – freedom, social justice, equality – and what they really mean.

For policy – co-founded by Kirsty, ShouldWe crowdsources arguments for and against public policy. Because “if someone is on the other side of the argument, you should try and understand the evidence they’re evaluating”, she said.

For personalities

Morning Briefing Politics, The Telegraph – for those interested in the personal side of politics.

Libertine Live is a series of events hosted monthly at The Trouble Club. Our next event is Sex in the Digital Age on June 2nd; get your tickets here.


If someone is on the other side of the argument, you should try and understand the evidence they're evaluating



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