By Charlotte Snelling, PhD Candidate in Politics
How can election campaigns remain relevant and effective? How may they adapt to engage our youngest electors? and what wider engagement strategies – employed either by parties or other organisations – might be needed or able to support this? These are just a few of the questions that will be explored at a
one-day mini conference being held on the 18th October 2013 by the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Research Group at Edinburgh University. It aims to bring early career researchers, established academics, and practitioners together to examine the challenges election campaigning is facing and looks likely to face in the 21st Century.
Turnout in many countries has been declining throughout the post-war period, a trend which is especially marked amongst young people. This has been seen as cause for concern by both scholars and policy makers alike. Debate exists as to whether this represents a true crisis of democracy — the Norrises and Daltons of this world suggest individuals are rather changing the ways in which they participate politically as opposed to rejecting politics altogether — but there appears a general feeling that electoral participation needs encouragement to ensure fair and equal representation across the electorate. With partisan attachment and class-based loyalties also being considered in some quarters to be increasingly a thing of the past, election campaigns are arguably finding themselves with more work to do than ever before if they are to attract and mobilise the public. Exacerbating these issues, an age of new media and growing internet use means parties now compete with a wide range of other distractions in trying to win voters’ attention and have a large number of platforms upon which to campaign.
With increased discussion on extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, and in Scotland the decision already taken to apply this rule to the independence referendum in 2014, there is even further reason for parties today to reconsider how they campaign — both their methods and messages. It is not just in the UK that these debates are happening; there are many possibilities for cross-country discussions and learning.
This conference seeks to facilitate discussions between the many academics focussing on this field, but also with policy makers, practitioners, and social researchers working outside of universities. As an everyday reality for many of these groups – political parties as well as democratic engagement and education organisations – there is much academia can learn from talking to practitioners and finding out how they themselves interpret and understand the challenges they face.
Equally, it is important to talk with young people directly to explore how they perceive election campaigns and what they feel would mobilise them into turning out. Alongside this however, academia has something to offer practitioners, from its insight into research methodologies which can inform campaigns to the presentation of the findings from cutting edge research projects. In an academic environment increasingly concerned with knowledge exchange and the wider impact of research, we wanted to hold a conference which would support this process.
In particular, the conference aims to engage with PhD students and early career researchers to support them in communicating their research to both academic and non-academic audiences. The event itself will clearly be an opportunity for the two groups to come together but we are hoping it will be just the start of the dialogue encouraging researchers to think about how they can interact and make their work relevant in the current socio-political context.
The conference will be structured across three sessions. The first sees postgraduate and early career researchers presenting their fresh perspectives in a traditional conference panel. The second and third are roundtable sessions led by a range of academic and practitioner panels, one looking at wider campaigning challenges and the second a focused discussion on the referendum on Scottish independence and the involvement of young voters in it. Speakers include Professor Andrew Russell (University of Manchester), Kezia Dugdale MSP, and Matt Korris (The Hansard Society). There will also be presentations from the Scottish Youth Parliament and Electoral Reform Society. We are aiming to attract a diverse range of people and anyone interested in attending can find out more details as well as register for free at https://challengestocampaigning.eventbrite.co.uk/