By Dr Matthew Wall (Senior Lecturer in Politics, Swansea University)
One of the real pleasures of my work is that it affords me a licence to talk to people about politics. To be honest, if I wasn’t making a living from it, I’d be doing it anyway for free. In this post, I’d like to tell you about a brilliant weekend I spent discussing politics and policy with members of the public at the Oriel Science museum space on Prince’s Street in Swansea in the run-up to June’s general election and to explain how my CHERISH project helped me to assemble the technology, materials and personnel to make this happen.
I’ve been involved over the years in developing analysing and refining a technology known as a ‘Voter Advice Application’ (VAA for short). It’s fairly typical of academics to come up with such a cumbersome name for a relatively simple concept. With VAAs, the idea is that you answer a series of questions about the political debates of the day and then you are provided with a ‘match’ output that tells you how well your opinions line up with the policy positions of parties or candidates competing in an election. The concept originated in the Netherlands, and, before coming to Swansea, I spent 18 months as a Marie Curie Fellow working in Amsterdam with Kieskompas – one of the major innovators in creating VAA sites around the world.
As academics do, I thought critically about just what VAAs are designed to do, and how they could be improved. This led me to notice a couple of shortcomings that would lead to my CHERISH-DE project. Firstly, VAAs tend to be taken in isolation, with little in the way of context and, while there is research indicating that many VAA users do discuss their experience, this is not stitched into the process systematically. Secondly, a major problem of trying to engage the public with politics is that VAA users tend to already be politically interested – in a sense we have a problem of ‘preaching to the converted’.
These insights lead me to work with Dr Stephen Lindsay and my contacts at Kieskompas in putting together a successful bid to CHERISH-DE’s ‘Escalator’ fund for a project that would use VAAs to initiate and structure political conversation – and we decided that we should target this at the demographic with the lowest level of political engagement – those under 18. We worked with Kieskompas to create a bespoke website for young people and came up with a series of understandable policy statements that would highlight how the major parties differ in terms of their ideas such as ‘Wales should aim to become an independent country’ or ‘The voting age should be lowered to 16’. We then did a series of interviews with the policy officers of the major parties to ascertain their parties’ stances on these issues. You can see the Welsh parties’ stances on the ‘independent country’ question below.
In order to use this tool to create immersive political discussions, we printed a series of astroturf mats that represent the possible positions on each statement – ranging from ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’. With these mats laid out in front of the projected image from the website – we invite participants to ‘stand where you stand’ – which brings the concept of a ‘political space’ into being as a tangible reality. We use this as a starting point for a structured political conversation – where people are asked to ‘visit’ others standing in different positions to discuss and explain their stance. We’ve visited several schools with this project – and I have found funding for a PhD student, James Andrews, who is investigating whether these structured discussions can help to engage young people in politics.
When I heard of the Oriel Science project and with the election coming up, I thought that this would be an ideal opportunity to take my research to the public. The staff and organisers at Oriel were wonderful to work with – they helped me to create a ‘politics corner’ in their space with a projector and the mats as you can see in the image below. We had a steady stream of interested participants – with the election in the air politics was very much on peoples’ minds. We had some lively (but always friendly debates) about the issues on display – and the exhibition received some fantastic feedback, including: “The science of voting is what I enjoyed most about my visit today.”; “The voting workshop was great inside the venue”; “The voting workshop made me consider more things”.
Oriel Science let me bring my work to the people of Swansea right in the heart of the city centre – and ultimately gave me an excuse to do what I like best – talk politics!