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Vote for Policies at Birkbeck. Can the internet change voting?



Vote for Policies gathered inspirational speakers and more than 100 delegates at Birkbeck on the 24th March to discuss whether the internet can change the way we think about politics, specifically the choice between policies and personalities? The views were diverse and the debate excellent.

Vote for Policies founder Matt Chocqueel-Mangan opened proceedings with his own story of how he became engaged in politics and what inspired him to create Vote for Policies in the 2010 general election. Having read all the party manifestoes he decided to create a website that allowed people to more easily compare and contrast party policies so that they could make informed choices at election time.

His own background in technology led him to the conclusion that people weren’t engaged in policies not because of their own failure but because the system is broken. A technologist doesn’t blame the user (voter) if they can’t use the system (politics), they blame usability (elections).

The panel was chaired by Emran Mian, of the Social Market Foundation, and on the panel were Birkbeck reader in politics Dr Rosie Campbell, John Curtice professor of politics at Strathclyde University, Former University of Newcastle Students’ Union President, Vote for Policies crowd funder and entrepreneur Laura Perry, and prolific political blogger and academic Sunny Hundal. Quite a panel.

Each panellist addressed the debate’s subject in different ways with a polite divide between the academics, who saw our institutions as functional but flawed, and Laura who was keen to delete the system and start again.

Rosie gave us the ideal model of citizens armed with facts making rational choices, but using shortcuts such as a politician’s charisma to inform that decision. Vote for Policies was a way into policies as a policy ‘shopping list‘-style of decision-making as ‘not a good thing’ where politics is more about compromise and a basket of policies.

John challenged the premise that personality-based voting is necessarily uninformed voting. In reality, rather than creating more rational choices, the internet amplifies personality. Fundamentally elections are not just about the policy platform of the parties but our belief in the leading politicians’ competence, ability to communicate and negotiate on a national and international stage. He made the excellent point that the an election is about putting trust in someone who can handle an “unknown unknown” in the future, such as a crisis with Russia or another banking crash.

Laura gave the young voters’ perspective. They’re less willing to follow parents or be loyal to one party during their lifetime. Politicians seem inaccessible to most young people and the mainstream media has their own agenda, mainly about maintaining their own influence. To Laura a tool like Vote for Policies allowed her to “get by the spin” and read the parties’ policies in their own words. She then described our current system as crazy, arguing that if you were going to create a political system on a blank sheet of paper you wouldn’t create what you have.

One of her more interesting asides was a dip into technology and big data, and her puzzlement that parties weren’t using the technology available to more accurately target messages at specific groups, which led to the first dissent on the panel. Rosie felt that would be a sad development as politics was about not just our own needs, but the needs of the country.

Sunny opened with the insight that rational debate and politics rarely go hand in hand. He powerfully argued that politics is not driven by rational choices but emotional connection – our “gut feeling”. We reject facts that don’t fit our own narrative and project our own stories onto politicians as we did in 1997 with Blair and the Americans did in 2008 with Obama. He suggested that our politicians are stuck in the era of mainstream press dissemination and ignoring new technology which would allow more engagement with policies. He also made the debatable point that “most people get their information through social media.

Questions from the floor followed and there was a clear view from some of the audience that technology allowed for more direct democracy. This was challenged by Rosie and John with the rebuttal that direct democracy can lead to dystopia – the tyranny of the majority rather than the wisdom of the crowd. The idea of a direct online democracy caused even more concern with the risk that it isn’t the people who decide but a section of the people who decide. The majority of online activity in Scotland supported independence, but voters backed the Union.

Rosie pointed out that many issues were more complicated that a simple yes-no vote and Sunny gave the example of California where people vote for contradictory things such as more public spending and lower taxes.

John gave an excellent argument on why the three main parties are failing with a simple exercise. If you write a paragraph for each of the parties in the next election that explains the vision each party would like to create. This would relatively easy for the Greens, UKIP and SNP, but much harder for Labour, the Conservatives and LibDems. They don’t have a narrative, despite the evidence being they are more different that any election in the last twenty years.

Dr Ben Worthy summarised the debate saying that policies and personalities are bound together. Obama and Google crunched the data now available to win the last two elections, and Vote for Policies puts those tools in our hands. We do live in a new digital and political landscape and the internet amplifies the good and the bad of the current system. The internet is disruptive and part of the political ecosystem now, but it is still in its infancy. At this stage with the printing press there had been no reformation or schisms.

The one word that didn’t come up in concerns about personalities was demagogue – a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. The politics of a popular personality has worrying precedents in human history. The examples of politicians who distort facts (or lie) to suit their narrative, use a supportive media to create a public image that belies extreme political ideology or ignore firm policy commitments once in office are numerous and rising.

We need to make informed choices at elections, but we also need root and branch reform of our electoral system rather than a vote every five years.

You can use the Vote for Policies survey here or access their 2010 data here.

Photo: Khairil Zhafri via Flickr

Further reading:

If public vote for policies, not personalities, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage could lose

Vote for Policies crowdfunding to support ‘sustainable democracy’

If we voted for policies at elections, and not parties, the results might surprise us all

The people’s manifesto

The Guide to Sustainable Democracy 2014

Simon Leadbetter is the founder and publisher of Blue & Green Tomorrow. He has held senior roles at Northcliffe, The Daily Telegraph, Santander, Barclaycard, AXA, Prudential and Fidelity. In 2004, he founded a marketing agency that worked amongst others with The Guardian, Vodafone, E.On and Liverpool Victoria. He sold this agency in 2006 and as Chief Marketing Officer for two VC-backed start-ups launched the online platform Cleantech Intelligence (which underpinned the The Guardian’s Cleantech 100) and StrategyEye Cleantech. Most recently, he was Marketing Director of Emap, the UK’s largest B2B publisher, and the founder of Blue & Green Communications Limited.


How Going Green Can Save A Company Money



going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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