Every vote counts: social themes on the political agenda
In Belgium voting is compulsory. Nevertheless, more and more people choose not to vote. This means that the voices of socially weaker groups tend to fade away, unless civil society organisations take conscious steps to put social themes at the top of the political agenda. This is exactly what was done during recent elections in Flanders.
Weak voices during election season
In election season, it is often the strongest that prevail: prominent politicians are given the most airtime, while organisations that represent major economic interests gain privileged access to political party HQs. This also means that the needs and voices of socially weaker groups tend to fade into the background – unless civil society organisations take conscious steps to put social themes at the top of the political agenda. This is exactly what they did during recent elections in the Belgian region of Flanders, under the campaign banner ‘Every Vote Counts’. The aim was to influence the political and public debate by working with people in socially vulnerable positions. The campaign instruments included policy proposals, lobbying, press conferences and a website reminding the public that ‘voting is not a game’.
In the words of the organisers themselves: “Every Vote Counts is a participatory project offering socially vulnerable groups a megaphone in the run-up to elections. People in socially vulnerable circumstances help to devise policy proposals that are essential in the fight against poverty and social exclusion.” The campaign thus aims to create more room in public debate for citizens who are in a weaker position in socio-economic terms. These are also the people who are most likely to turn away from politics, who don’t turn out to vote and who feel abandoned by politicians.
The community perspective
This is confirmed by Ilse Hackethal, the director of Samenlevingsopbouw, a community development organisation which was one of the driving forces behind the campaign: “Community, youth and welfare workers come across situations like these all the time; people who believe that politicians have nothing to offer them. Surveys show that a quarter of the electorate failed to vote in 2012. In Borgerhout, where I live, as many as 35% of those entitled to vote did not do so. Which pains me. Because this means that some of the people standing with me in the morning queue at the baker’s, mums and dads at the school gate, young people at the tram stop, some of my neighbours, etc. are not politically represented.
“Every day in the town where I live and work, I notice that there are still widespread disparities between people. Not everyone lives in a decent, affordable house with enough bedrooms for their children, not all young people are gaining qualifications in areas that suit them, not everyone manages to find their way through all the red tape. To tackle issues like these, it remains vital for ‘ordinary people’ to keep raising their points with politicians. Whether it’s about cycling safety, affordable housing, a school for their children: their vote does count. It does make a difference.
“Based on our own and our partners’ development work, we believe it is important for people to make their voices heard, to roll up their sleeves and to band together to seek solutions to their problems. To become more active and responsible, but in relation to politics. With the ‘every vote counts’ project, several different organisations took a joint initiative to bridge the gap between politics and people’s reality. And they succeeded.”
Taking action for change
Sound theoretical? It had at least one immediate, tangible result: at electoral debates with party leaders held in 13 cities, the halls were thronged with people from different backgrounds and walks of life who would never normally have attended such an event. People from socially vulnerable groups made careful preparations, had their say, and put forward their policy priorities.
Samenlevingsopbouw sets itself the aim of “supporting and strengthening vulnerable groups so that they can draw on their own resources to find solutions to problems that affect them locally”. To this end, the organisation worked with over 200 other local partners in Flanders. They interviewed over 8,000 people, speaking to groups that usually ignore mainstream politics and often see politicians as beyond their reach. Based on these interviews, they drew up a memorandum on social topics with solidarity and redistribution as its key words.
Memorandum in hand, they approached party HQs and local candidates arguing, amongst other things, for a fair and transparent tax system that ensures that the strongest shoulders bear the heaviest burden. The campaigners believe that state-collected funds should be invested in accessible, high-quality basic facilities for all, in sustainable, worthwhile jobs, in education as a lever against social exclusion, in decent, affordable housing for all, and in accessible health care.
Changing politicians’ perspectives
Actively approaching politicians means that professionals and volunteers alike can confront them with problems that they never or rarely experience in their own lives: how do I manage on benefits? How many Pampers does a two-year-old need every month? Can we afford little gifts to hand out at school? How can you supervise children’s homework while living in cramped conditions? For the volunteers posing the questions, it was quite an experience. They found that the politicians who take decisions on important matters of social policy were equally at a loss when it came to making decisions that the volunteers faced on a daily basis.
Another important tool was the website ‘Voting is not a game’. This invited voters to find out more about the social challenges to be tackled after the elections. The site used photos to gauge how much visitors knew about the social problems in their country. It also provided information about the solutions put forward in the memorandum and those proposed by the political parties. Visitors were able to vote for social policies by posting selfies on the website.
Finally, visible action (including a tented camp) was used to highlight sticking points such as the issue of high rents. Specific messages were communicated: for example, for rents to be truly ‘affordable’, people should be spending no more than a third of their incomes on housing.
In conclusion: the ‘Every Vote Counts’ campaign shows that people from vulnerable social groups are keen to be involved in elections if they feel that they are being taken seriously and that their input is sought and appreciated. And, for politicians, it represents a unique opportunity to establish a productive dialogue with groups that they would otherwise find hard to reach.