The Future of Politics is Mutual

sign of the times
Image by Melvinheng on Flickr, shared via a creative commons license.

This is not a post about the things that are wrong with our world. This is a post about how we make them right. Of course it is not exhaustive, and by no means is it intended to be a detailed and flawless solution, in fact it openly admits that fact, because that (you will see) it is the point.

This post is in reaction to many things, but particularly in reaction to the recent #3strikes debate, the actions of Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a recently circulated confirmed rumour that suggests the same minister may have his sights set on the leadership of the Labour party. This is not a party political post, and I do not intend to argue why one man’s leadership would be bad for Labour, instead I intend to suggest that what this man represents is an outdated vision of politics, a vision that is bad for our country, and bad for our democracy.

Our society (and although I will talk more generally, ‘our’ here refers to UK society) is governed. We have democratically elected governments who, on the whole, make decisions and enforce laws with the intention of bettering society. I do not believe that anyone gets involved in politics for any other reason but improving the society they live in. This is the desire of the BNP, just as much as it is the desire of mainstream parties, their vision of a ‘better’ society might be opposed to the majority, but that is why they are not in power. Largely speaking, the party in power is supposed to represent the majority vision of what a better society is, and then strive towards it.

I do not believe that is currently so. Leaving aside first past the post reform and candidate selection, we wholly and entirely do not currently live in a democracy. The power is very much not ‘with the people’.

The Story

When Labour came into power in 1997, it was to the tune of a wholly broken opposition. 18 years of Conservative government had systematically deconstructed all that was of society and replaced it with the ethics of individualism. This was very good for a few, and catastrophic for a many. The many had finally realised. Labour won with more than just promises to renew, however, they won with what was for the first time, politics as marketing. It wasn’t just slogans, it was shiny adverts, they weren’t just promoting the values of the party, they were selling the story of New Labour.

Something else very important happened in 1997. The death of Diana. Others have pointed out before me how this marked an important turning point, not in politics, but in the media. This was the media as story, news not as reporting events, but as representing emotions. The papers spoke as though they spoke for us as they ordered the Queen from Balmoral.

Labour was in power without a credible opposition, and suddenly the press felt powerful. They could move the Queen to action. And someone needed opposing. If it was ‘The Sun Wot Won It’, The Sun could also oppose it.

Story is a very hard thing to fight. It is much older than democracy, much older than society.

That was the beginning of the era of Spin. Labour had ridden into power on a narrative, and the mainstream media had assumed the role of opposition using the same. One proposed a story of a better society, the other claimed to represent the stories (wishes) of the people who lived in it.

You notice how neither of these groups are made up of ‘us’?

This is the politics that politicians such as Peter Mandelson, David Cameron and (yes, even) Boris Johnson represent. (Can you think of a better story than the bumbling fool made good?)

An Information Economy.

Spin is all about distribution. Spin is about controlling the narrative of politics; it is about packaging and marketing your version of events. Spin requires complete control of information.

Spin is not working. Our society has grown out of it. Our country has been made undemocratic because of it. Our politicians do not fear the people, they fear the press. The people do not trust their politicians because the press exposes the antiquated attitudes and secrecy within their ranks. However the Press only constructs an oppositional story, it does not deconstruct it. The press is also not run for anything but the benefit of sales. No matter how well standing the broadsheet, how ubiquitous the tabloid. The mainstream media choose their story, and then they spin their readers and politicians into it.

The internet opposes and undermines that.

We live in an information age. For better or worse that is something that must be accepted. There is a rival economy, and it consists of information, it is a world (democratically, one might say) built of a thousand individual narratives. No one claims to speak for others, if someone is championed, it is because one person had the words that echo with others’. In this context the politics of Peter Mandelson et al will not work. He is a clever man, and I hope clever enough to see that one voice, big business, Spin, the politics of ‘push’, are gone. This is the century of pull, this is the century that politics has to become mutual.


Well, everything needs a title doesn’t it? (/a hashtag).

I have blogged before about how I don’t believe in apathy, but I do believe in disengagement. I believe that British politics is due a reformation. I believe that we can demand that. Are you bored of the tone of the Labour government? Do you really believe that a Tory one will be different? Are you looking for a protest vote? A voice? You will not currently find it at the ballots.

What is Wikipolitics?

It is a starting point. It takes the open-source ethic and applies it to government. I don’t propose that we edit policy documents. I do believe that parliament should be opened up, demystified, and the power taken back. How do we do this? We’ve already started, look at projects such as Louder, 38 degrees, look at the Trafigura backlash, the Iran election, the G20 protests.

We now live in a world where we construct our own media consumption, where we pull together, build our own stories. Politics and the mainstream media are clinging on to old methods of distribution and delivery.

Whilst still acknowledging that at least 2/3 of the world does not have access to the internet (the UK figure is something like 30%, with a further 7-8% only having narrowband access – source) and those who do are likely to be from more affluent, developed backgrounds, we also need to be aware that instant publishing and access to our own media channels is incredibly empowering.

We also need to pull ourselves out of the luxury of political disempowerment. It is our responsibility to be involved in politics. If it is not one with which we wish to be involved, then we need to change it.

Reformation, Reclamation.

We need to tell our parties: “Arm your backbenchers with Flips, with Audioboo, with simple wordpress websites. Open up. Work in real-time. And don’t be afraid. We know you are, we know you are worried that you will be criticised, pulled apart, but please remember that although it has not been so before, that is what we mean by democracy. That is the open-source ethic. Let us participate”.

This worked for Obama, he brought the US the highest election turnout in a century. But then he stopped. And that where it’s gone wrong. That’s when Murdoch took back over.

The mainstream media has characterised us as a pack of baying wolves. The politicians have been characterised as lying snakes and fat cats. 2/3 people believe they cannot affect decision making. Trafigura, Jan Moir, proves we can. How about we take that to the rest of politics? How about we build our own wiki-guide to how we want to be engaged with, how we want to ask questions of the policy makers, of the parties? How about we offer a route that bypasses the mainstream media – taking honest debate and mobile video on the campaign trail, introducing them to the modern realities outside the political bubble, having a conversation, rather than being delivered a speech. You may argue that there’s no point in participating in a broken system, but how else are people to know how to fix it?

Because this is important. As it currently stands it would take as many years to get women equal representation, as it would a snail to crawl the length of the Great Wall of China. As it currently stands we are bickering and buying our way to climate disaster. As it currently stands we live lifestyles of excess and complete unsustainability. And for all our excess, are we happy? Or are we to some degree living the lives and values that are sold to us – other peoples’ stories?

We are facing a hyper-connected, global village era, politics cannot continue to be its own island.

This is not a manifesto, it is a call to arms. And this is where I stop, because this is a story, too. It’s a story about us, but it’s still my version. We need to write an ending together. How can we open up the political process? What do we want to know? Do we think there should be more experts involved in policy making? Do we want to see cabinet meetings taking questions from Twitter? What tools can we offer? Comment. Engage. This is up to all of us. What can we build? (We have the technology). Go.

— Hannah Nicklin is a brightly coloured and basically nocturnal playwright, blogger, academic and geek. She normally lives over at, and is @hannahnicklin on Twitter.

Wisdom from the Tao Te Ching

I can’t remember if my last big shift in thinking came when I first read the Tao, or when I read The Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be. They were certainly the last two books to really mess with my head, in a good way. Actually, no, Girlfriend In A Coma by Douglas Coupland was, but that was more of an inspiration than a paradigm shift…

Anyway, reading the Tao (specifically this translation– though I really didn’t like the commentary in it… partisan and petty, in direct constrast to the main text!) caused a sea-change in much of my thinking, confirmed much of what I was doing as a teacher, and gave stronger impetus to many other fledgling ideas about pedagogy and the world in general.

So, when the lovely Nick Fitzsimons set up a Posterous account to post the 81 stanzas of the Tao across the last 81 days of the ’00s, I started reading it again. And here I am, sat on a train, being reminded again of its timeless radical wisdom, reading words that make sense of so much of the nonsense of the world.

Highly recommended. head over to to read more. Take your time, read one a day, and perhaps read it 3 or 4 times during the day. Much deep goodness is to be found 🙂

Post-Tour Musings

Well, for those familiar with my previous post you’ll know that I just finished the second of three tours across Europe with the blues-rock band I play bass for. Many exciting things went down from playing a 5 hour gig to a packed out audience to playing to an audience so indifferent I’m fairly certain they weren’t even aware we existed, all with the odd rock and roll story I’m sure I’ll be still telling mates about in the pub months from now.

But what was by far the most interesting to me was how all this constant gigging affected my playing. I tend to manage a semi-regular gigging/rehearsal schedule with other musicians but in the weeks leading up to the tour most of my efforts were focused on nailing the tunes for the tour, not really having time for much else so to actually realise these tunes in a gigging situation was something fun.

First was the fact that I didn’t know the tunes anywhere near as well as I thought I did, as soon as I got a chance after the first few gigs I buckled down with my ipod and ran through everything again, really trying to get inside them. That helped a bit, but it still took quite some time before I managed to be comfortable with most of the songs, still not quite there but I don’t think we’re far off.

Outside of the tunes themselves, my playing in general has become exponentially better in the last 7 weeks, I feel much more confident about attempting things that I maybe wasn’t so before, and everything in general seems much more solid and confident than it was before I left. It’s also given me a lot of flaws I’ve noticed that I can now buckle down and hone over the three weeks I have before the next set of dates, mostly rhythm exercises that I seem to have neglected far too much in the past.

But anything that can push me to do more is got to be a good thing. I’ve never seen the point in not being bothered to learn something more, what’s the worst can happen? Of course, it’s a bit of a blow to the ego to realise you’re not as good as you maybe thought you were but if you can overcome that and do more, then that’s just spiffy. 🙂

As for the road life, well that’s a different kettle of fish all together. The drummer for the last tour decided he couldn’t handle most of the day in a van, only to be faced with the prospect of hauling some gear around for the next hour, and so decided to leave the group. But all this comes with the territory, and if that’s what it’s done to my playing then I think that’s definately a fair trade off.

Together We’re Louder – Campaigning In the 21st Century

Everything has changed. And the more things change, the more they stay the same. Every time a new technology comes along, its success is largely governed by the level to which it helps us to do what we’ve always wanted to do, but have previously been unable to do properly – or at least as well – because the tools didn’t exist to do it.

For charities and campaigners, the opportunities afforded by ‘the social web’ are so massively game-changing that it’s hard to even consider the possibilities without throwing all the cards up in the air and starting again.

Previously, campaign information was distributed via either broadcast OR conversation – conversations were constrained by location, and broadcast brings with it the same problems it does anywhere else – it’s

  • expensive
  • wasteful
  • impossible to track
  • difficult to nuance
  • time-limited
  • platform specific

and all in all a MASSIVE gamble.

But now we have an entire way of thinking about the internet that’s built around ‘shared sociability’ – this ‘Web 2.0’ thing everyone’s been banging on about for the last few years.

So campaigners and charity organisers have the chance to

  • re-engage those amazing minds they were previously shouting at via a newletter
  • let the subject of the campaign speak for itself via video, photos and audio
  • update interested parties hourly rather than monthly or quarterly
  • let your supporters BE the campaign rather than just fund it
  • track ACTUAL engagement statistics, and follow the progress of any element of the campaign.
  • share information, strategy, materials and supporters amongst a network of connected campaigns.

How does that sound? Awesome, that’s how it sounds.

The cost of paper mail-outs is astronomical, adverts in magazines and on TV are an horrific waste of charity money in an age when there are alternatives, and being able to document every face-to-face event you hold and share it FOR FREE with those outside the charity increases the impact of those events by a factor of 10.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is just how huge a shift this is for most organisations – if your entire infrastructure and methodology is about justifying then implementing a marketing strategy that will hopefully fund whatever your campaign is, inform people and motivate them, but which is very expensive and has no guarantees, then suddenly discovering that there’s a world of interested, connected, motivated and resourced people out there happy to talk about what you do and share your information freely with their friends, as well as DO the stuff of the campaign requires a pretty cataclysmic volte face.

Which is where comes in.

The social web is such a massive area now, that coming to it late can seem hugely daunting. So the NCVO have put together a site that’s designed to make co-ordinating the web-side of a campaign easier.

It will:

  • help aggregate all the content
  • keep supporters and activists up to date
  • pull other people’s campaign ideas and content into one central place,
  • and – crucially – provide instruction, tips, help and support in how all this works, both from the NCVO themselves and fellow travelers on the journey to a better world.

The site is currently in Beta testing stage – it’s launched this Friday, but will still be developing for a long time yet – but it’s there, it’s growing, and it’s available to you to use and play with from Friday.

Possibly the single biggest global impact of the social web is what it’s done to charitable and political engagement. We can stay informed, we can be heard, we can be a part of something bigger. Because, as the site strap-line says, ‘Together We’re Louder.’


What’s my involvement, you ask? I was invited to the pre-launch event some months ago, at which the idea was put out there for the site. I asked a lot of questions, made a lot of comments and was then hired for a few days to help plan the site and define the range of tools. If 50% of what we’re hoping for ends up being possible, it’s going to be a truly awesome resource.

Bandcamp Directory For The Stevie-Connected

You may or may not have seen my post this morning about Bandcamp over at

Since posting it, I’ve had lots of tweets from friends whose music is on it, so let’s start a directory of entries – post a link to your bandcamp page in the comments, with a little bit of info about you and your connection to me (just so it doesn’t become a music-spam-fest – there’s no special criteria for being included, other than some kind of link – twitter-friends, gig buddies, blog readers etc… all are fine 🙂 ) and I’ll grab the embed code from your site and add it here, creating a little online shop 🙂

here are my 3 bandcamp albums so far:

<a href="">Blue Planet by Steve Lawson</a>

<a href="">Grace And Gratitude by Steve Lawson</a>

<a href="">No More Us And Them by Steve Lawson</a>

and here are the first of the embeds from the comments:

<a href="">Mute Signals by Riverblind</a>

<a href="">Should have learned by Paul Bell</a>

<a href="">perfect by Tim Eveleigh</a>

<a href="">Boy at Heart by Boy at Heart</a>

<a href="">Under Cover by Freakshow</a>

<a href="">Gathering String by Steven Guerrero</a>

<a href="">Small Pleasures by Mulberry Harbour</a>

<a href="">Ten by Ben Walker</a>

<a href="">Cloudlift by Gustaf Fjelstrom</a>

<a href="">Bashert by Jason Parker Quartet</a>

<a href="">Come Clean (April) by Miriam Jones</a>

<a href="">Too Soon Old by Howlin&#8217; Hobbit</a>

<a href="">Bright Shining Star by Humphreys &amp; Keen</a>

<a href="">Bonecrusher by Kirsty McGee</a>

<a href="">Augun opnast by Menn Ársins</a>

<a href="">Broken Carnival by Asymptotic Taste</a>

<a href="">Upp á himins bláum boga by Sunna Gunnlaugs</a>

<a href="">What Goes Beneath by Russ Sargeant</a>

(while all this has been going on, I’ve uploaded my first album to bandcamp as well: )

<a href="">The Inner Game by Steve Lawson</a>

<a href="">I Have A Very Bad Feeling About This by Shawn Farley</a>

<a href="">No by Darryl Gregory</a>

<a href="">Steve by Atmos Trio</a>

<a href="">Animals Dine With Me by Hope and Social</a>

<a href="">The Rhythm by Caipirinha</a>

<a href="">True Born Miracle by Farleigh</a>

<a href="">Picture Of Us by She Makes War</a>

Sampling vs plagarism

Reading the current flurry of comments on the blog has got me thinking about how music is shared but then I saw in the news yet another band that has been sued for sampling another’s work. Although this is a form of copying rather than redistribution I wonder whether this tight control by the original artist is a sign of a musically secure/mature artist or an insecure/greedy record company. In the past composers often lifted tunes or reworked whole works and it was often a mark of respect to the originator’s skill, now it seems to be taken as theft & an opportunity for money to be made.

To further add to the confusion artists now seem to sue if they hear something even vaguely similar to a tune they wrote. Naturally this trend only appears to be when a lesser known artist hears their motif in the song of a famous band.

This leads to wonder whether
a) composers are too precious about their music
b) If the whole motiv of writing has been taken over by the desire for fame & fortune
c) Modern composers can no longer take a compliment.
d) How many different ways can 12 notes be written to ensure originality each time
e) what’s the chance of two musicians writing similar style of music coming up with a similar tune

Gig Hashtags

Gig Hashtags

Steve recently tweeted: “wonder if there’s a good way of using postcodes, standardized time & airport TLAs to make gig dates searchable on twitter.”

I’m not sure airport TLAs work well – they are biased towards major cities and, if a city is major enough, you then have to pick which airport to focus on. A two letter country code would work just as well, given that you would then want to include a country-specific postcode to zoom in on the action.

In fact, while I like the idea of tagging to add meaning, I’m not sure it is workable in the limited scope of a 140 character tweet. You need a country (two characters), a postcode (in the UK that could just be the first half – 3 or 4 characters), a date (at least 6 characters, eg YYMMDD) and something like #gig to set a context. That is about ten percent of your allowance used up even before you put in specifics, like the name of the town or venue and something to explain what kind of gig it is.

Instead, something like “Playing an #Oxford #gig tomorrow” is concise, easily read and could be backed up with a link to a service like or which provide much more nuanced tools for discovering what is going on.

A weekend among friends

(Or how a sceptic faired at Greenbelt ‘09)

Suddenly two weeks before the event we were going to Greenbelt, a festival that I knew little about, apart from the name. The “we” being my wife Judith and two of my children, Jessie (13) and Rosa (11) and me.

We were camping with members of 3 other families from our village and from the moment we arrived I felt that I was going to have an astonishingly good time. I just hadn’t grasped how good it could be. The mix of thoughtful people, campaigners, music, talks and more on offer looked good before the event. It turned out to be simply inspiring.

A little context may be useful here. I am not a believer in any deity while Greenbelt is firmly in a different place. This has been a recurring theme in my life though. As an active campaigner on a variety of causes over many years I have often found myself in meetings, events and demonstrations alongside the more politically radical elements of different faiths. I have many friends who are believers and have often noted that, apart from a belief in one God or another, my views and theirs were remarkably similar.

One piece of advice I read about Greenbelt was that if you miss what you wanted to go to don’t worry as you will probably see something better anyway. On the Sunday evening I was heading from seeing Duke Special on the main stage towards an event when I decided to drop into “Last Orders” a kind of late night review show. As I arrived Miriam Jones, who is always a pleasure to listen to, was starting a short set. The next couple of hours included comedy, an inspirational talk on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Duke Special again for a couple of numbers on piano and a first glimpse of singer Karen Grace.

Musical highlights of the weekend included Foy Vance doing some astonishing things with a guitar, his voice and a looping machine, the aforementioned Miriam Jones and Duke Special gigs and Calamateur who played a memorable set in the Performance Cafe. Other good things were, in no particular order: the g-source tent which was full of campaigning, charity and organisation stalls, using twitter and social media tools organise meetings and to disseminate content, talking to large numbers of thoughtful people about issues that matter, being able to let two girls aged 11 and 13 and several of their friends have the run of the festival without having to worry for a minute about them. Add to that feeling able to leave 2 video cameras, an iPhone, a DSLR camera and lenses in a tent without fear of theft and you have something that is genuinely unusual and wonderful.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect for me was how I absorbed rather than ignored the religious elements of the event. I even went to the Taize morning service. Lying back on the floor listening to the chanting and quietly reflecting on things was delightfully relaxing and inspiring at the same time. Talks with my Baptist Minister friend Chris and others reaffirmed my affinity with radical thoughtful Christians and opened new avenues of understanding of beliefs. I am still a non-believer in any deity but my belief in the ability of people to organise society in morally sustainable ways has been strengthened hugely.

I was left wondering how on earth I had managed to miss this festival for so many years. It wasn’t deliberate avoidance, although I am sure that in my more immature moments I would have dismissed it as God-bothering nonsense. How wrong I would have been and how wrong anyone else would be to do the same. It sounds twee and trite but we really do need the values that Greenbelt represents spread far and wide. The world faces huge challenges. The theme of the festival was “Standing in the Long Now” which is in stark contrast to the instant Big Brother / X Factor view of the world that sometimes seems omnipresent. We need to take the values of Greenbelt out from the festival to challenge people to face up to the realities of life.

My advice? Whatever your faith get yourself to Greenbelt next year. Enjoy the music and other arts. Listen to some speakers, chat to some people and feel the astonishing power of the event. Then marvel at a festival with clean toilets.

Here are a few of my images from Greenbelt.

Here are lots more using the greenbelt09 tag at Flickr

Talking Art With @Artbizness at Greenbelt

Just had a fabulous 3 part Audioboo chat with Mike Radcliffe, AKA @artbizness off of the internets. Mike is both a very skilled and thoughtful artists (mixed media visual art and poetry mainly, but also music and video) and a fascinating thinker about art and the artistic process.

We were joined at one point by another fabulous art thinker, Maggi Dawn, so that’s here as well, in the continuum of the conversation. Enjoy, and feel free to post your comments and thoughts on the conversation:





The Importance Of Social Media At Greenbelt

Ever been to something so great that mere words always felt inadequate to convey to those who hadn’t been there just how cool it was? Or had so many great experiences in a weekend that you bored the arse off anyone who dared to ask how it went?

If you have, you’re on the way to understanding the importance of social media in the context of an event like Greenbelt. Greenbelt’s strength and weakness are largely the same thing – it’s an utterly unique event. Unlike anything else that I’ve ever been to, and as such, impossibly difficult to do justice to when explaining it.

It’s also such a varied experience – from the program to the people, the food to the weather, the music to the art, the politics to the comedy… and the many overlaps between them…

So how does a story like that get told?

  • In aggregate
  • in pieces
  • with nuggets
  • by accident
  • through video and audio
  • tweets
  • blogs
  • photos…

The more media we can throw out there that is in and of itself interesting, inspiring, funny, creative, the easier it is for people looking at that stuff to assemble a version of the Greenbelt story that makes sense to them. I can use other people’s photos and video to tell my story, and they can use my blog posts and audioboo recordings to tell theirs. We share, we talk about what interests us, we capture what we can, however we can, by being there and playing with gadgets.
It’s a wonderful addition to the festival experience, and will in coming years become an ever more vital part of the public face of Greenbelt – an event I can’t even begin to sum up adequately in a way that everyone who reads this will relate to. And now I don’t have to. I can point to specific things for specific people, I can tag the media to make it findable to those who might look for it, we can filter, stream, aggregate, embed, share and contextualise. And Greenbelt can aggregate it all to the front page of the website.

[EDIT] – here’s me talking to Jon Bounds (@ on twitter) about these same themes. He’s a very smart man:

Jon Bounds & Steve Lawson on social media, web technology & conversational psycho-geography from Greenbelt Festival on Vimeo.

I love living now. 🙂