towards A Good Question

This is not so much a manifesto as a personal train of thought I’ve had in my swims the last few days (all about the swims). And then me deciding to do something. Which you are invited to join in.

It’s quite lengthy – sorry Internet! – so you might want to make a cup of tea first. But then there’s a challenge. #3 is the key.

I’ll repost the challenge in more sharable form later, but right now I’d really welcome any thoughts in response. This is only a start. Anything you care to write back will undoubtedly help make it better. Or just do it.


This UK general election on 7 May 2015 feels more important than any I can remember. And I’m old enough to remember 9 April 1992 as the worst night of my life (so far). So many possible outcomes, so many critical issues. To pick a few: austerity slashing-and-burning public services; the axe-job we’re doing on the environment; the rise of fascism-lite, or whichever lo-cal fascism is UKIP. Yes, I am that green-lefty.

But I don’t feel I’ve any real agency in our current electoral system. I live in Diane Abbott’s constituency, and much as I am happy that she is in Parliament, she’d probably get elected posthumously here. So I might well vote Green to bump up their national percentage, make sure that they are better represented in the next election media. I’ve never joined a political party – although I came close to joining Labour after being filled with anger and despair at seeing kids in my school waving Maggie flags – because I’ve never felt any of them really represent me. I should get over that and get stuck in. But I also feel a little wistful that I am not a voter in one of those key marginal constituencies, the 100,000 people that they always say might really decide the election. I wish I could talk to one of them. But they’re probably very different to a green-lefty like me, why would they listen?

And there’s the first glimmer.

Another thought. The seven-way leadership debate, but especially the quality of media discussion in the aftermath, filled me with disillusion. It’s all about the performance personas of the leaders, and how they play to to their tribes. Cameron and Miliband are striving to project future prime minister, as one of them surely will be, and playing for heavy stake – which means micromanagement of every possible nuance. Miliband is doing better than I expected but actually, why the fuck does his performance matter more than the Labour manifesto? I remember last year talking to a friend, a brilliant clued-up left-leaning friend, who said she couldn’t vote for Labour because she found Miliband annoyingly wet and he had a bit of a lisp. How can these be the grounds on which this brilliant friend might choose to vote?

Back to the debate. Bennett, Sturgeon, and Wood are all pretty exciting – and they’re women, so their presence never mind their strength inside this boys’ club is inspiring. They all have the advantage of a singularly clear call to action: for the SNP and PC, vote for your country to stand up for itself; for the Greens, vote for your beliefs unchallenged by the likelihood of power (yet). I should vote Green though. Clegg has given up, and good riddance. Farage overplays the clown outsider, proclaiming to speak common sense that is anything but. I argue to a friend that his ‘HIV migrants’ line is such venom that it must poison his party, only to read later that it played strongly as designed for UKIP voters, bolstering their resolve to stay in his tribe.

And actually so much of political discourse is tribal. Which lines of script make me feel I belong to this tribe? Which carefully polished images remind me what I hate about that other tribe? And I’m myself also in a tribe, and anyone reading this is probably in my online social networks, and also therefore likely part of a very like-minded tribe. We tend to make friends with people who think the same as us about the world. We follow our tribe on social media and pass back and forth the same links and lenses with which to view the world.

And we don’t often dissect our politics together carefully. I remember the best political election conversation I had in the last 5 years was during the Scottish referendum, with another brilliant friend when we suddenly discovered that we felt very differently and passionately about this issue. We had a fierce argument but still with love and trust between us, so we listened to each other.

Another glimmer.

What stops people having good conversations about election politics? Now I’m thinking a bit more in the abstract, picking up the toolbox of participation design. I often frame participation in any activity as motivated by intrinsic dimensions of agency, connectedness, and learning – so a good conversation is perhaps about the agency to voice your thoughts freely and feel that you are being listened to, about making new or richer connections with other people, about learning something interesting or surprising.
The biggest barrier to participation is a fear of being judged. Political discussion often cuts to our core beliefs, which tribe we’re in, which is the highest degree of judgement. No wonder the discussion can quickly get heated, and you don’t want to get hurt or hurt anyone else, unless you’re a troll drawn to flames. And perhaps you’re fearful of being judged by someone who belongs to a different tribe, nervous about talking to a party zealot who will only try and convert you, worried that you’re just going to say something stupid because actually it’s all quite complicated.

Easier to fall back on the tics and tropes you’ve picked up as part of your tribe, or make judgements based on perceptions of the people who embody each political party. And we’ve heard them all before. So it’s BORING, as another brilliant friend said in the pub, let’s talk about Eurovision instead.

OK, so this turned into a rant. I had to stop swimming and hang off the side of the pool. Take breath. If you really think this, what are you going to do about it? Or rather, what can you feasibly do now that might be useful? You design participation, so do it yourself. Engage differently. How? Keep it simple. Make it quickly and out in the open so that it can learn how it plays best. Make it something that anyone else could do, if it’s any good.

And so this is what I am going to try to do. It’s a challenge to myself and to anyone else who wants to join in.


This is a challenge towards having a good conversation about politics in the run-up to the election with someone who is different from you. At least a little bit different. It’s not about trying to change any minds, but perhaps recognising that minds might change themselves when they see things a little more clearly recognising different perspectives. And if you happen to end up talking to one of those mythical 100,000 people…

1. Find someone who is at least a little bit different from you, when it comes to politics.

[Make it easy for yourself. Perhaps start with someone you have some connection with already. An old family member, an old school friend, or someone you interact with in your daily routines. Or just pick a stranger online. I’m going to do all of those, and a few more.]

2. Talk to establish and celebrate your differences as well as what you have in common.

[You agree the grounds on which you describe your differences. Keeping it lovely, aka the principle of loveliness.]

3. One person asks the other a question.

But the other answers it ONLY on one condition: if the question when asked makes them go ‘that’s a good question’. Otherwise they pass for the next question. So the only questions that are answered are ones that both people, however different, agree ‘that’s a good question’.

[I’ve done plenty more thinking about the dimensions of a good question, but I think the reaction ‘that’s a good question’ is good enough. No shame in passing a question, or asking a question that is passed. They help us work out together what is a good question.]

4. You swap.

[ And repeat #3 and #4, if you like. Although there’s an elegance in finding just the one best question you can ask someone different from you.]

5. Ask the other person, if they enjoyed the conversation, to help spread the word.

6. And if you like: post online what you remember as each good question and its answer, and who was asking whom.

And I’d love it if you shared those with me, so I can collect them to share more widely which might inspire more people, etc.

I’ll aim to set up some online infrastructure to make the posting and sharing easy. I’ll do this as Coney because I can then make more time to do this, and because this is very relevant to some lines of thinking there. But Coney here means a very open way. Everyone is welcome, and your questions and answers remain yours.

I’m sorry if you were wanting a violent revolution, or musical theatre, or both. Although I always wanted to be Razamataz the pianist at the end of Bugsy Malone.

Over to you. What do you reckon?

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