Saturday, 17 March 2012

The power of a big brand

I did think of calling this post 'the obligatory opinion on the CRT elections', but what sort of press officer would I be if I couldn't think of a snappier come-on than that?

The dust is settling around the elections now, and opinions are being voiced all over the place. I just want to focus here on a few points which I think are in danger of being overlooked elsewhere.

Clearly, the result was not to the liking of many bloggers and CanalWorld contributors - understandably. We had our own favoured candidates - in many cases bloggers and CWF members were candidates. Levels of support for them seemed high. But in the end, the results were dominated by IWA candidates, just as many had feared.

In a system which is in no way party based, any distinction between 'independents' and other candidates is going to be, to some degree at least, artificial; even spurious, and this distinction has done much, I think, to engender a very confrontational attitude. I - with all my political experience and the cynicism borne of it - was amazed by the extent to which some people emphasised this false dichotomy, saying that they would not vote for a candidate who had been endorsed by an organisation (even one other than the IWA), even though they would have put exactly the same candidate at the top of their list otherwise. When standing costs nothing, and campaigning on the internet next to nothing (so they would not be beholden to the organisation), I do not see what difference they think such an endorsement could make to the candidate's ability to carry out their representative role.

You can't blame the IWA. You might think that they should not have made so brazen an attempt to dominate the proceedings, but wouldn't it have been even worse if they had done it covertly, by supporting nominally independent candidates? I don't think you can blame the IWA, either for wanting the maximum possible representation, or for taking the opportunity to get it. Like the result or not (and the elected Council Members are not bad people, and will probably not be bad representatives for boaters) those candidates were elected fair and square.

You can't blame the system. 'Some 'independent' candidates got very close to winning positions in this STV election, and may, with lessons learnt this time, win seats next time. Under First Past the Post (the system used for Parliamentary elections) none of them would have come close, and nor would they stand a chance in the future against a well managed concerted campaign. And - if these positions prove to have any clout - make no mistake, next time the campaigns will be bigger, more concerted, better managed. It is in the nature of elective democracies that parties will form, simply because they provide such an advantage to candidates in elections. No democracy anywhere has yet found a way of overcoming this - using STV is the closest we can get to weakening the grip of parties on the political process.

You can't blame the losing candidates. Many of them staged excellent campaigns, and many of them were very worthy of a seat on the CRT Council. It wasn't their fault that they weren't successful.

So who is to blame? In any democratic process that is fairly conducted, as I have no doubt, despite a few minor glitches, this one was, there is only one place to lay the blame for the outcome: on the voters. The one major, blindingly obvious, point which is being largely overlooked or ignored is this: the result reflects the choices of the majority of voters. Around 7,000 people voted. Most of them have never read a blog or heard of CanalWorld. The IWA, on the other hand, has 17,500 members.*

You can call the voters misguided, you can even say they were duped, but I think you would, largely, be wrong to do so. What they are, in common with most people, is risk averse. Most people would sooner go to Halfords or Kwik Fit than an independent back street garage; to Wetherspoons rather than an unknown street corner boozer; to Pizza Express rather than a steamy-windowed family restaurant. Not all of us, but most people. That's why chain pubs, chain restaurants, chain garages are so successful, despite everyone knowing that the quality is merely good at best, and comes at a price. It is good enough, and it is a safe, predictable choice. That is the power of the big brand over the unknown, maverick, but sometimes vastly superior independent player. The independent might be brilliant, but they might be dreadful. Your brakes might fail, you might get food poisoning, the beer might be off. If you wouldn't take the risk in your choice of garage, pub or restaurant, why would you in your choice of candidate?

Those of us who supported Alan, Sue, Andy et al, did so because we knew them; they were already familiar to us. But we cyber-savvies were only a small proportion of the electorate. The vast majority went for the big, safe brand name - and the biggest brand by a mile in this market is the IWA. And that is why they did well. Not because they cheated; not because there was anything wrong with the system; not because the other candidates failed, but because they were the choice of the majority of voters. And that's what democracy is all about, isn't it?

*at least it does according to Wikipedia. I find it a bit hard to believe myself - one for every two boats on the system?


  1. All we can do is wait and see and give them a chance I couldn't vote my boat is on the Avon No BW licence moving onto BW waters in July

  2. Very well argued Sarah, I agree completely even though I didn't vote for any IWA members either. The people have spoke!

    Now its up to all of us to lobby the reps on important issues when they arise and make it clear we expect them to listen to concerns all round.


    1. I doubt that they will have much time to do anything with only 2 meetings a year. Let's have a virtual meeting. The day starts at 9.30 with coffee, meeting starts around 10.00, introductions last till 11.00, hour and a half of discussion before lunch at 12.30, after lunch, around 2.00 another hours chat before it's time to go home and fill in your expense’s. that’s 5 hours a year.

  3. No idea how anyone else chose their votes but I voted for somebody I knew and trusted and then picked the rest on the grounds of their manifestos.
    I know somebody who is going to get their leg pulled about being a well known brand name though.

  4. Beautiful blog, nicely argued. Even if you didn't know what a narrow boat was. Thanks