Politicians so love the sound of their own voices! Sometimes they drone on endlessly, hardly ever saying anything at all, and we, every single one of us, to some degree or the other are guilty of letting them get away with it.
Politicians have devolved into quite a different sub-species, often unable or unwilling to give straight answers and trying to please everybody.
Sadly there’s a simple secret politicians seem unable to grasp – you CANNOT please everybody all the time. In fact, the most fair you can be is to aim to displease everybody equally. Politicians won’t do that though, as their primary purpose in life appears to be self-preservation.
And that’s the rub – how can we trust politicians who claim to have our best interests at heart when it’s so clear they don’t?
Experience has taught me that, with very few exceptions, politicians will tell you what they think you want to hear, as opposed to the simple and factual truth. Regularly they will also try to spin EVERYTHING to cast themselves in the best possible light, at times even at the expense of truth.
So how can we work with people like that when we campaign for better cycling infrastructure?
I’m a huge believer in the carrot and stick approach. The trouble is, using the carrot too often simply doesn’t work. Politicians must be shown up, if they told lies those lies must be exposed as publicly as possible and politicians must be embarrassed as publicly as possible.
That would be the stick. Once the stick has been used, even once, politicians should start learning that a) we are prepared to use the stick and b) that it is to their benefit to work with us, and to allow us to work with them.
Personally I’m quite happy in most cases for politicians to grab credit, glory and publicity for anything positive to cycling, regardless of who did the real work. In fact, whenever possible, I’d be happy to engineer situations where it becomes easier for them to grab credit and bask in any publicity, while I remain in the shadows.
That would be the carrot. Once politicians realise we’re not out to destroy them, and that we’ll happily work alongside them (provided there is no political-party alliance and it is to our benefit to do so) they should soon realise that it really isn’t in their own best interests to fight us.
We have to be realistic of course and accept that whatever we aim to achieve will somewhere be reduced to a spreadsheet and will somewhere need to fit into limited budgets. The greatest, most wonderfully practical ideas are of no use if funding cannot be found to turn them into reality.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try! In the 80’s, Depeche Mode had a minor hit song entitled New Dress, and some of the lyrics go like this:
“You can’t change the world
But you can change the facts
And when you change the facts
You change points of view
If you change points of view
You may change a vote
And when you change a vote
You may change the world“
While this may be slightly optimistic, there’s more than a hint of truth in it. To most drivers (read voters) cyclists are an annoyance that slows down traffic. To their minds, this is a “fact”.
We need a concerted effort to change that “fact” and to show the advantages to drivers of improving things for cyclists. By doing so, we can establish new “facts” in drivers’ minds and if we can achieve that, politicians prepared to work with and support us will stand to benefit when elections come around.
By changing people’s point of view, it may be possible to change budgetary priorities, making funding for cycling available even in austere times.
Somebody said that if you kept a lie simple enough and repeat it often enough, most people will believe it, and many politicians throughout the world have since employed that same strategy with great success.
We should use it it, too, except we will instead only be telling simple truths.
Erwin Rommel achieved runaway success during World War 2 by implementing the strategies thought up by the brilliant British Captain Lidell Hart. Those strategies above all else may be summed up as simply this: concentrate your forces in time and space.
In plain English, this means you apply all your resources at the same time, in the same place and as cycle campaigners we should follow this strategy.
There are MANY things wrong with cycling provision in the UK, but all we’ll achieve by taking on all those issues at once will be to dilute our efforts to the point where we may as well not have bothered. No, instead we need to identify perhaps as many as five top priorities, then relentlessly target those.
If it was solely my decision, I’d make the top priority space for cyclists, focusing on unsafe overtakes. To my mind, this more than anything else can deliver immediate results and immediate improvements, without any budgetary constraints.
To effectively deliver this message, it needs to be kept simple and repeated ad nauseum by as many people as we could possibly get to repeat it.
Of course, human beings are naturally self-centred to at least some degree and people often won’t buy into any message unless there’s something in it for them.
Third world relief charities exploit this by showing pictures of sad, emaciated children, often followed up by images of happy, apparently well cared for children, with the implication being that you’d feel good about yourself if you helped bring about that change
Our challenge is to find a way to make drivers realise that there is a benefit to them in giving cyclists plenty of space when overtaking. This will not be easy and won’t happen overnight. As the old saying goes, it takes time for a ship on the open sea to change course.
To achieve this, we need to make it clear to drivers that almost every adult cyclist on the road represents one less car and one less car equates to more road space for everybody else.
If we can achieve this one thing, then politicians won’t see it as political suicide to strongly support cycling. If we can get drivers to want better infrastructure for cyclists, we’ll empower politicians to stand up for cycling without triggering all their self-preservation circuits.
The most worthwhile fights never are easy and this fight, sadly to some of us, will literally be a life-or-death one. Are you with us?