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Couchsurfing - a radical challenge to the commodification of tourism

EconomicsPosted by john sloboda Fri, March 09, 2018 09:17:05

For some years now, I have invited complete strangers into my home to stay a few days, and use my food and facilities as if they were members of my family. No money has changed hands. Sometimes I have accepted similar hospitality from others when travelling.

This has been done within the context of an international web-based community hosted by It is the brainchild of computer programmer Casey Fenton. According to Wikipedia “the idea arose in 1999 after Fenton found a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland but did not have lodging. Fenton hacked into a database of the University of Iceland and randomly e-mailed 1,500 students asking for a homestay. He received between 50 and 100 offers and chose to stay at the home of an Icelandic rhythm and blues singer. On the return flight to Boston, he came up with the idea to create the website.” now has 15 million members worldwide, with some 400,000 active hosts. It connects hosts to travelers, who can check out each other’s information, read and write reviews of each other, and arrange meetings. It describes itself as part of the gift economy, where the only “transaction” is the free decision to share one’s home, one’s time, one’s skills and experiences.

When I tell friends and family about couchsurfing, I get a variety of responses. Many focus on the possible risks. What if the guests are dishonest, disrespectful? What if they trash the place?

My experience is that the risks are small, and can be minimized with good sense. But, of course, one wouldn’t take any risks at all if there were not compensating benefits. It’s pretty obvious what the benefits for guests are – free room and board with a locally knowledgeable host to show you around. But the benefits for hosts are considerable too.

Over the last 6 or more years, I have got to know a huge range of adventurers. Although many are young, and needing to watch every penny, money as such is hardly ever what drives them to travel in this way. They want the deeper human connection that comes from reciprocal exchange with true locals. Each of them have had a story to tell, a gift from their culture to share, a passion to follow. And the most often asked question of me is “can you show me the London that you know and go about in, away from the tourist hot-spots?”.

The couchsurfing experience is often part of a deeper journey and search. Travellers are often seeking to learn, grow, extend themselves beyond a comfort-zone. For instance, I recently hosted a young traveller from the Far East, who had never been outside his country before. At the age of 19 he decided to take a 2-month tour of Europe, alone, in a harsh winter. When he arrived with me, he had almost run out of money. So he walked the 6 miles from central London to my place – in the snow! Another young couple from Eastern Europe were on a combined budget of £10 per day. So they found the cheapest way to travel around London, using the public bikes (£2 per day), preparing their food in my place, and only visiting free museums and parks. A third visitor, who has become a friend, was a middle-aged man, bringing up 5 boys in rural mainland Europe. He wanted to give each of his sons a special experience – so has been bringing them one by one to London in the only way that was affordable. Others were not so short of money, but chose anyway to couchsurf as a more authentic way to travel. For instance, one pair of visitors were from a conservative religious background, using their travel as part of their process of working out how to transcend the restrictions of their prior upbringing. For one visitor, staying with me helped someone who has now become a friend to make the decision to come and live in London permanently. It is amazing to me that, despite all the challenges, the world is still full of Anglophiles who aspire to realise their dreams here in the UK rather than in the country of their birth.

My visitors have been eager to learn about me too: what I have done, where I have been, how I relate to what is going on in the UK politically and culturally. The shortness of time we are together (I usually have a maximum hosting of 3 nights) means that we can get into some quite intense conversations quickly – no time to waste. Where possible I have taken out a couple of hours to give my visitors a walking tour of my locality, including Clissold Park, Stoke Newington Church Street with its plethora of small independent shops and cafes, and Abney Cemetery. It is so rewarding to see their eyes light up as they discover “the real London that tourists don’t see”. Recently a young couple from central Europe said “we liked Trafalgar Square and Big Ben well enough, but actually we liked hanging out in Stoke Newington best of all”. Some of them have researched the area in advance, and have shown me things I didn’t know. A pair of coffee addicts took me to what has been rated the best local coffee shop in my area. Before their visit I had not even heard of it. Another couple had found that there was one of Banksy’s wall paintings less than a mile from my home. I had never seen it till they showed it me!!

Meals are at the centre of the couchsurfing culture. I lose count of the delicious home recipes that my guests have brought with them. It is such a pleasure to watch someone “take over” my kitchen, and prepare food for us to eat together from their family and culture with pride and satisfaction. It is as we sit round the table, with a glass of wine, that the conversation flows most freely, and the deepest confidences are shared.

Naturally, when one is meeting such a variety of people from so many backgrounds, of so many differing temperaments, some connections are warmer and smoother than others. But all have been on the positive side of neutral. This has helped to shift my perception of my home. Rather than seeing it as a private bolt-hole, I see it as a resource which good fortune (and a little planning) has placed at my disposal to share with others. If there are empty rooms, why not fill them – even if sometimes that causes a little inconvenience (as when I can’t access a needed book because someone is asleep in the room where it is). It has even got to the stage now when I feel a little strange when it is just me at home, and I start wondering how to fill the spaces again.

Living quite close to the centre of London makes my home a very popular one for travellers. I get several requests each week, most of which I have to turn down. But it is also a privilege not to have to “hunt” for my guests. They choose me, and my only task is to decide whether to accept. Even the ones I reject have done me the respect of “making a case” for why they should stay with me, and in the process have shared something of themselves, often at some length.

A huge and recurring element of the internal British conversation at present is about community, how and why we have lost it, how we can rebuild it. I live in an apartment block with 20 separate residences. I don’t have any knowledge of who lives in 15 of them, and would not even recognize them if I saw them in the street. When people have moved into the apartment next to mine, some are genuinely astonished when I have dropped a welcome card through their door. One recent neighbour said that this had never happened before in a lifetime of renting around the capital. is just one vibrant and life-affirming manifestation of the fight against the atomization, isolation, and commercialization of human experience, particularly urban experience. As such, it is part of a profoundly political process. Long may it prosper as a means of “using the internet to get people off the internet” and into each other’s lives.

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On receipt of an OBE for services to psychology and music

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Fri, January 26, 2018 05:50:54
On 29th December 2017 it was made public that I had been awarded an OBE in the UK New Year's Honours List for services to Psychology and Music (see On 23rd January 2018 Nicholas Kenyon (old friend and Director of the Barbican Arts Centre) and Lynne Williams (Principal of Guildhall School of Music & Drama), hosted a reception in my honour, attended by colleagues, friends, and family. These are the remarks I made in thanks.

Can I thank you all for coming, and thank Nick Kenyon and Lynne Williams for co-organising this lovely and unexpected event. It’s great to see so many people here from different areas of my life. I’ve also been touched by sincere apologies from a number of well-wishers who are too far away from London to join an event such as this.

There’s a somewhat fuzzy protocol about what prior honours or achievements are allowed to stand after one’s name alongside a national honour. One thing is completely clear. Fellowship of our national academies survives comparison with any other honour. That is why I now proudly carry 6 letters after my name, FBA, OBE.

My OBE citation is for services to psychology and music. Similarly, and in expression of its own interdisciplinary ethos, the British Academy admitted me to membership of two of its sections, Psychology and Music.

In another similarity, both announcements came as complete - and indeed overwhelming - surprises.

However, there were differences too. In the case of the British Academy I knew exactly who had put my name forward - the 40 or so existing Fellows of the psychology section, with support from Music Fellows. I also knew exactly what achievements had prompted the election, since at a splendid inauguration ceremony a formal citation was read out, a citation I will always treasure.

In the case of the OBE, my nominators are unknown to me. What precisely they wrote to the honours committee will also remain a secret. But I am very indebted to these secret admirers who laboured on my behalf. Having been part of the nominating group for other recipients, I know that this is not a trivial job.

The absence of a detailed citation leaves a space for well-wishers to fill, and I have had so many touching messages from individuals as well as organisations. What has struck me forcibly about the messages from my professional world is that my fellow psychologists see this honour as upholding and and validating the wider enterprise of academic psychology, as well as my specialist sub-discipline, music psychology.

For all its popularity, psychology remains a curiously unselfconfident and peripherhal discipline within the academy. Only introduced into our universities on any scale in the 1960s, it has struggled to attain the solid self-assurance of, say, physics, or history. And Psychology of Music is even more peripheral! The vast majority of psychology departments contain no music psychology specialists, and the topic barely figures in major psychology textbooks.

Where music psychology has fallen on hugely fertile and welcoming ground has been within the discipline of music itself. Almost every music undergraduate in Britain these days has read some music psychology; and I remain astonished at the extent to which bits of my own books and papers are quoted back at me by the musicians I meet. Conservatoires around the world have started hiring music psychology specialists, and have increasingly placed psychology at the centre of their research strategy.

Many of you will know that recent world events have pulled me into new fields of endeavour, trying to grapple with the huge human cost that military adventures around the world have created. These new concerns led me to say goodbye to Keele University, who had given me, and music psychology, incredible sustained support over more than three decades. I returned to London to become more fully engaged in the task of speaking truth to power.

At that point I could well have left psychology and music completely behind were it not for the inspired and persuasive intervention of a few key individuals connected to Guildhall School. They completely understood and accepted that the majority of my intellectual and emotional energies were elsewhere, but found a way to make an offer I could not refuse, a fractional research post with almost none of the burdensome teaching and administration that weighs so heavily on career academics.

And so, this last decade has allowed me a new lease of life, bringing my intellectual concerns to bear on the dreams, preoccupations and dilemmas of the professional musician, whether at the height of an international career, or puzzling out what such a musical career should or could mean in the 21st Century. I remain incredibly grateful to Lynne’s predecessor Barry Ife, and Helena Gaunt, my constant champion and support within the institution, for offering me this unique home, with all its creativity and potential - drawing also on its close reciprocal relationship with the Barbican, Europe’s largest and most diverse arts centre.

Just at this moment, as Nicholas and Lynne know, I find myself at the centre of a new collaboration between the two institutions, a jointly funded and supervised doctoral studentship on the changing role of arts centres against the backdrop of current social and political dynamics. This is a new and exciting area of endeavor for me, and illustrates something about the environment in which I have found myself, always inviting, even pushing, people such as me to go beyond our comfort zones into new territories.

An event like this is not just about the professional world, but also about the network of family and friends without which no professional achievement would be possible or meaningful. There are people in the room tonight who have known and loved me since long before I did anything that attracted public attention, not least my dear sisters Clare and Ann. Thankyou all for the essential friendship and nurturing support you all bring. It is an additional delight that Ann is now a colleague as well as a sister, heading up activity here at Guildhall in the related field of Music Therapy.

As many of you know, there is one person who would have been utterly delighted and proud to have been here, had she not suddenly died literally days before the announcement was made public. Our mother Mary, who turned 90 last year, shares this honour in a very real way. As all good parents do, she (and our late father Mietek) held out for their children the confidence that they could succeed in whatever they chose to do, and supplied the practical day in day out support which laid the foundations of later success.

So in raising a glass to this honour, do also raise a glass to her memory

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Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Mon, January 30, 2017 14:53:20

John Sloboda

Independent researcher


In the words of it’s co-founder Scott Heiferman “is about the simple idea of using the Internet to get people off the Internet” (Heiferman, 2009). Has it succeeded in that, and if so, what makes it a success, particularly in the context of attendance at cultural events?’s website describes itself as follows:

“Meetup brings people together in thousands of cities to do more of what they want to do in life. It is organized around one simple idea: when we get together and do the things that matter to us, we’re at our best. And that’s what Meetup does. It brings people together to do, explore, teach and learn the things that help them come alive.”

I came across in 2008 when I mentioned to a colleague that I had recently moved to London and was seeking means of connecting up with people who had similar cultural interests to me. He told me he had found it useful when he had also recently arrived in a city, knowing few people there. I very much like going to cultural events, such as concerts, theatre, or film. Although I have attended such events alone, I have found it much more rewarding when I go with one or more people. Talking with fellow attenders both before and after the event, usually over a drink or a meal, is part of what makes a cultural outing fully satisfying to me.

As a single person newly arrived in London I did not have a ready-made set of potential companions for cultural outings, partly because I wanted to try new things which were outslde the taste boundaries of existing friends and family. provided me with an entry point into the vast cultural offerings that a city like London provides, by putting me in touch with organised groups that focus around particular topics or interests. Over the 8 years that I have been a meetup member I have sampled the offerings of around a dozen different meetup groups, and have organised a few events myself within one of them.

Almost every meetup meeting I have attended has been positive. Even when the cultural event itself turned out to be disappointing, the conversation with fellow attenders has rescued the evening. Finding out about their reactions and tastes has always been interesting, and bumping into someone again at a different event (as often happens) allows cordial acquaintance to develop, and mutual non-threatening and non-exclusive interest in each other.

At the same time as I was discovering and enjoying meetup, I was working as a research psychologist on a set of projects concerned with audiences for classical music. Classical musicians depend on live audiences to sustain them professionally. Despite the fact that the number and quality of musicians entering the profession has never been higher, classical organisations and venues struggle to fill their seats. The last quarter century has seen a steady decline in the number of people attending classical concerts in cities such as London, at the same time as other visitor art forms (such as musical theatre or art galleries) are thriving (Sloboda and Ford, 2012).

There are many factors that can help explain the decline in classical concert attendance, but one which several observers have noticed is that, compared to many other kinds of cultural event, classical concert-going is not very sociable. There’s a kind of stiffness and formality about traditional concert going culture, where talking, movement, and almost any kind of sound making, is frowned upon (Dobson 2010).

Concert promoters and artists are increasingly aware that the traditional concert environment may be an inhibitor to attendance, and have been exploring a range of innovations to make concerts more informal and relaxed, and to draw audiences into deeper and more active engagement with the musicians (Sloboda, 2013)

In my explorations of the concert scene I’ve not encountered significant attempts to enhance an event through improving the relationships that audience members might have to one another. My experience with meetup tells me that this is a fertile arena for development.

These two factors, my personal experience with meetup in London, and my professional interest in audiences for classical music (also focused mainly on London), motivated me to propose and carry out a small research study to better understand the experience of meetup participants attending cultural events in London. In particular, I wanted to understand what it is about well-run meetup groups that makes them so successful, what are the problems that organisers face, and how they craft elegant solutions to them.


My first step was to contact three organisers/leaders of established and successful London meetup groups in different domain of culture, each with at least 1000 members. I chose these from the meetup groups I had actively participated in myself, and therefore had established prior cordial personal contact. The group leaders all agreed to meet me (and one another) for a 90 minute group interview in July 2016, where they responded in conversation to a pre-agreed set of questions that tapped their experience and insight as meetup organisers.

Informed by this meeting, and some follow-up email correspondence, I drafted a questionnaire to be sent to the members of these three meetup groups. This questionnaire contained a mixture of quantitative/categorical questions along with more open-ended qualitative questions where respondents could write in their own words. I adhere to the British Psychological Society’s Code of Conduct for Research Ethics, . As recommended by the guidelines, prior to release I consulted an experienced research colleague about the ethical issues that might arise in the research, and made some amendments to the draft in the light of advice received, both from the colleague, and from the three meetup organisers consulted.

During September - November 2016 the three organisers used the interface to email all their members, inviting participation in the research, and providing them with a link to a website where they could complete the questionnaire online in confidence and, if so chosen, anonymously. I used the SurveyMonkey software, which has an excellent track record in relation to privacy and security of data

Responses were downloaded from the software in early December 2016 for analysis.


1 The questionnaire respondents

The invitation to complete the questionnaire was mailed to some 12,000 individuals, being the combined registered members of the three meetup groups whose leaders I met (with respectively 7000, 3000 and 2000 members - rounded to the nearest 1000). 80 responses were received, which represents a 0.66% response rate. It was noticeable that the majority of responses were completed within 24 hours of the invitation being sent, suggesting that recipients either responded as soon as they read the email or not at all.

The age spread of respondents was broad, but there were few respondents under 25 or over 65. There was no noticeable “peak” in any particular age band. Genders were equally represented (48% female, 52% male). Two-thirds of respondents identified as single (including divorced). 58% had British nationality, with the great majority of the remainder (31%) having nationality of a European Union member country other than Britain. 85% of respondents had lived in London for at least 3 years at time of responding.

Respondents covered a broad range of experience with 23% had been a meetup member for 5 or more years. 63% had been involved for between 1 and 5 years. 14% had joined meetup within the last year.

42% of respondents were members of between one and five groups, with 27% reporting membership of more than ten groups. The majority (63%) had attended a few of their meetup groups in the last year. Only 11% had attended most or all of their groups recently. 47% had organised/hosted at least one event within a meetup group of which they were a member.

These data paint the picture of a typical responder being a single British citizen in the middle years of life, having lived in London for some years, and being an occasional attender and hoster at several meetup groups.

a. How and why responders joined meetup

An early question was “Why did you join meetup in the first place?”. Responses clustered in five broad categories. The most frequent (46%) was to socialise, meet like minded people, make new friends.

e.g. “Thought I'd have an interesting time and meet people that I would enjoy talking to and being with and maybe make some good friends.” (M 26-35)

The next category was to pursue a specific activity in the company of others (24%):

e.g. “Because I wanted to see more jazz gigs and didn't want to go on my own”. (F 46-55)

Next came changed circumstances of some sort (15%), including recently having moved to London, but also changes in personal life:

e.g. No family in the UK, came out of a relationship and friends' and my interests diverged. (F 36-45)

Next came recommendation from friend or colleague (10%).

e.g. “I used to go to things on my own, and randomly got chatting to a stranger at one of them. I was telling someone at work how nice that was, and she recommended Meetup to me” (F 36-45)

Finally, a few (6%) joined for professional reasons, or in order to organise or promote an activity.

E.g. To improve the attendance to the gigs I organise. (F 46-55)

It is clear from these responses that many meetup members see the meeting activity, whether cultural or otherwise, as an effective means to an end, the end being expanding their social network, in some cases precipitated by a change in circumstance, such as a move, or a relationship finishing. A sizeable minority had very specific activities in mind, but even then some respondents expanded beyond the activity that originally brought them to meetup.

(b) How responders experienced meetup

One question asked respondents to rate their recent meetup experience on a four point scale. (not at all, partly, mainly, wholly positive). 41% chose “wholly positive”, and 48% chose “mainly positive”. These are therefore mainly respondents who have enjoyed being in meetup.

This positivity was reflected in future intentions. 97.5% of the respondents intended to go to future meetups in the next year, with 57% saying they would go to a lot.

Their perceptions of meetup were explored in more detail through three open-ended questions. First they were asked what things made a recent meetup a positive experience. Responses fell into three main categories, the people, the activity, and the organisation of the event. Several respondents mentioned more than one of these in their answer.

e.g. “People from different backgrounds, very different things you can do, someone else organises for me and I only have to show up, I would never have known about half of these things or done them on my own. In summary, it's like having a huge circle of friends but without the drama.” (F 36-45)

When people were focused on in the answer some respondents concentrated on the atmosphere or quality of behaviour at the event itself

“Friendly people at the meet who talked to others, whether they knew them or not.” (F 36-45)

Others mentioned the longer-term consequences

e.g. “Made some great friends, through one of whom I had some life-changing experiences.” (M 26-35)

When the activity was focused on, this almost always implicated the organiser, in that it was the choice of event that made the difference:

e.g. “The activity itself - it delivered what I had hoped it would deliver in terms of content.” (F 46-55)

The link between activity and organiser was often made explicit within the same comment:

e.g. “good choice of outing/ culture- good facilitator/host who is friendly and makes others feel welcome” (F 66-75)

What is also very clear is that, for many respondents, the communal nature of the activity is key - being able to enjoy not only the cultural offering, but other people’s reactions to it and characteristics they bring to the event.

e.g. “As well as the event itself being interesting, it was perfectly organised, and we had the most terrific time in the pub afterwards, with great conversation”. (F 36-45)

When the organisation/organiser was mentioned, this tended to reflect either the competence and efficiency of the arrangements, or the personal qualities that the organiser/host bought to the meetup:

e.g. “Friendly hosts who made sure the members knew the exact details of where to meet, provided their telephone number in case of problems, and greeted members, introducing them to other members.” (F 36-45)

The second open-ended question asked respondents to mention some of the things which had made a recent meetup not so positive.

A few did not respond, or were explicit that they could not identify problems

e.g. This has never happened always been a positive experience with much joy” (M 36-45)

“all the meetups I attended were positive” (F 36-45)

Poor organisation of the event was identified as a frequent cause of problems, which again highlights the central importance of the event organiser to success.

“e.g. It's a little while ago, but I had arranged to join a Meetup group at an event. I wasn't familiar with the venue, and didn't know anyone I'd be meeting. We were to meet after the event, but I ended up waiting in the wrong place. I didn't have anyone's contact details, so left a message on the event page to say I couldn't see anyone. I never got a response. When someone subsequently remarked on the event page that he couldn't find them either, and I agreed, the organiser left quite a curt message to say that she'd posted the details for meeting. Turned out they hadn't even ended up in the pub they'd meant to go to, because it was too crowded, so they chose another. How anyone was supposed to find them then is a mystery.. some organisers just don't care, and I don't know why they bother.” (F 36-45).

“An organiser who is not clear about what will happen or doesn’t make the effort to get people involved. Badly prepared organiser ( e.g. I was on a hike where the organiser didn't know the route and also wouldn’t listen to people who did)” (F 46-55)

Organiser motives (or perceived motives) are also important. There is a particular dislike of organisers who are using meetup to further their professional careers or make money:

E.g. “You rarely see the same people twice made worse by the constantly 'churning' population in London.This is common throughout Meetup. Meetup is also used extensively by people trying to run quasi-commercial activities or promoting themselves. These people really have no interest in the social side of meetup - you are just another body to them and meetup is their main marketing channel.” (M age not given)

The behaviour of other attenders at a meetup was also a focus of dissatisfaction, usually as a result of lack of courtesy or consideration:

E.g. “Groups that tend to be a bit over-dominating (dare I say it the Guardian reading / anti-Tory / anti-Brexit / angry types!) and force their view on the rest (such as talk about their political views throughout a lovely walk).” (M 36-45)

“I have sometimes found meetups to trigger my social anxiety. I have felt excluded from cliques, and this made me feel unwanted and left early.” (M 26-35)

In the context of a broad level of satisfaction with meetup, the problems identified can be classified as incidental to meetup as a concept, rather than due to an inherent flaw in the concept or the way it is able to be executed. These problems are thus generally resolvable by means other than leaving meetup altogether - for instance by avoiding certain groups, certain organisers etc. Thus, to a certain extent, these issues should be self correcting. Poorly run groups, and ill-equipped organisers, will not be able to attract and retain a viable membership. Well-run groups should thrive.

(c) What advice would respondents give organisers

Accordingly, the third question asked of respondents was: “If you were able to offer one piece of general advice to a Meetup organiser, or to the Meetup organisation as a whole, what would it be?”.

Several respondents said they couldn’t think of any advice they’d like to give, and that organisers were doing a good job. Quite a number of responses reinforced the necessity of event organisers being efficient and informative, and ensuring that attenders were able to engage with each other, particularly after the event, if the event itself required minimal interaction.

Many of the comments focused on the issue of “rules and restrictions”. They highlight the balancing act that a good organiser needs to execute. On the one hand, these are social events, where people want to relax and have a fun time. That suggests informality. On the other hand, they need to be efficiently organised, clear, safe, and respectful of all. That suggests a certain formality.

These two opposite directions are sometimes included in the same comment, which reflects an appreciation of this tension:

“Don't try to organise to hard. Every Meeting has its own dynamic so, wherever possible allow that to flow. I think it's more positive and participants will feel ownership. However don't be afraid to intervene if the meeting is dragging or there are people who seem to be feeling excluded ie those who are on their own. It is always a good idea to have a fallback strategy so that when people leave they feel as if they have got something out of the event, otherwise you may well not see them again. “ (M 66-75)

Specific actions or attributes of the meeting organiser in making a meetup a success runs through almost all the comments”

“The organizer needs to have a photograph on their profile. They need to be at the event slightly earlier than anyone else and have a sign. If they don't like that, perhaps send a post saying what they are wearing” (F 56-65)

“Although they are largely volunteers organisers need to have a genuine interest in people having a good time and the event being well run.” (F 46-55)

2. The Meetup Organisers

There is a lot that goes into making a successful meetup group. Accordingly the characteristics and skills of a meetup organiser are key. My conversations with the three group organisers revealed a shared understanding that a successful meetup leader needs to in many respects be a “benign dictator” with very clear rules and expectations both for the attenders at events, and also for the people who organise individual meetings (in those cases where the group is too large for the overall organiser to be at every event him or herself.

Individual meeting organisers tend to be drawn from the more enthusiastic and committed meetup members who return to many events, get to know each other as friends, and thus form a “core” membership. What seems critical is that this group of individual meeting organisers (which can be as large as 50 or 60 in the more successful groups) operate according to a consistent standard, which is laid down by the meetup leader - in some cases as a clear and strict set of guidelines for how to advertise and run an event.

Not everyone responds positively to the particular set of rules that a given meetup group operates under. One of the group organisers said

“I encourage people with different ideas to start their own meetups. Some people are super-friendly but really want to do something else. You need to say “this is the way it is going to be”.”

Organisers sometimes need to stand their ground on issues of principle.

One organiser said “we are a closed group, I accept every new member. Members have to provide a clear face picture - this is necessary to be able to recommend. Some people object, and I have had a lot of trolling for this. We are not an anonymous group - you have to see other people’s pictures.”

Such holding the ground is particularly important where individual attenders engage in behaviour which upsets or threatens other attenders.

One organiser noted that ““Pick-up artists” exploit meetup groups to pick up women. I wrote about it and then they disappeared. You have to put something on the forum to show that you will not tolerate it. Because lots of new members join every year, you have to keep writing again. It was a shock that went round the club, I had to ask organisers to look out for it.”

Despite the problems that meetup organisers need to solve, successful organisers appear to really enjoy the role of organiser, and gain significant personal fulfilment. One organiser said:

“It changed my life. I met like-minded people and formed friendships. I sometimes feel like royalty - meeting group members on train platforms - getting credit for the work - it’s very satisyfing. As a result of my strong links with like minded people my quality of life has improved.”

Another said “I wanted to create a meetup that I’d like to go to. If it works for me it will probably work for other people. It gives me a lot back: three or four of my closest friends were met through Meetup, as well as a lot of casual acquaintances. It filled a gap for me. I am not great at talking to people casually.

These comments suggest that meetup works best when the organiser gets from his or her group the same kind of social and personal benefits as the people who come into their group. I did not meet any organisers who run their meetup groups to further their professional or business interests. Although there is nothing about meetup which stops such groups existing, the people in my sample strongly disapproved of groups set up for the professional or financial benefit of the organiser, and were much more in favour of an egalitarian regime where everyone from the leader down to the newest member gets the same thing out of a meetup, which is cordial and welcoming human contact in the context of going together to an interesting activity.

As one organiser said,”London can be a very lonely place. I’ve heard many people say “what did we do before meetup?”!

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS is a platform that allows many thousands of people in localities to connect with each other and the activities that they enjoy, in a non-threatening and open face-to-face context.

My investigation of a sample of London meetups, their organisers and their attenders, shows that when people are introduced to each other at an event by someone who takes the role of “introducer”, they typically get into productive and rewarding conversations which can enhance their enjoyment of the evening as a minimum, and at a maximum lead to longlasting, even life-changing, friendships.

Contemporary commentators such as Robert Puttnam (2000) have noted with alarm how modern life is associated with a rapid decline in social capital as time-honoured means of bringing people together in communities collapse.

Loneliness and social isolation can intensified by the internet and home-based media, such that people don’t anymore know others in the streets and neighbourhoods around them, nor do they have the skills and means to reach out to them. Mega-cities like London intensify these problems, and not only for new arrivals. Changes such as the breakup of a relationship or the death of a partner can suddenly thrust well-established residents into social isolation.

Meetup is a tool for increasing relevant social contacts which is completely open as regards the type of activity around which people coalesce. It thus means that the range of meetup groups is only limited by the imagination and energy of those setting up groups.

The successful groups are the ones where the ground rules are clear, people are made to feel welcome, and the organiser has no “axe to grind” beyond enhancing their own enjoyment of an event through making it better for others too.

This has implications for how providers of cultural experiences such as classical concerts make use of the meetup experience. If your main aim in bringing people together is to enhance your business and your income stream, then you may experience suspicion and resistance. The most authentic leaders of groups of cultural attenders are the consumers of the product rather than the providers. The key question for classical concert organisers is thus whether they can encourage and support such “group facilitators from the audience” without making them seen as primarily “ticket agents” devoted to increasing the revenue of the commercial organisation putting on the event - but rather being experienced as social entrepreneurs acting primarily in the interests of the other audience members they recruit.


Dobson, M.C. (2010). New audiences for classical music: The experiences of non‐attenders at live orchestral concerts. Journal of New Music Research, Special Issue: Understanding Audience Experience, 39(2), 111-­124. Heiferman, S. (2009). The Pursuit of Community. The New York Times. (accessed on 30 Dec 2016)

Robert Puttnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster)

Sloboda, J.A. (2013) Musicians and their live audiences: dilemmas and opportunities. Understanding Audiences Working Paper 3, Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

Sloboda, J.A. & Ford, B. (2012) What classical musicians can learn from other arts about building audiences. Understanding Audiences Working Paper 2, Guildhall School of Music & Drama.



GOING TO THINGS TOGETHER MAKES EVENTS BETTER, MAKES LIVES BETTER – NEW RESEARCH ON MEETUP.COM is an international social application that puts people with common interests in touch with one another so that they can attend events together and socialise around the event.

A recent detailed survey conducted by psychologist John Sloboda, completed by meetup members living and working in London, confirms the high value that going together to cultural events (such as concerts, talks, films) brings to many people.

The survey shows that many people see going together to a cultural event as an effective means to an end, the end being expanding their social network, in some cases precipitated by a change in circumstance, such as a move, or a relationship finishing.

But joint attendance also enhances enjoyment of the cultural event itself, providing opportunities to share experience and reactions with a congenial group of people, and informing people about events that they might not otherwise have heard about.

The survey shows that the most valued meetups are those organised carefully and sensitively, with organisers who take pains to make everyone feel welcome, and who have provided clear advance information about where and how people can connect with the other members of the group. The best organisers are volunteers who have a genuine interest in people (including themselves) having a good time and in ensuring that everything runs smoothly. Meetups organised for personal profit or professional gain are less appreciated.

Many meetup attenders belong to several different meetup groups, attend meetups regularly, and gain high satisfaction from doing so.

The findings suggest that self-organising groups of “cultural consumers” are a force for social and cultural good, particularly in big cities, where loneliness and alienation are common experiences. Meetup usually improves the going out experience, and can be socially transformative for some of its members. The lessons of meetup deserve to be more widely shared and used in the cultural sector.

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Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Sun, September 25, 2016 11:44:45

Yesterday I had the privilege to take part as a singer in the London premiere of Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s multi-faith oratorio “Karuna”. This was its second performance. The first performance was in 2014 at the Royal Welsh School of Music & Drama in Cardiff, conducted by the composer. This time, the Welsh Camerata, who played at its first performance, was joined by the London-based Choir of the 21st Century, with which I sing, and was conducted by its musical director, Howard Williams, at the church of St John’s Waterloo, a regular “fringe” venue for classical music in London. The composer is a gifted musician and brings a truly individual voice. The performance was of a high standard, with some moments of pure magic.

The work was commissioned by the Welsh Camerata to celebrate their 10th anniversary, which also fell at the time of the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I. Yesterday’s performance was made possible by a private bequest (and the donation of time and effort by the entirely amateur choir).

A useful review of the first performance tells us:

’At around 80 minutes long, the work is an ardent and sometimes fierce call for compassion – the broad meaning of the Sanskrit title – in a world rife with injustice and atrocities of all kinds. Wilson-Dickson explores the nature of compassion as a simple, human response to others’ adversity, but also draws on the word’s Buddhist sense as a rigorous path of non-selfish devotion to the alleviation of suffering in all its forms. He dedicated the world premiere to those working in charities, hospitals, foodbanks and battlefronts everywhere without whom, and without ‘those who are moved to gestures of compassion, there would indeed be no hope. The piece bears an affinity in both sentiment and structure with Britten’s War Requiem and especially Tippett’s oratorios, A Child of our Time and The Mask of Time; landmarks of a British pacifist musical tradition, if you will, to which Wilson-Dickson has now added his own, impassioned voice’”

The texts set include those which describe, sometimes in graphic and brutal terms, the experiences of refugees the world over during the past century. And the call is, in the words of one of the texts:

“To widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures, the whole of nature in its beauty” (Albert Einstein, letter of February 1950 to a friend who lost his son to polio)

The topic of the texts could not be of more contemporary social relevance, and the call could not be more pressing and timely.

I was moved by being part of this performance, and the aesthetic and emotional impact of both words and music was strong. But as a social activist, and someone particularly interested in how the arts, including music, can be a resource for social change, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied, and asking questions.

Was the aim of the composer, and the promoters of the work and its performances, to contribute to social change? Or was the social element secondary to the musical? And in either case how is it that the performances of a musical composition can or might be explicitly and strategically designed to maximise the likely contribution to social change?

These questions have been central in my mind for some years, as I have observed a plethora of musical initiatives which have explicitly been portrayed by their progenitors as a direct response to a social problem (such as war) and a contribution to the solution of that problem. Passionate and devoted musicians have gone all over the world, including into some of the most dangerous parts of it, in order to do music for or with affected populations. Musicians are supported by governments and social agencies to go into prisons, hospitals, elderly care homes, areas of social deprivation, and many other contexts, to bring music and musical activities to positively impact on the condition of the people they interact with. They have a strong belief that through music, social ills can be addressed, healing encouraged, and hope engendered.

Worthy aims indeed! But when professing such aims, it makes it very important to be critically observant of the conditions under which such interventions bring measurable benefits, and those in which they don’t. It cannot be assumed that passion and devotion, coupled with a high degree of musical skill, will necessarily bring change, just because the musicians concerned want it to, as Arild Bergh and myself have argued in a review article (see:

In a recent commentary in the Oxford Handbook for Social Justice in Music Education(1), I challenged musicians in this field to be clear about their priorities. If their priority is social change, then I argued that they need to assess whether musical activity is the best means to promote that change - and if it is not (which in many cases it may not be), gracefully withdraw and leave the field to others with better tools.

To put it another way, musicians, like anyone else must avoid the false logic of:

Something must be done

This is something

Therefore we must do this

This is the flawed premise of so much misguided activity on the international stage!

As a response to growing international interest in, and financial investment in music projects as a tool for social change, a new international research initiative has recently been founded centred at the University of Ghent in Belgium. This initiative is the “Centre for Social Impact of Music Making (SIMM), and I am very pleased to be involved with it, both personally, but also through the Guildhall School of Music & Drama where I work. The SIMM Centre is precisely concerned with building up the critical scholarly evidence base for effective musical interventions - and I look forwards to it shedding powerful light on these debates.

At the Guildhall School I also work on issues concerned with classical music and its contemporary audiences. In this context I have had many interesting and impassioned discussions with both composers of contemporary classical music, and people who go to their concerts. Attracting audiences to contemporary music is a very live issue, as well as the larger question of how new compositions gain impact within the broader society.

Last night’s concert highlighted some of these issues. The audience was modest in size, almost entirely white, and middle class, predominantly middle aged (as were the performers). Many (if not most) of the people there were friends and relatives of the composer and the performers, and no doubt already highly in tune with the sentiments expressed in the libretto. Indeed, some performers, including myself, were drawn to take part because of our sympathy with those sentiments. No recording exists of the work. Prospects for its further performance (given its difficulty and the cost of putting it on) are small. Prospects for its ability to reach constituencies whose “hearts and minds” might need changing, are vanishingly small. And, even if, magically, one could find an audience of “the resistent” and persuade them into the concert hall - would the conditions for substantial “change of heart” be met by a spirited performance of this particular work? It’s hard to be certain.

Of course composers and musicians are free to draw inspiration for their work from any source, musical or non-musical. But in doing so, it is very important not to make claims, or allow claims to be made on their behalf, that in drawing on such sources their work thereby becomes an instrument for the change that they hope for. The attendant publicity (including the programme note) was careful not to claim too much for the music. And yet, simply placing the social phenomenon of the refugee crisis at the centre of the discourse makes it hard to avoid drawing the implication that an effect on that crisis was hoped for, even intended.

Have newly commissioned compositions had social impact on a large scale? Yes - sometimes. I am old enough to recall the world premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 1963. This was commissioned for the re-opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt on the rubble of the former building destroyed by Geman bombs in the 2nd World War. Britten was, at that stage in his career, effectively the “national composer” of the UK, with a stellar international reputation, despite (or perhaps partly because of) his publicly avowed pacifism. The premiere was an act of national reconciliation, which involved senior figures of the UK and German Governments. It had a huge amount of national press and media coverage. The work quickly received performances all over the world, and a landmark recording was quickly made which rapidly became a treasured possession of millions. As a teenager at the height of the Cold War, this piece beamed into my suburban living room a vision quite different to the prevalent political discourse. The work has remained a staple of the performance repertoire to this day, and continues to unite audiences all over the world in the painful contemplation of the horrors of war.

Recordings matter (so that large numbers of those not present in the room can experience a work). High profile cultural and political contexts for new work (such as a major national architectural or reconstruction project) matter, to inject a sense of broader relevance. Today, media, especially social media, matter. And of course, particularly in a contemporary multi-ethnic context, far from the Britain of 1963, location and audience constitution matter intensely. Karuna may well have the musical and textual power to have influence. But without co-ordinated strategic attention to all these features, by people focused not only on the artistic impact, but on the social and political impact, then worthy projects like Karuna remain destined to inhabit the fringes of our national life. That’s a shame, but it is the present reality.

What to do about it? I have no detailed answers. But I am very interested in the conversation continuing.


(1) Sloboda, J. A. (2015) Can music teaching be a powerful tool for social justice? In C. Benedict, P. Schmidt, G. Spruce, and P. Woodford (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Social Justice in Music Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp 539-547.

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Remaking Britain after the EU referendum

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sun, June 26, 2016 09:05:58
The democratic process has delivered its result, and I have accepted that we now will (and should) leave the EU.

I voted remain, and live on the boundary of two of London's voting areas with the highest remain out-turns in the country (Islington and Hackney). I have been welcomed and am very happy here. However, I spent most of my life living and working in Staffordshire, which has voted decisively for leave. I have deep affection and respect for the people of Staffordshire.

I think the right thing for me to do is to accept the democratic result, and move on work to ensure that the values that matter to me inform the politics of a country that will still be a European democracy, albeit outside the EU. My family is a family of immigrants, who came to England (from Poland and Italy) and were welcomed into it long before the EU was even dreamed of. Integration of successive waves of immigration is in Britain's DNA, and I will do what I can to ensure that this remains the case.

I don't think it right or fair to demand a second referendum. And I don't believe that London can somehow be in the EU when the rest of England is not. Petitions on this topic are not for me. I am also afraid that much of the response I am seeing from my fellow disappointed remainers is counterproductive. Although I don't agree with everything she says, Suzanne Moore - as a self-avowed member of the "metropolitan elite" - has pointed up rather well some of the dangers of what is now being done and said by some of her neighbours in London, who seem to be idealising London as a model of modern Britain, forgetting the abject poverty and desolation which many of its people live in (see They will also not advance their cause by crude stereotyping of those who voted "leave", and who now form the majority. The reasons for voting "leave" are complex and multiple.

Is this vote the precursor of the breakup of the UK into its constituent parts? Although there is an assumption by many that Scotland will vote to leave the Union, the collapse of oil prices since the last referendum (September 2014) makes the economics much less viable, since Scotland would have to give up its 15 billion per annum subsidy from the UK Treasury (14% of its GDP). John McTernan has argued that for all her bullish remarks, Nicola Sturgeon will not call a referendum unless she is sure that "leave" would win, something that is by no means guaranteed.

What we are already seeing is that the vote has thrown both major political parties in England into turmoil. This is a symptom of the gradually emerging realisation that neither Conservative or Labour party as currently constituted can plausibly head up a process of national reconciliation after the Brexit vote.

It was inevitable that the EU referendum would be the beginning of the end of the Conservative and Labour parties as we have known them for my lifetime. They have both failed the British people, and - although it will cause much strife and turbulence - their time is over and I welcome their likely dissolution, and the re-emergence of new political alignments (and arrangements, including proportional representation and an English parliament) which better represent the diversity of political views in this country. Anthony Barnett's extraordinarily prescient "It's England's Brexit" (written on 4th June but seeming a lifetime ago) lays out the terrain with masterly precision. (

Neither party will succeed simply by "shuffling the pack" of their cabinets. They need to split and reform. It may take them both time to realise this, as successive candidates for the leadership discover that their members are now permanently split and ungovernable, because they are now made up of irreconcileable tribes who need to go their separate ways. The task in front of our political system is now to reform itself so that these tribes can face each other in a new democratic arrangement where ALL the voices of our people can exert influence in proportion to their numbers, and where the majority of people can align with political representatives who truly represent their views and interests.

We are facing nothing less than the task of remaking Britain.

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With little conviction or enthusiasm I am voting "remain"

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Wed, June 15, 2016 11:45:07
Whatever the outcome of the UK EU referendum, it will have brought to the surface and solidified two large groups of the English population that - at best - don’t understand each other, and - at worst - detest each other. Roughly speaking the two groups are at their core (A) metropolitan university-educated liberals and cosmopolitans, and (B) white working-class from the regions, including many who are traditional labour voters but are “conservative” on key issues.

In thinking how to behave as an elector, my main concern is to contribute to the best outcome for constructively managing this likely-to-remain endemic fracture in English society (I am assuming that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are solidly behind “remain”). I am not really hearing the leadership of either side addressing this issue head on. Issuing a timetable for legislative disengagement (as the “leave” leadership have just done) or a prediction of what the next budget would have to contain (as the “remain” leadership have just done) is not an answer to the question.

The outcome of the vote will give one or other group of English politicians a mandate such that they will be the ones who face this issue (as they will have to start doing on 24th June, intensively and persistently). So my voting decisions are beginning to veer towards choosing the English politicians who are least likely to completely mess this up (since none will do it well).

If “leave” wins, the political legitimacy can be claimed by Johnson, Gove, and Farage. Johnson is an unprincipled political operator only interested in his own fortunes who, until 6 months ago was a “remain” proponent. Gove and Farage are “conviction” politicians, but Farage has never held office and has never even been an MP so knows nothing practically about how to get things done, and Gove’s version of “take control”, means government taking control of the people and reducing grass roots freedoms. Are these the people well equipped to manage the fracture of English society? Not very plausible!

If “remain” wins, established political leaders (in the leadership of Conservative, Labour, Lib-Dem, Greens) will have their legitimacy enhanced. Triumphalism won’t work for the nation however. An ability to see (and pronounce that one sees) the issues of the other side, is vital. And here, curiously, Cameron and Corbyn’s somewhat half-hearted support for “remain” begins to become an advantage.

A post-result moment when Cameron and Corbyn stand side by side and pledge to address the disaffection of Group B head-on could possibly save the nation from becoming ungovernable. What could they offer? Well - however it is dressed up - they need to say that London (particularly epitomised by the Westminster political elite, and their sponsors in business and the media) will no longer be allowed to dominate the English agenda as it has for the past decades. In this process they should welcome, possibly even encourage, processes which might split open the two-party dominance of our political life (e.g. proportional representation, further devolution including possibly an English Parliament, etc.). Thanks to Anthony Barnett for helping me see this!

What could encourage such an outcome? Probably a very narrow “remain” victory with substantial abstentions and spoiled papers (indicating everything from “couldn't be bothered” via “can’t make up my mind” and a plague on both your houses” to “wrong question at the wrong time”).

Given the fact that polls are predicting a substantial “leave” lead at this point, and that quite a high abstention is also likely, I seem to increase the chances of the “least bad” result I by voting “remain”.

This may seem somewhat convoluted to those of my friends and associates who are voting “remain” because they feel in their bones more European than English and want to endorse ideals of cross-national collaboration and solidarity that they see a “remain” vote as expressing.

My vote may also seem a cop-out to those of my friends and associates who equally ardently believe that "leave" is the right option. To them I have to say that ultimately they don't have a political leadership I can believe in even though I sympathise with some of the core tenets of the "leave" campaign.

The issue for me comes down to this. Who is best equipped to address the real and deep concerns of both electoral groups, Johnson, Farage et al, or Cameron, Corbyn et al? For all their manifold imperfections I am inclined to think the latter are the least worst option! But they must be held to it if their side wins.

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Iraq, Cruise Missiles, and Brexit

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, June 11, 2016 18:46:45

I have a week to make up my mind what to do with my EU Referendum voting slip (I have a postal vote because I will be out of the country (rather ironically in Germany) on the day of the vote.

Certainty continues to elude me, because it seems to me that so many issues and currents are tangled up in this. It depends on which issues you put in the mix, the weight you give to each one. And the more I think about it, the messier it becomes!

The fact that I am not certain when so many around me are certain is surprising to me. Only yesterday one of my thoughtful friends, someone whose views I deeply respect, told me that if Britain left the EU he did not see how he could continue to live in the UK. That is just one manifestation of the strength of feeling that I see around me. I need to understand why I don’t feel so strongly, and whether this is a profound mistake on my part. This in turn has led me to look back at my political past, and review the situations in which I DID have certainty, to see if I can learn from them.

No-one who knows me will be surprised that the issues which have stirred me most deeply have been issues of war and peace.

In 1981 I joined CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and for the next 10 years campaigned for the removal of US Cruise Missiles from British soil. I was 100% certain that this was the right thing to do. From 1999 to 2003 I campaigned against Tony Blair’s wars, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and, above all – in Iraq. I was 100% certain that Britain should have been involved in none of them.

The issue which went to my political core was Iraq. Indeed, it was in the early weeks after the invasion that I felt so disgusted with my country that I was the one telling my friends that I wanted to live in another country. Quite fortuitously, I had planned a sabbatical term in Montreal, Canada in the Autumn of 2003. Arriving there was such a relief, and I can recall very strongly how I dreaded the time I would have to return to the UK, although in the end return I did.

Why did Iraq generate these feelings in me when the nuclear weapons issue did not?

I think the issue is this. In the 1980s, being against nuclear weapons was a minority view among the electorate. Even at its height, CND’s position never captured more than 30% of public opinion (as demonstrated repeatedly through well-conducted polls). Parliament more or less represented the spread of views in the population, with the majority in most parties supporting the cruise missiles. Representative democracy, as much as I disagreed with its conclusions, was functioning in some fashion.

In the decision to invade Iraq, as David Beetham argued at the time representative democracy totally broke down (D. Beetham, ‘Political participation, mass protest and representative democracy’.Parliamentary Affairs, 2003, vol. 56, pp. 597-609).

The majority of the electorate were against the Iraq War, as demonstrated consistently in polls over a substantial period of time (to say nothing of the massive anti-war demonstrations), yet Parliament was almost monolithically for the invasion. It was the pain of knowing that our elected representatives had preferred to follow the dictates of a foreign president than their own people which made me, at least temporarily, give up on Britain, at an deep and emotional level.

In the case of the EU debate, representative democracy is, again, functioning (sort of). The electorate is split on the issue, and so is parliament, and this is represented in the business community and the media too. In fact the split is far more even than in the case of the cruise missiles, where there was never a moment when the anti-nuclear camp came anywhere near 50%. The Brexit debate has split the country down the middle, with the “leavers” and “remainers” both teetering around 50%.

After my moment of revulsion with the UK over Iraq, I remember deciding that helping Britain clean up its mess was best done from within the UK. My attention, and that of many others with whom I joined in common cause, turned to the consequences of the invasion, and finding ways of putting right the wrongs committed, and avoiding committing further ones.

And I guess that is where my attention already is when it comes to the EU – the aftermath of the vote. Whichever way the vote goes, Britain faces huge – possibly insoluble – problems. If we vote to remain, we leave a whole swathe of the most disenchanted in our society – concentrated in the regions away from the prosperous south - bitter and disillusioned, and even more prey to varieties of extremism. They are not going to suddenly smile and say everything is ok. If we vote to leave, we face seismic constitutional issues, including the possibility of the breakup of the Union, with Scotland being the first to rush for secession, to say nothing of the ripple effect across the EU.

In that sense, which way I cast my vote hardly matters, because we know the vote will disenfranchise around half the electorate whichever way it goes. I am thinking of what we will all think, feel, say, and do on 25th June and beyond. How will we move on as a split country on this matter? And I am not really hearing any clear plan, from either side.

So while I continue to struggle for enlightenment, my voting slip sits on my desk, unmarked, envelope unsealed.

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Can the EU referendum be the beginning of the end of the two-party system in England?

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Mon, June 06, 2016 16:34:22

The more I think about the UK EU referendum the stranger the whole thing becomes.

Consider some facts:

The leaders of the main political parties - Conservative and Labour - have publicly supported the “remain” position. In fact, almost every political party has adopted remain as its official position. That includes the Lib Dems, the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, SinnFein. Only UKIP (with 2 MPs) is officially for “leave”

Yet polls consistently show that the British electorate is divided right down the middle. For instance, the Poll of Polls averaged the six most recent polls, and found 51% in favour of “leave”.

On the other hand, bookmakers are betting that “remain” will win (with 7:2 odds). The timeline of polls produced by the BBC shows no consistent advantage over time for either position:

What follows from this? Well, first of all, and this is hardly something new or surprising, it shows that the leadership of the political parties are not effectively appealing to (or appearing to represent) a huge swathe of the electorate.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, it shows that on this issue (and maybe on much else) traditional party allegiance counts for little. In particular, Conservative and Labour members and supporters are deeply split on the issue. This is made even more curious in the light of the widely held belief that neither David Cameron nor Jeremy Corbyn have any instinctive appetite for the position that they are promoting. It has been suggested by some that Jeremy Corbyn’s “body language” adds up to an encouragement for Labour supporters to vote “leave” even though he is not willing to (or cannot) say it.

Thirdly, this issue has the capacity to fracture traditional two-party politics. The animosity and bitterness that has built up between different factions of these two parties is so corrosive that most people are predicting that no kind of “unity and reconciliation” will be possible, particularly if the vote is as close as the polls are predicting. Whichever side loses will not easily accept the legitimacy of the winning side.

And so we face the possibility that both main parties will split asunder, and new smaller political parties may emerge in the wake of the election.

I am one of those who believes that the two-party stranglehold on this country, aided and abetted by the “first-past-the-post” electoral system is no longer fit for purpose, and does not reflect the political diversity which contemporary British politics needs. If the result of the referendum, whichever way it goes, sounds the death knell of this long ping-pong match between Labour and Tory, then this is an outcome worth having. The ascendancy of the SNP in Scotland, the vibrancy of independent parties in Wales and Northern Ireland, and the huge rise in electoral support for hitherto fringe parties such as UKIP and the Greens, shows that our politics is not set in stone. Can this referendum be a truly decisive opportunity for pluralistic politics in Britain.

How does this mean one should vote on 23rd June? In a single referendum, where the total votes cast nationally is the only thing that matters, “tactical voting” as understood in general elections, doesn’t really work. The only thing I have come to so far is the suggestion that if you really can’t make up your mind which way to vote, you should express your inability - not by plumping uncommitedly for one or the other outcome - but by either abstaining or spoiling your paper. In other words, let’s not paper over the cracks, but face up to them. Britain is not a country divided between certain “remains” and certain “leaves” facing each other over an unbridgeable gulf. We are rather a people containing many shades of grey, with all kinds of uncertainties, ambiguities, and unresolved questions. Let the result truly demonstrate this by allowing the “don’t knows” to have their voice. In the system we have, abstaining or spoiling the paper is the only way to make that particular voice heard. And it will count in the political aftermath.

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