Political Campaigning The Bus Party Way

IMG_0936We’ve all been subject to political campaigning at elections and referendums in one way or another and have some preconception of what it involves. Yet campaigns have seen significant developments and innovations that have changed the nature of campaigning and its reach into our lives. In the UK, the franchise extensions of the 19th and 20th centuries were some of the biggest creators of change in the electoral arena – and the extension of the franchise in 2014 brought it into schools too.

Besides the franchise reforms, technology and the professionalization of political organizations have been important generators of campaign change – such as the impact of television, the development of national campaigns, seat targeting strategies, the role of information technology and direct mail and not forgetting an internet that allows individual communication about politics with friends and family as well as mass campaigning via big data through Facebook and Youtube.

When Günter Grass went on his campaign tours in the 1960s, he was never sure whether what he was doing was actually effective. Yet, he toured West Germany with colleagues in a mini-van, giving talks, speeches and readings, as well as poetry and song. He was adept at using TV, radio and the newspaper to spread his political message but often, his political campaigning involved turning up in the market square of a small town and speaking from on top of the van. As one of Germany’s most prominent authors, he was certainly a draw when it came to events like this and, what he did tells you something about ‘alternative’ political campaigning away from policy platforms, leaflets and earnest speeches: Grass sought a livelier campaign that actually connected with real people in their communities on a daily basis, to break out of the campaign bubble and talk with people.

That’s what Scotland’s Bus Party attempted in both 1997 and 2014 – getting out into the country and meeting people in their towns and villages to take the temperature of Scotland and encourage people to express themselves and to find out what they were thinking. Doing so did not involve the formal politics of speeches, leaflets and direct mail, but rather a tour of readings, poetry and song. Whilst the short 1997 tour stood out amongst the more orthodox political campaigning by the Yes and No sides to devolution, the 2014 experience was quite different.

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The Bus Party 2014 co-existed with a range of other campaigns like National Collective and TradYes– as 2014 exhibited a fair degree of artistic engagement and political carnival and a lot of unorthodox campaigning. For sure, there were public meetings, leaflets, campaign broadcasts, doorstep and phone canvassing and all the things you’d associate with traditional political campaigns but these were interlaced with new voices and unorthodox campaigning. The Bus Party toured Scotland with its artists, musicians and writers, but it was an independent initiative – it sought discussion. It did not advocate for Yes or No in 2014. It had music from Karine Polwart, readings by James Robertson and song from Jamie McDougall, amongst many others.

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By contrast National Collective acted more as a political organization holding local events and campaigning for Yes, before it created its own bus tour of Scotland with Yestival and then a series of events at the Edinburgh festival in August 2014 – mirroring the Bus Party practice of art, music and readings, as well as dance, cartoons and a large dose of satire. The net effect of these types of organisational initiative was to help to the 2014 referendum a unique experience when it came to engagement and turnout.

An exhibition showcasing the Bus Party Archive is now on display at the Lochgelly Centre and Montrose Public Library.