Changing and engaging<br /><br />

Observations on activists. By Kathryn Corrick<br /><br />

If there was an underlying theme of the Labour conference it was: how do we kick life back into the party? The NS played its part by holding a debate on the Sunday, inviting Ruth Kelly, Angela Eagle and Polly Toynbee to share their thoughts. The results were: improve Labour's narrative (Kelly), trust party members more (Eagle) and introduce proportional representation (Toynbee).

As welcome as these ideas are, the larger problem is a general lack of engagement in UK mainstream politics. The reasons for this, we are told, are multiple. But possibly there has been a complete misunderstanding of the situation: maybe voters do care but don't want to (or even find it impossible to) engage with the system as it stands.

One man may have an answer. Tom Steinberg set up ( two years ago with its primary mission to build internet projects "that give people simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives". Together with a group of like-minded volunteers who thought it would be a good thing if it were easier for people to contact their MPs, he had helped launch ( a few years earlier. It enabled citizens to contact slightly backward MPs (only a few of whom had e-mail addresses) via fax through the internet. Simple and effective, but not something the government was enabling the general public to do.

From his experiences with Fax Your MP, Steinberg knew that there were other, equally enthusiastic people out there who were interested in politics with a capital P and/or the possibilities of the internet, many of them willing to give their time, ideas and efforts for free - developers, policy wonks, think-tank fellows, techies. Gathering a group of such brainy volunteers enabled the "virtual" organisation of mySociety to get off the ground, gave it a core and helped to launch its first projects.

Easily the most ambitious and far-reaching project so far is Pledge Bank ( Based on a simple concept, it enables users to register something that they would like to achieve, and ask for help from others. Or, in Steinberg's words: "Tell the world 'I'll do it, but only if you'll help me do it'."

The largest, and most successful, pledge so far was set by Phil Booth, the NO2ID national co-ordinator, who pledged that he would refuse to register for an ID card and would donate £10 to a legal defence fund if only 10,000 other people would do likewise by 9 October 2005. At the time of writing, 11,295 people had signed up to the pledge. In addition there is an e-mail feature on the site that will notify you when people make pledges in your local area.

This site has huge potential to effect change and to be used in campaigning. The service is free; there are no limits to what can be pledged and how many people need sign up. All that is required is your ideas for changing and engaging with the world you live in.

While many delegates pondered how to re-engage voters at the Labour party conference, Tom Steinberg, at 27, has already shown the way forward.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: our fatal blunder