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The importance of being heard

It is five years since the 2016 Referendum

Five years should be long enough to learn some of the lessons of what happened on 23 June, 2016 – even if the pandemic and all else has clouded the issues, and much else is still to emerge. ‘Leave’ voters now know that Brexit wasn’t quite as simple as many thought. ‘Remain’ voters have started to understand why so many of their fellow citizens felt the way they did. And both sides have seen comparable cultural and political differences emerge across the Atlantic – with even more divisive societal implications.

Few people appreciated this better than Sir Kim Darroch, the career diplomat, who having served in senior positions advising on security and the EU, became UK’s ambassador in Washington in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. He was forced to resign when his candid but private reports on the Trump administration (surely what an Ambassador is meant to do) were leaked and prompted Donald Trump to declare him persona non grata.

I have just finished reading his book, Collateral Damage (William Collins, 2020) which tells his story with facility and good humour. But, for me, its glory is the chapter he calls The Great Unravelling, where he compares the forces that propelled Trump to the White House, and Britain out of the European Union. It is fascinating stuff, made more credible by his being such a well-informed insider. His conclusion is that …”it’s a wonder that Trump and Leave didn’t both win with landslides.” He identifies three common strands which admittedly worked slightly differently on both sides of the Atlantic. It is based upon three ‘I’s. Immigration, Inequality and Identity – a concise and convincing analysis.

Immigration, he claims ,was a major factor in the UK as well as the USA. The influx of EU residents – substantial in itself, was compounded by the nightly TV images of refugees fleeing Africa and Middle East and traversing the near Continent to arrive at the camps in Calais. In the USA, semi-organised ‘caravans’ of central American migrants made their way to its southern boundary. In both countries, nervous citizens wanted reassurance. Trump promised to build a wall; The ‘Leave’ campaign talked of controlling our own borders.

Economic inequality has been a longer-term problem but was considerably  worsened by the 2008 financial crisis. Ten million Americans lost their homes – just as globalisation caused the huge loss of manufacturing jobs. In the UK, it led to the ‘decade of austerity’ and much resentment outside London which seemed insulated from the haemorrhage of well-paid employment elsewhere. Anyone or anything promising to end the decline of High Street or Main Street was an attractive option.

The growth of identity politics, says Darroch, also played its part in both countries as older generations felt nostalgic for a previous age of greater certainties and those further down the educational attainment ladder found it difficult to identify with young elitist, cosmopolitan city-dwellers. The term culture wars did not appear prominently in either of the 2016 plebiscites, but analysis of the results showed how voters for Donald Trump and for Brexit saw themselves as very different from the liberal consensus that ran Governments, significantly dominated mainstream media and formed much of the political classes.

It’s a fair and balanced analysis, but in my view, for the UK at any rate, ignores a fourth factor – call it Impotence if you like. It is the sense that those who held views on immigration, inequality or identity felt that no-one was listening to them. They were not being heard.

They were certainly not being heard in Parliament. In the 2015 General Election, almost 4 million people voted for UKIP. It was 12.6% of the votes cast. Due to the first-past-the-post system, the party won only one seat. By comparison, the SNP polled 1.4 million and emerged with 56 seats. As with the Green Party, with 1.1 million votes and a solitary MP to show for it, large but spread-out minority opinions on the British model of electoral democracy go unrepresented.

There is no doubt that the groundswell of grievances, well-captured in Kim Darroch’s book put pressure on David Cameron to call the EU referendum. There is equally no doubt that, in hindsight, many other factors contributed. And it was all-or-nothing. Winner took all. What difference might it have made had it been billed as a ‘consultative’ referendum (which, constitutionally, is what it was!) rather than a decision-making exercise?

In my view, it might have made significant difference. One of the great advantages of a consultation is that it enables stakeholders and/or the public to express an opinion without being committed to finding answers to difficult problems. It provides a ‘steer’ for decision-makers, without tying their hands excessively. It enables hesitations and reservations to be expressed without totally dismissing the other side of the argument. It allows for seldom-heard voices, or just not-quite-sure voices to give their view without backing one side or another irrevocably. Also, just to assert that they are there. “We’re here; don’t forget us’

Some will argue that the Parliamentary arithmetic was irrelevant. Political debates have moved from the chambers of our legislatures to the uncontrollable void of a polarised  social media. But Facebook, Twitter and the others do not take decisions in our name. So, when our institutionalised decision-making process is so rigged that it excludes legitimate arguments, the pressure cooker is in danger of exploding.

It has become clear that representative democracy must be supplemented by mechanisms that contribute a wider diversity of opinion. This explains the popularity of citizens assemblies and more participative forms of community engagement. Sadly, they do not replicate the accountability of the ballot box, so the trick is to devise processes that help people feel that their views are properly heard, reasonably considered and taken into account. A tokenistic, go-through-the-motions consultation does not begin to address it. But a genuine, well-conducted consultation can – and does help.

This is because consultees are often quite realistic. Many of those who campaign against library closures, hospital reconfigurations, road or rail projects do so with high hopes of reversing threatened changes they oppose. But they often realise that other stakeholders may have conflicting priorities and that difficult choices have to be made. What they DO want, however is to know that their arguments have been heard. Many believe that there is an innate British sense of ‘fair play’ that feels at least a little mollified if it knows that minority views or unpopular objections have been fully examined and not thrown away as unconsidered background noise. Consultors who are sensitive to this, will take care to share the output of consultation exercises promptly and seek independent analysts to ensure that what is said is interpreted fairly – and alternative ideas fully investigated. It may not satisfy everyone, but it can persuade many that, much as they dislike the decision, the processes leading to those decisions were fair and acceptable.

In the USA, the danger to democracy is that disillusion has led some traditional Republican supporters to follow dangerous conspiracy theories and attempts to disenfranchise those with whom they disagree. Leaving aside the storming of the Capitol and other excesses, there is hope that the parallels that Kim Darroch draws between the two countries may be limited. But the disillusionment of those who regard themselves as impotent is real, and whilst the fault lines of 2016 was over membership of the EU, there are new challenges to the cohesiveness of our society.

One of these will be climate change. There will be winners and losers, and to persuade the latter that the greater good requires that they sacrifice their own wellbeing risks the same backlash as came from those who lost their jobs to globalisation. Other pockets of social division are emerging including attitudes to gender reassignment and the way we treat our history. To be topical, consider the disquiet over the economic and social restrictions imposed, with little or no consultation during the pandemic. How often have you recently heard the sentence – How exactly did they make the decision to end Portugal’s status as a green destination? It will soon be heard in the High Court. Always remember that there can be two forms of disillusion – one with the substance of policy decisions – and the other with the process. When people lose faith in our processes – that is where real trouble lies.

For all of these issues, engaging and consulting communities – whether geographic, social or thematic – is a key instrument of managing change in a turbulent world.

Understanding what happened five years ago does not turn back the clock. But it does help us appreciate the mistakes that were made, and the contemporary preoccupations that meant that so much went unheard. It is the role of everyone in the field of public consultation to ensure that all voices ARE heard. And it is our job in the Consultation Institute to help them.

About the Author

Rhion Jones is considered a leading authority on Public Engagement and Consultation. A founding Director of the Consultation Institute, he is co-author of “The Art of Consultation” (2009) and “The Politics of Consultation” (2018). He has delivered over 500 training courses and Masterclasses and is a prolific writer on the subject, having written over 350 different Topic papers and over 50 full Briefing Papers for the Institute. Since 2003 over 15,000 person-days of training based on courses he invented have been delivered. Rhion is in demand as an entertaining Keynote Speaker and Special Adviser, particularly on the Law of Consultation, and its implications for Government and other Public Bodies. In 2017, he was awarded the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’.

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