Ian Warren is an election analyst, cartographer and political consultant. He has worked for all of the main parties in one form or another and worked in Labour HQ during the general election campaign.
For over three years now, I have advocated that Labour needs to understand the threat it faces from UKIP. The first phase in doing so is to look past yourself and your pre-conceived views on how UKIP supporters see the world and just…listen.
Get humble, disarm the situation, and listen. Get out of your own way, quieten down, and make an effort to understand what they say to you. See the world through their eyes. Understand how and why they’re angry. Come to peace with the fact that the vast, vast majority of them are not racists. They are making largely rational decisions with the best information they have.
I have been asking people to be prepared to have the door thrown in their face. It means they are reluctant to do this work. I completely understand. But until you disarm the context, you are never going to engage. This “disarming” is not a fancy-ass theory, it’s a human being making a simple effort to understand. I say: “It might not work, but please try.”
This reluctance to step into another person’s shoes speaks to a much wider problem we have in our politics, which has been all too apparent with the election of Jeremy Corbyn.
His win seems to have motivated rival camps to form, each side recruiting people via social media with the apparent supremacy of their wit and wisdom. Neither side has made any effort to really understand the motivations of the other side. For those opposed to his election, it’s enough to say that Labour will never win another election: the Corbynistas are apparently naive “morons”. Meanwhile, supporters of Corbyn are comfortable labelling UKIP supporters as “racists”, and anyone within the party who disagrees with them as “Tory” or “scum”. (Or both!)
I ask a simple question: Why doesn’t anybody take the time to walk across the aisle and say “Hey, look, we disagree, but tell me about yourself. I’m curious. I just want to listen. Let’s have a coffee, eh?”
The answer is because it’s bloody hard to do so. We all carry convictions. I have my own. However, it would be grossly wrong for me to make assumptions about people who disagree with me. In fact, I’m intellectually curious enough to wonder why they do and (shock, horror) quite prepared to change my mind. I like the people at ConservativeHome, for example. I read this blog regularly. I admire their writing and want to know more, for example, about the work of David Skelton and others in broadening the appeal of the Conservatives
It doesn’t mean I am going to vote for the Conservatives. It just means that I am a human being with a bit of humility.
By the same token, I’m genuinely interested in listening to those who voted for Corbyn in order to understand why they did so, and what he represents for them. Their motives are not illogical or moronic. They don’t see the world as you do, so try not to impugn their motives with your own beliefs. Take a moment, get past yourself, step into their shoes and try to understand.
The issue is not limited to the election of Corbyn. An area almost the size of England is covered with safe seats. I know, because I’ve done the analysis and have the maps. There are dozens and dozens of safe seats all over the country. There are no compelling political reasons for a Conservative MP in a shire county to make the effort to understand the daily lives of those who have £2.50 left at the end of the week and are living in abject poverty. Equally, there are no compelling political reasons for a Labour MP in a major urban setting to make the effort to understand the lives of those who live in rural areas and enjoy country pursuits. The parts of each political party which advocate for such efforts are mostly left to fend for themselves.
It wasn’t always this way. The war evacuations forced children from the towns and cities into the countryside. Equally, it opened the eyes of those in the countryside to the problems of those children reared in challenging circumstances in the cities. It helped our politics. A consensus emerged.
One of the most important examples of ‘walking across the aisle’ comes from Mark Reckless in Rochester & Strood; a story which has largely been untold, but which I would like to speak to Mark about.
Mark’s back story is straight from Conservative central casting: Oxford, career as a barrister, Policy Unit at CCHQ, elected MP in 2010. However, in 2014 he defected to UKIP. All of a sudden, he was forced to canvass Labour streets in the hope of peeling voters away from them. I know this, because I did a report for UKIP at the time. The point being that he was now forced to take the time to see the world through the eyes of Labour voters in Strood – a demographic he hadn’t needed to win before.
I haven’t spoken to Mark, but I do know that the campaign team found this experience energising. It’s a pattern other UKIP candidates raised as Conservatives have seen. It’s powerful because, for those candidates and activists, it alters their perspective, forcing them to challenge their own preconceptions. Who knows, for some it may only serve to reinforce them but I know that, for others, the experience has been somewhat cathartic.
So when I witness the partisan and abusive nature of the election of Corbyn, you’ll see me slowly walking away from the scene, shaking my head. Having advocated a listening and understanding approach for so long, I wonder whether it might be best to vacate the area for a bit and let both sides tear each other to pieces. I can’t very well advocate listening and understanding and then take sides in a shouting match, even though at times (to my shame) I have been drawn in. I can only ask that people start to cross the aisle a bit. I know. Naive, right? David Cameron taking the time to understand the poor?! Are you serious? Corbyn spending some time understanding the workings of a business?! Really? Are you sure?
Well, actually I am. Because if Labour thinks it can understand UKIP voters by hectoring them it’s going to continue to lose them, and will deserve to do so. If Corbyn and his supporters believe they can understand the difficulties in growing a business by labelling them as ‘predators’ it’s going to continue to lose them, and will deserve to do so. If Cameron and his supporters believe they can understand the difficulties of those in poverty by seeking to stigmatise them, it will lose those in working households who are also in poverty, and will deserve to do so.
But if that’s what you want, fine. If that’s how you feel, fine. I’ve got better things to do. There’s a friend of mine, a Conservative voter, who I’m off to have a coffee with. Politics won’t come up.