After an awful year for progressives, Ben Shimshon and Cordelia Hay set out four ways to survive the next 12 months
At BritainThinks, we are lucky to hear from voters week in and week out. In 2016, many of us forgot the lesson that you need start from where people actually are, not where you wish they were. We’ve looked back at the events of 2016 through the lens of what we see and hear from respondents to our polls and focus groups to develop some watch-outs that may help progressives survive the year to come:
Check your bias
2016 was the year when the true extent of elite confirmation bias was revealed. We (and these authors are no exception) consistently and predictably picked our evidence and selected our theories of public opinion, economics and political change to fit the predictions to which we were emotionally committed. Despite a poll of polls showing a statistical tie, ‘Remain’-leaning experts had a thousand reasons why the phone polls (78 per cent of which showed a Remain lead over the course of the campaign) would better predict the referendum result than the online polls (63 per cent of which showed a ‘Leave’ lead).
But it was not just progressives’ predictions that suffered. Our communications did too. The Remain campaign’s trade-focussed messaging may have resonated in London and some of our larger cities, but in many smaller cities and towns, voters in focus groups were nonplussed: ‘We don’t make anything anymore in Britain, so what do we trade?’. In the United States, Democrat responses to claims about the now-president’s treatment of women were framed almost entirely from their own, often feminist, perspective. The opportunity to give Trump-leaners pause for thought because he had violated values more dear to them than the feminist agenda they saw as the privy of the Washington and New York elites – perhaps those of religion, family, tradition, even ‘gentlemanliness’ – was lost
If progressives want to understand Donald Trump voters, we could do worse than tune in to Duck Dynasty – a hugely popular television show in ‘red states’ that is sneered at by urban east and west coasters. We do not need to like it, but we do need to understand its appeal and how it fits with a worldview very different to our own. The people who own that world view feel as committed to it as you do to yours, and their confirmation bias is reaffirming it to them as strongly as yours is to you.
Get a ‘change [back]’ message
It is an old adage that there are only two election campaigns: ‘time for a change’, and ‘steady as she goes’. 2016 was definitely a change year. But it was also the year of ‘change back’.
The winning messages – ‘Take back control’ and ‘Make America great again’ – demonstrated all the well-rehearsed rules of great political campaigning. But it is the words ‘back’ in the Leave slogan and ‘again’ in Trump’s that should really give progressives pause. These little qualifiers offered a nostalgic inflection that softened these change messages. They reflected that, for many, the decades of constant change that have accompanied globalisation, technological advance and the onward march of ‘progressive’ politics have been a disorientating and marginalising experience.
The power of these ‘change back’ messages speak to a need for progressives to rethink our blind faith in being about ‘the future, not the past’ (or indeed, ‘forward, not back’). We need to think hard about how we mobilise our values and our hopes for the future in a way that also reassures people that we are not simply pitching them into more uncertainty.
Challenge the new divides
The way we talk about the Brexit and Trump victories suggests that our electorates are now made up of two tribes, opposed in nearly every way, pitting generations, regions and social classes against one another. But the truth is there were huge, diverse coalitions of voters on either side of each result, both demographically and in terms of values.
In her work in the American Appalachia region, academic Kathy Cramer has shown how feeling ‘left behind’ has become a form of identity. These groups do not just feel alienated from elites and cities; they shape their identity in opposition to them. The sense that ‘I am not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect’ leads to a wholesale rejection of ‘city’ ways, values and behaviours.
The question for British progressives is how far to indulge the narrative of division. If we talk about them often enough, these divides will become totemic identities. If consistently told that their vote on 23 June is a signifier of membership of a larger club of youthful, right-thinking, better educated, socially generous people, Remainers will further coalesce as a single bloc. Meanwhile, those who voted Brexit because of concerns around immigration or economic marginalisation (many of Labour’s erstwhile core vote) may well start to adopt the views and positions of ‘values Brexiteers’ wholesale. There may be quick political wins here – as evidenced by the Richmond byelection result – but there is also great electoral danger to fueling the idea that how you voted in 2016 defines your political identity.
Just get on with it
This article is by no means the first attempt to reflect on the events of 2016 and to identify what progressives can learn from it, and it is unlikely to be the last. Yet even after all this navel-gazing there are many indications that we have not learnt these lessons at all.
We are still talking about ‘what went wrong’ and we are still talking about the choices that people have made as if it was an error of judgement. This is desperately out of sync with the public, 68 per cent of whom think we should go ahead with Brexit, and 58 per cent of whom oppose a second referendum. Those who voted Leave are not suffering from ‘Bregret’ – many of them feel positive and passionate about their choice. One voter in a focus group told us that ‘when we went Brexit it felt like I’d won the world cup.’ And the majority of those who did not vote for it just want us to get on with it and to quit ‘Remoaning’. The morewe talk about Brexit as a huge mistake, the more alienated we will become from the people we seek to connect with and represent.
At the start of a new year, perhaps the best advice for progressives is to take our own advice and look ‘forward, not back’. It is a new and uncertain world, but we will miss any chance we have of shaping it if we spend all our energy bemoaning how we got here. In other words, just ‘get on with it’.
Ben Shimshon is founding partner and Cordelia Hay is research director at BritainThinks
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