The United Kingdom is more divided than it has been for a generation. Is it too late to turn the tide? Stefan Rollnick asks Tim Dixon, co-founder of More in Common, for answers
Our country feels like it is tearing at the seams, and as Brexit dominates the headlines it can be hard to get perspective on where this moment sits in the long arc of our country’s history. We know that we are at our best when we are bold and when we are open to the world, but if we as progressives are honest, there are questions that were brought to the surface by the Brexit vote that remain unanswered.
A public vote on Theresa May’s deal might be the right question to put to the people, but it will need new answers.
In a speech to parliament earlier this year, David Lammy recounted his reflections as he walked through his constituency after the Tottenham riots. ‘Walking on broken glass, past burnt out cars’ he saw the place he had lived his whole life ‘turn to ashes’. Despite calls to justify the riots, he had to ‘look his community in the face’ and tell them that their response was wrong. Drawing a parallel to Brexit, Lammy said that while it was not easy to address their concerns in this way, he did it because we have ‘a duty to tell our constituents the truth.’ In both cases Lammy might have told the hard truth, but how many people listened?
There is a scene in Brexit: Uncivil War where a woman loses her temper in a focus group. She is accused of not considering the impact of her vote to Leave the EU, because ‘her life is already over’. As she breaks down in tears, she says she is fed up of being treated as worthless, and according to Tim Dixon, this is ‘at the heart of the dynamics that populists are exploiting, that sense of being discarded.’ Can we really expect people who feel like they have been discarded to listen to us?
‘This is not an argument for centrism, it’s an argument for respect for other humans’
On Thursday 16 June 2016, Jo Cox, member of parliament for Batley and Spen, was assassinated on the streets of her own constituency. ‘Jo’s murder was a reflection of the way in which the debate had gone so off course’, says Dixon. ‘It surprised me because it’s not consistent with the character of British politics.’
Dixon is the co-founder of More in Common, an international project that has set out to ‘build communities and societies that are stronger, more united and more resilient to the increasing threats of polarisation and social division’. He was also a friend of Cox.
Cox was famous for saying that we have ‘more in common than that which divides us’; and now, in the aftermath of Brexit and against an increasing wave of populism, Dixon has set out to use social psychology to make her vision a reality.
‘If the world of politics was a little more stable, less disruptive and I felt more confident about the system going in the right direction, I would probably still be involved in the core of party politics,’ says Dixon. ‘I think the threats we are now facing are systemic. They go outside the individual parties; all across the world we are seeing the collapse of the established structures of party democracies.’
Despite the fact that Dixon’s new project aims to rise above politics, his personal history is political. Dixon was a speechwriter for two Australian Labor prime ministers and his background in law and immigration point to strong progressive values. But as he points out, his interest in social fracturing – the breakdown of a shared sense of who we are – runs in his veins: ‘Why is Australia Australia? Because our social system was breaking down and a whole load of people were sent to another country.’
The UK was divided before Brexit – it always has been – but like a hammer coming down on fractured glass, it dealt a killer blow to what unity did exist. ‘The great challenge,’ according to Dixon, ‘is that in the next decade, the forces that are fracturing our societies are going to be intensifying.’
And he would know. More in Common has conducted research in some of the largest and most powerful democracies in the western world: United States, Germany, France and Italy – with Britain next on the list. Their Hidden Tribes study – a breakdown of America’s polarised political landscape – had a big impact in the US, receiving long write ups in the Washington Post, New Yorker and New York Times, to name a few. Its analysis is bold and was broadly well received, although some of the conclusions that pundits made about it being a case for centrism were spurious. As Dixon says: ‘This is not an argument for centrism, it’s an argument for respect for other humans.’
Their US study found seven political tribes: Progressive Activists, Traditional Liberals, Passive Liberals, Politically Disengaged, Moderates, Traditional Conservatives and Devoted Conservatives. The data behind these groupings came from a questionnaire which included questions like whether it is more important for children to have independence or respect for elders, or whether the country is going in the right or wrong direction. The study found that more than race, age, gender, or partisan association, the answers to these questions and the values profile they were able to build from them, were the strongest predictors of where the survey participants stood on key issues.
But the purpose of their work is about more than just describing our divisions: More in Common’s goal is to use this evidence base to find solutions to bring us back together. While identifying these distinct tribes, they found that 77 per cent of Americans said that their differences are not so great that they cannot overcome them and work together.
‘There are a set of forces coming together that are driving us apart’
Many journalists have tried to explain Brexit’s divides along simple lines: young vs old, north vs south, urban vs rural, but More in Common’s analysis aims to be far more comprehensive. Dixon implicates new jobs which do not give people a sense of belonging, large multinational corporations which are treating their workers as disposable cogs, the immigration debate, the effect of technology on our democracy and a loss of faith in the system: ‘there are a set of forces coming together that are driving us apart, and they are stronger than the forces that are holding us together.
‘It is a lot more than a story of white working-class resentment. Actually, the feeling of being discarded crosses all the racial barriers, and what our research has shown is that you can see so much similarity in the psychological impact of fracturing that crosses all demographic boundaries, which emphasises our common humanity, but also emphasises how the system is not working.’
Their findings combine some hard truths about our democracy with the seeds of optimism. The divides and polarisation that Brexit has exacerbated gives us as progressives a chance to look at our values and open up a conversation with those on the other side about their hopes and concerns. Dixon says that in his experience, when they give two people with different perspectives a chance to sit down and talk it out, ‘their sense of common interest does actually emerge quite quickly.’
This is not about putting the vision of a radical Labour government to one side in order to appease xenophobes or those interested in locking the powerless out of wealth and opportunity. Like David Lammy, we must not patronise our voters. But if we do not address the social fracturing at the heart of Brexit, the forces of the far-right populists will only grow in strength. Addressing this issue is the foundation for everything we want to achieve: whether that is giving people jobs they feel proud of or addressing climate change for the next generation, the only mechanism we have to achieve this change is our democracy. It is a gift, and it is one we must not take for granted. Or as Dixon puts it: ‘I do think we have limited time, these forces are working quickly. It’s an urgent call to arms.’
If Dixon’s analysis is correct, we are the start of a turbulent chapter in our country’s history. Drawing historical parallels is fraught with difficulty, but Brexit could very well be just the start of something.
One of the strongest arguments in favour of a public vote is that at a time of great division and rising populism, progressives standing up and proudly expressing their values can only be a good thing. This may be true, but if we are not considered in our approach, we could only exacerbate the root causes of Brexit. It is not about compromising our beliefs, but it does mean opening up a conversation. Because that is the only way we will achieve radical change in this country: by starting from the premise that we have more in common than that which divides us.
First, we meet people where they are. Then, we bring them with us.
Stefan Rollnick is the editor of this month’s edition of Progress magazine
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