People are complicated – not necessarily tribal

I shall say this only once. I have some sympathy with David Cameron not recognising what was coming down the track. It’s not just about the referendum itself. I still believe that he was wrong to go for a referendum after the 2010 General Election in a representative democracy, but there is another powerful factor in play which has become clearer in the years since the 2016 vote.

Six years is a long time in terms of the role of social media in the political arena. The polarisation of positions/opinions/allegiances has deepened in the UK partly because of an oversimplified binary vote and partly because of the corrosion and distortion which comes with certain uses of social media in the political or quasi-political realm.

When I became an elected representative fairly late in life (after a lifetime as an activist), I had a fairly settled view of what politicians were for. I saw them as people’s representatives who had some ability at explaining complicated stuff in relatively simple terms so that people were  better equipped to make some choices at elections. With this honourable understanding I can justify the shortest of Focus headlines and a press release which is well under half a page of A4.

I still buy into the basic model.  I am a kind of professional simplifier but the last few years have alerted us to the dangers of not giving sufficient recognition to the complicated reasons as to why people hold opinions which we profoundly disagree with or which fly in the face of expert opinion. Sonia Sodha, a distinguished leader writer for the Observer, encapsulated her view in a non-leader article with the headline “Question Time showed that you can’t counter anti-vax myths with cold reason alone”.

In mid-January Fiona Bruce had invited unvaccinated viewers to apply to be part of the audience for last week’s Question Time. Sonia argues that this decision was remarkably flawed and this was shown by the tone and content it generated. It had bought into the conventional wisdom that “on most issues people can be divided into tribes based on their fixed beliefs”. Seeing the unvaccinated as a group of people who have been “unrepresented” by the national broadcaster was a simplification too far.

Liberal Democrats have certainly benefitted from people holding conflicting beliefs at the same time. In December Helen Morgan won in North Shropshire because people in a Remain constituency were prepared to adopt a hierarchy of political priorities that matched their perceived needs on a particular occasion. In very different territory in 2018 some people said they disagreed with my views on Europe but were still prepared to vote for my re-election. I could do no other than respect this political maturity!

Perhaps I was rightly berated on this site for saying that leavers were conned during the referendum campaign. It might have been better to say that the country overall had been conned, or indeed, to settle for saying that I believed that Johnson, Farage and their ilk had fought a self-serving misleading campaign.

Just as people voted Leave for all sorts of reasons, so they do not become part of a tribe when they decline Covid vaccinations. They can range from full-blown subscribers to conspiracy theories to those who simply observe the bad reactions of others to a jab. My first vaccination left me more or less motionless for eighteen hours after I got home but that didn’t stop me looking forward to the second, and subsequently third, vaccination. I can understand why others would have some doubts after the first hurdle.

I found myself confronting the sharp end of the spectrum after delivering a leaflet to a man who appeared from behind the door “to have a word with a local councillor.” At one point, in a conversation that got weirder and weirder, he took umbrage at my innocently asking if he was a pandemic denier. He then started threatening me with physical violence. I got out of trouble by playing every personal safety trick I knew, including stepping into the road as he followed me along the pavement. Clearly in that situation just to continue listening would not have been helpful. But whether we be politicians or journalists or employers, the normal drill should be to listen to those whose views on a specific issue we find difficult to understand.

Lib Dems pride themselves on “listening to people”.  Whether we knew it or not in former times, any hint today that we are proclaiming “we know better” should be (ahem!) avoided like the plague.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • Brad Barrows 11th Feb '22 - 2:16pm

    Thanks for this, Geoff. I think part of the issues we now face are caused by the assumption that every person’s opinion is of equal worth and equal weight. We see this in programmes like Question Time where an eminent economist or scientist may give there opinion on a matter of economics or science, following which members of the public – with zero knowledge or training – are invited to give there opinions on these same questions, and feel perfectly comfortable telling the economist or scientist that they are wrong. There was a time when people listened to the views of experts before coming to their own opinions – now many people feel their opinions are as valid as those of experts so are unwilling to listen to evidence that may prove their opinion false. I remember having a discussion with a relatively educated relative during the Scottish referendum in which he made completely false claims regarding Scotland’s level of public spending and tax income…I sent him a link to official data, thinking it may help to open his mind, but he retorted that the official figures differed from what he had read so he didn’t accept them! Quite depressing actually – campaigning is no longer about seeking to persuade…it is now just about ensuring that those who do agree with your beliefs turn up to vote.

  • Brad Barrows 11th Feb '22 - 2:18pm

    Wrong ‘there’ again…! (‘Their’ opinion…)

  • For 2010 read 2015!

  • I assume it was an unintended slip to refer to North Shropshire as “a Remain constituency”: According to the list on the HOC website it was estimated to have been 6 to 4 for Leave.

  • John Marriott 11th Feb '22 - 3:31pm

    @Brad Barrows
    With reference to Question Time and contradicting the experts, haven’t you heard of ‘alternative facts’? Oh, and how do you define ‘relatively educated’? What relative level of education did your relative reach. From what you write it would appear to be lower than yours. What the EU referendum did was to afford many people the opportunity to give the government, any government, a good kicking, which it undoubtedly did.

    @Geoff Reid
    Regarding Cameron and his referendum, I really believe that he included the pledge to hold one in the Tories’ 2015 Election Manifesto to get his party’s eurosceptics off his back because he believed that, after the GE, we would end up with another hung Parliament, which would conveniently tie his hands on the matter. What he didn’t reckon with was that his coalition partners would implode, a process, which was hardly helped by his allowing Grant Shapps and his merry little band of Young Tories with seemingly limitless funds to crisscross the West Country to unseat so many incumbent Lib Dem MPs.

  • Brad Barrows 12th Feb '22 - 12:04pm

    @John Marriott
    I have no problem with ‘alternative facts’ if they are facts. The problem is when someone argues with an expert from a basis of ignorance and their statement is given equal validity. For example, I well remember one incident on Question Time (at a time when the rate of inflation was falling) when an economist made a comment based on the factual point that inflation was falling, and a member of the audience then commented in response that, “I don’t agree that inflation is falling as prices are still rising”… Comments like that are not valid opinions – they are certainly not ‘alternative facts.’

  • When people are effected by circumstances they generally need information and help to interact with the system. One of our greatest tasks is to provide this on a personal level. This empowers them to the extent that they feel able to participate.

  • James Fowler 13th Feb '22 - 12:11pm

    Great article Geoff, thank you. It’s normal in my experience for people to have strongly held but very contradictory positions on different topics – sometimes on different aspects of the same topic(!) – and this spans the entire political spectrum, not just the alt-right. It’s easy to expose that incoherence in open debate, which (in my view) is why so many people, again from across the whole political spectrum, have become hostile to what is now pejoratively termed ‘free speech’. Like you say, I think it’s best to accept complexity and therefore expecting logical coherence in patterns of belief is misplaced. Instead we can try and tease out the emotional cohesion that reconciles that apparently irreconcilable – this takes a lot of active listening.

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