What the EU Referendum has taught me

The referendum campaign has reminded or taught us many things about the relationship between us and the public. I am deliberately writing this before the result. There are matters that need a good hard examination. Among them are these:

1.Since tuition fees, we have been all too aware of people’s lack of trust in us; this is now the view held by even more people about all politicians. So when Sadiq Khan rightly points out the untruths in a leaflet, someone who was chosen as an undecided simply said on camera that he is trained to lie.

2.Large numbers of people no longer want to listen not only to us and other politicians, but even to experts; this should worry us greatly.

3. Views are affected by educational experience and level, not just age. I have met less-well-off young people who blame the EU and immigrants for their troubles. (Recent reports about the relative lack of achievement of white boys in our schools from lower backgrounds is worrying for the future.)

4. Education is supposed to broaden people’s outlook, but it needs to do more of this, since good democracy depends on that; narrowly-focussed academic or technical knowledge and skills is not enough.

5. It is too simplistic to say people have little interest in politics. Many (including those with limited education) can talk at great length when prompted, but their views are based on extremely limited information, the media ‘channel’ they usually access and of course their own often narrow experience. Their views are rarely subjected to discussion and informed challenge.

6. People often cannot distinguish opinion from the task of good government which is to make proper judgment.

7. It is amazing the amount of information about the EU many of us learned as the campaign progressed, much of which was very important for an informed decision; the remainers and MEPs should have been spreading that information years ago to counter those Ukip opinions masquerading as fact.

8. The EU is a remote institution and MEPs are hardly known to their constituents, not that it is their fault.

9. People are not as broadly liberal in approach as we like to think. It takes a long time for many people to be convinced of the broad Liberal approach in politics; we know all too well that to win an election usually requires communicating positively with people long before the actual campaign starts.

10. Accusing people of ‘hate’ or prejudice can itself be dangerous because it turns people off. Most people have prejudices, but these are usually based on lack of experience or true information rather than hate. It takes time for that prejudice to turn to hate, just as it takes time or experiences to undo that prejudice.

11. Positive campaigning is best, but it takes trust and lots of time listening and communicating to succeed. Negative comments that express people’s fears or point out risks have a place, but on their own, they are a copout based on a lack of vision for the future of any institution that we wish to be elected to.

* Nigel Jones is currently secretary of Newcastle under Lyme Liberal Democrats and the Chair of the Liberal Democrat Education Association.

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  • Nigel – I agree, and am particularly worried about your point 2. On the EU, immigration, climate change and many other issues, significant numbers of people are dismissive of expert opinion and hard data. They refer to the well qualified people who actually understand the issues as “so-called” experts.

    I sometime feel we are heading for a new Dark Age.

  • David Evans 25th Jun '16 - 4:34pm

    A thoughtful piece, well written, and worthy of careful consideration. Nigel has great experience, experience we all benefit from. The only thing I would add is to his point on prejudice and lack of experience or true information.

    We all need to remember that, on occasions we use such terms because we we believe we are the ones with the rounded experience and education, whereas the person we are talking to is the one in possession of real experience and facts.

    One area where I have become particularly aware of this is in legal matters, where many of us put a very high on “due process.” However on occasion to those with real experience of what it can involve, due process can become an excuse for excessive delay, or in the case of cross examination, an excuse for astonishing levels of unpleasantness even crossing over into verbal assault and character assassination, which if carried out outside a court would be grounds for prosecution. Either of these can have huge impact on those subjected to them.

  • Adrian Sanders 25th Jun '16 - 4:57pm

    Excellent piece, particularly: “Positive campaigning is best, but it takes trust and lots of time listening and communicating to succeed. ” That comes back to campaigning with people at all levels; from the street to the polling district, ward to town, council area to constituencies, within the workplace, on-line communities and whereever communities of interest exisit. It means concentrating our much reduced resources where they can best be used to campaign and communicate, rebuilding trust and engagement with a sceptical public, building a liberal society from the grass-roots up. It’s what we used to do until recent years.

  • If experts don’t improve your life what use are they to you; and if they are no use why the surprise they are not listened too.

  • Great piece. I would add a #12, however:

    12) The truth on its own is not all that matters in politics. What matters more is the narrative; the feeling and the emotions of an issue. Recognising this and understanding it is the most important thing the Lib Dems can do.

  • This is so very depressing.

    As Remainer I was disappointed by the result but understand very well why so many people felt it was the right thing to do. Nevertheless it seemed to me the right time to become more involved in politics and as a Lib Dem voter I was interested in the party’s response. The Lib Dems are the only UK party to come out of recent years with any sort of credit.

    And then this.

    A commitment to overturn a clear democratic decision. In the unlikely event that the Lib Dems were to win the next election as we all know very well that would be on a plurality voting on a manifesto. Not a majority on a single issue. So there would never be mandate to overturn a decision that has been clearly and democratically made after a long debate. Furthermore we all know damn well that Remain has the weight of the establishment behind it. There has never been a clearer democratic choice made in this country and within two days out leader has come out and announced that he will seek to overturn it.

    It’s so tragic because this could have been a great moment for Liberalism to reassert itself. But it can only be on the basis that we are pro European and Internationalist but respect the choice of the electorate and so will work on these projects from outside the EU. With the EU off the table for a generation as an issue. it would no longer need to be a negative issue for the party in the eyes of an obviously Euro sceptic electorate.

    At the least moderate this policy to something along the lines of ‘we accept the current decision but believe the next generation ought to have the right to vote on it at the appropriate time in the future’ (which in my view needs to be at least 15 years away but can be left suitably vague).

  • The thing I’ve learned is just how London centric the alleged progressive newspapers are. Virtually every Guardian article on the subject uses variations on the phrase “Scotland, like London, voted remain”. There are a lot of problems with this. Firstly it was not a vote based on electoral boundaries , secondly London is a city in England, just like Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester which also “voted remain” mistakenly think it was like voting as a general election. Unlike Scotland they are not nation states. Another thing I learned is that a lot of people don’t even know when the EU cam into existence, let alone what it actually does and that lots of ardent Europhiles never actually vote for MEPS. can’t name who theirs was and in some cases think Angela Merkel is the head of the EU. The point being that pooling lots of data about the social and educational status of voter demographics tells you next to nothing about the levels of ignorance, in either camp, about what they were actually voting for. The probable reality is that by and large people vote on emotion more than information.

  • @ James Gee – A commitment to overturn a democratic decision is how democracy works. You are suggesting it could be changed in 15 years or some suitably vague period – something for which you provide no rationale. Why not in 15 months. There is no legislation that says that a further referendum cannot be held. Parliament is sovereign, it can do what it wishes.

  • Nigel Jones 26th Jun '16 - 1:58pm

    I wrote my piece before the result, but some have now said they find it saddening and depressing. One of my key points was about positive campaigning and getting alongside people, listening and communicating. David Evans rightly says this can mean remembering that the people have their own story and experiences to tell and we must not assume our experience and information is all there is. However, I am optimistic that such a process leads to positive results.
    At the time of the National Front march in Bristol St. Paul’s area, a woman in the NF was challenged by a journalist: Why are you so against immigrants when the person next door to you is one of them ? Oh, she said, he’s alright. We know him.

  • James Gee – completely agree. Sigh.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Jun '16 - 5:21pm

    James Gee I agree ! The time is for being positive about who we are and what we believe.Not for knee jerk reactions,or negative attitudes.

    This article is not a problem but offers solutions.Rewriting history is not one of them !

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