It is easy to want to roar with frustration. As the time gets eaten away until Brexit deadline day, as I sit in rooms with colleagues, as listening becomes increasingly rare, I want to roar. Scream, shout, swear. Brexit has driven Britain up the wall, and sometimes it feels like the only answer is a good old fashioned swear. But it wouldn’t work. Adding yet more noise isn’t the answer, and it hasn’t been for some time.
Pre-Trump, the United Kingdom led the way in following big men with wild promises. In both the US and the UK, irresistible rhetoric that said the unsayable and undeliverable on the campaign trail have now become an incoherent nightmare once they are a reality for government to grapple with. In the US, it’s the fact that Trump’s tariffs are paid for by working people, not China, and his tax cuts simply help the rich. In the UK it’s the inescapable reality that the Brexit will cause job losses in industrial areas – significant parts of the country that voted for it. The NHS was promised millions extra every week – instead, it now has chronic staff shortages. They aren’t getting better with Brexit.
The inescapable reality is worsening poverty for many.
But the real problem for all of us who take a progressive view of the world, is not the complacent certainty the public got the answer wrong. It is that our belief in democracy means that we cannot just dismiss the very democratic act that brought us to this point. We may despise Trump, and we may oppose every aspect of Brexit, but we cannot deny that the public voted for both. And those voters had their reasons. In the UK, this is causing great grief, as the politicians – many of whom have severe doubts about Brexit – are portrayed as trying to ignore those in society who voted for it.
The problem gets to the heart of what democracy is really about. Can you listen to people, even when they voted for a thing that you believe makes your country very, very much worse? Is it possible to maintain the Michelle Obama principle – that when they go low, we go high – or are we now all doomed to shout past each other in the hope that the electoral maths works out better for our tribe next time, and then we will really hammer our point home.
The tribes are, in the end part of the trouble. Being against others is easier than being for a set of values. The cultural tribes, when it comes to Brexit anyway, are causing those involved in politics to dismiss the views of others who they see too little of and hear too little from. And that’s because Westminster politics – like all national legislatures - is dominated by those who are able to portray themselves as leading a clique or a camp. These are the glamourous types who are well-connected in the media and the establishment. You hear a lot of them, you don’t seem to see much thinking and reflecting of what has brought us to this point. But the problem is that this inward nature of Westminster – especially in relation to Brexit – is locking out the public. People see the problem in their own narrow political terms, not from the eyes of those outside Westminster circles. They want people to vote for them, but in between times, there is not much listening.
This is a Westminster default. Before the second world war, Members of Parliament didn’t hold regular sessions where their constituents could meet them. Many of them rarely visited their constituency, much less chose to live there. But expectations have become different. So too have structures. Most MPs now have local offices, so as to be present in the lives of their constituents, not just when an election is called. Because the truth is, democracy is not just about voting. It is also about having institutions that can provide a sounding board for politicians. Which means listening as well as talking.
Sometimes, as politicians, we have to shut up, and listen. And now is one of those times. We need to create more meaningful democracy. We cannot expect a binary referendum or a single vote in a general election to provide enough information about the public’s priorities for politicians to take huge decisions about the future of our country.
That is why the question of how Citizens’ Assemblies can be used to inform the Brexit process is now high on the agenda. These bodies, created for not a general but a specific purpose, to answer a specific question, are made up of randomly selected groups of citizens, designed to reflect the makeup of the public.
It is not a new idea. Ireland has suffered from the inability of its politicians to come to a consensus on abortion for many, many years. So, the Irish government used a Citizens’ Assembly to decide the referendum process that would ask the most difficult question in a fair manner. The participants took evidence from all sides. They did not shy away from hearing from every view, no matter how extreme. In our own House of Commons, Select Committees are already using Citizen’s juries to investigate the hardest and most intractable political questions, like the funding of social care. Members of Parliament who have participated are impressed. The quality of discussion and debate is raised.
This is because of the structure. In this environment, everyone has to listen to each other. No shouting, no swearing, no roaring. Instead, consideration and deliberation. This is a richer form of democracy than expecting all complex questions to be reduced to one binary vote.
Structure, then must be the route out of the populist mess. Instead of thinking that there is a political fix, or a policy fix, what we actually need is to fix the idea that Westminster can decide Brexit all by itself. We have demonstrated that we can’t. The referendum asked one question and everything got tied up in it; the Tories opened a can of worms and we wonder why the Conservative And Unionist Party have no desire or ability to clean the worms up. Everybody talking, nobody listening. Our values are to trust the people, not put words in their mouths as the Prime Minister (amongst others) is doing. Let’s ask them more than one question, let them ask each other more than one question.
And then let’s listen to the answers in good faith. We might all learn a thing or two.
Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South