Caroline Lucas’s new project, ‘Dear Leavers‘, bills itself as making up for decades of neglect by the British establishment of the groups who drove the referendum result in 2016. Leaving aside the telling and correct implication that a Green MP is a member of the establishment, it exemplifies a recurring rhetorical problem for the British centre-left.
To illustrate, here are some choice excerpts from the introductory article she wrote for the i:
Nearly three years after people voted for drastic change, her Government has done nothing to address the grotesque levels of inequality and disenchantment with the status quo that helped drive the 2016 referendum result.
General election after general election, their voices are ignored and their votes simply don’t count. They recognise the democratic deficit within our winner-takes-all electoral system.
Most leave voters think politicians are out of touch. And I don’t believe Theresa May’s closed-doors negotiations will do anything to fix that.
Lucas’s approach appears to be one of speaking to ‘normal people’ and figuring out how she can sell the Green manifesto – wealth redistribution, electoral reform, a second referendum – to them, rather than actually listening to them. She still doesn’t think “Brexit is the solution to the very real problems we face”, but thanks Leavers for “giving the establishment a kicking”. The solutions she presents are not amenable to change, only the rhetorical targeting.
Nowhere is this more clear than in her two paragraphs on immigration:
Even where the real blame lies with successive governments’ failures to build affordable and social housing, several people believed immigration had helped to make homes in their area unaffordable. As a proud advocate of what I see as our wonderful right to move freely across 27 other countries, this wasn’t easy to hear. But it’s crucial that politicians like me genuinely listen to these deeply-held concerns – and do something to address them.
Because when large numbers of people move somewhere, whether from Canterbury or Calais, it’s vital that local councils, schools and health services receive enough government funding to cope with increased demand. Everyone in our society – from new arrivals to people who’ve lived in their area for 80 years – needs a warm, safe, affordable home and quality public services they can rely on.
Translated into normal language, this can be summed up as “the real solution to immigration is not to reduce the number of immigrants, but rather to enact the policies we have been arguing for years”. Whatever this is, it does not much resemble listening – rather more proactive public relations.
Remainers, especially People’s Vote enthusiasts like Caroline Lucas, are often accused of being patronising. Here, the Dear Leavers project attemps to avoid being patronising but ends up sounding much more patronising in the process. It is reminiscent of “We’re sorry you had this experience” customer service: there is nothing we can do, so here are some platitudes to sweeten the pill you’ll have to swallow. The actual process of listening sounds a lot different to this. It typically involves rather more silence and learning from the listener, rather than just seeking a good way to phrase everything one already believes.
It is bad strategy, of course. But the secret here is that Dear Leavers is not addressed to Leavers at all. Rather, it is for the consumption of Remain voters, especially the faction who are convinced that the government’s refusal to implement their series of policies (usually nationalisation, increased welfare payouts, tax rises and so on) is what led to Brexit. In this model of the world, the 17 million Leave voters are just Green voters who haven’t been woken up yet.
Dear Leavers reassures hardline Remainers that they are listening to the poor, benighted, uneducated Brexiters, while conveniently editing out anything that might actually threaten their programme, such as leaving the European Union or reducing immigration. It is a simulacrum of a listening exercise, not unlike a government consultation about an already-decided policy. It is not for the benefit of those being listened to, but rather the purported listener, who will adopt a look of pious concern and go on to implement the ‘solutions’ they had planned already. What incentive do Leavers have to talk to the establishment, when they have already decided what they are going to learn from the experience?