In 6 months there will be General Election where levels of community cohesion and the impact of immigration are likely to be a dominant issue.
The European elections and the recent by-elections in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton are symptomatic of widespread disaffection with the mainstream political parties. The phrase ‘the left behind voter‘ has been used in recent months. TCC with its values approach has already described in detail the disaffected ‘Settler‘ left behind by globalising changes which they want to instead see ‘nationalised’ whether it is laws, railways or immigration. However this is not just about the political right. Recent polling at the other end of the political spectrum also shows a rise in the Green vote that may reflect a different form of disaffection and a fundamental rejection of the values of a more publicly vociferous and politicised ‘left behind’ vote by articulate, highly socially networked and well-educated concerned ethical ‘pioneers’ who hold an entirely different set of values. This is discussed in more detail below.
In 2010 I wrote, “if the recent General Election leads you to believe a significant number of people are still disaffected and disengaged, this is not something that can be left for later. It requires early engagement now, through greater insight, better language and more involvement of front-line staff and lay people in communicating emotionally resonant cohesion messages.”
Four years on I think the situation is even more acute than those prescient comments and I again flag up that engaging with the disaffected or ‘left behind’ is vital for any community that aspires to be cohesive.
A poll by ComRes for the Independent on Sunday over the weekend found that most British (52%) want to be free to live and work “anywhere in the European Union”. With 26% against. However, we aren’t quite so warm about letting our fellow Europeans have the same right to live and work in Britain, with barely one in three (36%) supporting it, compared to the 46% who hated the idea.
The details of that poll are here. The swing between the most ‘inconsistent’ v the most ‘consistent’ groups of voters between each question is shown below. The average for the UK is an 18% swing of view between each question
- UKIP voters – 29% swing
- Over 65s – 24% swing
- Skilled manual workers – 23.5% swing.
- 2010 Conservative voters – 21.5% swing. (this group includes the voters who voted Labour in 2005, Tory in 2010 and now UKIP in 2014, due to their frustration with politics)
- Labour voters- 11.5% swing
- Green voters – 7.5% swing
Can those who believe they hold consistent views have a rational conversation with those who hold what they might feel are inconsistent views on the question? Indeed would each side see each other as consistent and the other as inconsistent in some way? This gap is likely to be reinforced if one then looks at how people over-estimate certain immigration and migration statistics. From our values research we very importantly understand that one should not judge from the standpoint of just one values set.
This values gap seems to be widening and may correlate with a rise in opposition to the values of the left behind and disaffected as this long-term MORI poll study shows with the consistent rise of pro-EU opinion at the same time as the rise of UKIP. The strengthening of ‘Eurosceptic’ visibility and representation may be having a countervailing effect on the 62% of people who are ‘UKIPsceptic’ saying they will never vote UKIP. This is not in any way a values choice about the future, but instead looks like a widening gap between different segments of the population influenced by values and politics over perceptions of the past. However we need more research into this potential ‘marmite effect‘ to see how much the rise of one party is not only impacting on the behaviour of its own supporters but also on those who may be increasingly strongly opposed to it
Whilst some politicians can make the calculation that they can play to one set of values at this gap or the other, public bodies have no such choice and need to communicate effectively across it to all parts of the community. Outside of political conflict community cohesion is still very important in order for society to function. Whilst politicians can see the results of voting as a priority, public bodies may see those results more as symptoms of a deeper set of causes that require them to reconsider how they relate to the public in a different way.
Just as they need to tackle challenges often arising from a failure to engage with individuals early; they also need an early engagement approach in order to communicate to an audience with a much wider range of responses – as shown above – to that which a public body may through its strong internal values think is a ‘rational’ way to think and behave.
There are a number of ways to do this that can be done separately or more effectively as part of a wider strategy:
- Engagement programmes on public bodies’ priorities giving real and clear choices and explaining why they exist as well as Participatory Budgeting and perhaps some Citizens Juries. Projects like this need to reach out to thousands, not hundreds of people. They can also lead to follow-up qualitative discussion groups that help gather information on the negative and pessimistic community narratives in order to be able to communicate more effectively with them
- A communications audit so that messages and their messengers can be made more effective, authentic and accessible to local people.
- Community Leadership training programmes that involve Board members and Council Cabinet Members and Ward Councillors to go out into the streets to problem solve local issues with their residents rather than just in committees, or board meetings
- Training programmes for hundreds of front-line staff that enable them to engage with Effective Conversations that are about listening and empathy to people who are frustrated with how they are treated
- Local word of mouth community communicator programmes that involve hundreds of local residents communicating their views to the Council and their neighbours as well as knowing their own comments would be reported right back to Chief Executive or senior Councillor level. The aim here is to shift people from hostility caused by a sense of powerlessness or a sense of being ignored to a situation where people are engaged and they end up giving the public body the ‘benefit of the doubt’, which then allow a ‘foot in the door’ to people’s emotions for other more rational myth-busting facts to at least then be listened to.
- All this needs to lead to a public body ensuring actions match words. If people complain about the area ‘going downhill’ visible campaigns such as ‘eyesore gardens’ campaigns can show a public body is really listening. If some people feel their identity is not celebrated and downgraded, St Georges Day events and Bonfire Night events could be much more strongly supported not held back by paperwork. If not disaffected left behind voters will simply see the Council bureaucrat in the same way as the EU bureaucrat
This approach has been tried and tested in very tough places with improvements in measured levels of trust and much stronger community cohesion.
Being aware of the various symptoms of disaffection is good. However developing a strategy to build a serious relationship with people to address the causes of disaffection in what ever form it arises is what will really matter in future.