Polarisation and Politics
Polarisation increases public engagement with political issues. Few people understand this phenomenon better than ENGINE MHP Advisor Matthew Elliott, founder of pressure groups the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Big Brother Watch, Campaign Director of NOtoAV and CEO of Vote Leave.
Former CEO of Vote Leave and MHP Advisor
But while many believe Brexit has irrevocably fractured the UK, Elliott believes British politics may have turned a corner, returning to a period of relative consensus. He spoke with our Deputy CEO, Nick Barron:
NB: Has the UK political landscape become more polarised in recent years and if so, does that make life more difficult for a political campaigner?
ME: Let’s take a step back for a second. We had a post-war consensus, broken by Thatcherism and the new right in the 1970s and 80s. Then Blair came along and said ‘we need a third way’, which was essentially a return to consensus in the 90s. Then there was another divergence in the mid-2010s, focused on the Brexit referendum, but with its origins in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Now, it’s too early to say, but I suspect we are moving back to consensus again.
People are fundamentally rational. They have limited time and when there aren’t huge issues at stake, they don’t get involved. Turnout drops. Activism drops. But when you have really divergent debates and big issues, politics matters and people become involved.
The Brexit debate was not just about the EU. As a result of the 2008 crash and the austerity that followed, many felt that they had been left behind. Politics had higher stakes again and people reengaged.
Build Back Better and the Green agenda represent a return to consensus politics – at least on the economic front. It will be interesting to see how the Culture Wars play out, but I suspect ‘London Mayor Boris’ will want to avoid the most polarising elements of this as he resets his Government.
Boris the Unifier?
NB: OK, so if the public wants a more harmonious type of politics, can Boris Johnson be a unifying figure, given everything that’s happened since 2016? Pre-Iraq Blair was a unifier, but post-Iraq Blair polarised opinion. Can Boris reinvent himself again, given his baggage?
ME: It won’t be easy, but his bouncy optimism lends itself to a unifying approach. As a salesman, he’s far better than Starmer. He also needs to restore the Conservative Party’s reputation for competence.
He needs to pick up where he left off after the 2019 election before Covid reared its ugly head and disrupted the whole of 2020. He needs to set out his vision. Get Brexit Done wasn’t a vision, it was a short-term imperative. Levelling Up and Build Back Better don’t yet mean enough to people. People are struggling to see what he’s in power to do. He needs to spell out his vision for the 2020s and show he has the team in place to deliver it.
2016 and its aftermath
NB: How did EU membership, which had rarely been high up the pollsters’ lists of issues that mattered to the UK public, become such a fault line? Did the referendum campaign drive polarisation or was that division there already?
ME: Before the referendum, the EU rarely troubled the MORI tracker poll of issues that mattered most to the electorate, but issues associated with our EU membership such as immigration were in the top 3 issues.
Specifically on migration, it wasn’t so much migration per se that concerned people, it was the lack of control by UK politicians. The public felt lied to by Blair, Brown and Cameron about the effect of the eastern expansion of the EU. They believed the establishment was failing to represent their concerns – that their leaders had become detached – which is why they wanted to Take Back Control. This divergent view about the benefits of EU membership and the downsides of giving up control is where the roots of polarisation lay.
NB: Is it fair to say that this same emotional energy had a big effect on the last two US Presidential elections? After all, one 2016 study showed Trump’s vote increased as a result of negative coverage, while a 2020 study found that Twitter censorship of stories about voter fraud made Republicans more likely to believe fraud took place. Trump’s support is in part due to that same belief that the establishment is detached from the people.
ME: Yes, the rise of what some people call populism is essentially a rejection of the establishment. You can see it too with Covid. Once the public began to believe that the people in charge were not acting fairly or with due concern for their needs or – even worse – were ignoring the rules themselves, the debate around lockdown became politically polarised.
NB: So after Brexit and lockdown, what are the issues that will polarise Britain in future?
ME: I sense that the vast majority of people now want the country to come back together. They are tired of division, they’re sick of arguing about Brexit. They don’t want politicians to use campaigns like Black Lives Matter to divide them.
But the next big issue on the horizon – the drive for Scottish independence – will test the togetherness of the UK. If the Unionist campaign tries Project Fear again, it will not work. Nor will breaking out the Union Jacks. They will need to convince Scottish people that their progressive internationalist instincts are shared by the rest of the UK and can be delivered by an independent Britain.
NB: Can I ask you about the ‘Reality Gaps’ that emerge in polarised debates? For example, in the Scottish independence debate, many nationalists refuse to acknowledge that Scotland is a net fiscal beneficiary of UK fiscal transfers, despite the Scottish government’s own figures showing this. How can communicators reach across a divide, when the other side’s starting point is a very different version of reality?
ME: I think it’s very difficult to do. Better to have a different conversation altogether. Focus on areas where common ground can be found. Above all, common ground can be found in the future tense. That’s why vision is so important. Unionists will persuade few Scottish voters by arguing over the money. They need to focus on what the vision for the United Kingdom is, where the country is headed and how we’re better off continuing to take that journey together.
THE ROLE OF THE MESSENGER
NB: And in general, how important is the messenger in political communications, compared to the message?
ME: It’s hugely important. During the Brexit campaign, we focused heavily on the messenger. Giving Boris Johnson and Gisela Stuart top billing was crucial because it showed voters that they weren’t voting for Nigel Farage by voting Leave.
In terms of bridging divides, it’s important to have a messenger who’s not seen as partisan. Boris’s career before politics and his time as Mayor demonstrated his independent credentials. Gisela’s solid Blairite credentials and German heritage was also helpful.
NB: Is picking a fight with your own side an effective way of earning non-partisan credentials and reaching out to the other side?
ME: It certainly gets cut-through. Doing something painful demonstrates that you’re willing to put country above partisan issues. But you can’t fake it. Michael Howard was always looking for a fight to have with his own side, but couldn’t find anything authentic.
NB: Your work with the TaxPayers’ Alliance has involved taking issues that people were unaware of and making them care about it. What’s your approach to getting cut-through?
ME: It’s ultimately about salience. People will not invest time and energy in an issue if they don’t believe it is important or if they don’t think their support will make a difference. By becoming an informal waste watchdog, the TPA communicates their concerns about government spending effectively and their track record of success demonstrates that it is worthwhile to get involved.
VISION AND LEADERSHIP
NB: The data from More in Common’s ‘Britain’s Choice’ study supports your view that the majority of the public are exhausted by ideological warfare. But I’m not sure that the media are. They still seem to be in the battle mode they have been in since 2016. Case in point: The glee with which many journalists leapt on the rumour that Biden rang Macron before Johnson, as a snub to Brexit Britain. Will the UK media let us get back to consensus politics?
ME: This is where I think leadership comes in. If an organisation isn’t given a clear lead, factions within the organisation pull it in different directions. And if a government bases their plans on what the opinion polls say, that creates factionalism within government and a political incentive for the media to be more activist. Spelling out a clear vision and building a coalition of support – including in the media – reduces factionalism and polarisation.
NB: So is vision and leadership the solution for overcoming polarisation? In the absence of strong leadership, a vacuum forms, and tribalism rushes in to fill it?
ME: Yes. Covid is a good example. Without clarity and a plan for the future, people begin to squabble.
NB: That’s interesting, because one of the psychological drivers of polarisation is uncertainty. When people are more uncertain of the world and their place within it, they become more attracted to strongly held and expressed views. People latch on to strength in uncertain times. And tribal groups offer strength and certainty.
ME: A crucial point about strong leadership is that it is not the same as pretending to have all the answers. In times of crisis, you can admit mistakes and failures and you can be open about the trade-offs involved with every choice. Overclaiming by leaders can be incredibly damaging to public confidence.
NB: And should a strong leader speak directly to the public through their digital channels to cut through a polarised media landscape, or does cutting out intermediaries simply fuel polarisation?
ME: The danger of doing everything directly is that when the media inevitably cover the story, they are left with nothing to say rather than offer their opinion on the story. If you speak to them first then their reports have to begin with what you have to say. A good leader has to work with, rather than against, the media. Even Donald Trump needed Fox News.