Thursday, 30 June 2016

Seek first to understand...

A week before the EU referendum, I wrote on here why I was voting Leave. A week after the referendum, I'm going to reflect on the result, why I think it happened, and what happens next.

I'm not normally a fan of American-written management textbooks, but one in which I have found quite a lot to admire over the years has been Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". (NB - definitely not claiming I'm 'highly effective' here; would be happy with 'moderately useful' frankly). His Habit Five is "seek first to understand, then to be understood". The gist of this 'habit' is pretty clear from its name, and the theory underlying it focuses on what it calls empathic listening - listening not just to the words people use, but their underlying messages. I have to say that among all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth I've seen from Remainers in the last week, there hasn't been much empathic listening, just explanations of why they're so right. Why is this important? Because if they - and more importantly those that aspire to lead us in future - were to do this, they'd get a much clearer idea of why the vote went the way it did last week, and the objectives they need to pursue now.

So let's clear one thing up first. I don't regret the way I voted last week, far from it in fact, despite the fact that I, in common with many of the 50+ age group who voted Leave, find myself nominally worse off financially as a result in the decline of some asset values.  I still believe that the EU is fundamentally not just undemocratic, but anti-democratic, and unless it changes radically (which last week's vote may just encourage it to do, in which case the UK will have helped rescue Europe from a big mess for the third time in a century), it will fall apart in a very bad way indeed - just like most other autocratic empires - making the events in the job and financial markets of the last week look like tea at the Ritz in comparison - and we'll have had chance to position ourselves outside that mess comfortably in advance.

Concern for democracy is the most popular reason it appears from post-referendum surveys for people voting Leave. Good, that's right. Does it mean that I and others don't think the EU has done some good things over the years, that it's staffed by bright and well-meaning people, that in its original form it does much to stabilise post-WW2 Europe, and that choosing to leave isn't going to be difficult process with some upheaval? No, it doesn't. But does it mean that I, and seventeen million, others, are terminally-stupid, culturally-closed, foreigner-hating fools who want to turn the clock back? An even more emphatic No. I can't believe I'm even having to write these words, but such is the level of vituperation of the last week directed by the minority towards the majority, it feels necessary.

So what happened last week? Were all of the seventeen million of us who voted Leave seized by high-minded ideals of democracy and representation, choosing principles over pragmatism? Probably not. But one thing united us - we chose not to take the advice of the government of the day, the official Opposition, the parties of devolved government in Wales and Scotland, most big businesses, the Bank of England, and the actors, journalists and activists who between them seem to propagate the morally acceptable opinions of the day (and by implication, create the morally unacceptable positions of those who disagree). Mixing my eras and media, the Leavers were a mix that included Sir Bufton-Tuftons, Vicky Pollards, Hyacinth Bouquets and Andy Capps. In other words, Left and Right, old and young, thick and intelligent. Probably not unlike Remainers.

But they all rejected something. Why? There'll be different reasons and combinations of reasons for everybody of course, but let's take Hyacinth as an example, as I think I know a few Hyacinths. She has never voted Labour, apart from 1997 when she nearly voted for that nice Mr Blair, and probably never will, certainly while that funny man who looks like a geography teacher is in charge. Her life in retirement is pretty comfortable, though she's a bit irritated by how low interest rates are on her modest savings. But a couple of things really get her goat. First, she doesn't go to the doctor often, but when she needs an appointment, it seems to be so much harder than 20 years ago, and the queues when she gets there! Second, while she quite likes it that her house is worth so much, she just doesn't see how her grandchildren are ever going to be able to afford to get on the housing ladder. She just thinks that if there were fewer immigrants here, these things would be much easier.

Hyacinth isn't racist; in fact she really like the Singhs who live next door but one. But she's profoundly mistaken in her analysis of why she can't get a doctor's appointment, and why her grandkids can't buy a house. In the case of the former, it's a complex web of reasons that include the various NHS re-organisations over the years, the continuing imbalance of producer interest versus patient outcome, and the misguided withdrawal of other support services in recent years. In the case of the latter, it's patently the result of an artificially-constrained supply side. In both cases, the level of immigration has got virtually nothing to do with it, and in fact with the NHS, the situation would probably be worse without immigration.

But Hyacinth doesn't see that - she reaches for the answer that appears obvious in front of her eyes; immigration. She may be wrong, but her view is that the 'deal' she thought she had with successive governments is broken - word hard, pay your 'stamp', get access to state-provided health and education, be able to buy a house; all that just doesn't seem to apply any more, and hasn't for some time. She'd never vote Labour (or Lib Dem, or Green,or anything else) to protest, so last week was her big chance.....and she took it. As did Andy Capp, who's seen his income as a manual worker decline in real terms over the last 25 years (despite that being as much to do with the general effects of globalisation as immigration, and despite him helping elect three successive Labour governments that should have been "for him"), as did Bufton Tufton, who "didn't serve in the Army in the '50s to see Britain's laws handed over to Brussels". These people didn't vote for the outcome recommended to them by their natural political party, because their view is that their party has let them down in recent times, and last week was a good chance to protest about that.

So the politicians that are truly worth their salt should see this. They'll understand that many, if not most people, haven't got a problem with immigration or immigrants per se, it's their perceived effects; that being able to travel and work freely in the EU isn't worth a candle to them if they haven't got a job or their family can't afford a house; and that the stock market going down a bit just isn't on their radar. Those politicians will then understand what deal needs to be put in place with the EU, but more importantly, much more importantly, what also needs to be done in policy terms for those people to be prepared to listen to the political classes again.

But those politicians, whatever the colour of their rosettes, will need to do some empathic listening first, not just mouth platitudes about 'listening to the voters'. They've been saying those things for years, but the sentiments haven't been supported by action, and look where it got them - ignored. They'll need to seek first to understand, before they can then be understood.

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