By Carolyn Lochhead
I suspect I’m not the only person who has found the last year in politics surprising. Sometimes baffling. And on at least two occasions, utterly unfathomable.
That’s why I was delighted when I spotted The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? I hoped it would give me fresh ideas about how to operate as a policy campaigner in this ever-more-extraordinary world.
And it did. Climate change activist Alex Evans’ short book puts forward one primary idea: enemy narratives, in which a single person or movement is framed as the problem, are no longer useful. Demonising Trump, Juncker, Farage or anyone else is not the way to win an argument.
He argues that there is no intrinsic need for narratives to have an enemy: classical myths were often about quests, challenges or overcoming weaknesses. Hence the idea of a myth gap: Evans believes we have stopped telling stories that explain who we are and where we are going. We think we are too sophisticated for myths.
But this creates a space for good stories. In 2016, UKIP had a simple, attractive story: “Europe is taking too much of our money. Let’s leave and do things our own way.” Donald Trump’s was even simpler: “Everything is terrible because the country is run by elites. We’ll make America great again.”
Evans tells us: “Too often, political progressives try to fight these hugely resonant stories with policy memos”.
I think he’s right. And not only that, we’re not making enough effort to listen to each other, let alone frame our arguments in ways that make sense to people who don’t already agree with us.
In the recent battles on both sides of the Atlantic, liberals pointed and laughed at opponents’ ridiculous claims. There was much chuckling along to the Radio 4 News Quiz, retweeting snarky comments about Nigel Farage and generally assuming that everybody else was finding it all equally funny.
The point is, there wasn’t any attempt to find middle ground. Like a secondary school dance where no-one has successfully smuggled in any vodka, people took opposing positions and remained there, eyeing each other suspiciously. Alex Evans is arguing that we ought to have been in the middle of the floor, listening, talking and possibly snogging (I may not have interpreted this bit correctly).
He cites the issue of climate change, where for years people have broadly agreed that there is an urgent problem, but little progress has been made. He calls it a classic “thin yes” – people agree with the proposition but are unwilling to personally make any changes to address the problem. And in part, says Evans, that’s because it’s been made clear to the public that:
“Their job is to listen to the experts and then remember to turn out the lights. It’s certainly not to participate, much less wield power”.
Evans is clear that this must change. It is not enough to commission polls and put out reports: we need to build movements. And these movements must be based around small units, with real power in each. The Tea Party is a movement. Most policy outfits are not. But it’s a scary prospect – with their brand guidelines, centralised plans and media-buying budgets, many organisations are not set up for operating in this way.
That will have to change. Too many of us, pressed for time and despairing of being heard over the constant Brexit chatter, resort to wonkish policy-speak in our briefings and reports, instead of challenging ourselves to find words, images and stories that connect with real people.
If we are to create honest political debate instead of ever-widening chasms between two fixed views, we must find ways to speak directly – and listen carefully – to a wider audience, using language we all understand. If we can’t do that, then we will not be heard: no matter how carefully we’ve checked our stats.
Carolyn Lochhead is Public Affairs Manager at mental health charity SAMH. You can follow her at @theshooglypeg.