The Vote Leave campaign converted questionable economic statistics into powerful but ultimately false promises about funding the UK NHS in the 2016 EU Referendum campaign. Now, as Britain faces a £36bn bill for the first item on the Brexit menu, Brexiteers may face a hospital-cost blowback.
“I would go mad if this money doesn’t go into the NHS, I will go mad. I want to be assured that this money – because that’s why I voted to come out” – Shirley in Sunderland (see below). From The Guardian
Measuring Policies in Terms of Hospitals
Campaigners and politicians know that if you want to add some emotional oomph to a statistic to support your case, then convert it into something tangible which people care about. In the UK that’s certainly health, and the state of National Health Service is consistently number one public concern.
In the EU Referendum campaign the Leave campaign made effective use of a claim that Brexit would liberate huge sums (£350m a week) to spend on the NHS.
That same statistical translation could now come back to bite them, as Brexiteers grapple with how to communicate the fact that Britain may have to pay £36bn to the EU to meet its liabilities, just in order to get the Brexit negotiations properly underway.
Mail Online 6 August 2017
Brexiteers obviously see this as a political liability because they immediately started denouncing it as an outrage. ‘Tory Eurosceptics reject move to pay £36bn EU `divorce´ bill’ ran a Mail Online headline on 6 August. Arch Brexit campaigner, Conservative MP Peter Bone even claimed that the EU should be paying the UK, not the other way around.
So £36bn is a lot but what does it mean in ‘real terms’ ? In terms of hospitals for instance. BBC journalist Jonathan Dunbar investigated this in a September 2016 post entitled Is a hospital a useful unit of spending? He wrote:
Politicians and commentators appear to have settled on a new unit of measuring public spending – the hospital. So how much does a hospital actually cost?
… The Vote Leave campaign, for instance, declared during the referendum on European Union membership: “The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year.”
MEP Daniel Hannan tweeted: “According to the European Court of Auditors, €7 billion of the 2013 budget was misspent. Enough to build 10 state-of-the-art NHS hospitals.”
The £350m a week turned out to be a bit of ‘Fake News’ and was abandoned by the Leave campaign after the Referendum but it has stuck in the public mind, so it might be a useful way of breaking down that new number, £36bn.
What About £36bn of Hospitals For The NHS ?
As Dunbar points out, the actual cost of a NHS hospital is hard to nail down, as they range from much less to much more than £350m. One thing that the NHS does buy, and for which the BBC found the figures were in general agreement is MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) ‘Scanners’. It turns out that these useful diagnostic tools cost the NHS about £895,000 each.
The cash-strapped NHS could certainly do with a lot more MRI scanners.
Mail Online/ Daily Mail, June 2014
In 2014 the Mail Online, partner website to the right-wing Daily Mail, was outraged to discover from an OECD study that even Turkey and Slovakia have more MRI scanners per head than the UK. Headlining its report: ‘Deadly shortage of cancer scanners shames the UK’. The Mail added: ‘Nations record on cancer survival is among the worst in Europe’. What made this state of affairs even more galling, as the Mail noted glumly, is that the scanner was a British invention (or our scientists were at least ‘instrumental’ in inventing it).
OECD – the UK has only 7.2 scanners per million people
OECD – Japan has 51.7 scanners per million people
UK Could Top The Global Scanner Rankings
So for £36bn we could get a lot of MRI scanners. By my calculation the NHS could in fact buy 40,223 MRI scanners. Seeing as in 2014 we had only 467 of them, the UK could increase its scanner quotient 861-fold ! With a current UK population of about 65.1m, we’d have at least 40,690 MRI scanners, or one scanner per 1600 people. That translates into 625 scanners per one million people, putting Britain where it rightly belongs, at the top of the global scanner table, beating Japan 12 times over.
Or Have 102 New NHS Hospitals
On Vote Leave’s figure of £350m per hospital, we’d get 102 new UK NHS hospitals for £36bn. Or rather the NHS isn’t going to get 102 new hospitals, instead the rest of the EU is going to get enough UK taxpayers money to build 102 new NHS hospitals.
Good news that newspapers like the Daily Mail could celebrate. Except that there’s a catch: to get at that £36bn for the NHS, we’d have to not leave the EU. The Daily Mail of course, is a fervently pro-Brexit newspaper.
Stage 1 of Brexit To Cost the UK 102 Hospitals or 40,690 Scanners
To put it in Vote Leave terms, maybe ‘on the side of a bus’, this first stage of Brexit is going to cost the UK over 100 (102 at £350m each) new NHS hospitals. Or if you favour the greater certainty of the BBC’s preferred NHS unit of measurement, it will rob the NHS of over 40,000 MRI scanners and leave us languishing near the bottom of the international cancer- scanner ranking among developed economies.
Makes you think doesn’t it ?
Shirley of Sunderland
It’s easy for professional communicators and politicians to regard fast-and-loose use of statistics and framing in a cynical ‘worldly-wise’ manner, as simply ‘par for the course’. But the tragic thing is that it has had profound real world consequences, and some people were cruelly deceived by the promises of the Leave campaign.
Can the UK avoid Brexit ? While nearly all attention focuses on Britain’s beleagured Prime Minister Theresa May, the person who could most easily swing it is the newly popular Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Whether he does or not, may come down to making a choice he’d rather not make, between the old and the young, between the past and the future.
Why so ? Because any of the more plausible routes to Brexit Exit require a significant shift in public opinion, dignified by many MPs after the 2016 EU Referendum, as ‘the Will of the People’. Corbyn is in a position to deliver that shift in mood, whereas May is not. This blog explores why Corbyn probably does not want to do that but he might have to.
The Public Mood Is the Will Of The People
Mood is pivotal because political credibility increasingly demands staying on the right side of it. Mood captured in opinion polling (see more later) is an expression of the public will. It’s affected by perceptions of events and options on offer, and politicians still have some power to shape those options. As all pollsters and politicians know, people tend not to back options that do not look credible, for instance if nobody in a position of influence seems to back them (‘value expectancy’ theory), and cannot back options that are not put to them.
There are quite a few possible variants of ‘Brexit’, such as whether it involves breaking all ties with the EU, or remaining somehow ‘inside’ the Single Market, the Customs Union, within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and within arrangements on freedom of movement, and to what extent, after otherwise ‘leaving’ the EU, the UK accepts EU rules in order to get trade benefits.
Since the June 2016 Referendum, and especially since the June 2017 General Election, UK public opinion has moved steadily towards the more connected, ‘softer’ forms of Brexit. May’s enfeebled government has started giving way on its negotiating ‘red lines’, and is internally split over a range of harder-softer Brexit issues, and the period of any ‘transitional arrangements’ after ‘Brexit’. Brexit no longer just means Brexit but degrees of Brexit.
It is not political ‘rocket science’ to see that this unbundling could lead to Brexit never happening at all, something which outsiders like LibDem Vince Cable and ex PM Tony Blair have talked about but which the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have avoided mentioning. Perhaps most importantly, a majority now favour a new referendum (Second Referendum) to give the public a final say on whether or not to accept any ‘deal’ that results from the talks with Brussels. That would of course be a second formalised measure of the ‘Will of the People’.
Corbyn could greatly influence all that but the one option which is hardly mentioned, is exiting Brexit, and he is in a uniquely powerful position to create that option, which is probably one reason why he never talks about it.
Why Is Corbyn so Silent on Brexit ?
The most obvious reasons for Corbyn’s carefully studied ambiguity over Brexit are that his heart was never really in staying in the EU, his own party is split over the EU, and that his political base is split between Leave and Remain (see more, later).
He and his advisers may also fear that raising the possibility of staying in the EU would enrage the Brexiteers, and might revitalise UKIP. Far better, they may reason, to lie low, let May sail on to become entangled in impossible politics, hit the sands of intractable negotiations, and take the cannon fire from Brexiteers, as she is forced to jettison one part of their project after another. To be, as one writer put it, ‘Brexit Bystanders’.
Even when launching his General Election campaign, Corbyn dismissed Brexit as ‘settled’. Yet this may not be a strategy which stands much exposure. The problem for Corbyn is that his new found political success, popularity and credibility is substantially built on the votes of Remainers, and especially, for they are one and the same, the young. He faces many “what-if’s”.
What if, as is quite possible, May resigns ? If she is then replaced by someone who has ‘read the runes’ and sees that Brexit looks terminally disastrous, she or he might opt to ‘revisit’ it, perhaps arguing that as the EU has now in some way reformed, it is no longer the same beast we rejected so narrowly in 2016. A suitable chastened and newly sensible Boris Johnson for instance ?
What if, as is also possible, something happens to erode support for Brexit among those who voted Leave ? If a crisis in the NHS for instance, comes to be seen as caused by the Brexit process (eg involving recruitment from the EU). This only seems impossibly unlikely because it is not being talked about and a crystallising event has not happened. Recent values-segmented research by Pat Dade from CDSM shows that the Conservative vote in 2016 became spectacularly entrenched within the Settlers, the self same people who formed the core support for Leave. Few of these people voted Labour in 2017 (see more below) but they may have been crucial in some of Labour’s ‘traditional’ seats. The NHS is a high priority for these security driven folk.
Then what if, the many Remainer Pioneers who voted for Corbyn, were to wake up to the fact that he could lead the country away from Brexit but he is not ? That he seems to have taken the young for granted as ‘useful idiots’ ? As Lord Ashcroft found after the election, some 43% of 2017 Labour voters still wanted Britain never to leave the EU, and that’s without any public ‘narrative’ on the option. Corbyn’s star could fall on social media and in the press as quickly as it rose. Corbyn-mania could prove as short-lived as Clegg-mania.
“Oh Jeremy Corbyn”, they sang at Glastonbury. Oh Jeremy Corbyn, will you chose the old or the young ?
Corbyn Mania, Corbyn Fashion
The thing about fashion is that it is a powerful but fickle beast. In CDSM’s values model terms, what’s fashionable is determined by the Prospector Now People, well represented at Glastonbury, along with their friends the Pioneer Transcenders (of whom more later).
I didn’t get a very positive response from most readers when I wrote in a blog in September 2015 (Jeremy Corbyn: What The Media and Political Classes Don’t Get) that: ‘I think that Corbynism could do real damage to the Conservatives’ … ‘he could reverse the ‘hollowing out’ of British politics’ and ‘lots of people, especially young people too young to remember the politics of say the 1960s – 1980s, are hearing such political ideas for the first time. This is generating an air of excitement and youthful energy around a political leader in his sixties whose views the Labour Party had long buried as political suicide’.
‘So could Jeremy Corbyn ever appeal to Prospectors ? Not likely on rational analysis … But what if fashion changes ? (The test of which is the opinions of the Now People). Could Corbyn yet become a sort of political grunge retro fashion icon ? Possibly if he looks popular enough.
He’s got a yawning gulf to cross from universalist ethical land to appeal to the power and material wealth brigade, and in the middle of that divide lies ground such as ‘showhome’, which at first sight looks impossible to traverse.
If he does become Labour leader, their best hope of winning back the Prospector middle ground probably lies in making the Labour Party fun and fashionable around him. It seems unlikely that will be by design. Unite and the other unions are not that sort of Party People. But what if the surge of younger people attracted to Corbyn’s Labour, not all of whom are tactical Tories, Trots or other entryists, are themselves part of a social change that could float Corbyn’s boat even despite all the conventional Labour ballast ? A tide of New Political Beatniks ?
So don’t try to be the trendy vicar Jeremy. Remain authentically unreconstructed and just hope that vicars become trendy. If an interest in radical policy becomes de rigeur post-hipster, Corbyn could yet prove to be an electoral asset. But maybe that’s too radical’.
I didn’t think it would happen but it did. On June 24 this year, Hannah Marriott, fashion editor of The Guardian ‘decoded’ Corbyn’s ‘sartorial choices’ for the Glastonburyites in an article entitled ‘Corbyn fashion: the new face of Balenciaga?’ [I had to look up Balenciaga: apparently it is a French luxury fashion house founded by a designer from the Basque country in Spain, which makes nice shoes, handbags and other things]. She wrote:
“Undoubtedly, Jeremy Corbyn is far too busy with politics to be paying attention to the trends emerging from the men’s fashion shows in Paris this weekend. And yet, spookily enough, his outfit today closely mirrors some of the strongest spring/summer 2018 men’s looks.
His beaten-up brown lace-up shoes are uncannily similar to those worn by male models on the Balenciaga catwalk a few days ago, in a show inspired by the off-duty looks adopted by office workers taking their kids to the park at the weekend. Balenciaga’s design team would appreciate the normcore appeal of his unbuttoned, creased denim shirt, too, while his white trousers are a brave choice for Britain’s most filthy festival. This isn’t the first time Corbyn has accidentally adopted a high-fashion look. Vogue recently described his aesthetic a “very Vetements”, while one of London’s hottest designers, Martine Rose, recently used a picture of Corbs in his grey cycling shellsuit as the invitation for her show. Clearly, Corbyn has the fashion vote.”
Why am I going on about this ? It is actually important because when fashion coincides with more earnest political currents it is what can carry your boat, message or movement (pick your metaphor), up and out of the usual channel, on a bigger wave. It may not last but it can make a bigger splash.
At any event, probably because Corbyn excited young Pioneers, his brand attracted some Now People and his brand became fashionable, for least one Glastonbury, and with a vengeance.
Corbyn took to the world-famous Glastonbury Pyramid stage and attracted a mainly youthful crowd as big as any rock star has ever managed. All over the site, even in the ‘Silent Disco’, audiences burst into spontaneous renditions of the song/chant “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”, adapted, football crowd style, to the tune of White Stripes song ‘Seven Nation Army’.
Labour’s new Anthem sung at Glastonbury
Corbyn is popular with the young. The young overwhelmingly reject Brexit.
Emotionally, it was a fitting reversal of 2016. Then, when the UK EU Referendum coincided with the Festival, organiser Michael Eavis had urged festival-goers to register, use their vote, and vote Remain.
When news broke that Britain had narrowly voted to Leave, shock and gloom spread over the site. A Glastonbury-veteran friend who was there, remembers:
“everybody was shocked really, crestfallen, the atmosphere … it was mostly like somebody had died. Terrible. Thoughtful, quiet, not a happy day”.
Showing what an artsy sort of gathering it is, Glastonbury Free Press, the official organ of the Festival …. quickly published a poem, a sort of requiem to Britain in Europe, and posted it up on signs around the camp sites:
Glastonbury 2016: Requiem for the EU relationship
Corbyn’s endorsement by the Glastonbury young is the sort of approval which few modern politicians achieve, and still fewer retain. The political choice he now faces, is whether to side with the young Remainers, or with the old Leavers.
What Happened At The Election
Theresa May called the June 2017 General Election to ‘make a success of Brexit’ by ‘uniting’ Westminster. She claimed “The country is coming together but Westminster is not.” In reality, neither was true.
In practice, Brexit did not much feature in the election because May thought she already had it in the bag, and Corbyn deliberately avoided it. Remainers nevertheless did vote ‘for Corbyn’ in large numbers, resulting in Labour winning an unexpectedly large numbers of seats in university towns (such as Canterbury) and urban areas, especially in the South of England and Wales.
Analysts tend to agree that Labour picked up votes because people rejected Conservative economic ‘austerity’, because of social issues (such as social care, the NHS) and because the more they saw of Theresa May, saw her dodging media questions and avoiding the public while repeating a robotic mantra of Brexit Means Brexit and ‘Strong and stable government’, the less they liked her. May’s personality played a huge role because the Conservatives made her the centrepiece of their election campaign, calling for a ‘vote for Theresa May’ not for ‘the Conservatives’.
Corbyn’s campaign focused on social issues, public services, opposing austerity, renationalising the railways and ending tuition fees for students. The Labour communications strategy side-stepped the hostile print press, and created live events based in Labour seats where enthusiastic crowds could be gathered, near to target seats held by other parties, and covered live on TV. They made effective use of this content in video on social media (a lesson for many campaigns).
Corbyn grew in confidence and gave far more polished public performances than he had at the EU Referendum campaign in 2016 (which certainly suggested some media training). May’s few faltering steps in the public domain resulted in gaffes such as when confronted on a rare walkabout in Oxfordshire by Kathy Mohan, who had been denied her disability benefits and had to live on £100 a week. On TV she told a nurse who’d had no pay rise in eight years, “there is no magic money tree”. Corbyn in contrast appeared far more empathetic.
Floating off on the ebb tide, morning after the election. June 9th 2016
The only two parties campaigning in England which were pro-European and did try to criticize Brexit, were the Greens and Liberal Democrats. Following the 2016 Referendum, the LibDems had made a commitment to campaign to stay in or rejoin Europe.
I’m told the LibDem strategy was already in place but it had been designed to run after a long period of Brexit talks in which events would have educated the public about the realities of the UK extricating itself from the EU. As it was, only elite audiences and a small minority really understood anything about factors such as the Single Market or Customs Union before the June 2017 Election, although almost everyone has heard about them now.
LibDem leader Tim Farron never excited the electorate, and when the LibDems launched their manifesto with a ‘Second Referendum’ as its centrepiece, few people understood that it referred to them having a say on the final outcome of the negotiations, rather than being a re-run of the June 2016 referendum.
The Greens, led by their only MP Carolyn Lucas, nobly tried to launch a ‘progressive alliance’ through tactical voting against pro Brexit Tories but in practice, the influence of tribal activists in other parties meant that nearly all the concessions in terms of standing aside to allow ‘their’ votes to go to a candidate with a better chance of winning, were made by the Greens. Along with other smaller parties, their vote was squeezed and Lucas remained their only MP, despite proving herself a brilliant communicator.
(For the Best For Britain campaign, see later).
On June 8, the Conservatives won the most seats but Theresa May lost her majority. (Of 650 seats: 318 Conservative, 262 Labour, 35 SNP (only Scotland), 12 LibDem, 10 DUP (only Northern Ireland) 13 others).
Amongst the main parties the UK vote was split 42.4% Conservative, 40% Labour, 7.4% Lib Dems, 3% SNP, 1.8% UKIP (whose vote had collaspsed) and 1.6% Green. Most of the previous UKIP vote went to the Conservatives.
‘Six in ten of those who said they had voted Leave in the EU referendum backed the Conservatives in the general election; a quarter of leavers voted Labour. Only a quarter of Remain voters voted Conservative; just over half (51%) voted Labour, and a quarter of remainers voted Liberal Democrat.
To look at this question the other way round, just over two thirds (68%) of those who voted Conservative said they had voted Leave in the referendum. Just under two thirds (64%) of those who voted Labour said they had voted to remain in the EU, as did nearly eight in ten Liberal Democrats’.
After the election, IPSOS MORI made a very similar estimate that Remainers had voted 54% for Labour and 26% for the Conservatives, while Leavers voted 65% for the Conservatives and 24% for Labour.
Surveys also found that the younger people were, the more likely they were to vote Labour. Ashcroft’s survey ‘found two thirds of those aged 18 to 24 saying they voted Labour, as did more than half of those aged 25 to 34. Voters aged over 55 broke for the Tories’.
‘In electoral terms, age seems to be the new dividing line in British politics. The starkest way to show this is to note that, amongst first time voters (those aged 18 and 19), Labour was forty seven percentage points ahead. Amongst those aged over 70, the Conservatives had a lead of fifty percentage points’.
‘In fact, for every 10 years older a voter is, their chance of voting Tory increases by around nine points and the chance of them voting Labour decreases by nine points. The tipping point, that is the age at which a voter is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour, is now 47 – up from 34 at the start of the campaign’.
YouGov found that ‘alongside age, education has become one of the key electoral demographic dividing lines’. As in the EU Referendum, ‘while the Conservatives’ support decreases the more educated a voter is, the opposite was true for Labour and the Lib Dems’.
A recently published values-segmented survey conducted for CDSM shows that Conservative support at GE2017 was strongly concentrated in the Settler values group, along with some Golden Dreamer Prospectors. This is the self-same profile as those with a high disregard for the EU, and a conviction that there are ‘too many foreigners in the country’, illustrated in pre-Referendum CDSM surveys and reported in previous blogs including ‘The Values Story of the Brexit Split, Part 1’.
Pat Dade of CDSM reports that the Conservative vote was ‘concentrated in older age groups – more than 54% of them were aged 55 or over’. Over 44% were ABs (25% more than the voter population average) skewed to male.
Above: values of the Conservative vote, 2017 General Election
As can be seen from the above ‘heat map’ of the Tory vote, it was concentrated in the Settler ‘Maslow Group’, which accounted for 41% of all Conservative supporters. But also in the Values Mode Brave New World (BNW), with an index of 156 compared to a (voting) population average of 100. BNWs are the Values Mode with the strongest unmet need for identity, and are the most assertive Settlers. This region of the values map was, before their mass desertion at the 2017 election, also where UKIP support was concentrated.
The adjacent Prospector Values Mode ‘Golden Dreamer’ (GDs) also ‘over-indexed’ on voting Conservative but at a lower level of 109. The GDs are power-seeking, and looking for immediate opportunities for a better life but retain a Settlerish commitment to rules and conventional routes to success. Conservative support was much lower (index 84) amongst the Prospector Now People Values Mode, a psycho-demographic which as this previous blog showed, David Cameron attracted and helped him win in 2015. May’s dour, fun-free and unemotional style, commitment to Brexit and her austere proposition is unlikely to have gone down well with Now People. Amongst Pioneers (also the Maslow Group with overall the highest educational levels and skewed towards AB), Conservative support was even lower.
[This is why, as YouGov noted, ‘the class divide in British politics seems to have closed and it is no longer a very good indicator of voting intention’**].
Conservative Support at the 2015 General Election
‘Settlers as a whole represent only 31% of registered voters and slightly less than 25% of the population. Over the last 40 years the Settler segment has steadily declined as a proportion of the population and has gone from being the largest Maslow Group to being the smallest. This is a voter profile that would seem to have a ‘sell-by date’ all over it’.
Finally, Lord Ashcroft (who does ask a few values-related questions), found that
‘Seven in ten Conservative voters said they wanted Brexit to happen as soon as possible. Only 33% of Labour voters said the same; 43% said they would still like to prevent Brexit from happening if possible, as did more than half (56%) of Liberal Democrat voters’.
‘Asked unprompted which issues had been the most important in their voting decision, Conservatives were most likely to name Brexit (as were Liberal Democrats), followed by having the right leadership. Labour voters, meanwhile, were most likely to name the NHS and spending cuts. Only 8% of Labour voters named Brexit as the most important issue in their decision, compared to 48% of those who voted Conservative’.
Corbyn’s Success Is Built on Remainer Support
So, overall most Remainers voted Labour, and over two thirds of Labour voters were Remainers. Corbyn’s overall success depended on Remain voters. A large part of Corbyn’s success was also down to the young voting Labour, and the young were strongly pro-Remain. Unlike Conservative voters who were also mostly older, more than 4 in 10 of those voting Labour in 2017 still wanted Brexit never to happen, even without Corbyn ever talking about that.
If Corbyn knows about values groups (the Labour Party certainly does as TCC, The Campaign Company, co-sponsors political surveys using the CDSM model and has close links to Labour), he will also know that his recent growth in support has come mostly from the Pioneers, and especially the Transcender Pioneers.
Pat Dade of CDSM hasn’t yet published his analysis of the Labour vote but he tells me that the Transcenders were 44% more likely than the average to have voted Labour in 2017. At the 2017 General Election, the biggest element of the Conservative vote was Settler (40.4%), and the biggest element of the Labour vote was Pioneer (47.3%).
Labour support has shrunk amongst the Settlers compared to its historic base. The Settlers are the most pro-Brexit group, and overall stewed to older. As Pat Dade says, this values-demographic is quite literally dying out, and it’s currently more of a problem for the Conservatives than for Labour.
The old left may still instinctively focus on dreams of rebuilding a working class small-c conservative base but that is not who voted for Corbyn Labour in such numbers at the election. Indeed it appears that most of those voters went for the Conservatives.
Finally, as votes do not directly translate into MPs (seats) in the UK’s first-past-the-post system, Corbyn’s Labour may still worry about losing seats in the more pro-Brexit ‘north’ (the uber-simplified conventional wisdom). After the Referendum much effort went into correlating constituencies (and the attitudes of MPs to Europe), with areas (as Referendum data did not coincide with constituencies). As with the percentage Leave/Remain national Referendum results, this showed that the ‘electorate’ was often more pro-Brexit than MPs, which panicked many pro-European MPs. One such exercise was by UEA political scientist Chris Hanretty. I asked Chris about the 2017 cohort of Labour MPs but he said that “Given the difference in turnout between 2016 and either 2015 or 2017, I’m not sure a good estimate of that quantity can be produced” and he also pointed out that it has now become more difficult to get a clear indication of where Labour MPs stand on Brexit.
UK public opinion is moving steadily away from Project Brexit as launched by Theresa May and effectively endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn, yet responses to simple binary ‘right or wrong’ questions about Brexit still hover around a 50:50 result, not far from the 48:52 ratio. For example the long-running YouGov question ‘In hindsight do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU ?’.
Opinion on a binary question still sticks stubbornly close to 50:50, even in July 2017
There is a relatively simple explanation for this.
First, such a question effectively asks of those who voted (over 70% of those registered), “were you right or wrong?”. The intuitive (System 1) response to that is “I was right of course”, because to answer otherwise either requires questioning my own rationality when I made that choice, or, it requires use of System 2 to re-analyse the issue (harder to do).
Second, the Brexit ‘problematique’ remains confusing and complex, and voters will now be more aware of its complexity than they were at the Referendum in June 2016. So it’s got harder, not easier to analyse.
Third, it does not reframe the question, even though reality has changed. We can therefore expect this polling question to be a lagging, not a leading indicator of shifts in public opinion.
Fourth, qualitative research in the run up to the 2017 General Election showed that much of the public simply did not want to have to think about the Referendum again (see below).
How People Felt in May 2017
In May 2017 I did some work* for the Best for Britain (B4B) campaign fronted by Gina Miller, the businesswoman who had earlier successfully campaigned to give Parliament a say in the triggering of Article 50 (the mechanism by which the UK could start the process of leaving the EU). This campaign encouraged tactical voting to return pro-European candidates. I was trying to understand what the public understood about the choices around Brexit.
‘Strong and Stable’
Talking to people running focus groups where Brexit came up (almost everywhere it seemed), and looking at research commissioned by B4B, it became clear why the Conservatives had launched with their slogan ‘strong and stable government’, and why the LibDems and Greens faced an uphill struggle.
First, there was a general downbeat mood of anxiety and despondency, even amongst many Leavers. I was told, people are “cross, cheated, frightened, wrong and wronged, anxious, unempowered, fatalistic and helpless’ – one man summed it up with “the word is despondent”.
Many had a sense of scarcely suppressed horror at the divisiveness of the Referendum, and how it had pitched friends, relatives and neighbours against one another. They had blithely voted on many previous occasions confident that whatever they did, it ‘really didn’t make much difference’, and were now horrified to find that something they not given much thought to, really had made a huge difference, although one they still did not understand. Even more worrying, those supposedly ‘in charge’ were also saying they didn’t really know what was going to happen and ‘Brexit’ was already being blamed for higher food prices and uncertainty over credit.
One consequence of this, felt by both sides, was what one moderator called a “rush to the parochial” a desire to focus on smaller, seemingly more tractable issues such as numbers of police. There was a pervasive reluctance to re-engage with any more ‘big issues’, even to express a view, in case as with the Referendum, it also led to ‘the sky falling in’.
What united them, was a desire for a sensible, strict adult to take away the problem and sort it out, without them having to re-engage. Not many had great enthusiasm for Theresa May but even as a distress-purchase, most agreed she seemed like the best bet. She appeared stronger and more definitive than Corbyn, and the LibDems were ‘fringe’. (At that time there were also real worries even amongst lifelong Labour voters, that Corbyn might mean “nutters on the loose”).
Second, as you might expect, they also found that the ‘public’ could be broadly divided into four groups: strong Leavers, weaker more doubtful Leavers, strong Remainers and weaker or more resigned Remainers. The strong Remainers took a “told you so” view. The ‘weaker’ Remainers were resigned or largely reconciled, not seeing any real opposition to Brexit, and some so wanted to see it all settled that they might vote ‘Leave’ if there was a next time, even though they still thought it was wrong, just to ‘get it over with’.
The Leavers felt unfairly ‘blamed’ for the social disaster of the Referendum. The strong conviction Leavers responded with defiance, quickly reaching for dismissives such as ‘remoaner’ and ‘bad losers’ to explain the ongoing division. The ‘weaker’ Leavers opted for withdrawal, fervently hoping that it would all ‘go away’.
If pushed to justify their votes, both sides but particularly the Leavers, solidified into two camps. Weak and strong Leavers simply became “Leavers” (Brexit means Brexit). Moreover, those who had doubts about Brexit (including Leave voters), and instinctively didn’t like the sound of a hard Brexit as it was something UKIP wanted, did not know enough about what it really entailed, to be able to map out alternative options. Only a very few for instance, were even slightly aware that the EU Referendum question had failed to specify what Brexit might mean in terms of the Single Market or Customs Union.
Lacking any way to talk analytically about it (System 2) and identify systematic choices, people deployed a classic ‘substitution’ and reverted to the easier answer offered by the intuitive System 1, which in this case was, “you were right the first time” (the consistency effect).
So anyone trying to raise the question of whether or not it really was wise to leave the EU, faced three hurdles. First, many people did not want to engage with it, they simply wanted someone to sort out ‘the mess’. Second, few even realised that there could be an opportunity for another say in the outcome. Third, both Labour and the Conservatives, who between them dominated the media, did not talk about it in any detail and did not present options.
The Missed Opportunity
For a moment, take a step back in time to late spring 2016.
Before the EU Referendum, when polls showed Remain would win, UKIP leader Nigel Farage laid the ground for challenging the legitimacy of the result if was narrowly in favour of Remain. Farage specifically anticipated a 48:52 result, although in favour of Remain. On 16 May 2016 he told The Daily Mirror:
“In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it.”
Next day Conservative Boris Johnson echoed Farage and told the Daily Mail that if there was a narrow Remain win, the result would not be ‘settled’.
In the event, Leave won 48:52. At that point, the Remain camp could have pivoted on Farage’s threat, and declared the result indecisive. To paraphrase that maestro of leadership-by-opportunity, Captain Jack Sparrow: “if you were waiting for the opportune moment that was it” but in practice the moment passed.
Remainer in Chief David Cameron fell on his sword, the official Remain campaign was poleaxed and in shock, and the politicians started fighting amongst themselves.
The Tory leadership competition soon turned bloody. Boris Johnson, a leading Leave campaigner who many suspected had been banking on a Remain result unpopular in the Conservative Party so he could oust Cameron and become PM, was one of the few who raised the 48:52 issue: the result was, he said, “not entirely overwhelming”.
48:52% “not entirely overwhelming”
Johnson also hinted at the possibility of an eventual rethink, emphasising the importance of listening to those who had voted Remain but Boris was on the wrong side to make proper use of this point, and almost immediately afterwards, he was stabbed in the political back by his running mate Michael Gove, and he withdrew from the race to become PM.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Labour was also swamped by political expediency of the most basic kind: not concerned about the country, or the political opposition but real enemies: political rivals. Plus Corbyn was not really committed to staying in the EU, and both the official Leave and Remain campaigns were creatures of the main political parties and were immediately wound down. There was no game plan for what to do in the event of a Leave result as nobody expected it. And nobody to point out that the Referendum was unrealistically limited, misleading, mis-sold (with lies such as the notorious £350m a week for the NHS) and a national mistake.
Many MPs were terrified that there would be civil unrest and violence if the Leavers were denied or questioned, although they usually referred to this by the euphemism of ‘a constitutional crisis’, which was nonsense as the Referendum had no constitutional standing. Resistance to Brexit would have to be built up from outside the political establishment (as it turned out, by Gina Miller).
Opinion Since The Election
The unbundling of May’s Project Brexit after the 2017 General Election has fractured ‘Brexit’ into a series of specific debates which people can have views on, without having to confront the question of whether they were ‘right or wrong’ at the Referendum. Questions framed this way get very different responses.
For instance on June 18, a poll by Survation for Mail on Sunday found a majority wanted to stay in the Customs Union, supported a Second Referendum, and did not support Theresa May’s ‘no deal’ option.
On 15 July the Mail on Sunday reported a Survation Poll finding that voters were now split 50:50 over whether or not the UK should leave the EU, while only 18% expected to be better off and 39% worse off if Brexit happened, and most thought Mrs May should resign. Asked if Brexit had been more ‘problematic’ than they had expected, 43 per cent agreed and just 12 per cent disagreed.
Also on 17 July The Guardianreported that a YouGov poll conducted three weeks after the election had found Leavers and Remainer strongly divided over the importance of limiting immigration. However when asked in a later YouGov poll to consider a trade-off between limits on immigration and access to the Single Market, opinion started to converge.
Leave voters would be evenly split if the government tried to keep full access to the single market in exchange for allowing a version of free movement that limited welfare benefits for new arrivals …
But support for a trade-off soars when voters are offered the option of other limitations on free movement that are used by some countries in the single market. Asked to consider a system where EU migrants were sent home if they did not find work, 55% of leave voters said they would be satisfied with this, versus only 25% who would be unhappy. There was only slightly less support for an “emergency brake” option to control surges in immigration.
Such findings clearly show that opinion is not firmly behind the ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘no-deal is better than a bad deal’ proposed by Theresa May. But as The Guardian notes, the ‘trade off’ option can be achieved without leaving the EU. Likewise the option Leavers were evenly split on, was the deal already negotiated by David Cameron before the Referendum.
The newspaper also cited a Kings College/Rand study which tested multiple preferences. It reported:
“While our results do show a desire to control movement of people to some extent, we find that this stems from a concern about managing demand for public services, rather than from wanting to limit freedom of movement per se”
Charlene Rohr of Rand said:
“Our analysis indicated that, on average, respondents would prefer a future relationship in which the UK is able to make and interpret all laws itself, but this was considered less important than maintaining free trade or being able to negotiate new trade deals independently.”
Eloise Todd of Best for Britain commented: “a huge majority of people across the country support freedom of movement if they too can keep their own rights to live, work and study abroad … The picture is much more nuanced than the government has portrayed, with clear support for some limitations on freedom of movement that are already within the government’s control.”
Such polling reflects the true range of views over Brexit, not captured in binary polls. For example the July 17 Opinium poll also asked how strongly people felt:
Which of the following statements best describes your view on Brexit?
I strongly feel that the UK should remain in the E.U. 34%
I think the UK should remain in the E.U. but don’t feel that strongly about it 12%
I am open minded on whether Britain remains in the E.U. or leaves 8%
I think the UK should leave the E.U. but don’t feel that strongly about it 8%
I strongly feel that the UK should leave the E.U. 33%
Don’t know 6%
‘What we can see’ said political blogger Keiran Pedley ‘is that the public appear to be split into thirds. 34% strongly feel that the UK should remain in the E.U., 33% strongly feel the UK should leave and the rest are either lukewarm in their commitment to either side, don’t know or are open minded. Far from there being a ‘52%’ and a ‘48%’, there is in fact a large chunk of people in the middle waiting to see what will happen’.
Expect a lot more polling and a lot more arguing about what it means. Beware of polls constructed in ways that guarantee a misleading result (whether by accident or design). A now notorious example was a YouGov poll run before the election which was used to conjure up a category termed ‘re-leavers’. According to YouGov it showed that a majority were now Brexiteers (ie opinion had consolidated behind Brexit as May claimed) and from this it ‘explained’ how the Conservatives had an election wining strategy. Of course the Conservatives did not achieve a majority.
YouGov’s poll committed several cardinal sins in the world of polling construction, most notably because it gave two options which split Remainers and only one for Leaver voters. They then added one of the Remain options to the Leaver response to create a ‘majority’ of over 60% for Brexit. YouGov’s blog was headlined: ‘Forget 52%. The rise of the “Re-Leavers” mean the pro-Brexit electorate is 68%’, and this conclusion was widely repeated online and in the press. This YouGov poll was taken apart by Helen DeCruz of Oxford University, who also criticised the loaded wording of the questions. She remarked: ‘if you were a sociology student and designed a poll like this, your lecturer would be right to give you a failing mark’.
Why Is Corbyn a Brexit Bystander ?
Speculation abounds. There is no doubt he avoided the subject in the election campaign. What is more, he deliberately described the question of Brexit as ‘settled’. At its the Manchester launch on May 9 2017, Corbyn devoted 44 seconds to Brexit, in a speech that lasted almost 18 minutes (video):
“This election isn’t about Brexit itself. That issue has been settled. The question now is what sort of Brexit do we want – and what sort of country do we want Britain to be after Brexit?
Labour wants a jobs-first Brexit. A Brexit that safeguards the future of Britain’s vital industries, a Brexit that paves the way to a genuinely fairer society, protecting human rights, and an upgraded economy.”
Corbyn pounded the campaign trail talking about inequality, re-nationalisation, the NHS, public sector wages and other traditional issues of the Labour left. Writing in a blog at The Conversation on 26 June, political scientist Matthew Goodwin and colleagues argued that ‘Corbyn’s Brexit strategy may have paid off after all in 2017 election’. They drew on Hanretty’s analysis of the distribution of Leave and Remain voting in the 2016 Referendum to conclude that while benefitting from a flood of Remainer votes elsewhere, in some Leave-leaning seats, such as Derby North, Bolsover and Stoke North, Labour MPs ‘held on with reduced majorities’. They point out that as well as a huge uplift in places where Remainers dominated, Labour achieved an increase of 7.4 points in seats where more than 65% had voted Leave.
Hanretty himself is more circumspect about using the data this way (above) but it seems reasonable to conclude that Corbyn’s strategy was more guileful than many believed. Yes he was talking about the issues he really wanted to talk about but he avoided Brexit to try and maintain the Labour vote in Leave seats while appealing to other things Remainers liked where they lived.
This leaves unresolved the question of whether Corbyn actually wants Brexit to happen, or whether he was just being opportunistic and pragmatic.
Fighting for Brexit ?
If the former, and he is still the same Eurosceptic who voted for Britain to leave the EEC back in 1975, and against almost every significant piece European legislation ever since, then he was campaigning against his beliefs in the EU Referendum when he urged voters to accept the EU “warts and all”. Plus he also now faces a new dilemma, as public sentiment moves away from Brexit. As Goodwin et al pointed out, “Corbyn’s strategy … [at the election] moved Labour towards the mildly Eurosceptic centre.” Will Corbyn have to come out fighting for Brexit ?
If on the other hand, he was being authentic and honest about campaigning for Remain in 2016, and just never found his mojo, then he now faces the problem of migrating away from his declared position that Brexit is ‘settled’, if a significant part of Labour’s new electorate, the Remainers, start to demand that he listens to their desire for Brexit never to happen.
So long as nobody was really talking about Brexit Exit, he could avoid that but now people are, especially of course, in the media and blogosphere which most reflects Remain views. For instance on 18 July over 60 leading public figures in Scotland called for Brexit to be halted. It is stretching credulity to imagine that this idea will remain confined to Scotland.
The reason Corbyn went into the referendum campaign for Remain, is that it was official Labour Party policy, made by the Labour Party Conference. In January 2016 Richard Johnson explained in a Kings College London blog:
The official position of the Labour Party is unqualified support for continued membership in the European Union. Regardless of the outcome of David Cameron’s renegotiation, even if it includes exemptions from EU social and labour laws, the Labour Party ‘will be campaigning, and are campaigning now, for Britain to remain part of the EU…under all circumstances’, as Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn has vowed.
On 30 June 2016, after the Referendum, another YouGov poll found 90% of paid up Labour Party members had voted Remain.
At this point, just after the EU Referendum Corbyn’s approval rating had also dropped from +45 to +3 and the majority of Party members did not think he was doing a good job.
Right now Labour is sending mixed signals. Like the Tories, Labour is internally split. In June for example, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, told The Spectator magazine that Labour supported leaving the Single Market.
Then in July Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said the party must “respect the result of the referendum, respect the will of the people in terms of having greater control over our laws, greater control over our borders” and, “If we could negotiate an agreement on remaining within the single market that dealt with all of those issues then that would be fantastic.” On the Customs Union, Long-Bailey said:
“Again, the position is very similar. We want to maintain the benefits that we currently have within the customs union – we want to have our cake and eat it, as do most parties in Westminster.”
This could be a strategy of remaining deliberately obscure and confusing while creeping along behind the opinion polls wherever they lead, trying all the while to maintain criticism of the Conservatives. It risks sounding just like the Conservatives, who have tried to avoid spelling out where they stand on negotiations over key Brexit issues in Brussels. It is hard to see how it could deal with a straight question about exiting Brexit, or whether Corbyn still regards Brexit as ‘settled’. Corbyn could easily find himself once again unpopular with his own party.
Trying to discern what is going on inside Labour is like trying to ‘read the tea-leaves’ while the tea is still swirling round in the cup. As journalist James Blitz pointed out at the end of June, although Corbyn has taken against membership of the single market and wants to impose immigration controls, ‘Labour has around 50 MPs, MEPs and peers, led by Labour MP Chuka Umunna, who have recently started calling for the UK to remain a member of the single market and the Customs Union … standing between Mr Corbyn and Mr Umunna is Sir Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesman, who is widely respected, but tries to bridge the gap with sometimes impenetrable pronouncements’.
‘The central question for Labour is how long Mr Corbyn will maintain this stance … unless he shifts in the direction championed by Mr Umunna, he will be unable to exploit the divisions over the Customs Union and single market within Tory ranks’.
But it’s also the Members and new voters Corbyn has to contend with. Never mind the sing-a-longers at Glastonbury, there are critics of his Brexit stance even in the Praetorian Guard of the left, including it seems, within Momentum as an article in Clarion points out. In it, Sacha Ismail notes the national movement away from hard-Brexit or even Brexit-at-all, and comments:
‘All this is despite a lack of leadership from the Labour Party – and makes Labour’s stance even more objectionable’.
Also from the intellectual left, an article by Matt Bolton, a researcher, at the University of Roehampton takes Corbyn to task for Blair-like skills in ‘triangulation’ and heaps doubt upon his ‘purported authenticity’:
‘While Corbyn’s much derided ‘0% strategy’ on Brexit proved to a be a short-term electoral masterstroke, assuring Red Kippers that he was committed to pulling out of the single market and clamping down on immigration, while allowing Remainers to project their hopes for a softer landing onto him, at some point a decision has to be made’.
‘ …Faith in Corbyn’s supposedly unshakeable core beliefs’ says Matt Bolton, ‘is such that his party’s policies on immigration barely register amongst people who would be incandescent with rage if another Labour leader even vaguely gestured towards them’.
There is plenty more discussion in a similar vein, although do not venture in unless you want to explore detail which soon get reminiscent of Monty Python’s ‘People’s Front of Judea’ parody of the Left, in Life of Brian.
If the young are paying attention – which maybe they are not, as the holidays approach – they certainly might ask questions of Mr Corbyn. In March 2017 a poll of students found
The overwhelming majority of students (84%) voted Remain and 99% of them have no ‘bregrets’ about doing so. By contrast, 9% of the 16% of students who voted Leave regret it. Among students who did not vote, two-thirds now say they would vote Remain, compared to just 13% who would vote to Leave
As a June YouGov survey showed, students have also given their overwhelming support to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, as have the young in work (many of them Prospectors).
‘The Conservatives are 39 points ahead amongst retirees and Labour are 45 points ahead amongst full-time students.
Labour is in fact ahead amongst those in work: 4 points ahead amongst those working part time and 6 points ahead amongst those working full time, illustrating how the Conservatives are increasingly relying on the grey retired vote.’
But far away from Glastonbury, those in the City who follow these things maybe more forensically, perceive a more cynical Corbyn operation. Watch this video for instance from Bloomberg, featuring Simon Kennedy.
Bloomberg’s Thomas Penny and Alex Morales wrote on 5 July:
Rather than heed the calls of the pro-European young Britons who backed Labour at the ballot box and chanted at “Glasto,” Corbyn is sticking with a commitment to extract the U.K. from the bloc’s single market — something the Tories are doing too. In the end, there is not much separating his not-so-secret euroskepticism from the position of his rival.
“He’s ambiguous, he’s not an enthusiast for the EU and never has been,” said Steve Fielding, who teaches politics at the University of Nottingham. “The more clear Brexit becomes, the more clear Corbyn’s position becomes. Potentially it’s going to be more difficult for him than Theresa May.”
Clarity on Brexit is not something Corbyn is aiming for. A weakened May offers him a path to power and he has everything to gain from staying vague given that the 40 percent of support he drew in June came from both pro-remain London and leave-voting northeast England. Taking one side risks alienating the other.
I can’t say I like Jeremy Corbyn as I don’t know him but I’d like to able to like him. So let’s settle for a positive explanation of his vacillating mood music and ambivalent position over the European Union and Brexit.
He became Labour Leader largely by accident, and finding himself in a pro-EU party, had to run for Remain in a referendum called by Cameron’s miscalculation, which he did badly. When Remain unexpectedly lost to the shock of all concerned, he may have breathed a sigh of relief, only to have to fight off internal rivals, and unexpectedly, survived.
At the same time a Conservative leadership struggle produced the unexpected result of Theresa May as Leader and Prime Minister. Performing poorly in Parliament, Corbyn looked a no-hoper and trailed badly in the polls, while May rode high as the strong and stable adult who would sort out the post-Referendum mess that much of the public did not want to think about. May then miscalculated and called an election on Brexit, only for Corbyn to do unexpectedly well in the election thanks to votes of Remainers, which ended with a hung Parliament, May as ‘a dead woman walking’, and ‘Europe’ as once again a divisive live issue within the Tories.
As a result Brexit, which Corbyn had declared ‘settled’ in order to placate Settler Leavers who turned out not to support Labour as much as the Tories, and are any way few in number, is unbundled and an increasingly open question.
Consequently, Mr Corbyn’s reluctant support of Remaining is now out of kilter with his new base, and his acceptance of Brexit as a ‘settled’ done deal may leave him stranded if the tide of support for Brexit falls any further, and alienated from his choir.
So far he has not really been called to account over Brexit. What is he to do ?
Corbyn The Great Reformer ?
One thread of consistency which may help him, if we take it at face value, is his desire to reform the EU. In 2015 Corbyn wrote a piece in the Financial Times, entitled: ‘The orthodoxy has failed: Europe needs a new economic settlement’.
‘Our shadow cabinet’ he wrote ‘is [also] clear that the answer to any damaging changes that Mr Cameron brings back from his renegotiation is not to leave the EU but to pledge to reverse those changes with a Labour government elected in 2020. Labour is clear that we should remain in the EU. But we too want to see reform’.
Likewise in June 2016, Corbyn said in a Sky TV leaders debate during the Referendum campaign: “I am not a lover of the European Union. I think it’s a rational decision – we should stay to try to improve it.” John McTernan of The Telegraph wrote at the time, ‘Jeremy Corbyn wants Labour voters to reluctantly Remain – has he finally captured the mood of the nation?’
It is not too much of a stretch for Mr Corbyn to now fall in line with the changing mood, and argue that given the mess the Tories have made of Brexit, we should maybe put it to the people: should we leave or should we after all stay in, which looks economically and socially the more sensible option, and reform the EU ? If he is looking for a threshold test for such a decision, perhaps he could take a cue from Nigel Farage: two thirds should do it.
Should Mr Corbyn walk away from the hopeful young Remainers, and the future they represent, when they have rescued him from political ignominy, the word which springs to mind, is ‘betrayal’.
(minor updates 21 July)
*In the interests of disclosure this was after I had written my previous blog, which was before I had met anyone from B4B or Gina Miller, who by the way, I think did a great job
** Beats me why the polling companies don’t use CDSM’s values model seeing as it explains the results somewhat better than the questions they keep asking. But there you are.
On June 8th the UK goes to back to the polling booths for a General Election. The political campaigns do not look very interesting, and the most interesting political figure in the Election is not a politician but a campaigning business woman: Gina Miller, who took the government to court over the way they tried to begin ‘Brexit’ without involving Parliament.
Last week Miller launched a crowd-funding appeal ‘Best for Britain’ at https://www.gofundme.com/whats-best-for-britain. In a few days it has raised nearly £300,000, and more important than the money – for Miller is herself reportedly rich and no doubt has many wealthy sympathetic friends – it has generated a lot of media attention, in newspapers which are pro-Brexit but which focus on how successful her fundraising has been. This of course adds credibility to her project as it’s a success.
Miller aims to organize Britain’s biggest ever campaign for ‘tactical voting’ against (a hard) Brexit. Her GoFundMe page says:
So far there are (sensibly) few details about Miller’s campaign but there are a number of reasons why it ought to give politicians pause for thought. Here are four.
1.It’s Understandable and Not Boring
Conventional analysis has it that the Conservative Party should win by a landslide, as Labour is divided and has a hugely unpopular ‘hard-left’ leader massively out of tune with most of the electorate. By the same token the SNP will dominate Scotland but have no head-room to do any better and Britain’s ‘third party’ the Liberal Democrats, with a pro-European policy, are generally expected to win back some of the many seats they lost at the last General Election but voter-geography and the UK’s ‘first-past-the-post’ system means they will still struggle to make much of an impact in most Tory-dominated areas. The same factors bedevil UKIP, only they are also falling apart, and the Greens will do very well to add one or two MPs alongside their only charismatic figure, Brighton MP Caroline Lucas.
All this means that the election could look very much like a ‘done deal’, a ‘coronation’ rather than an election, and thus rather boring. The political classes will anyway find it fascinating but Britain’s public are not very political: only 2-3% put ‘my politics’ in their top three factors defining ‘my identity’. And that means that Miller’s ‘single issue’ campaign, just might become something interesting that the press and public find it hard to ignore.
2. It’s Miller v. May
Theresa May took a gamble when she called the election last week by declaring that “The country is coming together but Westminster is not” and so Britain needs an election to ‘make a success’ of Brexit. That could prove a hostage-to-fortune for May as many of the 48% who voted ‘Remain’, remain thoroughly unconvinced, and feel that the country was swindled and misled. Even some of those who voted to leave the EU, acknowledge that the practical consequences are turning out to be a lot more ‘complicated’ than they imagined.
Miller is in effect the leader, the figurehead for ‘the 48%’, that the political classes have failed to provide.
3. Business Woman Glamour
Theresa May, or principally her shoes, have featured in numerous photographs in Vogue magazine. Gina Miller on the other hand got an article explaining the launch of her campaign in Vogue last week, by Arts and Lifestyle editor Katie Berrington.
Miller obviously will draw a lot of her support from Pioneers, who as has been described in several previous blogs (for instance Brexit Values Story Part 1), seem certain to have voted overwhelmingly to Remain. But she also has the potential to appeal to Prospectors, Britain’s archetypal swing-voter psychodemographic. It was the Prospector support that Labour fatally lost before the last General Election. Tony Blair appealed to Prospectors as well as drawing support from many Settlers and Pioneers. Jeremy Corbyn has very little appeal to them, after all, “looking good” and “visible success” are two rather important Prospector criteria.
There is no doubt that being good-looking may cause resentment among peers and pundits but is an advantage when it comes to selling yourself as the purveyor of a political idea. In January a study by two German researchers found that conservative right-leaning politicians were generally more attractive than left-leaning ones in Europe, North America and Australia. They offered a credible economic explanation, namely that more attractive people got on in life more easily and having become wealthier, tended to support political parties which favoured the rich. As J K Galbraith said (something like) ‘Of all the things that can be said about redistribution of wealth, one thing is true, and that is that the rich have generally been against it’.
There is another equally simple explanation: Prospectors are success oriented and thus many are attracted to keeping the rewards of their efforts and thus supporting right-leaning parties, and all Prospectors tend to look their best, better groomed and presented, as it matters more to them than Settlers or Pioneers.
Unlike some other pro-European business people who ventured into the Referendum campaign, the glamorous Miller is also eloquent, calm under fire from aggressive interviewers, puts herself in the shoes of ‘thoughful’ members of the public, and is based in the UK. She is seen outside the High Court in London rather than lending endorsement from a mansion in the Caribbean.
If Miller succeeds in convincing Prospectors, and especially Now People who were much more pro-EU, to now vote tactically, she will stand a much greater chance of success. A lot will depend upon who comes out to support her, and what they look like.
In contrast, Mrs May’s dour sense of duty will not cut much ice with Prospectors if they also sense that their own prospects of success look worse under a hard Brexit: she may be hoping that the election will come too soon for that to sink in.
4. Tactical Voting Comes out of the Closet ?
Tactical voting has long been a love-child of the geeks and nerds of the UK political classes. They have been the only people to believe that uber-rationalist political calculation could overcome the political dopamines and serotonins of party tribalism, fear, ease, habit, complacency and wishful thinking.
The EU Referendum however may have changed that. Friends of friends who have never taken any instrumental interest in politics all their lives, are now actively discussing tactical voting on Facebook and trying to understand such basics as the difference between Council Elections and General Elections. Young people are also more political than they have been for generations.
The political problem with tactical voting in the British context (unlike for instance in France where there have long been de facto political agreements to shut out the FN), has always been that tribal hatreds between activists in parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats (and more lately the Greens) have prevented any sort of working agreements to let one or another party put up a candidate ‘unopposed’ in order to defeat a Conservative. Hence the ‘left’ and ‘progressives’ have remained spilt, and ‘let the Tories in’. I’m told this is exactly what happened after the Referendum when some mix of the Greens, the LibDems and the SNP tried to convince the Labour Party to start a new ‘progressive alliance’. Corbyn and his people said ‘no’.
The difference with ‘Best for Britain’ is that it is not led by tribal politicians but by an outsider with no political baggage but a track record, unlike almost every MP except a handful like Conservative Ken Clarke and Green Caroline Lucas, of being seen to actually stand up to the government over Brexit. Miller came out swinging but MPs did not.
Most MPs may be pro-Remain but their commitment to party, their fear of political repercussions or their commitment to representing the views of the majority of their constituents (if not their voters), led them to do nothing that most of the public would have noticed as effective opposition to the May strategy of Brexit-means-Brexit. Miller may now have given them a way, as a political friend of mine once put it, to “stand up without being counted”.
I do not know what Miller’s campaign will actually involve but she has given tactical voting a new purpose and a non-party-political figurehead. It is possible that she could do the impossible but it will at least be very interesting to watch.
Many commentators, pundits, politicians, journalists, NGOs, and even normal people, are talking about ‘bubbles’ and Brexit, and as my previous blog suggested, such ‘bubbles’ can easily form along values divides.
The way we now ‘living more separate lives’, aided and abetted by the digital echo-chambers of social media, may have helped cause ‘Brexit’ and helped make it unexpected. So many of us have our Brexit story, and our own bubble story, and here’s mine.
23rd and 24th of June 2016
On the morning of 23rd June, I went along to my local Polling Station (see video) to vote in the EU Referendum. I went quite early because I had a two-hour journey ahead. I was due to join a couple of days of meetings in Cambridge, run by the ‘Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership’ (CISL) to which I make a minor contribution.
When I arrived at the Methodist Church Hall of Wells-Next-the-Sea I found it was busier than it usually is on polling days, and my heart sank. As a ‘Remainer’ who had been writing blogs warning that a values driven split could tip Britain into leaving the EU, despite what most of the polls said. What I saw confirmed my worst fears. Here’s what I wrote the next day to an enquiring German friend:
‘Yesterday morning I went to vote in Wells next the Sea where I live and although I have lived here since 2000 and know a huge number of people having been involved in a lot of local community/ political activities, there were lots of people who were obviously Settlers and lots of them very old, who I had never seen before. They were literally being brought in on wheelchairs and on walking aids. It was not a good sign’.
What Did The Germans Ever Do For Us ?
A Cambridge friend told that the BBC had made a news report from the City just before June 23rd. In the interests of ‘balance’ the reporter had tried to find a would-be Leave voter, and a would-be Remain voter to interview. A Remainer was found immediately but it took another 71 people before they found the Leaver.
Little surprise then, that when I walked into town to join the ‘networking’ and ‘stocktaking’ meeting of the CISL, the day after the vote, people seemed unusually subdued despite the rush-hour activity and bright sunshine. Arriving at the conference venue, I found many of the Cambridge-centric audience murmuring to one another in funereal tones. Others paced about outside, mobile phones to their ears. Distracted, dismayed and bewildered, they resembled a gathering of relatives who had all unexpectedly lost loved ones in a sudden disaster.
“I don’t understand it” boomed one participant, “How did this happen? I simply don’t know a single person who voted Leave, and nor do my friends”. Exactly, I thought to myself but I do. I know lots of them, because where I live we do not live in such separate bubbles, and no longer feeling any enthusiasm to discuss ‘rewiring the economy’ I went home early.
A couple of days later I wrote to another friend, this time a long-standing campaigner with a deep involvement in British politics who I had met up with in Cambridge on the evening of polling day. Here’s a bit from my email:
“As I said to you in Cambridge, I thought the game was up the moment I went to the polling station in Wells and saw squadrons of Settlers and Golden Dreamers I’d never seen before, being literally wheeled out to vote. For many of them it was a last chance to vote against a complex of stuff they never understood or liked, and had become a patriotic duty.
Friday evening Sarah [my partner] and I went to the pub. We met a friend who declared he was too ill informed (educated) to have voted. His friend who he worked with (carpenters) declared he had voted leave because “I am a working man” and “I was a soldier”. He “wanted his country back”. “I’m a working woman” said Sarah. He looked slightly baffled. Our friend said he also thought ‘the whole system was wrong’. By way of explanation he offered: “they tell us to recycle our beer cans which is right and I do but then they make these cheap things that wear out, it doesn’t make sense”. His friend agreed. An example, they said, was washing machines that only lasted a year or so while the good ones went on for at least 7 years and could be repaired. “So which type is best?” I asked. “Miele” they said in unison. “Only a numpty would buy anything else”. “German then ?” I said – they laughed. “Yes like my VW” said the Brexiteer. So I asked, “should they have said that in the campaign ?” “Oh yeah that would have been a good idea, it might have made a difference” said the Leave voter.
The point being that Wells Next the Sea (population about 2,000 in winter, more like 10,000 with summer tourists) is an example of a sort of town now unusual in Britain. In short, it has values groups but they are more mixed, still living less in separate bubbles than in many other areas.
Visitors and even locals recognize Wells as unusual, and ‘like something out of the 1950s’ (or 60s, 70s or … pick your reference point from the past).
Wells has about sixty local voluntary organizations, often makes its own entertainment, and is widely known for ‘community spirit’. It’s friendly and has very little crime. It’s the sort of place where if you walk down the street and people have seen you before a few times, they say hello. Being a long-standing port it’s culturally a bit more open than inland Norfolk towns and villages and although it suffers badly from very high house prices and second homes, it still retains a fishing fleet and a lot of people live and work locally. Wells Harbour Commissioners do their best to keep it a ‘working port’ and not let it just become a marina for recreational yachting. Wells is almost entirely white, with many large families who have lived here for generations.
Although I’ve not run a survey, many of the residents and, although I’m a Pioneer many of my friends, are Settlers. Of course there are Prospectors and Pioneers too (in What Makes People Tick: The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers, although names have been changed, some of the stories are from Wells). By English standards Wells is quite isolated with poor transport links, as local teenagers will attest. It has limited choices for social activities, such as pubs but quite a lot of social activities which bring the population together, such as the RNLI (the voluntary lifeboat service), the voluntary fire crew, the summer Carnival, and the winter Christmas Tide. People still mix here a lot more than they do in many other places: the ‘social elastic’ in Wells is still quite strong.
Yes, people in Wells self-select by values preferences and yes they have flat screen tv’s and broadband, go on foreign holidays and use social media but here at least it’s hard to overlook the reality that people who in many ways seem similar, are in fact quite different when it comes to ‘issues’, and politics and suchlike. Sociologists might say it has a lot of ‘social capital’. People in Wells might say that a lot of people know one another, which makes a difference.
Before you get carried away with the idea that Wells is some sort of paradise, it isn’t. For a start the majority in my area voted Brexit. One friend of mine even hoisted his own ‘Leave EU’ banner on the fishing shed but we are still friends.
Wells still has two state schools meaning local children (at least up to 16) and their parents get to know one another. But more of the teachers now seem to send their own children to fee-paying private schools (mainly favoured by Prospectors) and a few (mainly Pioneer) parents opt for unconventional new choices like ‘free schools’, Steiner Schools and home education. These encourage ‘bubbling’ as they create separate experiences.
Plus, Wells is becoming ‘gentrified’. The pub where we used to spend most Saturday nights with a drunken mixture of teachers, care-workers, fishermen, clerks, shop workers and owners, builders and artists, as rock bands played and local ladies danced on the tables and sometimes fought, is now Prospector ‘Norfolk Coastal style’. It caters for tourist families not fishermen, and to add class, in the summer it pays a lady to sing opera from the outside balcony. That I regret. Deeply.
(Values) Differences are significant but rarely absolute
(There are) Many shared values eg ‘being a parent’
Attributes nearer the centre of the map are more in common (more of that in Part 2 of ‘The Values Story of the Brexit Split)
With free-choice groups tend to self-select by values activities, social networks, venues etc and so avoid conflict
Social bonds of family, friendship and culture & interests
Utility eg at work: Settlers perfect essential functions, Prospectors are the turbo-boosters, Pioneers the experimenters
Common experiences and interdependencies eg reliance on public services, common bonds formed in national or community wide efforts, common understanding eg from media
Human contact and expecting to see one another again and needing to get along
Places like Wells provide low-bubble, weak-bubble or pre-bubble examples of how people can, by and large, get along, and not just by avoiding one another. OK it did not stop a vote for Brexit here but that’s not the point. The Brexit vote happened but it has not created noticeable fear or rancour.
One strategy for fixing destructive bubble-ization is to reinforce factors that enable people from different values groups to get along, for example social contacts, common experiences, and real-life things that make them need one another. Limiting choice for example, in education and health, even though that goes against generations of political assumption.
At the same time, as technology and lifestyles change, we will also need to take proactive steps to try and combat the creation of destructively separate bubble lifestyles, even in places like Wells.
Back to Cambridge, to CSR, Google and Facebook
This past week I went back to Cambridge to give a talk on values to a postgraduate CISL course on Sustainable Business. Afterwards, I spoke to two young CSR (Corporate Socail Responsibility) executives working for large and well known multinationals.
What, they wanted to know, did I make of the use of big data collection using psychographic algorithms, such as the use of Cambridge Analytica’s version of the OCEAN ‘Big 5’ model by Leave.EU and the Trump campaign ? Was CDSM’s values model being used like this ? And did the downsides of allowing values-worlds to develop as ever more separate values bubbles mean that stopping or reducing this should be, as one put it, “the new CSR for online companies such as Facebook and Google ?”
I confess I had never actually joined those dots before but yes, it now seems obvious that this is exactly what must happen.
Companies like Facebook and Google have significantly cleaned up their act on issues such as their climate change Carbon Footprint, with solar powered server farms for instance. It’s surely time they and others in the communications supply chain also took responsibility for their Bubble Print.
Unconscious motivational values are largely missing from most discussions about what happened in the EU Referendum vote for ‘Brexit’ and the Trump election. Many people have asked me what ‘values’ may have played and this post is my view of the most probable values dynamic, based on the available evidence from CDSM and other sources. In ‘Part 2’ I’ll look at what it means now and next.
If you are very familiar with the CDSM values model, you can jump to slide 13, then maybe slide 21. Otherwise it only makes any sense if you take a look at them all from the beginning. My thanks to Pat Dade and Les Higgins at CDSM for allowing me to use some of their data and materials. See some of more previous blogs for more detail on the Brexit campaign (links here).
If you’d like to discuss this further you can post a comment or contact me.
In 2016 voters in both the EU referendum in the UK and (very likely) the US Presidential election appear to have strongly divided along values lines which split the values map across the middle, as they sorted along the ‘power v universalism’ axis. This left (most) Pioneers and Now People Prospectors on one (the losing) side and the Settlers and Golden Dreamer Prospectors on the other.
The social, political, economic and technological factors which combined to facilitate this split were decades in the making but came together in a ‘perfect storm’ or ‘black swan’ event only in 2016.
After WW2 the ‘normal’ operation of the values ‘conveyor’ led to a gradual increase in the number of Prospectors and then Pioneers in society and improving social conditions led to new opportunities and experiences, enabling more people each generation to meet the sequence of dominant needs from security, safety and identity (Settler, Security Driven) to esteem of others and self-esteem through ‘success’ (Prospector, Outer Directed) and then Pioneer needs (universalism, innovation, ethical clarity and ethical complexity, self-choice).
The change-averse Settlers tolerated this, often reluctantly, as life overall seemed to be otherwise getting better, as for example the family benefitted as children led better lives than their parents. Mobility allowed more people to lead different lifestyles.
Meanwhile politics began to decouple from people through factors such as privatisation, globalisation, professionalization, convergence of ‘offers’ on the ‘centre’, replacement of face-to-face with media and then social media channels, and hollowing out of political parties. Settlers, by the 1980s and 1990s a minority, began to feel increasingly forgotten by ‘them’. Socially minded Pioneers largely deserted formal political activism for NGO campaigns. Prospectors went shopping and into business. Political participation withered.
Technological, social change and globalisation combined to ‘stretch’ the social elastic keeping these groups together, as common experiences dwindled, lives separated and ‘living in bubbles’ was boosted by social media.
Then around 2008 UK values surveys showed the first rise in Settlers in decades, as some Prospectors ‘fell back’ during the economic crash and recession.
At the same time in Britain, the EU was being vilified and UKIP rose as a party paying attention to Settler needs and fears (security, safety, identity), and powerlessness (Settlers but also Golden Dreamers). Immigration from the EU rose dramatically and was magnified by media attention and political campaigns, triggering an authoritarian reaction as Settlers feared being culturally overwhelmed. This was reinforced by the EU Migration crisis and ‘foreign’ terrorism. Most Pioneers and the more confident Now People Prospectors nevertheless remained on balance positive about the EU. Society was values-primed for a split.
The UK EU referendum posed a simpler, clearer format of choice than normal UK elections. This reduced the barrier to participation for Settlers and Golden Dreamers at the same time as the existential threat, portrayed in the Leave campaigns as posed by EU Membership, reached a new high. The Remain side failed to engage Now People Prospectors and Pioneers with an emotionally powerful optimistic, positive campaign about what was good about ‘Europe’ in human terms. Some Pioneers will have voted Leave on Libertarian or anti-capitalist lines (ie splintered), and some Now People probably did not vote because they felt confused and had no positive, optimistic figure to follow. We don’t know for sure but it is likely that turnout for all Leave-leaning people was higher than for Remain.
UK (Leave.EU) and US (Trump) campaigns both used big data psychographic message targeting and gamed the media with controversialism, whereas their opponents did not use such techniques.
‘Progressives’ in both the UK, and the US (where something very similar happened) now live in countries where they are part of values-majority (more Pioneers + Now People than Golden Dreamers + Settlers) but where governments are in place with a programme based on playing to Settler and Golden Dreamer hopes and fears. ‘Conventional’ political explanations based solely on economics, geography and demographics and unstructured reference to ‘values’ offer inadequate insights into what to do next.
Meanwhile campaigners, upholders of standards of democracy, and those who did not vote for Trump in the US election or voted Remain in the UK’s Referendum on the EU, are alarmed at the methods used in the Trump and Leave campaigns to tailor (sometimes untrue) messages to what particular psychological groups wanted to hear, and the way they ‘got away with it’ by gaming the systems and reflexes of the conventional news media.
As Andrew Wigmore* who worked for UKIP and Leave funder Arron Banks, subsequently told Edward Stourton of the BBC:
“we actually were monitoring Trump, and he started sending out all these crazy messages, just to get attention. This was brilliant for Arron, he loved this, so we started sending out some of the most outrageously provocative tweets, and they were all immigration-led, so when it comes to the bad stuff we totally took the Trump rule book, and tried to apply it here. And we quickly discovered, it worked. And we got more and more fearless, you know, we would talk about who particularly we were going to pick on, whether it was an individual, a politician or a party, or a subject”
The old media assumption was essentially that there were consequences to actually lying, at least when it ‘mattered’ as when dealing with ‘serious’ things like politics, and that although spin and bias were unavoidable, ‘news’ was tested against the output of rival channels and standards of actuality, that is some form of objective truth. Trump and Leave demonstrated that this need no longer apply, and so the would-be fact-checking battlers against ‘fake news’ are now grappling with a new reality in the shape, particularly in the US, of a government which professes to believe in ‘alternative facts’.
This domain of believing anything you want to believe because it feels right has always existed but until now it was confined to gossip, cults, conspiracy theorists, unregulated advertising and marketing, totalitarian regimes, religions, the paparazzi, controversialists, drama, fiction, and arguably if intermittently, inter-personal relations. In public life it was suppressed and constrained by laws and media norms which are now limping after social media like a lame duck in the wake of a tsunami. That wave carried Trump into the Whitehouse and the UK into Brexit.
The cry ‘something must be done’ is one I agree with but the problem many of these projects face, and which may well undo them, is values differences. Some mainstream politicians for example, are seeing the current advantages of the Alt-Fact World, and using it to try and push further against their enemies. For instance on 6th February British MP John Redwood, rolled up the BBC, scientists and climate change into one example of why ‘alternative truth’ is needed. By treating political differences based on ideological belief, as equivalent to belief or not in what is established by scientific method, politicians legitimize and normalize any Alt-Fact, even how many people are or are not standing in front of the Whitehouse in a photograph.
The fact that John Redwood includes the BBC as an example of ‘bias’, shows the problem. No fact checking system produced by the BBC is likely to satisfy John Redwood. I don’t know but he might quite like one produced at the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph but certainly not The Guardian nor presumably New Scientist. [In Britain most national newspapers have quite distinct values-profiles. In the US it is more the TV channels that have distinct values-profiles].
For any sort of global fact-checking or Truth Rating system to work, it will need to be accepted across values differences, which to put it in contemporary terms, means across the Leave-Remain divide in the UK, and across the Democrat-Republican divide in the US. This means involving people from different values groups from the start, not fashioning something that one lot love and then trying to sell it to those who will hate it because of the predicates, language, reference points, source and assumptions, let alone the likely consequences.
It is pretty certain that the EU Referendum and the Trump election divided UK and US societies along the Power versus Universalism axis, just one but usually the most powerful one, of the many ‘values antagonisms’ found in all societies and mapped by Israeli professor Shalom Schwartz.
Converted into the Values Modes and Maslow Groups of CDSM, this looks like a horizontal cut across the ‘values map’, cleaving society along a line with Settlers on one side, together with Golden Dreamer Prospectors (pro Trump, pro Brexit), and Pioneers on the other, along with the Now People Prospectors (pro Clinton, pro EU/Remain). It won’t have been a 100% divide but it was a very strong sorting effect, of which more another time. (See also this previous blog).
This in turn means that to be effective, any ‘fact checking’ system will need to be supported by at least these two different (if huge) groups. There are ways to do this but right now all the initiatives I’ve seen appear to come from individuals and institutions on the Pioneer – Now People side (the losers in both polls). That’s not good.
Design Through Arbitration
With such recent polarisation in both the US and UK, some form of arbitration is going to be needed. In arbitration both sides agree that a third party will make the important decision, with that third party often picked by intermediaries, who are themselves trusted by the two conflicted parties. This may be much more complicated than just involving three individuals.
Not everyone will want to play ball but that’s not necessary. It might mean for example finding some senior Republicans or institutions that senior Republicans trust, to pick the intermediaries from their side, or maybe even Fox News, rather than expecting Messrs Bannon and Trump to be involved. On the other could be senior Democrats and maybe CNN. And something similar in other countries.
It would be possible to sell such a system after it is up and running, if it had sufficient utility value, for example if a critical mass of media and social media adopted it as the standard, and if businesses and stock markets started to do so and if it spread globally. But with the funds at their disposal, it would also be perfectly possible, if for example the Settler-Golden Dreamer-alt-right wanted, for them to launch and promulgate an Alt Fact Checker, thereby simply moving the values stand-off from one place to another, into an argument about fact checking and standards systems, rather than ‘facts’ and ‘news’.
* Mr Wigmore is pictured here in this Daily Mail photo, with Mr Farrage and others on a visit to Mr Trump in Trump Towers
When Theresa May said “Brexit Means Brexit”, nobody knew what it meant. Well they do now, they think it means Trump.
Donald Trump was elected and the UK referendum found for Brexit both by the narrowest of margins. Now May’s gamble on an early alliance with Trump has elided the two decisions, and made a protest against Trump a protest against Brexit. An unintended consequence of her attempted deal making with Trump is to provide the focus for popular opposition which she has strived to avoid by hiding behind the smokescreen of Brexit-means-Brexit.
By not just standing shoulder to shoulder but going hand-in-hand with Donald Trump, May has made herself a lightning rod for public dislike of Trump’s policies, and provided an intuitively understandable reason for Brits to worry about Brexit.
Without very compelling evidence to the contrary, it looks to many like Brexit means ‘Trump’.
Theresa May’s domestic strategy has been to try not to disturb the pond by making any big ripples: no sudden moves, no clear signalling of consequences with clear losers, no sharp edges, nothing for opposition to rally around, and be as dull as possible. Give it time and opponents would give up and accept the inevitable. After some initial protests of dismay, most of the stunned UK Remain camp fell relatively quiet: the ‘grass roots’ missed the summer holiday opportunity, Remain politicians were divided, and the less engaged public majority shrugged and got on with life.
Under the surface of course the UK’s Brexit preparations are fraught, complex, fractured, strained and chaotic but most people, especially those who voted Leave, are content to let ‘them’ sort it out.
Many Remainers have assumed, whether they aim to salvage the least damaging Brexit possible, or some new and renewed relationship with Europe, that it would be legal process and practicalities which might undo May’s plan, so they had to play a long game. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has helped Theresa May by hoisting a white flag before any real political struggle could start.
Brexiteers in contrast have been buoyed by good short term economic feeling in the UK but businesses are not convinced, and on both sides of the Atlantic, it is business which will provide a test of policy which cannot be mind-brushed away with ‘alternative-facts’ from La-La Land.
So under pressure to show Brexit can ‘work’, an emboldened May reached out to Trump to make Brexit seem more viable: a trip to Washington to create ‘optics’ suggesting that Britain could do a rapid trade deal with the US. Even less popular abroad than at home, Trump’s interests were also served by meeting May: be seen to be able to work with another country, and get praised. May responded positively.
Trump’s Domestic Strategy
Trump’s agenda is primarily domestic. He is in base-pleasing mode, coming good on his promises with a rapid barrage of actions which show him wielding power. Trump sits in the Whitehouse, recognized by admirers and critics alike as ‘the most powerful man in the world’. He signs off Executive Orders with a flourish, like Zeus sending down lightning bolts from Mount Olympus.
It plays well to Trump’s unmet need to look powerful and successful. Protests that appear to be mainly from Democrats makes them easy to dismiss. Criticism by DC insiders merely shows that he is shaking things up in Washington. Analysis from fact-checkers and experts can be crushed with alternative facts. All good in the Bannon play book.
The Consequences For May
If Trump’s bolts of lightning merely caused alarm in the US, this would not create great problems for Theresa May and Brexit but as the botched immigration controls immediately showed, they can have much wider implications. Blameless American families detained at airports were the most empathetic people in the story: it felt wrong, it felt unjust. Last night there were protests up and down the UK as well as across the US.
Many of Trump’s policies that so please his base also resonate with the anti-foreigner, climate-denying, inward and backward looking reflexes of the more entrenched end of the UK Brexit base. This however is a much smaller number of people than those who voted Leave.
Trump’s America project begins to look like, and feel like, a blueprint for what Brexit means for Britain. Trump’s lightning bolts are turning into lightning rods for Theresa May. Trump is providing the focal points for protest and opposition which May has been so careful to avoid, and she can do little about it. By coupling Project Brexit to Project Trump, May has re-activated the values base of the Remain vote.
Faced with one and half million British citizens quickly signing a petition calling for the postponement of Trump’s invitation to make a State Visit to the UK, Theresa May could have clearly distanced herself from Project Trump by ‘siding with the Queen’ and finding an excuse to put it off. Instead she quickly announced that the invitation still stood. By doing that, no matter how much the UK Government quibbles and wrings its hands about Trump’s assaults on refugees, climate realists or Europeans, when her government is tested by asking whose side it’s really on, for many people in the UK Theresa May has already provided the answer: she’s on Trump’s side.
Having gone to so much trouble to distance herself from Nigel Farrage of UKIP, it is a remarkable political mis-step.
Brexit Means Brexit Means Trump ?
Trump is hardly into his first one hundred days. While nothing is certain, he seems most likely to continue as he has begun, as long as he can.
May has a very different problem. She is progressively alienating much of Europe, yet she has to negotiate Brexit with Europe. Now, every time Trump ignites more opposition, it will rock her boat. For Remainers, Trump is a gift which may go on giving.
In terms of polls and numbers it remains to be seen how her alliance with Trump will go down with Britain, and more particularly ‘Middle England’. It has definitely activated protest.
Most important, it has provided an easily understood proof of why Brexit is problematic, in a way which the Remain campaign never did before the referendum. Until now, since the referendum, most Remain politicians have argued arcane points such as that Britain voted to leave the European Union but not to leave the Single Market (something few understand but most can imagine), or they voted to leave the European Union but not to leave the Customs Union (something almost nobody has ever heard of). What most of them definitely did not vote for was coupling Britain to Project Trump.
So probably by accident, Theresa May has also finally given an answer to all those who asked what she really meant when she repeatedly stated “Brexit means Brexit”: now Brexit seems to mean Trump, and right now it’s hard to see how she can undo this.
I often get asked about values study examples, data and how the CDSM Values Modes system works. Below are some links to posts at this blog, in my Newsletters/ articles and elsewhere, that may be useful.
Links to descriptions of the 12 Values Modes within the three large segments of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers are at the home page of www.campaignstrategy.org where you can also can sign up to my free newsletter.
I tweet things about anything new I come across on values etc from @campaignstrat
Academic study on why attempts to change values are not likely to work (so instead we need to design offers and asks in ways that engage different values groups, to get desired behaviours) Why social values cannot be changed for the sake of conservation by Michael J. Manfredo et al (2016)
VBCOP – A Unifying Campaign Strategy Model (2009) [values drive behaviour, due to the consistency heuristic people rationalise the behaviour, they then adopt opinions in line with that – this can be used to affect politics]
Example of use of qualitative research segmented by values, to develop action proposition (in this case across all three values groups).Marine conservation project for example (for Natural England) in my book with images – How to Win Campaigns: Communications for Change, and described with links in a Newsletter here
http://threeworlds.campaignstrategy.org/?p=375 Why Our Children are Not Being Connected to Nature (about ‘nature blindness’ –– links to longer report Why Our Children are Not Being Connected to Nature; nature or lack of in popular culture, and the role of values etc here)
BBC production genius, big budgets and the gentle charisma of David Attenborough were combined to take the BBCs hallmark nature spectaculars to new heights in Planet Earth II. It is more awe inspiring, more immersive, more cinematic than ever before. Yet for nature’s sake there should be no Planet Earth III on the same model.
Planet Earth II goes too far in supplying high-dose nature therapy at the sofa, without showing how nature needs help, how it can be helped, or helping viewers to help. Given his age, the BBC may fear Planet Earth III may be unimaginable without David Attenborough’s magic touch but the rest of the cast may soon anyway be unavailable: the natural world celebrated in these BBC statement movies is simply vanishing. The BBC could go on doing ‘more with less’ but Planet Earth III on the same basis would be a descent into virtual reality.Most of the world’s wildlife has disappeared over the time the BBC has been making natural history films. It is time to rethink the model.
The Success of Planet Earth II
When the BBC’s Planet Earth II aired in Britain before Christmas, it immediately became the UK’s most-watched natural history programme for 15 years. It is being sold around the world, and a few days after it went online at Tencent in China, the first two episodes had been downloaded 61 million times.
The millions of viewers who watch TV nature mega-series such Planet Earth II presented by David Attenborough, probably assume they must help save nature. Such popular programmes are certainly a vote for ‘liking wildlife’, and make presenters famous. An academic study described them as Natures’ Saviours: Celebrity Conservationists in the Television Age. Yet when conservation professionals and media analysts have tried to discern some sort of media-cause and conservation-effect, the answer has never been very clear. The issue has long been debated within the nature and media circles. That debate has now been reinvigorated by strong criticism of Planet Earth II by a fellow BBC Producer.
BBC Executives were reportedly ‘thrilled by the huge audiences watching the programme’, especially as ‘more than 2 million of the 12 million total weekly UK audience are in the prized 16-34 age range, meaning the programme has attracted more young adult viewers than The X Factor’.
I fear this series, and others like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife. These programmes are pure entertainment, brilliantly executed but ultimately a significant contributor to the planet-wide extinction of wildlife we’re presiding over.
The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense.
For instance, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Zoological Society of London’s authoritative 2016 Living Planet Report has concluded that between 1970 and 2012 there was a 58% decline of vertebrate population abundance worldwide. This encompasses the period in which Attenborough’s outstanding natural history series have been broadcast (starting with Life on Earth in 1979). The prime factor in this destruction is humankind’s insatiable need for space – destroying and degrading habitat at an appalling rate – coupled with species over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species, climate change and rampant poaching.
Yet these programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening. The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.
By fostering this lie they are lulling the huge worldwide audience into a false sense of security
Opinion amongst Guardian readers was divided: many agreed with Martin Hugh-Games but some Attenborough devotees were outraged at such sacrilege. Over 1000 comments were posted within a few days, and letters followed. ‘ryanallan2010 ‘ declared the Planet Earth II ‘perhaps the finest TV show ever made. Perfection hosted by God himself’, while ‘BookwormFoundInBrick’ denounced Hughes-Games as ‘a mediocrity desperately seeking attention’.
Several media friends of mine agreed with the argument but said ‘Attenborough was the wrong target’. No doubt they were thinking about how programming decisions get made. When I sampled opinion amongst long-standing environmentalists, I found almost universal agreement: Hughes-Games essentially has it right. Few doubt that the overall effect of decades of nature broadcasting on conservation has been positive but their view is that the nature spectaculars are now more of a hindrance than a help. Reluctantly, I have to agree.
Conservation groups will not want to get into a public slanging match with wildlife film makers but with so much nature sliding so fast into oblivion, the time has come for a rethink about top-end nature TV. At the end of this blog I offer a few ideas on what could be done but first, I try to consider how we got into this position and some of the factors which may need to be reconciled if something it to change.
When I Wanted to ‘Be David Attenborough’
Back in the 1960s I was tasked with a Junior School essay on “what I want to do when I grow up”. I wrote that I’d either like to be David Attenborough, or a helicopter pilot: I couldn’t decide which. I didn’t manage either but David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest books had made a great impression, and I saw some footage from his early tv series of the same name. Here was a grown-up who seemed to have found a way to spend all his time going out into an amazing world of nature to collect animals for zoos, and showing other people how interesting they were.
Foremost was Peter Scott, whose 1967 autobiography I read, The Eye of the Wind. Scott was also a film-maker (he made the first BBC natural history series, later called Look) but in addition had helped start the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Scott famously designed WWF’s giant panda logo, not just to thrill people about pandas but because it would reproduce well in black and white, as he and environmentalists like Max Nicholson felt it would help them raise funds to actually protect nature.
Scott had also started what is now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) back in 1946, and through his paintings, writing and creation of visitor experiences was a relentless promoter of public awareness about conservation. In 1969 for instance WWT lobbied successfully against construction of a dam at the main breeding ground of pink-footed geese at Thjorsarver in Iceland. Descendants of those geese now spend the winter where I live, and around midwinter, thousands fly over my house every night and morning.
David Attenborough brought wildlife into millions of homes through tv but while a conservationist since boyhood, for the most part he was never a conservation practitioner. Nor were most of his films about conservation but about nature. While the likes of Scott and Nicholson and even a succession of Princes such as HRH The Prince Phillip immersed themselves in committees and organisations and ‘issues’, David Attenborough’s career developed mainly in TV world. He became Controller of BBC 2 from 1965 to 1969, where and amongst other things, he commissioned Monty Python.
Attenborough became Britain’s dominant media-celebrator of wildlife through his series The World About Us from 1967 – 87, and Wildlife on One, from 1977 to 2005. By then he had become internationally known, inspired numerous imitators and is widely credited for establishing an entire new genre of tv. He narrated and presented many other series such as Life on Earth (1979), Living Planet (1984), and in 2006 Planet Earth, which within a year, had been sold to over 130 countries made him into a global BBC brand.
Over those decades I became an amateur naturalist, trained and researched as an ecologist, helped start the London Wildlife Trust, worked as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth and WWF International, started a media charity to enable the media industry to help NGOs communicate better (Media Natura, now extinct), and worked for Greenpeace and have worked on many conservation campaigns since. So while I’ve never worked for the BBC or been a film-maker I am something of a witness to the question of how much high profile nature TV has helped conservation.
All that time, while Attenborough remained a reference point for people trying to understand what we did: “oh you mean like David Attenborough” or “did you see … ?” or “I guess you must know Attenborough”, the man himself rarely featured in anything we did. Sometimes this was not for want of us trying to involve him. The polite answer which often came back was along the lines that he felt himself to be ‘just a film-maker’.
Similarly, the BBC often proved less helpful, for example in providing footage for campaign or ‘awareness’ projects, than companies like Anglia TV, where Aubrey Buxton’s Survival (1961-2001) made rather more programmes with an overtly conservationist content (eg about gorillas, Antarctica).
So when I worked for WWF Intl and similar groups struggling to protect ‘biodiversity’, I remember railing, like Martin Hughes-Games, against the unintended consequences of wildlife-spectacle tv, of which Attenborough’s series were pre-eminent. I met many people disappointed when their experience of visiting a nature reserve did not live up to the intense cornucopia of wildlife presented on TV but a greater frustration was that the big audiences were shown fantastic wildlife living in forests which seemed to go on forever but which off-screen, were fast vanishing. Now, unless conservation action is dramatically stepped up, the problem is vastly more acute: we are in the end game for nature.
Why It’s Big Business
Natural history programme making has become a big business because it gets ratings. The relative ease with which films made in the ‘classic’ all-nature format can transfer across languages and cultures, has helped create a global market. Plus if we are shown only nature, with no signs of human activity, the programmes have a longer shelf-life, and viewer research tends to show that immersive, amazement-generating spectacle is what entertains and retains the biggest audiences.
The BBC has made itself a global leader in ‘blue chip’ nature tv, although as Morgan Richards has pointed out, the formula of spectacular nature in “primeval wilderness” can be traced back to Disney’s True-Life Adventure films (1948-1960), which also ‘set the precedent for wildlife documentary’s persistent marginalisation of environmental issues’. Today Disney is looking again at the market, one which only organisations with big budgets can play in because of the time, travel, research and development, technology and marketing involved in making such wildlife epics.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22193619
Planet Earth I cost £8m to film and made £20m for the sales arm, BBC Enterprises. Planet Earth II, no doubt cost much more and may make even more. It was filmed in UHD and HDR formats (a first), made use of new 4K cameras, and involved filming for over 2000 days, more than 100 trips by six producers to 40 countries, and ‘features countless sequences that could not have been achieved without new, ultra-lightweight cameras and drones’.
Planet Earth II has a score by Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer (personally I thought it was great), stunning Hollywood style cinematography (the desert scenes recalled and bettered David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia I thought) and was hyped in advance just like Hollywood movie.
The ‘package’ of such programmes may say little or nothing about conservation or how to help but the film-makers are now routinely making themselves the story, with features about how challenging and exciting it was to make, and the new technology. In 2012 The Natural History TV Reportenthused:
The blue chip still exists, and has pushed its production values further and further into the stratosphere with every new landmark show, making sure it’s at the forefront of each advance in production technology from HD, to 3D to 4K and from time lapse to slo-mo to low light
As in other globally competitive sectors from cars to pharmaceuticals and consumer IT, market success now depends on going-to-scale. Financing big-ticket productions, known in the BBC as ‘landmark series, has led the Corporation into co-productions with competitors. BBC’s Frozen Planet and Blue Planet were made with Discovery Channel. Planet Earth I was made with Discovery and NHK, and Planet Earth II was made by three parts of the BBC including its new non-public service entity BBC Studios, plus ZDF, Tencent, and France Televisions.
Nature is the BBC’s second largest investment genre. Sales from BBC Worldwide a commercial part of the BBC, returned £222.2m to the coffers in 2015/6. This helps the Corporation fend off demands from Conservative politicians to abolish the licence fee, a constant worry of BBC managers and the governing BBC Trust.
BBC strategy is to achieve three things: ‘to increase focus on premium, world?class content; to grow global brands; and to effect a gradual transformation to digital products and services’. The logic of high-end nature mega productions is framed by this context, which means any change to the winning formula faces many more obstacles than simply persuading David Attenborough himself. After the series was previewed to the media, Esther Addley wrote in The Guardian:
It is a measure of how important Planet Earth II is to the sometimes embattled BBC that at a packed screening in London this month for national and international press, the warm-up man was Tony Hall, the broadcaster’s director general.
For all those reasons, the Corporation is probably hoping that the debate sparked by Martin Hughes-Games will go away but the conservation community should not let that happen.
‘Almost Like A Drug’
Martin Hughes-Games has expressed similar concerns before. In October 2015 before the start of the programme Autumnwatch, he said big wildlife shows had created “a form of entertainment, a utopian world that bears no resemblance to the reality”.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years and we always used to say what Sir David [Attenborough] used to say, which was that by making people aware of wildlife and conservation issues – that’s the first step – they will get involved,” he said. “That’s been the plan but clearly that has not worked; we have failed.”
Presenters of BBC Autumnwatch: Martin Hughes-Games (left), Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham. photo Jo Charlesworth/BBC NHU
“I fear those beautiful seductive programmes are not balanced by a clearer idea of what is going on and the loss of habitat … It’s almost like a drug. We love it and we come back and we lose ourselves in the beauty of these places, not realising that the habitats they are being filmed in are getting tinier and tinier. We don’t reflect that.”
As long ago as the 1980s, the BBC Natural History Unit was under similar public criticism for the way its compelling output portrayed nature without much reference to threats to nature. For example from The Listener in 1983:
“Paradoxically, wildlife on TV may be piling up new problems for the conservationist lobby rather than helping it. After all if we see countless host of creatures, crammed into one Technicolor half hour through the unseen wonders of TV technology and editing, then they can’t be that endangered can they?” (Listener, 3.11.83 quoted by Gail Davis).
In 1987, ‘environmental issues’ were climbing high on the social agenda and the then Head of the Natural History Unit John Sparks made the case for the BBC’s approach in ‘Broadcasting and the Conservation Challenge’, in Ecos, a magazine mainly read by conservation professionals. Sparks acknowledged that: ‘for many years the BBC concentrated mostly – but not exclusively – on an Arcadian wild world interpreted with in a framework of sciences’ and he sometimes got letters complaining about the lack of reference to destruction of nature in the BBC’s output. But surveys, he argued, showed tv nature programming did lead some people towards more engagement with nature. and figures suggested nearly a million people might have been made more available to join conservation projects as a result [read John Sparks full article here].
Moreover his part of the BBC was indeed trying to cover environmental issues. ‘The Natural World looked at the nuclear winter and the fate of the world’s topsoil and sweet water’, while three documentaries had ‘celebrated the recent Bruntland Report under the series title of ‘Only One Earth’’. ‘Celebrated’ is probably not a term the BBC would use now. Subsequent decades of attack by climate sceptics have left it scared to appear pro-environmental.
Sparks also explained ‘In 1983 I devised ‘Nature’, which for four years was the only series on BBC Television dedicated to issues affecting the natural world, and which received an audience of between 2.5 – 4.5 million’. This was an environmental news/ current affairs magazine programme, which ran for over 400 episodes but according to Gail Davis, Nature was not seen as a success in the BBC Natural History Unit. It compared unfavourably with ratings of the high-tech new offering of Supersense which used innovative ways of filming (and trained ‘wild’ animals) to wow viewers, and attracted audiences of over 10m. One of her pseudonymous interviewees said:
“Nature I thought of, but then I thought that it hasn’t really done anything. It should have done something but it hasn’t. I don’t think that it has really had an effect. […] I suppose the only thing that I can say about it, is it probably did a disservice in that people are terrified of now touching the environmental subjects within the Unit, because they know that they are going to get low viewing figures. Whether that is the fault of Nature, or whether the fault of changing climates, I don’t know. I’d like to say it had had an effect. It was the only conservation programme that we put out” (Jenny, interview 21.7.95).
Tony Soper presenting BBC’s Nature magazine programme. from: http://www.wildfilmhistory.org/film/130/Nature.html
Nature was eventually taken away from the nature film makers and finally closed in 1994. In Davis’s words: ‘rather than a milestone in the development of the Unit, several people suggested it was a millstone’.
Gail Davis referenced Andrew Neal, who became head of the Unit in 1989:
” It was a devastating blow. People in the Unit believe passionately that they should be making environmental programmes because they’re out there every day seeing what’s happening to the wildlife and to the planet” (quoted in Venue, 23.10.92).
The bruising folk-memory of the Nature ‘failure’ may be one reason why the Natural History Unit fell back on Attenborough’s traditional recipe of safe celebration of nature through marvellous pictures with only oblique, almost whispered moral generalities about our responsibility to look after it. In 1984 David Attenborough summed up his and probably thus the default BBC rationale like this:
My job as a natural history filmmaker is to convey the reality of the environment so that people will recognise its intrinsic value, its interest, its intrinsic merit and feel some responsibility for it. After that has been done, then the various pressure groups can get at them through their own channels and ask them to send a donation to, let us say, the World Wildlife Fund
At any event for the most part major BBC nature programmes, have made only tangential reference, and then mainly verbal rather than visual reference, to the threats to and destruction of nature, and mainly steered away from engagement with conservation projects or organisations. It’s the pictures that count on TV. In 1997 Gail Davis wrote:
The style of blue-chip natural history films was explained to me by John Sparks, series producer of the Natural World when I interviewed him in 1995. John Sparks is reputed to have coined the phrase, “blue-chip”: “It just means basically that kind of film, you know, which has got no people in it. Lovely, natural history. Nature in the raw. Beautifully filmed. High production values, good editing, good photography that sucks you into a place” (John Sparks, interview 13.6.95)
An “Ooh”, “Ah”, “Yuck” or “Click” Film ?
In 1989, conservation-minded film-maker Stephen Mills authored another article in Ecos ‘The Entertainment Imperative: Wildlife Films and Conservation’ (here) subtitled ‘Why wildlife films don’t always please conservationists’. BBC commissioners he said, used this ‘unwritten convention’ to categorize programme ideas:
‘An “ooh” film is about pandas or koala bears, and it shows how they spend their whole lives cuddling their young without the interference of social workers. An “aah” film makes you gasp with wonder. It describes how the peculiar fly orchid is pollinated by just one species of insect – and shows you the process from inside the flower. The “yuck” film shows in sticky detail the slimy sex-life of the large yellow slug Limax pseudoflavus, and it lasts for half an hour. The “click” film is the slimy sex-life of Limax pseudoflavus part 2, including a treatise on the need to conserve the species in Stow-on the-Wold: the click is everyone turning off their televisions’.
A Mission To Amaze
Few people, observed Mills, watched natural history tv ‘to exercise their brains’. ‘At least 80 percent said they watched simply “for the photography”. TV natural history, noted Mills ‘enhances reality … it shows you things you really wouldn’t see’.
‘Every year the amazement factor is jacked up a notch or two. A kingfisher diving into the river is no longer good enough. Now you must deliver it hurtling into the champagne ice bucket at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party.’
This increased costs which raised the stakes in terms of required ratings. The BBC was embarking on its mission to amaze, impress and stupefy natural history audiences.
TV natural history was progressively pulled away from real life nature. By accident rather than design, audiences were primed to consume nature through screens. The small screens of 1980s tv sets meant close-ups were important. Viewers expected them and real outdoor nature very rarely offered the same experience.
At one nature reserve the RSPB had ‘opened up the nest of a great-spotted woodpecker, putting glass in front so people could watch from a hide as the birds went in and out of the tree’. But the RPSB also set up a video camera to relay live pictures into the hide. ‘Visitors settled themselves in front of the TV monitor – and ignored the real-life events that were happening a few feet further away behind the glass’. I have seen the same thing happen elsewhere.
A Moral Bind
In 1997 Mills, who contributed films such as Tiger Crisis to the BBC, published a far more despondent article in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘Pocket Tigers: The sad unseen reality behind the wildlife film‘. ‘Pockets’ referred to pockets of surviving tiger habitat. He described capturing footage of a beautiful and terrifying encounter with a tiger which ended as it left the track he was on and disappeared into the forest. What the film did not show was that:
‘when the tiger left the track, it was because he did not wish to cross the railway line that chops in half this particular relic of forest, and that he turned away to avoid the raucous tinny radios stabbling out from the village up the line’.
For a journalist, the answer might be to report the reality but what are nature film makers ? Documentary makers (and if so of what type ?), entertainers, advocates, or something else ?
‘All over the world’ said Mills:
‘we frame our pictures as carefully as the directors of costume dramas, to exclude telegraph poles and electricity pylons, cars, roads and people. No such inappropriate vestige of reality may impinge on the period piece fantasy of the natural world we wish to purvey’.
The wildlife film-maker, wrote Mills, is ‘in a moral bind. Put simply, he makes his living out of nature; nature is disappearing. If he says too much about that he loses his audience. If he does not, he loses his subject.’ Mills ended:
‘The loss of wilderness is a truth so sad, so overwhelming that to reflect reality, it would be the subject of every wildlife film. That, of course, would neither be entertaining nor ultimately dramatic. So it seems that as film makers we are doomed either to fail our audience or fail our cause’.
Helping Viewers Feel Better
In 2016 David Attenborough himself described such ‘blue chip’ wildlife programmes as a ‘form of therapy’ for viewers craving a respite from their concerns about the future of the planet. Where once the rationale was to prime the audience do good by supporting conservation, now it has morphed into making the audience feel good. He pointed out that when in 2001 his programme Blue Planet first aired on the day after 9/11, it dramatically exceeded expected ratings as it was broadcast at a moment when “as a nation we craved refuge from the horror and uncertainty”. The motivation, he argues is that audiences are ‘reconnecting with a planet whose beauty is unblemished’. How this helps conservation is harder to see.
This new rationale is maybe the natural end state for the TV nature blockbuster. It accepts that blue-chip nature programmes are not just escapism but more like an anaesthetic which leaves the audience ‘stunned’, and no longer having to worry about what is happening to nature.
Ironically, over the years in which the Attenborough team brought nature spectaculars to their current potency, a growing body of evidence has shown that exposure to nature is indeed ‘good for’ people, psychologically and physiologically. Author Richard Mabey wrote about how it helped him fight depression in Nature Cure. Richard Louv has led a popular movement to recognize nature deficit disorder and ‘Vitamin N’, the importance of first-hand experience of nature in child development. Doctors such as William Bird who has worked with the RSPB and Natural England and the NHS, have demonstrated how just being in or seeing ‘greenery’ and even more so ‘becoming lost’ in nature, reduces stress and improves health.
All that is a reason to ‘prescribe nature’ and design buildings, places and lifestyles to include it but unless it is converted into real-world experiences, it helps people not nature. Moreover, the research that Louv and others are acting upon shows that physical real-life immersion in nature, and being able to read and recognize, relate to and understand it (ecoliteracy if you like or in old fashioned terms, actual natural history), is necessary for it to have a profound and lasting effect on young people so they grow up ‘hard wired’ to love it and want to protect it. That makes engaging with real nature more like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, something which empowers people rather than a liquid cosh of synthetic nature-fentanyl to temporarily suppress anxiety.
Campaigners, marketers, advertisers, fundraisers and motivational trainers also know that first sedating your audience is not a great way to get them to contemplate action. If natural history TV programming is to lead to action that makes a difference, the visual content needs to be designed accordingly, and that could be done.
There is a market for TV-nature as therapy. As E O Wilson pointed out, all human beings start out ‘biophilic’. We need nature. After watching James Cameron’s Avatar with its utopian planet Pandora, some movie-goers got withdrawal symptoms and were depressed because they could not live in tune with nature along with the fictional Na’vi. If real nature continues to vanish, this could be the future of BBC Natural History programming.
Some nature film producers already complain about the sums they are charged for filming in National Parks and Nature Reserves in developing countries, even though that can obviously help conservation (a point the BBC could make a virtue of by explaining it). Maybe the BBC, Disney and the like will end up running their own parks to film in ? Or possibly just resort to CGI and reworking old material.
‘released on iOS and Android on November 17, 2016, contains more than 1,000 of the greatest moments in television history, from more than 40 landmark natural history programmes. The culmination of over a year’s hard work by BBC Earth and our co-producer AKQA, it is offered to audiences globally as a gift from the BBC and Sir David. It can be downloaded from Apple and Google Play’.
Was There An Alternative ?
In the 1980s and 1990s it seems to have become conventional BBC wisdom that the ‘blue-chip’ model of natural history film-making could not be combined with environmentalism. Yet others did so, for instance Michael Rosenberg who produced the influential Channel 4 series Fragile Earth which ran from 1983 – 1992 and received many awards.
Phil Agland’s rainforest filming platform in Korup. from: http://www.wildfilmhistory.org
The British Film Institute guide to British film history says: ‘its simple and direct philosophy was to show a world that was intricate and beautiful but easy to destroy’, adding ‘the programme awakened our wonder at the continuous creativity of our fragile planet, while forcing us to confront the implications of the extermination of species on a scale equivalent to a genocide of nature’.
An anonymized BBC Natural History Unit member told researcher Gail Davis in 1995 that Fragile Earth “was a huge landmark … those films were brilliantly produced”. When he died in 2015, a newspaper obituary recalled that the reason Rosenberg moved to Channel 4 was because he was ‘frustrated with the BBC’s rather negative attitude towards environmental stories’.
Fragile Earth films by Phil Agland and other directors helped directly inspire conservation projects such as for the Korup Rainforest. Today Agland is still using film storytelling to help conservation, for example with the project by WWT and other groups to save the iconic Spoon-Billed Sandpiper from extinction.
Why the BBC mostly remained at arms length from conservation is something of a mystery. Gail Davis found Natural History Unit staff blaming the commissioners and the commissioners blaming a lack of ideas from the staff. Alastair Fothergill, Unit Head at the time, suggested an institutional problem: a lack of clarity ‘about how environmental problems should be covered’ in the BBC as a whole.
Davis also spoke to long-term BBC producer Richard Brock who agreed “the Unit does not do enough on conservation … we are doing what I call escapist natural history”. Brock also left the BBC. In 1995 he quit to set up Living Planet Productions and pursue a project Winners and Losers, tracing the fate of species recorded in the 1950s in 60 (now 70) new films. Remarkably, Brock has used his own BBC pension to fund the project, which can now be found on Vimeo and Youtube. Rather than made for TV, his films are made to be shown for free in the communities where wildlife is directly threatened, and where it may be saved. See also http://www.brockinitiative.org/, which includes good wishes from his old colleague David Attenborough.
The BBC itself has experimented. It has had moments when it even ‘nature’ programmes tackled environment head on, such as David Attenborough’s The State of the Planet (2000), ‘a smaller three-part series … the first wildlife documentary to deal comprehensively with environmental issues on a global scale’ (Morgan Richards, ‘Greening Wildlife Documentary’).
David Attenborough does environmental impacts in 2000 on State of the Planet. from: http://tv-shows.prettyfamous.com/l/29547/State-of-the-Planet-With-David-Attenborough
On the 50th anniversary of the Natural History Unit in 2007 it broadcast Saving Planet Earth, comprising nine celebrity-presented documentaries on conservation struggles to save animals. At the same time it launched its own charity, ‘the BBC Wildlife Fund’ and raised £1m with a BBC telethon fronted by Alan Titchmarsh. A second live telethon Wild Night In followed in in 2010 presented by Kate Humble, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games featuring conservation projects which had benefited from the support of the BBC Wildlife Fund, raising another £1 million.
In the UK the BBC can also point to the achievements of the Springwatch stable of programmes fronted by the same team. There is not enough space to discuss them in detail here but they have done a lot to engage audiences with real-world nature, and get big audiences. Similarly, working with Natural England from 2005 – 2010 it backed Breathing Places, a mix of programming and outdoor nature activities, which aimed to move TV nature audiences out of the ‘BBC bubble’ and into real world projects.
The BBC Dilemma
Having embarked on its present strategy the BBC faces unresolved quandaries and dilemmas. It has been consistent in developing it’s natural history output but inconsistent both in its approach to whether nature films make any connection to conservation, and in its coverage of the environment across the BBC (which has of course included a host of other coverage such as on Horizon).
This may reflect divergent views within the BBC, which by media standards it is a vast enterprise. At one end there are ardent conservationists such as Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, who has been attacked by the shooting lobby for opposing persecution of protected birds of prey. At the other are overtly sceptical or hostile executives like Peter Barron, editor of Newsnight in 2007. During one of the BBC’s periodic bouts of angst about climate change coverage, he blogged: ‘is it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don’t think so’ and ‘I don’t think it’s the BBC’s job to try to save the planet’.
As a whole though, the BBC has erred away from advocating for conservation.
All broadcasters are sensitive to public mood and interests, and environmental coverage has flowered at times when environment was a ‘rising issue’ and ‘hit the headlines’ because of activism and political attention (for example when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared herself a ‘friend of the earth’ in 1989, and when David Cameron’s team adopted greenery as part of a project ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand in 2006). One difference between the BBC and commercial broadcasters is that it has a complex but much closer and often fraught relationship with government. Consequently it is much more sensitive to the mood swings of those in power. Ultimately the BBC depends upon retaining political support for its survival.
It seems to me that the BBC’s rule of thumb in this area can be approximated to this: nature coverage is always ok and harmless (green light); connecting nature to conservation and any working relationship with NGOs is to be treated with caution (amber light); and environmentalism is potentially dangerous and best left treated as a contestable two-sided political controversy (red light). That enables deft repositioning anywhere along the spectrum from overt green advocacy, to studied neutrality to outright ‘scepticism’, in order to align with the political mood of the times.
I do not know what the current thinking is inside the BBC. A 2013 analysis by IBT (International Broadcasting Trust) heard from Matt Walker, editor of the BBC’s online Nature site ‘that those dealing with natural history’ were ‘having a discussion internally about what role the BBC should play – are they neutral observers or should the BBC act as a vocal supporter of nature?’ “From a public service point of view”, he said, “the BBC is naturally supportive of the natural world and therefore not agnostic about habitat loss”. Fine enough although it doesn’t seem to have led to any noticeable change if the latest iteration of its halo-brand, Planet Earth II, is anything to go by.
In November 2016 the new head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, Julian Hector, said of Planet Earth II:
“Audiences love Sir David’s authenticity and the craft of the programme-makers that give us a window on the motivations of the animals. When so much is going on in the human world, that the natural world has an agenda all of its own, regardless, gives us a place to escape.”
The problem which conservationists are increasingly left with, is that nature no longer has a place to escape to.
What Can Be Done ?
Peter Barron is right. Legally, it’s not the BBC’s ‘job’ to save the planet. Nor is it Unilever’s job nor Marks and Spencer, or Sky TV (gone carbon neutral for ten years) or a host of other corporates who are anyway doing something about it. So to be credible, I think the BBC can forget that argument.
Martin Hughes-Games proposes a ‘conservation tax’ to fund 20% of ‘natural history’ commissions ‘across all channels’ as conservation oriented tv showing ‘the reality of what’s happening to wildlife worldwide’, including through drama and other formats.
It’s a reasonable option. At least it should start a conversation. The first step is for the BBC to recognize that there is a problem, and the second to talk to people about it from outside the BBC.
John Muir – Hero
John Muir (right) and Teddy Roosevelt, namer of the Teddy Bear, at Yosemite. From https://www.nps.gov/yose/learn/historyculture/muir-influences.htm
My own first suggestion for a drama – preferably at a Hollywood epic level of course – would be one about the long-dead and therefore suitable environmental hero, John Muir. This Victorian Scotsman is the mainly unsung super-star of conservation. After his family emigrated to the United States he inspired the ‘wilderness’ movement, walked across America, was the first to prove that glaciers moved, saved Yosemite redwoods, persuaded President Roosevelt to establish a network of protected areas and founded the Sierra Club, which in turn led to Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The conservation movement lacks heroes known for their real achievements and Muir’s life story is a “couldn’t make it up” trail of extraordinary adventures.
Congruence – Walk the Talk – ‘No Planet Earth III’, not yet
Second, the BBC could help itself, and help conservation, by applying a few communications fundamentals. For one thing, if it does actually want viewers to get any sort of conservation message, it needs to display what psychologists call ‘congruence’. This means that for someone or some organisation to be convincing, for us to believe they really believe a thing is important, they need to look like they believe it, sound like they believe it, and act accordingly.
The single biggest thing the BBC could now do for conservation would be if it were to announce that the corporation is no longer making ‘blue chip’ nature spectaculars because it is concerned that they mislead people about the real state of the planet. If David Attenborough announced there would be no Planet Earth III until the tide was turned on destruction of the environments it showed, that would send an unequivocal signal and provoke a global social and political conversation.
Of course that is too radical for BBC management and so unlikely unless Attenborough himself suggested it.
Here’s How To Help
At the very minimum, the BBC could at least make a visible, noticeable effort to help conservation while still ploughing its existing furrow. In the crudest iteration, it could add a simple screen or section at the end of all its more popular (‘blue chip’) broadcasts which don’t show the reality of threats faced by wildlife, explaining what they are, and signposting viewers to help real conservation projects. “The wildlife you have seen in this film lives precariously in a few small pocket of habitat and is vanishing. You can help put this right by …”
The BBC should also recognize that Attenborough’s mental model of passing on viewers to conservation groups who will ‘use their own channels’ to recruit them has two key failings. First, unless the content of the programme or an accompanying ‘message’ makes the audience feel it is somehow responsible, there will be no ‘it’s about me’ alignment and no result. Second, even if ‘inspiration’ is to flow into action, the ‘channels’ of even the best resourced NGOs, are tiny: a water pistol compared to the Niagara Falls of the BBC blockbusters. So it behoves the BBC to actively refer connect its interested viewers to conservation projects as other broadcasters have done before. Digital media such as SMS, Twitter and Facebook now make this easy.
Likewise, it could also re-run it’s conservation fundraising telethon but with more resource. The BBC Wildlife Fund raised almost £3m and closed in 2012. Not to be sneezed at but tiny compared with Comic Relief started by BBC’s Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry, which at the end of the 2015 had raised over £1 billion over 30-years. In 2016 alone it raised £100m for charities such as Barnardo’s, Cancer Research UK and Oxfam, and viewers were thanked by BBC Director General Tony Hall.
Scandal – Not Doom and Gloom – The Optimism of Rewilding
For another, it could consider the difference between scandal and tragedy. Film makers have long known that ‘all doom and gloom’ is a turn-off: healthy people stay sane by not making themselves unhappy. But simply adding a sotto voce, whimsical fragment of regret at the end of a wildlife spectacular, is no solution.
Planet Earth II Series producer, Tom Hugh-Jones said, “David does a very poignant wrap-up to explain that for most animals, what we are doing to the planet is a bit of a tragedy.”
A bit of a tragedy ! That is perhaps an understatement for the thousands of animal species facing near-term oblivion but whereas a tragedy is demotivational, as nothing can be done about it (a problem with no solution), once something can be done, tragedy becomes a scandal (a problem with a solution that is not yet implemented).
It is this which the BBC could attach to the bad-news that awesome, splendid and magical nature is vanishing. The solution could frame an entire story, a programme or series. Campaign groups do this all the time: having a solution which is not being put into practice gives you the psychological licence to talk more about the problem until it is but it means being connected to real life.
The most obvious candidate is ‘rewilding’: reconnecting those ‘pockets’ which leave wildlife fatally isolated. Ecological guru E O Wilson has called for half the planet to be put aside to allow nature to survive.
The BBC has of course mentioned rewilding but often as a ‘controversy’. Instead it needs to get behind it. Rewilding captures the popular imagination because it is positive, optimistic and part of the nature solution. Perhaps Springwatch should next be based at Knepp, the amazing rewilding project in Sussex with its charismatic owner Charlie Burrell.
An English river being rewilded at Knepp
But rewilding is going on across the world, and could easily form a series of international scope. It is full of people and nature stories with scope for the high empathy encounters which David Attenborough has done so well, as with gorillas or the memorable encounter with a blind baby black rhino in episode 6 of Africa.
Key Target Audiences
Third, rather than just thinking about ‘smuggling in’ conservation to genre formats (comedy, sport, drama etc), the BBC could get to grips with audience psychology.
The aspirational Prospectors for example, under-served by the formats of nature programming, as opposed to lifestyle, sport or game show formats and achievement dramas such as The Apprentice. The fact that most ‘green’ groups are dominated by Pioneers is one major obstacle to effective conservation.
To engage Prospectors (about 30% of the population and over-represented amongst people working full time in organisations) you need to enable them to look good and feel good: for example to get ‘good at’ nature. The BBC can do this. Comic Relief does it be enabling people to become locally famous for 15 minutes. Producing the best nature garden with the most wildlife, or getting to be the best at navigating the landscape by knowing nature could be their sort of programmes, and have a huge positive impact.
Fourth, at least in my view, when it comes to a ‘back catalogue’ the BBC should remember its roots and connect its viewers and listeners with nature’s unvarnished, authentic reality. I hear that some in the BBC perceive this as incorrigibly antediluvian but I think younger and older audiences would appreciate it. For example Lord Reith chose a live broadcast of a signing nightingale for the first BBC Outside Broadcast. When I and thousands of others, pressed the BBC to restart such broadcasts, Lord Hall pointed to programmes such as on Tweet of the Day but these are of recorded and therefore probably long-dead nightingales. This is the road to the ‘media museum’ (wildlife salient in our lives but only virtually) which I argue is a growing cause of extinctions. If on the other hand, the BBC helped encourage its audience to demand real live nature, it would be a force against extinction.
A Debt to Repay
We can all suffer from group-think and almost every human being is adept at rationalising what they do, in order to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance but it seems to me that the BBC has allowed itself to indulge in both, in a way which is unhealthy and unethical. When it redefines the purpose of natural history films as therapeutic escapism – which there is a market for – it offers audiences a second-best substitute for conservation, and buries the question of whether it has any responsibility to actually help nature, whether for moral or ethical reasons, as a matter of social or corporate responsibility, or from any residual public service duty.
David Attenborough is not the issue, nor is his commitment to nature. He does a lot of direct good works supporting conservation initiatives, such as for Wildlife Trusts. He has spoken out on climate change and a host of other issues.
The BBC ‘pays no rent’ for nature: it has a debt to repay, and could yet really help ‘save the planet’.
With Trump to be in the Whitehouse, many ‘progressives’ are truly horrified at the possible consequences. But if campaigns are to work effectively, campaigners need to guard against an ‘ethical panic’, especially among supporters mesmerized by dwelling on how Trump seems to personify their ‘sum of fears’. This could rob them of their crucial sense of self-agency and blind them to the many factors which may slow and restrict the reality of Trump’s project once he is actually in the Whitehouse.
‘If campaigners treat the nightmare of what Trump could be as if it is real, they will be granting Trump influence beyond his power’.
It urges campaigners not ‘to talk up Trump in terms of power but to talk him down, by seeing him for what he is, and by clearly exploring the real situation he will face once in office’.
An Incubus demon – The Nightmareby Henry Fuseli wartburg.eduimage public domain. Incubi were regarded as real in law in the Middle Ages but are now regarded as an effect of sleep paralysis.
‘Trump is not a demon’ it argues, ‘he’s just a man, flawed and limited, who by accident as much as design, has ended up, probably ill-prepared and ill-equipped in the Whitehouse: a malign version of Chance the gardener, in Hal Ashby’s film Being There.’
During the campaign we had ‘Trump the Movie’ but once he heads a government, Trump will face challenges in balancing the demands and conflicting interests of business, the Republicans in Congress, the expectations of his voters, relations with other countries, his inconsistent and sometimes incoherent economic agenda, and the markets.
The Trump Whitehouse script will be written more by external events and forces outside his control, challenging his self-myth of omnipotence and showing a very different reality to the way he promised to ‘make America great’ once again. Campaigning With Trump In The Whitehouse suggests that we have probably already reached ‘Peak Lacquer’ and the gloss will soon start to come off the stack of promises Trump made to the electorate.
Indeed this is already happening in his relations with China, as Trump’s financial borrowing plans for his ‘infrastructure’ package effectively push up the dollar relative to the Yuan. Likewise, although he has populated his administration picks with climate sceptics and promised to bring back coal, the markets suggest they have arrived too late to stop the shift to renewables and storage, which are now starting to out compete both coal and gas.
As with the Brexiteers, Trump promised to turn back the clock to a world that in many ways no longer exists, and simple but grand claims (such as the power of his ‘deal-making’) which may not stand the test of real politics.
A Trump Presidency will almost certainly be bizarre and it may be catastrophic – let’s hope not – but it could also turn out to be a lot more ordinary than his election campaign promised.
photo: Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)
And as some psychologists have suggested, Trump’s own psyche (eg an overwhelming desire to be seen as a winner and a blithe disregard for truth) may also even lead him to do surprising things, such as abandoning pledges and changing tack. This, and the exigencies and vicissitudes of simply being in office, may open up opportunities for campaigning which are currently hard to imagine, especially if you take Trump The Movie and make it your mental reality.