Making Common Ground: What we are doing and why

Making Common Ground: What we are doing and why

Catherine Neilan

18:29 4th January 2021

Hello and welcome to Making Common Ground, a one-year fellowship project funded by the Alfred Landecker Foundation in partnership with Humanity in Action.

Starting from January 2021, Making Common Ground will attempt to find a solution to something that has plagued me and I think many people in the last few years: how we can stop ignoring, or shouting over, people who have a different opinion to our own and start better understanding why it is that people feel, and vote, in the way they do.

The idea for Making Common Ground came out of a conversation I had with a member of my extended family on New Year's Eve 2019, just after the election saw the Conservatives secure a massive win on yet another infamous three-word slogan: Get Brexit Done.

As we settled down for our last dinner of the year, we started to talk about this win, the extent of which had come as a surprise. Why had so many people backed Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn? As someone who had been on the campaign trail with many MPs and a handful of ministers, I thought I had a reasonable idea. In the North, it seemed to me to be largely frustration with the status quo and the perception that MPs were blocking the referendum result. In the Remain-leaning South it was dislike and distrust of the Labour leader, coupled perhaps, with some Brexit fatigue and the resignation that the break from the EU had to happen, even if they had originally voted to Remain three and a half years before. In Scotland, and arguably the other nations, Brexit was reigniting the debate on independence, which had never really gone away. And across the country, many people voted against something as much as they did for something, unhappy with any of the options on offer.

As I saw it, there were many complicated reasons leading up to which box people put their cross in, despite it resulting in a fairly emphatic election result. But my relative was convinced there was just one reason why the Tories had won their 80-seat majority, - quite simply, he said, anyone who voted for Boris was a racist.

His comments struck me then and continue to do so now. Not personally - I had no skin in that game - but because he had explained it away in a single word. Regardless of my own view of the Conservative party or its leader, I was surprised that such a complex time in British electoral history could be boiled down into one black-or-white position. How could an intelligent, considered person reduce the many different considerations people make before voting into one flippant label?

On the other side of the argument, people who voted for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn have also been tarnished with the brush of anti-Semitism. The recent EHRC report found that the party "at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it", making it clear that there has been a problem. However, the idea that people vote for a single reason and don't all weigh up the pros and cons of voting for a party or individual is reductive and wrong, whichever side you're on.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. After all, the last four years have been ones in which our civic dialogue has descended into precisely that: labels, monologues masquerading as debate. Echo chambers that we create reinforce the us and them mentality. Everyone inside my chamber is good. We understand. We get it. The ones on the outside, them , they are the idiots. The scum. The racists.

Brexit might have been the catalyst for the all out eruption of the UK's culture war, but it was not the beginning and, despite the calls from some figures to rest the labels of Leaver and Remainer, it most definitely is not the end. Project Fear. Lockdown. Face masks. Black Lives Matter. Vaccines. Shut the schools. Topple the racists. Stop the witch hunt.

This might all sound pessimistic, but it's not. Making Common Ground starts from a position of optimism, a belief that we can bridge the differences between us and understand each other better. If I did not believe that there was hope things could be improved, and through the simplest of activities, I would not be doing it. But I am because I believe things can change for the better.

Making Common Ground is about giving people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, from around the country, the opportunity to come together and see if together they can create a foundation from which to build. It is about seeing if compromise can be reached, agreement struck between opposing factions. It is not about changing people's opinions - but trying to understand the reasons other people have for their own beliefs. Once we understand where people are coming from, we can usually find a solution to even the thorniest of problems. I hope that everyone who takes part will do so with openness and respect.

While I was researching the idea for the project, I soon realised I was not alone in this endeavour, nor was it a recent one. For many decades academics have been trying to understand what makes us tribal and why, as well as trying to get beyond that. Professor James Fishkin, who we will be hearing from as part of the project, has pioneered a system that he calls deliberative democracy, in which people of all stripes come together to discuss policy ideas and see if they can find a way to agree something that works to the benefit of many and the exclusion of none.

There are many others engaged in similar work, including LSE professor Sara Hobolt, while Ali Goldsworthy and the team at the Depolarization Project are undertaking research on how our society got to this point - and how to pull back from the brink.

Making Common Ground hopes to join with these and others in finding real-world solutions to our increasingly fractured society with a particular focus on the media people consume and the conversations we have.

Participants will meet virtually on a monthly basis, having read a variety of news articles. The articles will have no headlines and be free of any branding, so rather than seeing the source and thinking they have understood a 700 word article on the basis of its 10-word headline, they will have to read and engage with the piece fully.

Through the course of the study, they will also be expected to read articles across the political spectrum, coming into contact with opinions they might not agree with as well as news articles they would have otherwise not seen.

We will then discuss these, along with a major topic, to see if familiarity with people who hold other opinions, as well as reading news and comment pieces more widely, has any effect on their ability to empathise and understand those who hold counter beliefs to their own.

I am not an unseen observer. I am an active participant in democracy, and have my own preconceived ideas about things. Prejudices, even. In my job, I try to challenge these ideas, remain neutral as far as that is ever possible, in order to find out what is really happening and why. But it would be naive to think that I am not a product of the media I consume as much as anyone else.

Democracy on a global basis is going through a critical point, with pressures on both new and well established systems.

For countries like the UK and the US, some of this is akin to the old married couple who has seen off so many problems in the past, in which our relative success bred complacency, which in turn led to all-too-public rows. But there are genuine problems that need to be addressed: widening inequality, particularly generational; racism and xenophobia; pressure on public services, particularly healthcare and education; climate; the impact of technology on our lives and jobs.

But there is also a growing sense of distrust between groups of individuals; between the public and the media, or experts of any field used by the media, as well as politicians. Some of this is inevitable but some of this is because of the widening gap - real or perceived - between the two sides. That is what Making Common Ground seeks to address.

The discussion groups are already fixed for the next few months, however you can participate by filling out our questionnaire, signing up for the newsletter or applying to take part in the discussion groups at a later point.

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Tags: Brexit Boris Johnson Jeremy Corbyn Elections Coronavirus Black Lives Matter Democracy Anti-Semitism Conservative Labour Open dialogue Podcast