I’ve just read, in only a couple of sittings, the new book by pollster Deborah Mattinson, Talking to a Brick Wall. A fascinating and readable account of New Labour’s rise and fall, seen through the eyes of swing voters in focus groups.
Mattinson was there when all the big decisions were made, and the book is a gratifyingly intimate portrayal of the Blair-Brown-Mandelson psychodrama. More importantly, though, it’s an all-too-rare insight into the minds of Middle Englanders.
The book has really made me think about how we talk to people about climate change and environment, and the link to politics. Mattinson’s account confirms something we all already know – that there is a mile-wide gulf between the language and outlook of environmentalists and the swing voters of Harlow. The ‘squeezed middle’ voters in marginal seats like Harlow (which switched from Labour to Tory in May) care about their families, worry about their jobs and aspire to a better future. But they have trouble seeing the relevance of politics to their everyday lives, have little respect for politicians, and understandably find it hard to get their heads around abstract issues like interest rates or tax thresholds (let alone the IPCC’s probabilistic accounts of climate change scenarios to 2050).
So it’s tempting to take from Mattinson the lesson that you can only engage people on things that are readily understandable, and affect the lives of them and their families in the short term. That the only way to deal with difficult global issues like climate change is to smuggle them into a simple story about immediate improvements for immediate family.
Certainly, any attempts to de-jargonise our message, and render it less pessimistic, has to be a good thing. The brilliant people at Futerra, for example, have clever ways of communicating difficult things simply and positively.
But there’s a deeper message that Mattinson ends with. She describes ‘Peter Pan’ syndrome, in which politicians tell people what they want to hear – that, thanks to some magical sleight of hand, you can have better public services and lower taxes, for example. This infantilises the voter, and prevents them facing up to difficult choices or taking responsibility. I see a lot of this in attempts at environmental engagement. I think we owe it to people to tell them the truth about climate change, and the difficult choices involved, rather than dressing it all up in a breathless win-win narrative about green growth and quality of life.