Time to ditch the winner-takes-all mentality in politics
Consensus decision-making offers a route out of the Brexit mess. We know it works because we’ve tried it.
More than three years after the EU referendum, people in the UK reportedly identify as ‘remainers’ or ‘brexiteers’ more strongly than ever. Activists on both sides have become increasingly intransigent, as have many politicians, endorsing positions that seek to ‘cancel Brexit’ or implement it at any cost. Extreme language has inflamed debate, while both sides claim moral authority by evoking ‘the people.’ Positions that try to respect different perspectives are ridiculed. Was this inevitable?
At Skills Network (our women’s co-operative in south London), members have very different positions on Brexit, but they haven’t led to the entrenched divisions seen on the national stage. We believe this is largely because using consensus decision-making approaches has helped us avoid a ‘winner takes all’ mentality.
Consensus decision-making is committed to finding solutions that everyone can live with. It requires conscious effort, but can eventually become a habit. We believe it can enable people to hear opposing views more effectively. Here are three reasons why:
1 The aim of consensus isn’t to ‘win’ but to build the fullest picture of the situation possible.
Consensus decision-making starts from the premise that no single person knows or owns ‘the truth.’ All our knowledge and understanding is partial, so only by combining these parts and taking different knowledges seriously can we build a full-enough picture to find solutions everyone might accept. For this reason we are compelled to take seriously a wide range of perspectives and engage with people with whom we disagree. The goal isn’t to beat down the arguments of others, but to create conditions in which everyone feels comfortable sharing their opinion. This requires interrogating hidden power relations because class and socioeconomic circumstances strongly influence what we feel able to say, hear and take seriously.
Several years ago, for example, we undertook participatory research on the benefits system’s impacts on local women. Some of us with professional research experience felt annoyed that others were dragging their feet about publicising the findings. Despite their thorough analytical and experiential understanding of the topic, members from less privileged backgrounds didn’t want to “sit in front of the camera, be on the radio. No one actually wanted their voice, their story to be there because it was intimidating, exposing, shaming. [You think] I don’t want to be that person.”
In this research, “that person” was the single mother on benefits. With Brexit, members feel it’s the ‘ignorant, duped leave-voter.’
“Not all remain voters are middle class, but there’s that sense that if you vote for Brexit you must be bottom feeders, that’s how it comes across...Classism.”
This feeling stops people voicing opinions and compounds the sense of internalised powerlessness they already battle as mothers on low incomes. Perhaps this is why research shows remainers tend to misunderstand leave-voter motivations more than vice versa.
Members also feel that tropes contrasting ‘rational’ remain-voters with ‘emotional’ leave-voters are inaccurate and stop leavers’ concerns being taken seriously, since all votes had both visceral and analytical drivers.
“I voted very emotionally,” one remain-voting member admits, “My mother’s French, I’ve spent all summers there, it’s my identity. It wasn’t because of in-depth knowledge of trading relations. But initially I felt 'right', 'rational'...thankfully here I’m used to being challenged – even so it took loads of hard conversations with others to shift my views.”
Meanwhile one leave-voting member explains the hard thinking that went into her vote:
“[It was a] mix of reasons; frustration at the [Cameron-led] government and cuts in South London where I live…housing and school places shortages. I really wanted the government to be properly accountable [rather than] the vortex of unanswerable excuses about how it was down to the EU…Long queues at airports, problems [with] living abroad, aren’t so relevant to people like me without cultural and financial status. Europe doesn’t feel like an open world I can manoeuvre in easily; the rare times I’ve visited I’ve experienced lots of uncomfortable reactions because I’m in a mixed-race relationship.”
She’s saddened that her vote tarnishes her as prejudiced “against Eastern Europeans, like the ones I know well on my estate, by middle class people who might only know them as cleaners, plumbers.”
It’s not just leave voters who feel unable to speak and unheard when they do. Remain-voters who feel ambivalent about the EU also find themselves shut out of the debate:
“I voted remain only within the ‘another Europe is possible’ framework. I support a ‘no borders’ approach to global politics [but find] EU economic frameworks problematic. But I'm told this 'muddies the message.'”
Without these kinds of perspectives, extremes will continue to dominate the debate. Leave voters in our network hate being associated with violent, far-right movements, whilst remainers feel no affinity with “Bollocks to Brexit” slogans or the status-quo remain position. “My dad was a remainer but thinks it’s appalling the [bullying] way some remainers have behaved, and would vote leave now.”
Practising the spirit of consensus during disagreements has shifted perceived hierarchies of knowledge at Skills Network. Because consensus needs everyone’s perspectives to work, we had to “always talk about power [and] really try to create an equal playing field.”
This is hard work, but it’s exciting when consensus-thinking becomes a mindset where “I’m not trying to just shore up my argument…. so I don’t need to shame you.” “I can easily see this, and you can’t. And you see what I can’t.” That’s when transformation happens.
2 Consensus forces us to find ways past stuck, either/or positions.
A few years ago, after some funding disappointments, our Network disagreed on how to move forward. Some of us wanted to shift to a ‘back-to-work’ model with more tangible objectives, others to stick with cooperative, non-hierarchical projects.
Tensions rose as each side tried to persuade the other without success. Majority rules voting ran counter to our ethos, so instead we changed the question from ‘What do we want to do?’ to ‘What do we want the world to be like?’ In small groups members shared thoughts about their ‘ideal worlds’ and found that we all wanted equality, a society where ‘no one feels below others, or needs to put others below them to feel ok.’ From this grew our overarching aim to ‘demonstrate models that reflect our values of acting like equals.’
This ruled out ‘work programme-style’ interventions, but we still wanted to address barriers to women’s active participation in work and public life. So we decided to focus on projects that amplify and build connections between the perspectives of women living in difficult circumstances. By shifting the question we had reframed the conversation and found ways forward that worked for us all.
What if we changed the Brexit conversation in the same way and talked about what both leavers and remainers ultimately want - better public services for example, less inequality, or decent housing for all? Addressing these issues is possible within lots of different permutations of our relationship with the EU, so ‘in or out’ doesn’t need to be the question.
3 With shared ownership, it’s less likely you’ll have to revisit the question.
Whatever happens next in the current debate, one side will feel it has lost. The Brexit question won’t disappear; questions where resources are at stake rarely do.
At Skills Network, the question of how to distribute limited paid work comes up repeatedly. Initially the co-founders felt they were best placed to carry out this task fairly, but arguments kept flaring: “It all went wrong when money came into it.”
So when we started a new community engagement project, we approached the question of pay differently. We all did basic budgeting training and spent a day hammering out different ways to manage the money together. We discussed concerns about time commitments, childcare and expenses at length. And by addressing fears of resource constraints we found solutions that expanded our capacity. As one member noted, “we’re happy to work voluntary hours, but it needed to feel fair.” We never had to revisit the question again.
Could vexed questions like immigration benefit from the same approach? The idea that remainers are ‘open’ and support immigration while leavers want to build walls doesn’t tally with views in our group: we’ve all supported Network members facing deportation, and as one leave-voter protests; “I’m pro-internationalist. I support people coming in, but resources are tight in some areas. We just ask that this is seen. Try to make sure we all have what we need.” A consensus-based approach could find solutions that satisfy this condition, such as reintroducing the immigration integration fund.
Making difference into a positive.
Without contrasting opinions we can’t fully understand a problem. Taking into account multiple realities builds collective knowledge and a sense of ownership that counters strategies of divide and rule, so difference can be a positive. Consensus-based decision-making could facilitate conversations about what people agree on, opening up different solutions around ‘soft’ Brexit options, or remain/reform/revolt.
In contrast, ‘hard’ Brexit or ‘remain without reform’ approaches could damage the things people most care about, like the NHS, whether through privatisation deals with the US or mechanisms like TTIP which remains a guiding framework for EU trade policy.
Brendan Cox recently tweeted that to honour Jo Cox’s memory we must “stand up passionately to defend what we believe in.” But on Brexit we are standing up not as a populace against the purveyors of oppression but against each other. Perhaps it’s time to stand back. Questioning our assumptions about whose knowledge is valid and engaging with multiple worldviews and complex realities should be at the heart of any progressive movement.
Instead of “telling them the truth” or “telling them again,” why not hear each other and build a new ‘truth’ out of our different, complex knowledges - one that we can create, explore and defend together?
This article was written in conversation with a group of Skills Network members with different positions on Britain’s relationship with the EU. Quotes are taken from this conversation.
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