“Demonise the enemy” tactics impress no one – let’s restore some faith in democracy
It was ironic that the discussion at the “People’s Parliament” event was on “unity after Brexit”.
But given the accusation levelled at a Brexit Party candidate – mid debate – that he’d threatened “civil unrest” was false, you’d have to say the double irony of this event was how effective his accusers were in feeding their own appetite for rancour.
I attended the event at the Sallis Benney Theatre on Saturday 12 October to voice the views of our nearby residents group.
My attempt to outline how neighbourhood campaigns over things like clean air offer one route to unity “after Brexit” was quickly eclipsed by a glaring contradiction – namely that, at this event, debate inevitably veered toward the proposition: after Brexit is stopped.
I audio-recorded the event so let me set the record straight: no one issued a threat of civil unrest.
Whatever our opinions are on Brexit, most of us would agree that there is something distasteful about gleefully misrepresenting what an opponent has said.
I don’t know Hove’s Brexit Party candidate – I’ve never met Andy Wood and I don’t know anything about him.
But addressing his points primarily to MPs Caroline Lucas, Peter Kyle and Lloyd Russell-Moyle, he clearly felt that these MPs were in the business of thwarting Brexit and – more to the point – were failing to understand the rising anger of people who voted Leave.
Listening to the audio confirms what I heard at the time. Andy Wood simply said: “There will be a disconnection from politics. There will be potentially – I don’t think there will be riots, I genuinely don’t think that will happen, I hope it doesn’t happen – a serious disconnection from politics.”
The adverse reaction to these words came only when a resident of Hove, describing herself as “a passionate Remainer”, got up and spoke on the need for unity.
After commenting on how she was managing to “retain friendships” with Leave voters “through thick and thin”, she directed her remarks to Andy Wood.
She stated that he did not, in her opinion, speak for all leave voters, adding: “It is wrong of you to use them as a weapon in this way. It’s wrong and it has to stop.”
Although an unfair interpretation of Andy Wood’s remarks, it was evident that the woman from Hove was worried that Leave voter anger was being “weaponised” in order to issue a threat.
To applause, she said: “I’m not frightened. I look forward to working with my friends once this ghastly mess is revoked.”
The mood of this debate began to shift. Glaring at Andy Wood, another speaker said: “There’s only one side of the debate that’s issued threats of civil unrest.”
Unfazed, Andy Wood spoke one more time to say: “Very politely, I’d just like to point out that there is no way on earth anyone could think I issued threats or used any threat of violence. I said there may be a problem if the vote is thwarted.”
Again, he reiterated his point that thwarting the referendum result risks “a huge political disconnect, people will give up voting”.
At the point that he said, “be careful what you wish for,” a number of voices called out “Threats! Threats!” and “That’s a threat!”
The embodiment of mild-mannered patience, Andy Wood repeated his point on political disconnection one last time: “People will stop voting. They’ll stop trusting their institutions”.
“People don’t vote anyway!” came a heckle (cynical, but at least someone had momentarily listened and reacted to what Andy Wood actually said).
I don’t know about you. Maybe you feel that just being a candidate for the Brexit Party makes this man fair game?
I was there to talk about air quality! But I’ll tell you right now that I’m an old-school left-wing democrat who voted Leave and would have respected the result whichever way it had gone.
And although he remained unflustered and courteous throughout as though it were all in a day’s work (amid the furore, he commented, “yes, it’s politics, I get that”), I think the mobbing of Andy Wood was revealing.
Afterwards, I wished I’d yelled out, “what about Lammy then!” after the recent tweet by Labour MP David Lammy (following the Boris “coup”) where he’d said: “This constitutional outrage will spark civil disobedience and I for one will actively participate.”
But then I would have had to make clear that you, me, David Lammy, Andy Wood … We should all feel free to speak as we see fit. We’re grown-ups. We’re active listeners. And we’re free to argue back.
No – the fact that the mood inside the People’s Parliament eagerly turned on Andy Wood for something he didn’t say demonstrated a tribal, point-scoring culture that suffocates debate – just like in that other parliament.
Speaking to Labour supporting friends after the event, they clearly looked uncomfortable about the eagerness of some to demonise Andy Wood in such an underhand, divisive way.
One felt that to do so under the guise of “unity” was an own goal for sure.
They agreed that the accusation of “weaponising” had itself been blatantly enlisted by those regarding any prospective Brexit Party candidate as less an opponent with something to say than as an enemy to be shot down.
Stepping out of the “People’s Parliament” and on to Grand Parade, a neighbour friend pointed toward the pier. “Shame they didn’t understand your point about people uniting over air quality,” she quipped.
The controversy over the council’s “Valley Gardens phase 3” scheme and its proposal to remove the pier roundabout is well known to Brighton and Hove News readers by now.
This controversy has its ironies too. A people-friendly road-layout revamp will promote walking and cycling by discouraging car use. How will the council discourage car use? With a scheme that throttles traffic along Grand Parade, producing an indefinite period of rising NO2/PM 2.5.
Our group –Amex Area Neighbourhood Forum – has tried to alert the council to the risk of air pollution and echoes other campaign groups demanding an immediate environmental impact assessment, if not a straightforward rethink.
But the council aren’t listening. One councillor told me that our opposition simply lines up with Tory business interests. “Don’t you care about the planet?” the councillor said.
When the content of an opposing view is presumed to be the malign tactics of enemy forces then I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when it gets ignored.
In fact, our message unifies hundreds of people (1,359 signed a petition) but its content is unheard.
Instead, we’re cast as blockers. Who could imagine a demand to be informed if the air we breathe will kill us would prove so controversial!
If the People’s Parliament had directed half the energy it expended trying to bash Andy Wood toward genuinely listening, it might have got somewhere.
At least we can unify around one thing – democracy isn’t working. We need to do better. Let’s focus on that.
Adrian Hart is a neighbourhood activist living in east Brighton. He is author of That’s Racist! – How the regulation of speech and thought divides us all. He ran as a neighbourhood non-party alternative in the May local elections.