Brandon Lewis, the Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth and cabinet member, visited Beatfreeks HQ yesterday. Brandon's office had explained that he was on a listening tour of Britain, trying to find out how much people know about Brexit, and what they feel about it. I had my misgivings, as did others in Free Radical, but together we decided it seemed like a rare opportunity to make voices from our community heard by a minister. Brexit will have a huge influence on young people's lives, so we invited a few of the exceptional people we work with every day to contribute to the discussion, set up a space for an exchange of ideas, and waited. A chance to speak openly to someone in power should not be dismissed lightly.
The meeting was not what I had hoped.
Now that my initial emotional reaction has subsided a bit, I think I’ve come up with a way to turn it into something constructive: I compiled a short list of things to avoid for politicians who decide to go on listening tours in the future. That way, everybody benefits! Here goes.
1. Do Not Forget to Listen
It's a listening tour. If you find yourself talking more than the people in the room, something is patently wrong.
Brandon spoke for the majority of the time, and a member of his team often interrupted the young people to rephrase their contribution into a statement which would trigger a talking point. This changed the afternoon from what could have been a chance for the minister to learn something into an interview with him.
2. Do Not Be Patronising
Do not simply repeat reassuring talking points, especially if you have little evidence to back them up.
Many of the worries the group expressed were met by Brandon with quick assurances - trade deals, he explained, would be kept as they are; same for the right to travel; funding from the EU would be replaced with a UK Prosperity Fund; immigrants with pre-arranged skilled jobs would have no problem settling in the UK; people would not feel an impact on their everyday lives. It does sound reassuring - until you remember that none of these things are guaranteed. There is no guarantee individual trade deals will be as beneficial as EU membership; there is no guarantee that a government funding scheme will suitably replace all EU funds, especially in education, culture, and regional development outside of London (and no indication where this money might come from after years of austerity); fewer low-waged immigrants does not mean more jobs for local workers, this is not how economics work. None of this is fact, and presenting it as such is patronising at best, and manipulative at worst.
3. Do Not Dismiss Lived Experience
Do not wave off stories from people who decide to share how they and their close ones are affected by Brexit, and definitely do not look for tenuous ways to somehow present your own experience as similar to theirs. When in doubt, refer to point 1.
One of the group expressed their worries about a family member suffering from racist attacks post-Brexit, and such instances becoming more frequent. Brandon replied that racist people would always be racist, and the spike in incidents after Brexit could have been provoked by anything else. He also equated coming from Essex but working in Norfolk with the experience of aggression and injustice suffered by people of colour as xenophobic discourse becomes more acceptable in the mainstream. A really shocking misjudgment in an attempt to quickly dismiss, rather than acknowledge, the problem.
4. Do Not Default to Blame
Don't blame young people for your party's failure to educate them and communicate with them.
The group repeatedly brought up the lack of readily available information on the subject. Brandon replied that information was available, and expressed his surprise that no-one present followed the Home Office’s Twitter account. The reality is that young people have rarely been seen by those in power as a community worth speaking to with any degree of respect: it's definitely not their fault they are not browsing gov.uk pages and parliamentary Twitter. Who would?
A disappointing meeting in many ways, but perhaps also important precisely because of this: the experience has hopefully helped us all see just how hard we have to work to be heard, how easy it can be to be lulled into false confidence by mistaking plans for facts, and how vital it is for young people to have a say on what they need to feel well-informed, confident, and less anxious about their future. I think if the opportunity came up to do something similar in the future, I’d vote for trying again, and hope against hope that next time, I’d find myself listening to more than one voice.