Listen To Those You Disagree With

The act of listening matters. Hearing viewpoints different to your own is an essential part of a healthy political climate. It’s the only route to effective democracy.

So who should politicians listen to first? Billionaires? Newspaper owners? Lobbyists? That’s the list that worries people – that those with influence exercise it unhealthily and selfishly. It’s a legitimate worry.

An underplayed danger is politicians listening to people who stroke their egos. It’s human to enjoy being flattered, and made to feel important. It’s self-affirming to meet people who agree with you.

But here’s the real kicker: only meeting people who don’t give them a hard time. Listening to someone is not the same as agreeing with them. It does mean appreciating that there is a different viewpoint, and trying to understand it. Today’s politics is so febrile – the slightest Twitter slip is pounced upon – that politicians are increasingly controlling about their public image. It’s a vicious circle that motivates the media to try to outflank the spin doctors and minders, and seek out the member of the public who will have a pop.

The best antidote is to not base your self-esteem on your public approval. Denis Healey famously said that politicians require a hinterland. A breadth and depth gained from knowledge and pursuits outside of politics. Literary, artistic, scientific, sporting. And family, of course. I have time marked out when I switch off my phone, and spend it with my kids. It’s too easy to become a workaholic in this job.

Listening isn’t just for politicians. We’d all be wiser to weigh evidence before grandstanding. Some people spend their lives on transmit. Social media gives a platform to arm-chair experts, with evidence-free opinions on everything from the biomedical science of vaccination to the mechanics of international trade. In a previous era, we’d hear these people across the pub, five pints the worse for wear.

I meet with organised interest groups all the time: big business, small business, trade unions, transport user groups, human rights campaigners, Citizens UK, local business forums, religious leaders, and so on. Their specialist knowledge is valuable. Discussion allows us to drill down behind the strap-lines and find workable solutions.

Most interesting, though, are when I meet people who have no specific agenda. Last week I met 6th formers online, from schools across North Tyneside. They spoke of the impact lockdown is having on their lives. How they are making their career choices – or deliberately not making choices yet. Their hopes to not have to move away from the North East to have good job prospects. The economic effects on their family when parents lose their jobs. The changes they want to see in the world.

These kinds of insights are invaluable. After all, young people are the experts in understanding young people. A core aim of all our work on skills and job creation is to make sure that our young people can have a prosperous and stable future in the North East and don’t have to head to London to have a career.

The NHS Patient Charter introduced in 2015 is based on the core NHS principal of “No decision about me without me”. This means listening and consulting directly with patients in all decision making about their treatment.

Focus groups and the advice of marketing gurus are no substitute for real engagement with real people. Especially those historically marginalised, such as our Red Wall constituencies. Poverty is an increasing problem in our region. The impact of Covid will be severe.

Poor families are rarely listened to or given a voice. That’s why we are working with the Poverty Truth Network to establish a Poverty Truth Commission for North of Tyne.

Fair pay and secure, unionised jobs are the foundation for dealing with poverty. But the individual causes and consequences of poverty are engulfed in myth and prejudice. Listening to lived experience will help us develop the interventions that will make a practical difference.

Putting listening into practice this way is well worth the effort. It makes democracy work

.Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 8.2.21