Why do politicians keep telling us they’re ‘listening’? | Imogen West-Knights | Opinion

Why do politicians keep telling us they’re ‘listening’? | Imogen West-Knights | Opinion


You have just been elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. Congratulations! Allow me to be the first to say: we always knew it would be you. Like millions of other little children all over the world with posters of Paddy Ashdown above their beds, you had a dream: to one day lead our boys in yellow. But unlike them, your dream came true.

Now, you’ll have noticed that people are very angry at the moment, about all kinds of different things: the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit, racism, climate breakdown, the economy, the Tories, the Labour party. And we want all of those people to vote for your friends and mine, the Lib Dems, at the next general election. So what we need is a statement that implies we’re like, good, but in the most general possible way. OK, hold on, now I think you might love this. What about: “I am listening”? It’s good, isn’t it? Hoof the ball right back into the public’s court. Great stuff. OK, here’s two free drink tokens – enjoy the party, champ.

I’m being a little unfair to Ed Davey here, and in any case, dunking on the Lib Dems is so easy it’s almost distasteful. His speech on winning the leadership contest last week was only the latest in a long line of politicians’ statements promising that their biggest priority was to listen to the electorate. William Hague made needing to listen the centrepiece of his 1998 party conference speech, and Tony Blair did the same at his party conference in 2000.

Listening has felt especially ubiquitous this year. Rory Stewart’s vampiric London mayoral campaign involved asking people to invite him across their thresholds for a chat and a sleepover, an idea that, in the era of social distancing, seems about as contemporary as a sprightly quadrille. Taking listening-as-home-invasion into the pandemic age, Keir Starmer has spent the summer doing Zoom-based listening tours of the country. And in the US a few weeks ago, Joe Biden assured young voters that he would “hear their voices”, too.

It’s not just politicians either. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, brands and institutions rushed to social media to confirm that they too were listening. Sweaty Betty is listening. The University of Hull is listening. PG Tips, with an upturned teacup pressed against your bedroom wall, is listening.

Why all this emphasis on listening? More often than not, it’s little more than an easy thing to say when you don’t want to alienate voters – or customers – by falling down hard on one side of an issue. Listening does form a central part of what MPs do locally in their constituencies through their regular surgeries, a term which makes the process sound about as appealing as getting your knee reset by Michael Fabricant.

Talking about listening to an entire population, however, is all too often an empty platitude or performance. And no wonder politicians don’t want to actually listen to public grievances when so much of what they would hear is unfiltered rage. Boris Johnson’s “People’s PMQs” stunt has seen him receive questions from the public such as “When will you resign for your mishandling of the pandemic?” and the ever-popular “How do you sleep at night?”

Political listening is always, in the end, a selective process. Listening to whom? Whomever’s opinion already aligns best with the party’s values? Both Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party claimed to be about listening to people. And in any case, not all concerns are created equal. Tinfoil milliners concerned about whether China is beaming coronavirus into their homes via cellular data waves, or your local crank who wants to make it punishable by law not to thank the bus driver are, I would argue, less worthy of airtime than people concerned about the impacts of systemic racism.

A popular belief of the political centre in the UK is that the act of listening in and of itself can somehow bring wildly diverging opinion on contentious issues to an imagined point of agreement or compromise. Extinction Rebellion has attracted criticism for its emphasis on setting up a citizens’ assembly to discuss what should be done to tackle the climate crisis. It’s a noble enough idea, but as they often emphasise, time is running out. We don’t need more conversation, we need widespread divestment from fossil fuels. When brands promise they are listening on Black Lives Matter, it implies that what is required is more testimony rather than more action. And Starmer’s inexhaustible appetite for holding inquiries is a slightly different but related urge – sure, we can take action on things, but only after we spend a great deal of time yakking about it.

In Leah Bassel’s book The Politics of Listening, she writes: “Politics means naming the social forces that deflect attention from particular voices, and is necessarily adversarial as well as active and creative.” It is never going to be enough just to listen; one has to take action against the forces that mean certain voices are unheard in the first place. Listening to varied opinion is an important part of a healthy political climate. But without being followed by meaningful action, it’s all talk.

Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist based in London


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