Are we all focussing too much on “elephant” UKIP?

I’ve just read this really interesting article by Zoe Williams, which reviews George Lakoff’s theory about the way US progressives have been failing – for decades – to frame the issues they care about effectively. Instead they are letting the right do so over and over again, to the point that Democrats in power still have to work within a framework set by the right. This is pretty much true in many other countries. 

A few years ago, Lakoff’s “Don’t think of an elephant!” essay was very trendy in the climate campaigning world (of course climate change is neither a left or right wing issue, but many right wingers are hostile to government intervention in the economy which fighting climate change does require…which meant Lakoff’s theories resonated well). Essentially the idea was that we should stop letting climate deniers frame the issues and put us in a defensive position.  If you tell people not to think of an elephant, of course they will think of an elephant and it’s very hard to talk about anything else. We knew that should be avoided, but it was very hard to do that because the media was constantly forcing us into that trap. They still do, by giving so much air time to people with no scientific background whatsoever and forcing scientists and campaigners to constantly debate issues that are really quite settled in the scientific world.

More broadly, Lakoff’s ideas are now quite relevant for UK politics in 2014, where both Tories and Labour are running scared of the UK Independence Party. UKIP campaigns to leave the EU and stop immigration, is set to beat the Conservatives in the European elections in May, and will probably be the second largest UK party in the European Parliament. Unless something really major happens in the next 3 months, that is.  One of the reasons for their success is that they have effectively framed the debate on the EU and immigration, and everybody else is responding within that frame. Of course it helps that the Daily Mail and other newspapers have been publishing misleading articles on the EU and foreigners for many years.

Meanwhile, a lot of campaigning ahead of the May elections seems to be in the “Don’t think of an elephant!” style: all about what’s wrong with UKIP rather than why why we need to improve the EU to protect our values. Or how to better manage in a workable way the issues that immigration may cause – both positive and negative. Well, the government, with its Balance of Competences Review, and its threats to renegotiate terms of EU membership has tried to do that perhaps. But they have set the terms of negotiations in a way that is solely aimed at political point scoring here but actually makes it impossible for other EU countries to ever agree.

Organisations like British Influence have helped to add some facts to the debate on Europe but in many ways they are also quite unhelpful.  Representing largely the business and conservative side of the political spectrum, they try to reframe the debate about the EU and immigration mainly as an economic and business competitiveness issue. This may work for trying to sway people in the City or the business sector. But talking about the benefits of the EU and immigration mainly in terms of GDP, for example, may not appeal to ordinary people, who have genuine and more practical concerns about their quality of life. UKIP has in fact been very clever at responding to this argument by arguing that “there are things that matter more than money”, and more people will be tempted to scapegoat the EU and foreigners with a UKIP vote. Others may just vote UKIP as a protest given the perceived low importance of the European elections (wrong!) .

Other groups such as Action 2014 are trying to appeal to people who care about progressive issues such as women’s or gay rights, which UKIP seems to have some rather comical views on. But these efforts are, again, too focused on bashing UKIP per se rather than reframing the debate on the EU and why voting in the European elections matter. Could it perhaps be that some of the campaign groups that have spring up are more interested in undermining UKIP for the sake of, say, antifascism, or (cynical me?) to help the Tories? None of them seem to be actively making the case for staying in the EU and reforming it from within, in a way that helps UK citizens in their daily lives.

This “UKIP-elephant” stye may work to attract attention to the elections (not a bad thing) but may potentially also help UKIP by giving it further oxygen in the form of publicity. You can’t tell people to stop thinking of an elephant if you keep repeating it. This is the reason why I recently had a bit of a debate on twitter with some LibDems (to be fair, this is the most outspokenly pro-European party in the UK and good on them) because they were also falling into this trap, plus going a bit overboard in their accusations against UKIP.

In fact the LibDems have today launched their European campaign precisely with the slogan “100 days to stop UKIP” which I suspect Lakoff would probably criticise for its framing. I genuinely hope the LibDemas are right, and that this approach will work to mobilise the pro-European vote for May, and that Lakoff is wrong. But certainly this does not seem to be a sustainable way to conduct a debate on Europe in the longer term. Then again, perhaps we are all falling into this trap, and I certainly have done my share of UKIP bashing on twitter. In the absence of a sane debate, it sometimes feel the only thing one can do. Plus, as in the case of climate change, perhaps the way the UK media operates makes it pretty much impossible to do anything else but this.

I have to say, civil society groups also have their share of responsibility in allowing Eurosceptics first, and UKIP later to take over the debate on the EU over the course of many years. The UK has a long and glorious tradition of social justice campaigning that many other countries look at with awe, going back to the days of anti-slavery campaigns and the suffragette movement. More recently, ground breaking international development and climate change campaigns have been admired and copied around the world. Yet, when it comes to the EU, many of these relatively powerful UK campaign groups are unable to engage effectively and to give it a high enough level of priority. The EU may well have a lot of serious defects, and campaign groups are often very good at criticising these, but when it comes to defending the very simple principle of multilateralism that is behind the EU project, they get pretty quiet. At least in the UK. At least publicly.

Instead, they should be doing far, far more to engage more proactively on European issues in general, and specifically on EU elections. They need to boost their ability to speak about EU issues. They should be making the case for their supporters to go and vote – and make sure they vote rationally –  if they want to protect the values they care about. Of course charities can’t tell people which parties to vote for – but they are perfectly entitled to inform their supporters about the importance of what happens in the European Parliament and what UK MEP voting records are on issues the organisations campaign on. Turnout in the European elections is generally so low that persuading people who care about social justice to vote, and not waste their vote, may have an impact.

Even if I disagree with a lot of what British Influence says about EU regulation, at least they are doing something to improve the debate on the EU. At civil society level there is – with very few exceptions – a deafening silence. I have so far seen a handful or articles on the merits of the EU by prominent environmental campaigners, such as this from Tony Juniper from over a year ago. I’ve seen good blogs on EU issues from Friends of the Earth. Compared to a few years back, UK campaign groups have indeed started to take much more of an interest in the EU. Perhaps because of the threat the country may end up sleepwalking into leaving the Union or more simply renegotiating crucial directives or essential budgets.  But they definitely need to up their game now.

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