How to start taking politics beyond polarisation

  • The problem: Politics, especially in the UK, believes that a majority vote settles the issue.
  • Why it matters: As well as leaving an unhappy minority, this inhibits the search for creative solutions that work for everybody.
  • The solution: Avoid such a vote, or treat it as a starting point. In both cases, start by seeking out the common ground.

Last year, Apolitical published an article of mine called “Are there always trade-offs in policy-making? How to secure a win-win”. There I wrote about the various patterns that win-win solutions fall into. Here I take a different tack and illustrate some of the practical methods for identifying such solutions.

I’ll take two examples, both from England, both from the world of transport planning. One is rural, one urban. I’ll start with the rural one because it is simpler.

The win-win perspective, though, is very different. The vote becomes simply a piece of information, showing where people stand at that point in time, and the basis for the next stage.

The village bus in Bradwell, in Derbyshire

Bradwell is a small village in the Peak District. Its one bus comes out from the nearby city of Sheffield twice a day, goes through the village, turns around in a narrow lane, and returns to Sheffield. It is often blocked by badly parked cars, often belonging to tourists, in the summer, and by locals when conditions are poor. Several times the bus has been trapped at the pinch point for several hours. The bus bypasses the village whenever there is any real or perceived blockage. These occurrences also put the bus service at risk.

A few years ago, the parish council decided that the best solution was to create a turning circle. Derbyshire County Council offered the bulk of the funding. The parish council organised a village meeting to decide whether to go ahead. Fifty people turned up – an excellent turnout. At the end of the meeting, a vote was held. Seven people voted in favour – but 40 voted against. It then turned out that the seven were bus users, and the 40 weren’t. The main reason given for voting against was the loss of green space that would result from creating the turning circle and the consequent loss of capacity to absorb water in the event of flooding. As an outsider, it seems to me that Bradwell, being in the middle of the Peak District National Park, is surrounded by masses of green space. I’m not sure if this is the real reason.

The win-win approach

The initiative came to a halt at that point. This was partly because of Covid. I suspect it was also because of a feeling that the will of the people was against the scheme. The win-win perspective, though, is very different. The vote becomes simply a piece of information, showing where people stand at that point in time, and the basis for the next stage.

In my last article, I described the PIN diagram, much used in the fields of mediation and negotiation. PIN stands for Positions, Interests and Needs. I recommended asking questions on the lines of “Why is that important?”, maybe several times, so as to get beneath people’s starting positions, down to their bedrock motives, interests and needs.

Doing this would help to reveal why the bus service is important – not only to those present, but also groups probably not represented at the meeting, such as students or tourists. For those who don’t use the bus, will hearing from the bus users in this way give them more insight, more empathy? Is the loss of green space the real reason for their opposition, or is there something else?

From this point, both/and solutions can be explored. For instance, is it possible to have the turning circle and also find or create other green space to absorb flood water? Sure, the result may be a project more extensive than originally envisaged. (Involve people early if you possibly can, so that you are aware of this before, say, applying for funding.) But the outcome, in terms of creativity, needs met and goodwill, is way ahead what a majority vote can deliver.

A cycle lane in High Street Kensington, in London

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) announced in July 2020 that it would install temporary cycle lanes on both sides of Kensington High Street. They were to be funded by TfL (Transport for London) from government cash for schemes to discourage a ‘car-led recovery’. The lanes were mostly separated from car lanes by plastic ‘wands’. The scheme cost £300,000.

The lanes came into operation in October. The expectation was that they would be in place for up to 18 months. The council promised to collect data on cycle use, journey times, air quality, casualties, etc., to assess whether the scheme was working.

Seven weeks later they were removed. The second phase of the scheme, to redesign road junctions, had not happened.

Johnny Thalassites, RBKC’s lead member for environment planning and place, who took the decisions to put the lanes in and then to take them out again, says “residents had complained that they couldn’t get to their houses and disability groups told me they felt in danger when being dropped off by cabs. Emergency services told me the lanes were delaying their crews. Businesses told me their customers were staying away due to traffic jams and they feared losing footfall in the run up to Christmas.”

BetterStreets4KC, a campaigning group, says that the scheme was supported by institutions like the NHS, the nearby museums of Exhibition Road, Imperial College and schools. The lanes improved safety and there was no alternative route.

Data collection was limited by the shortness of the scheme. It looks as if the lanes led to increased cycling. A report from RBKC notes that average daily cycle flows were 50% higher in the second half of October, after the lanes opened, than in the first half, when the lanes were under construction. Also, numbers halved in the second half of December, after the lanes had been removed, compared with the first half.

BetterStreets4KC, supported by the Environmental Law Foundation, has made a legal challenge to RBKC’s decision. It is not clear where that stands.

The council has said it will take a longer look at what the borough needs, but the timescale is unclear.

RBKC Councillor Mary Weale said emotions had run so high that a “reconciliation process” was needed.

What could happen – an example from Taiwan

The Taiwanese government uses an approach called vTaiwan (v is for virtual). This has four stages:

  1. Use of Polis – the website is just pol.is. This asks people to say whether they agree or disagree with an initial set of 20 statements. It uses machine learning to create clusters of people with similar attitudes. It then invites people to suggest statements which command agreement across the clusters. Polis was publicised through Facebook ads and stakeholder networks.
  2. A public meeting is held and broadcast, in which experts and officials respond to issues that emerged in the pol.is discussions. Transcripts of meetings are available on-line within two to three hours of the end of a meeting.
  3. One or more stakeholder meetings, co-facilitated by civil society and the government, are held and broadcast
  4. Where consensus has been reached, the government agrees either to act, or to give a point-by-point explanation of why such action is not at present feasible.

The vTaiwan system was used to decide what to do when Uber wanted to enter Taiwan and taxi drivers in Taipei, the capital, surrounded the Ministry of Transport in protest.

Polis pointed the way, because it showed areas of agreement between pro- and anti-Uber camps. The first such statement was that taxis no longer needed to be painted yellow. This was trivial, but showed that agreement was possible. Later, the following statement got 95% agreement across the board:

The government should leverage this opportunity to challenge the taxi industry to improve their management & quality control system, so that drivers & riders would enjoy the same quality service as Uber.

Other statements with high agreement included:

  • Uber should be taxed as a transport company.
  • Uber drivers should be considered employees.

In the end the process generated six policy points, all of which had at least 85% agreement from the participants. Stakeholder meetings built on these points. The government turned the results into regulation. This for example said that app-based taxis were free to operate, as long as they did not undercut existing meters. The whole process took a matter of weeks.

I can’t see anywhere in the UK going through such a process in so short a space of time. But there is no other aspect of what happened in Taiwan that is hard to replicate in other countries, such as Britain. So why not?

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