Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Thinking small

Does voters’ distrust of politics provide an opportunity, asks Hopi Sen

These dispatches from the electoral frontline from Deborah Mattinson and Zoe Tyndall are dominated by disbelief and mistrust in politics. The political classes do not understand these voters’ concerns. They are a grey-suited, narrow Oxbridge-London elite, who are greedy, selfish and pretty much all the same.

These are not nice things to read if you work in politics, happen to be an Oxford graduate, in a grey suit, working in a Westminster office. At least the parties are different. The Tories are annoying and loud. Labour are quiet and weird. I am socially awkward at parties, so they have got me pretty much bang to rights. What is the problem with politics? Me, and people like me.

When it comes to policies, the Tories will do what they say, but what they say is pretty nasty. With Labour, these voters do not really know what we would do and do not think we would do it. If we did do it, they think we would waste a lot of money in the process.

It is not even that these voters demand much from us. They do not expect politics to sort everything out. They are not even sure it can. As Jane from Redditch says: ‘You hear politicians making promises… and you just think, that’s never going to happen. Because if it was that easy, wouldn’t the last lot have done it?’

Well, Jane from Redditch – even typing that makes me feel like I am writing a bad political speech – I want to tell you that you are wrong. We would do lots of stuff the Tories would not because we have got different values. All right, maybe I went to Oxford with some of those Tories, but we have totally different priorities. I am better, OK? I am fairer.

No. It does not convince me either. As Lizzie said, these values debates are ‘just words … They don’t mean it!’ I can see how it looks like that. I can tell you my own personal story, but I am now one of the best-off, most-educated, people in Britain, and I earn a lot less than a member of parliament.

So, yes, Jane, I guess we are pretty similar, me and Quentin over there, and I can see why you might not trust either of us much to do what we say we will, because, you are right, changing things is hard. That does not mean it is not worth doing, though.

What can Labour do to build trust? We can, and should, change as a party. We can have fewer besuited Oxbridge men like me, for one thing. The Labour party would be the better for it.

That cannot be the whole answer, though. Politics is full of earnest former student politicians and MPs’ researchers because, if you are young and interested in politics, what else are you supposed to do – run a chicken farm? However many people from different backgrounds we get into parliament (and we should get a lot more), young people really interested in politics will continue to keep going to good universities, and want to work in politics afterwards.

So, if not through values, or people alone, can policy show we understand what Jane is saying? Yes, if it is credible and addresses their scepticism about ‘value for money’, but that is essential.

So we have to stress-test everything. Even a popular policy, like 2p on the basic rate of tax for a National Care Service, may contain traps. Back in the day, we learned the hard way that people were more willing to say they would pay a tax increase than to vote for one. That may have changed, but, if people think we are full of empty promises, and would waste their money, are they likely to believe we would do a good job creating a National Care Service, even if they would be willing to pay for it in principle?

You can see the impact of this lack of trust everywhere in politics. Take the focus groups’ reaction to the energy price freeze. Voters want cheaper energy. But will the freeze pledge actually make a difference? Will it actually work? Hmmm.

To get past this, maybe we have to risk levelling with voters, even when it is uncomfortable. Winning credibility might require risking displeasure. Take immigration. We twist and turn and pander on immigration for a very simple reason. Most policy types think most immigration helps the economy and free movement of labour is a crucial part of the European market. Voters do not agree, and hate it. So either we take on the argument directly, drawing a distinction between ‘good’ immigration and ‘bad’, or stop backing free movement of labour. The alternative is to continue to dance on pinheads.

This lack of trust also creates an opportunity, though. When expectations are so low, so degraded, there is the chance to say: ‘We cannot do everything you want, or even everything we want. We cannot make everything right overnight, and most good things will take time. But we can do this simple thing, and that will make a difference.’

Perhaps that is really why the energy freeze pledge worked. Not because it was bold and radical, but because it was something that might just help a little, and gave us a chance to prove we can do more. If we can win people’s trust that we might actually do a little good, maybe they will believe us when we say we can do a little more. Credibility is everything.


Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress


Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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Hopi Sen

is a contributing editor to Progress


  • It’s a really strong analysis but I don’t agree with the conclusion. If the public don’t believe what politicians say I suspect making the claim more modest won’t help. The bigger challenge, and more exciting opportunity, is changing the discourse:
    a. Being honest about there being options unavailable due to cost, legislation or unpopularity
    b. Recognising that there is a fine line between a couple of different options but we favoured a over b
    c. Experimenting with different policies through proper pilots and admitting that the politician can’t be sure what the outcome may be

    That needs a different form of communication, a different type of policy development and lashings of modesty. But it’s proper, common sense, grown up decision making.

  • a counsel of despair – lets accept a failing economic and social system . I take it your OK ?

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