Trust in me? A lot of people did, in the end. Photo: Getty Images
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What is "trust" anyway, and why did Labour lose it?

You can't win if people don't trust you - but "trust" is rather more complicated than you might think.

 

Elections look like popularity contests but aren’t.  The contestants in reality TV are only asking you to like them.  Politicians are asking for your vote so that they can act on your behalf.  That is an act of trust – and trust is a very specific concept, one that fascinates economists and psychologists.  Following Labour's disastrous performance at this election, rebuilding trust seems like an urgent task. For the Liberal Democrats it seems like an almost hopeless one. But for every party, re-establishing trust means understanding what trust is, how it is built and how it is lost.
Economists have developed “trust games” to try and measure how people trust.They normally involve the first player being asked if they want to trust the second player with some money.  Whatever the first player hands to their partner, the experimenter triples it.  So if you really trust your partner, you would give them all your money and expect them to split the profits between the two of you.  But it is your partner who decides how to divide the money at the end and, if they want, they could keep the lot for themselves.  How much would you give if you were playing with your best friend? How much with a stranger?
Building on that thinking, economists understand trusting as taking risks. There are two kinds of risk involved.  Suppose a stranger asks to borrow ten pounds.   The risk is all about the stranger’s intentions: are they really going to pay you back? The second type of risk is different: are you able to deliver what you promise?  If someone comes to you asking for a big investment in their new business idea, it doesn't matter if they are your best friend, you are naturally going to have a few Dragon's Den-style questions about whether this idea will work before you trust them with your life savings.
In politics, we talk vaguely about being seen as competent and “on your side” but using the tools of economics we can be more precise: when do voters think the risk comes from a politician’s motives, and when do they think that the risk comes from a politician’s abilities?  When politicians ask to be trusted to do something popular, like cut crime or grow the economy, motive isn’t normally an issue, but ability definitely is.  When politicians ask to be trusted to do something less obviously popular, like defend a minority or act responsibly with the country’s money, then motive looms larger than ability.
But this economical split between motive risks and competence risks is not the whole story. Neurologists have found that our brains look very different when we are playing trust games against another human being than when they are just playing them against a computer.  For example, the hormone oxytonin affects how we play the game through the “selective deactivation [of] fear circuitry”, but it only does this when playing against other people, but not against a computer. People are “betrayal averse”: they do more to avoid risks caused by other people than they do to avoid risks that come from impersonal things. And perhaps most importantly for politics, when we’re dealing with someone we trust, we think more quickly and automatically.

Anyone frustrated with how the Tories got away with playing fast and loose with fiscal responsibility in the last weeks of the election might look to our neurological wiring to explain why this largely escaped scrutiny.
It is hard to understand who is competent and who isn’t so we use quick proxies – heuristics - to guide us. High school and university students in Australian and New Zealand rated American political candidates on how competent their faces seemed and the results were a scarily accurate forecast of the election results.   Short of plastic surgery, parties resort to other substitutes like winning the endorsements of business leaders and those who are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have the expertise needed to sort the competent from the incompetent.
Addressing risks that come from suspicion of your motives means acting “irrationally”.  I trust Jamie Oliver's restaurant to use quality ingredients because I believe he is passionate about food and would be ashamed and embarrassed if his food wasn't up to scratch. Where motives are in question, politicians need to show they would be irrationally furious or wracked with guilt if the trust were to be broken. Indeed, at least one theory suggests that the ability of emotions to demonstrate trustworthiness is a key reason why they evolved. Similarly, psychologists focus on “strain-test” situations when one member of a couple wants, say, to take up a great job offer in a different country. If one partner sacrifices what is “rationally” in their interest then it sends a powerful signal about their relationship - but how often would politicians be persuaded to act against their own immediate interest for the sake of building trust in the long term?
For every party, there is a subtle but important tasks of differentiating between the areas where voters need to be convinced of the party's motives and where its abilities are the bigger issue.  In my party, there’s often a tendency for Labour’s centrists to see the problems entirely in terms of competence, while the left sees things entirely in terms of motive. But pulling on the wrong lever does little to address the problem. If people think you aren’t motivated to be careful with public money, another fifteen-point plan won’t address their concerns.  And if people already think you are deeply committed to the health service, ever-more-emotive rhetoric isn’t going to convince people you have the ability to make it work better for patients. 

Winning back trust will be a long road for Labour but it’s starts by putting more passion into our talk of responsibility and more competence into our talk about social justice.

 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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