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.

 

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.