Economic trust is key to election victories in Britain. But what does it mean, and how can Labour win it back? Three things are key to a successful strategy: telling an optimistic story about creating a more equal society with more opportunity for all, tackling the question of immigration, and owning the future, rather than harking back to a disappeared world.
Just before his death, the historian Tony Judt wrote:We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, of course; but also, and more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives, but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach. (1)
Judt was writing in 2010, two years after the financial crisis and shortly before Labour lost the general election after thirteen years in power. Though he did not live to see it, Judt could just as well have been describing the 2015 general election campaign, which was based as much as anything on fear, or the Scottish Independence referendum or indeed the referendum on our membership of the European Union. Fear lies at the heart of twenty-first century politics, not because politicians prey on people's prejudices, but because modern life feels increasingly insecure and unstable.
For Judt, the greatest fear of all is not a fear of immigration, or of economic crises, or of anything specific at all. It is a fear that those with authority, those we trust with positions of power, can no longer control any of these things. Many of the extraordinary political struggles we have seen this year can be explained in these terms. Trump and Sanders have had such unexpected success in part because they have promised to control the effect of trade on working class Americans. The very slogan of the Leave campaign--'take back control'--promises that control of trade, legislation and above all immigration is not beyond the power of politicians and that, if only we left the EU, we would once again have control over our own destiny.
If voters in established democracies doubt whether their leaders are truly in control, it should be no surprise that they place such a premium on competence or trust. This conclusion is not new. Bill Clinton's chief strategist famously told staff in his successful 1992 election campaign, 'It's the economy, stupid.' In fact, it is an axiom of modern politics that without economic trust, it is almost impossible for any prospective party of government to win an election. (2) However, since...