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  • Writer's pictureJon Dean

Truss, trust, and the habit of politics

I was asked some questions by Leah Sinclair from Stylist magazine for my thoughts on trust in politics, and how badly it's damaged by the Liz Truss episode. You can read the article here, but I thought I'd also share my answers in full.

Are you concerned with the possibility of people disconnecting from politics even more right now?

It’s a real possibility that people disconnect from politics right now. After a summer of the Conservative party focusing on themselves, with two leadership contests a mere six weeks apart, it feels as though only a tiny slice of the country has been spoken to. Rishi Sunak will likely become Prime Minister having not done a media interview since the mini-budget, or faced a General Election. While this is technically how our system is meant to work, it often doesn’t fit with what people expect in the twenty-first century. Given the winter ahead will be incredibly tough for large parts of the country – with energy bills still doubling despite the government’s intervention - we’ll likely see high levels of poverty, food bank use, and people losing their homes. You can absolutely understand why people focus on those issues much more intently, and feel politics is even more detached from real life than usual

What are the dangers of disengaging from politics and who gets affected the most as a result of this?

Generally, we find that when there is large scale disengagement from politics, it’s those most at risk who have the most to lose. At times of difficulty, often people are more likely to turn to fringe or extremist voices, who offer easy answers to complex problems, often centred on blaming others who are even more vulnerable, like asylum seekers. Politicians in Parliament and the media have a responsibility to stop playing games, and start offering serious government in the interests of the whole country, not just the segment that agrees with them. Young people under 30 especially have had it tough over the last decade – first a global recession, then austerity which protected pensioners at the expense of youth services, then a pandemic, where the young stayed at home and put their lives on hold to protect the old – all of these have held back their opportunities. Now to face austerity again, as a result largely of bad government, must be so frustrating and alienating. Political and civic participation is a habit, and once lost or not started, can be hard to regain.

How can people who are distancing themselves from politics (even unintentionally) begin to engage with it?

Despite outcries on social media, we are lucky to have quality news and political coverage every day in the UK, through the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4. Taking the time to engage with it, and be critical of it where you disagree, is probably the first key step to being an active citizen. On social media, there are quality accounts you can follow, but it can be hard to know what’s true, and what’s Westminster gossip. The other thing to look at is local news – what goes on in your local council, whether its Sheffield or Shetland, is incredibly important in terms of the public services you receive, whether schools, bins, or social care. While local government is often held up as boring, learning who your local councillors are and how they are empowered to improve your community, does help people realise the practical ways in which politics shapes their everyday life.

What can politicians and others do to instil the trust that has been lost over the last few years?

Politicians have a responsibility to take their work more seriously, and take the public more seriously. Politicians are obsessed with social media, especially Twitter, and this provides an endless echo chamber, where they perform for a small coterie of followers and political journalists and commentators. By thinking long-term and less about the ‘noise’ of day-to-day political combat, they can prioritise a handful of bigger meaningful achievements, rather than just chasing the next day’s headlines. Politicians also need to stop pretending that policy choices come without costs. There are no free, incredibly popular policy choices left! Every decision involves either spending money (paid for either through tax rises or a spending cut to something else) or aggravating or hurting a particular social group. Pretending there are no downsides just isn’t realistic, and the public are smart enough to know that.

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