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Honesty vs electability

Summary:
How dishonest should politicians be? I ask because of an encounter between some ex-Labour voters* and Sir Keir Starmer. Some gammon claims (2'10" in) that “there’s a lot of people under the age of 25 who just don’t want to work” to which Starmer replies initially: “you’re always going to get some people who maybe don’t want to work.” What he might have said, of course, is: “you’re just a bigot, and a mug for believing Tory lies”. My chart shows the point. It shows that until 2007 a higher proportion of 18-24 year-olds were in work than were 50-64 year olds. Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that the number of young people who didn’t want to work increased during the financial crisis, fell during the subsequent recovery, and rose again during the 2020 recession? Isn’t it incredible that

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How dishonest should politicians be? I ask because of an encounter between some ex-Labour voters* and Sir Keir Starmer.

Some gammon claims (2'10" in) that “there’s a lot of people under the age of 25 who just don’t want to work” to which Starmer replies initially: “you’re always going to get some people who maybe don’t want to work.”

What he might have said, of course, is: “you’re just a bigot, and a mug for believing Tory lies”. My chart shows the point. It shows that until 2007 a higher proportion of 18-24 year-olds were in work than were 50-64 year olds. Isn’t it an amazing coincidence that the number of young people who didn’t want to work increased during the financial crisis, fell during the subsequent recovery, and rose again during the 2020 recession? Isn’t it incredible that people’s idleness should increase and decrease just as external events cause recessions and recoveries? Emprates

Too incredible, of course. The truth is that young people’s unemployment (pdf) is tremendously cyclical. Anybody who thinks it’s a matter of youngsters’ idleness is just blaming the victim, and falling for myths which exonerate the government and capitalism.

But Starmer didn’t say this, just as Gordon Brown famously didn’t properly confront Gillian Duffy’s ignorant bigotry.

And this wasn’t the only example of him copping out. Another ex-Labour voter told him that “trust is invaluable”. To which he should have replied: “then why did you vote for the most dishonest government in living memory?”

We should not, however, be too harsh on Starmer or Brown. Such encounters merely show Stephen Bush’s point, that politicians – or at least honest ones – need “phenomenal reserves of self-control.” Telling the truth to an electorate that is systematically misinformed about almost everything might not get you far.

There’s a trade-off between truth and electability.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Truth: there is no such thing as the “taxpayers’ money”.

Electability: the trope can be used to claim that government cronyism is ripping off voters.

Truth: governments do not control how much they borrow. It is in fact is the product of private sector decisions to save and invest.

Electability: an opposition minister must show that they are credible custodians of the public finances.

Truth: most socio-economic phenomena are complex emergent processes that are very hard to control.

Electability: politicians must pretend there are policies with simple, predictable benefits.

Truth: migrants have very little effect upon the wages of native workers.

Electability: voters want politicians who are tough on migrants.

Truth: everybody has limited knowledge and rationality, and large organizations cannot be run effectively from the top down. Diversity and decentralization are crucial.

Electability: we need a strong leader.

Truth: Brexit is tricky because leaving the single market requires a hard border either between Northern Ireland and the Republic or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Electability: “Get Brexit Done”.

My point here is merely to point out that politicians – especially perhaps leftist ones – face a trade-off in at least some respects between telling the truth and winning support. As Isaiah Berlin said (pdf), “values may easily clash within the breast of a single individual.”

What can be done about this? Here, I suspect, we need a division of labour. Some of us – economists, activists and a few journalists – must face down such myths: Yanis Varoufakis gave a fine example of this. This is trickier than it seems, especially in a post-truth world: people are rarely persuaded by being told they are idiots even when they are.

Whether it is the job of a Labour leader to do this is, however, less clear: doing so risks putting oneself outside the Overton window and alienating a lot of voters. Perhaps they must to some extent operate in a climate created by others.

There is, however, one common reaction to the trade-off between honesty and electability that just won’t do.

When faced with dissonant ideas, people sometimes resort to self-deception. On the left, this can take the form of believing that the only barriers to electoral success are insufficient ideological purity and the evil media. On the right (and perhaps among polprofs and journos too), it can take the form of internalizing the bigotry and economic illiteracy of much of the electorate.

In these ways, however, the basic trade-off is just avoided. But this is the easy, and perhaps unproductive, response.  

* Most of those ex-Labour voters hadn’t voted Labour in a long time. It’s odd that the BBC couldn’t find people who’d voted Labour in 2017 but not 2019 – especially as there were 2.6m of the buggers.

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