Politicians often seek to push through economic policies without taking the time to communicate their guiding principles and overarching vision to the public. Greater openness when it comes to their economic agenda can help policy-makers gain public support for their proposals as well as leading to more informed and inclusive public debate on these issues, argues Anna Killick.
Politicians are often not open enough with voters about their economic plans. Former prime minister Liz Truss bucked the trend in that respect. It could even be said she taught voters something about economics. She did not hide from economic issues during the leadership campaign. The September 2022 fiscal event was shocking because she dared to implement so many of her policies, not because she had not warned us about her economic philosophy. Then the catastrophic real-life effects of her economic policies gave a practical demonstration of how the economy actually works.
Given the severity of economic crises facing voters, could and should it be the job of politicians to “educate” voters about the economy?
The Truss example reinvigorates the debate about how politicians should talk to voters on the complex subject of economic policy. Given the severity of economic crises facing voters, could and should it be the job of politicians to “educate” voters about the economy, as democracy theorists like Jane Mansbridge have suggested? And how do politicians themselves feel about the challenges of communicating to the public in this area?
New research by a team based at University College London gives us unique insights into politicians’ views and how they might be changing. We interviewed 99 politicians and their closest advisers in confidence from across the political spectrum in five countries – UK, USA, France, Germany and Denmark. We found some surprising similarities in politicians’ attitudes to talking to voters about economic issues, with some national variations. In particular, we identified two inhibitions politicians feel when it comes to the economic, rather than the social or moral issues.
Depoliticisation no longer an option
The politicians we interviewed from mainstream parties believe they will have to confront talking about economic issues more than in the past. They have been rattled by the rise of populism. They think their past attempts to absolve themselves from responsibility by blaming markets or economic agencies alienated voters and helped fuel the populist backlash.
They do not believe voters will accept any further “depoliticising” of the economy, even when it comes to urgent issues like long-term strategies to prevent climate change. Despite the years of depoliticisation, the majority believe that voters still hold them “responsible” for economic policy, often continuing to exaggerate how much power they have.
Not one of the politicians calls for a greater role for economic experts. They say the pandemic example of relying more on experts will not wash when it comes to economic policy. Of course, economists have a role in advising, but the politicians believe economic issues are more contested than public health and that they, rather than experts, will have to continue to shoulder responsibility in this area.
More in-depth economic talk
If politicians believe that they will have to shoulder responsibility for the deepening economic crises, how do they think they should talk to voters? Mansbridge calls for them to aspire to an “educative” standard, seeking to achieve greater openness and depth in their communication.
But politicians report two barriers that make it harder for them to talk with voters about the economy than other policy areas like social or moral issues. First, they say voters find it more technical and switch off, because they fear they will not understand. However, while commentators and academics are often critical of voters’ lack of understanding, politicians are reluctant to criticise voters. They say they learn from the grassroots economic knowledge that voters bring them and that voters’ narrow focus on their own circumstances is “understandable”.
The British Labour and Conservative party politicians are particularly complimentary about voters’ “common sense” understanding of economic issues. Both groups sound less committed to attempting to explain more complex national phenomena than politicians from the other four countries. The Conservatives are most comfortable about voters’ “common sense” understanding, while Labour politicians have been disheartened somewhat by the experience of trying to explain Keynesian counter-cyclical borrowing around the 2008 financial crisis.
Nevertheless, many of the other politicians think they are going to have to encourage voters to think in more nuanced and qualified terms about this technical subject. As one French Socialist says, get voters back into the habit of making more “well, it could have been worse” kinds of judgements.
Some politicians say they work hard to help voters understand the technical. A French centre-right politician believes she benefits from a teacher background and “makes a short speech”, echoing others who use well-rehearsed analogies, like rotten eggs in a salad to explain the 2008 financial crisis. American Republicans in favour of free trade say they start “where voters are” before building up to the more complicated aspects. For instance, one takes a Hershey Kiss chocolate bar to town hall meetings. He uses the aluminium wrapper to illustrate that constituents who depend on the jobs at the Hershey factory will be damaged by higher prices and reduction in demand due to import duties on aluminium.
Some are more ambitious. A German right-wing politician gives lectures that include economic simulations, a German Die Linke (The Left Party) politician runs economic summer schools.
Openness is key to an informed public debate
But the politicians face an additional barrier when it comes to being open with voters about their economic policies. In private, politicians’ express attachment to their economic goals in surprisingly passionate and moral terms, whether to free markets on the right or social justice on the left. British Conservatives, for instance, describe teenage excitement about the spirit of entrepreneurialism.
Across parties and borders, however, policy-makers believe voters are fundamentally different to them, caring primarily about their material well-being. For this reason, politicians feel more inhibited when it comes to talking to voters about economic policy, and less inclined to be honest about the morality of their economic goals than other policy goals. The pressure is on them to focus exclusively on platitudes about raising the maximum number of voters’ material well-being.
More cautious politicians who refrain from speaking openly about their policies do not enhance economic debate.
Liz Truss is therefore unusual in how uninhibited she was about her economic vision. But economic visions are and will continue to be contested. More cautious politicians who refrain from speaking openly about their policies do not enhance economic debate, whether it is Rishi Sunak refusing to admit that his commitment to free markets is as strong as Truss’s, Keir Starmer attempting to gloss over the need for social justice or environmentalists not tackling materialism head on.
Today we face severe multiple economic crises that are incredibly complicated for voters to understand. The media and other institutions such as schools have not shown themselves to be particularly effective in this area. Therefore, politicians are going to have to get better at explaining those issues and raising the level of economic debate. There will be a difficult balancing act: they will have to communicate in more technical terms and greater depth, while at the same time being more open about the morality underpinning their contested economic goals. But it is the only way to make voters feel they are being economically informed enough to keep populism at bay.
This blog draws on Anna Killick’s 2022 comparative study: Politicians and economic experts: the limits of technocracy published by Agenda/Columbia Press.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Photo credit: Number 10, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)