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Why trust in politics is so low – and what can be done about it

May-and-Corbyn

The past few years in Westminster have largely been nightmarish, but there has been some silver linings. As everything around us falls apart, some underrated aspects of politics have become more apparent, which can only be a good thing for people aiming to understand how everything truly works. One of them is mentioned often; few pundits had discussed the role and importance of shame before Brexit and Trump came along, but its disappearance from political discourse quickly made itself known. As it turns out, the behaviour of politicians is often informally regulated by the threat or reality of social shame, and there isn’t much journalists or anyone else can do if said figures simply refuse to bow to it.

Another crucial dynamic that was hard to spot until it was gone is trust, specifically between MPs and their leaders. Arguing that it is the glue that keeps parties (parliamentary and otherwise) together might seem obvious, but the current situation is offering a textbook example of what happens when unhealthy suspicion takes over. Take the Conservatives and their current predicament around the backstop. Sure, some of the disagreements between the MPs and No10 were to be expected; it is very rare for a party to unanimously agree on one issue, especially when it is one as big and historically fraught as this.

Still, it has been odd to witness the fury with which some Brexiteers have been talking about the Irish border plans, especially given that the backstop is intended as both an emergency measure and a temporary one if it were to come into place. This is not about the long-term future of Britain, and yet is being treated as such. Why? There certainly is a degree of stubbornness from Brexit campaigners, but that’s not all; reading all the comments to the media and quotes in the chamber reveals they think they are being swindled. It does not matter that both May and the EU have said that they do not want the backstop to come into place; as they see it, the backstop is a con.

This comes from a place of deep paranoia, which is often what succeeds trust being lost; if you have no faith in what your leader says, you will not take them at their word. This also works for the Labour party; critics have complained that Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit continues to be far too vague – and maybe they’re not wrong – but the misunderstanding feels blown out of proportions. While it seems fair to point out that the Labour party doesn’t have a very precise Brexit plan, it is possible to both grasp what it would aim for if it were to get in power soon, and get that unless it does so and gets in the room with the EU, it cannot make the most concrete of promises. This has not stopped Labour MPs of all Brexit factions to accuse him and his team of – take your pick – supporting too hard a Brexit, too soft a Brexit, or simply the wrong kind of Brexit. Similarly to their blue counterparts, some of the objections from the red benches are fair enough, but most tend to sound too hysterical for comfort.

Again, one explanation for this intense behaviour is that a lot of Labour MPs simply do not trust Jeremy Corbyn; they do not trust him to stick to his (blurry) line on the issue, and conclude that he is headed towards a direction of travel that they cannot stomach.

So – how do you repair that link? Identifying the issue is one step, but mending it is another one entirely, and it isn’t obvious that it can be done. Still, it’s worth thinking about what May and Corbyn’s leaderships have had in common, in order to understand why they are struggling with similar things. In politics as in life, the answer might just be communication, or rather the lack of it. Given its complicated relationship with the PLP from very early on, Corbyn’s office never really developed effective lines of communication between the leader and his MPs, allowing a chasm to grow between the two as the latter found itself in the dark over the intentions of the former. May, on the other hand, had her parliamentarians on-side to start with, but Nick and Fi’s reign of terror, among other things, meant that the link soon got severed and has struggled to heal.

There is no magic solution to either of these tricky situations; unless a miracle happens, it is hard to see this trust being rebuilt. While May and Corbyn will simply have to carry on as well as they can, they should both offer a cautionary tale to those hoping to replace them one day; you don’t notice how much trust matters until it’s gone and once it is, your fate is sealed.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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