In my introductory lecture as Honorary Professor at the University of Birmingham, I presented a plea for help. Today, the politics of our country needs the social science of the academy more than ever to help to tackle the paradox of our time which simply put is this: the troubles in our nation are great - but the trust in our nation’s politicians has never been lower. So how are politicians going to persuade voters not simply to like, but to vote for the bold answers needed for the big issues of our time, like tackling climate change or rolling back inequality?
“A revolutionary moment in the world's history is a time for revolutions, not for patching” said William Beveridge in 1944.
And surely this is just such a time, just as it was in 1945, 1964, 1979 and 1997. This ‘fifth post-war moment’ feels like a time for bold solutions. Yet those solutions must be advanced by the people who voters trust less than ever before. In fact, according to the IPPR, well over 60% now say that politicians are out for themselves, not the country.
But when we look to political science we see very little theory, or research, or argument for how political parties persuade voters to support bold ideas. Yet surely, if democracies like our fail to build majorities for ideas that meet the moment, then confidence in democracy will fall just at the moment when democracy is in retreat around the world.
Back in 1992, Stanford professor Larry Diamond was able to declare that “we stand at an extraordinary moment in history, a time of unprecedented movement towards democracy.” That optimism is now gone. For the last decade, he has lamented the ‘democratic recession.’ Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have given us a best-seller on How Democracies Die. Journalists like Anne Applebaum supply us with heartbreaking stories of how freedom is retreat.
When faith in democracy is in trouble, we ought be clearer about how democracy actually works or does not work in practice. Crucially, we need to think harder about how best to prove to people that democracies can imagine, propose and deliver - answers to the problems that they think are important.
In this lecture, I present new research which seems to show that voters’ perceptions of a policy’s plausibility is affected by a range of different factors. It is the starting point for a conversation and I hope fresh research into how we inspire voters to vote for the change we need.